Suspending farm laws has hurt govt. image

Overindulging the rich farmers from Punjab and Haryana agitating on the Delhi-Haryana border at Singhu has yet again driven home the message that the government lacks the political will to stand up to its key policies and reforms. Its knees begin to quake the moment large crowds block national highways to raise the banner of revolt. The lessons of Shaheen Bagh and the harm it caused to the national interest have been forgotten.

Readily accepting the Supreme Court’s decision to suspend the 2020 farm laws for two months was bad enough. Opting to voluntarily dangle the carrot of an extended abeyance of 18 months to coax the protestors to go home cannot but further weaken the government’s case. The treacherous arhatiyas (commission agents) posing as agriculturists have not budged an inch from their original demand that the laws be repealed despite repeated offers to go through the laws clause by clause and amend them wherever necessary. Even the SC’s efforts to bring them to the table by forming a committee to go into their objections have been rebuffed. So has the government’s offer of keeping the laws in cold storage for nearly two years.

Clearly the Modi regime’s discomfiture is of its own making. Rejection of the SC’s offer to mediate by the farmers was the right time to have called off further talks. A terse message ought to have been conveyed that negotiations, if any, would henceforth be confined to finding a middle ground. Till then the farmers are more than welcome to go on protesting so long as ingress and egress to the capital is not blocked, and even the thought of violence shunned.

The government, instead, went ahead with holding the eleventh round of talks on January 22 only to realize the futility of discussions. Mercifully, this time the Union Agriculture minister Narendra S Tomar indicated that future talks would only revolve around suspension of the laws, the new normal.

An SC proposed two-month suspension of laws, however, is intrinsically different from an 18-month adjournment. Once the apex court had decided to take things in its hands there is no reason why the government should have entered the picture again. Especially since the shadow of the government’s broad concurrence loomed large over the SC order. The farmers should have been allowed to stew in their own juice for some time.

The continuing impasse compelled the government to lob the ball to the judiciary. Persisting with parallel talks compromised the gambit. This was evident from the SC’s curt response to the Delhi police’s petition requesting their lordships to restrain farmer unions from disrupting the R-Day parade in view of the planned tractor march the same day.

The court flatly refused to intervene in the matter for good reasons. It was obvious the government was trying to shirk its responsibility by getting the court to rule on a matter which was strictly in the police’s domain. This, in the hope that should anything untoward occur, blame could be deflected to the SC. The top court too was guilty of much hypocrisy at the sudden cognizance of its authority limit. Conveniently forgotten was the foray into forbidden territory barely a couple of days go when it unilaterally suspended the farm laws.

Expecting the court to take administrative decisions, howsoever tricky, betrayed the government’s utter lack of confidence in dealing with difficult situations. Implicit was the failure to realize that internal enemies and troublemakers would continue to challenge its authority due to the weak-kneed response to open provocations.

More serious is the nonsuccess at organizing a counter narrative by getting farm unions outside Punjab and Haryana to demonstrate their opposition to any repeal of the laws. This was necessary to neutralize the popular view that the laws were not adequately discussed before being passed in Parliament. Copious evidence exists that reforms have been under discussion since the 1990s, with the 2007 Swaminathan Committee report providing the precise framework and context. There is nothing in the new laws outside the report’s ambit.

The drafts of the three new farm legislations were adopted by the Union cabinet in the presence of theShiromani Akali Dal representative, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, who never flagged her objections even in private. The Congress too habitually complained that commission agents were fleecing farmers. Even contract farming was shown in positive light. Fearmongering that corporates could divest them of their precious land was an about-face aimed at reaping an electoral harvest amid the changed political environment.

Criticism from various quarters, including the SC and the RSS, that the crisis was badly handled or that it could have been dealt with more sensitively put the government on the backfoot when there was nothing to be defensive about. None of the fault finders offered a better solution in the face of the farmers’ adamance that the laws be repealed.

The Sangh’s contention that overtly long agitations are not in the government’s interest conveyed the impression that caving in was the only option no matter how unfair and one-sided the demands. Such a mindset is necessarily a legacy of coalition era politics in which it was impossible to table meaningful reforms, much less thrash them out on the floor of parliament. All because there was always one or another party among the government’s constituents or the Opposition who had a niggling problem.

Never ending talks and consultations have derailed governance for decades. Ideally the Sangh should have given the given the government its unqualified support rather than quibble over the modalities. It was easy for CJI Sharad Bobde to administer from his high-chair a tongue lashing on the government’s failure to break the logjam and downright pusillanimous of the attorney-general to have taken it lying down. Pity the court could not muster the guts to tell the demonstrators to clear out of the national highway and shift to a more unobtrusive spot in the public interest. Why? Because it knew that its directive would fall on deaf ears.

Many feel the government could have bargained from a position of greater strength had it brought to public notice a few key facts on the hypocrisy of the Sikh farmer campaign. Not many are aware that 3.7 per cent of farmers in Punjab and Haryana own 36.3 per cent of agricultural land with individual holdings of more than four plus hectares. Ninety-nine per cent of their land is under irrigation compared to the national average of 50 per cent. Production costs are zilch compared to the rest of the country thanks to free annual electricity worth Rs 8,275 crore and fertilizer subsidy of over Rs 5,000 crore.

What should have been hammered through the national media is the untenability of ignoring the interests of 14.6 crore farmers in the rest of the country for the sake of 10 lakh in two states. Punjab farmers have been a pampered lot for decades. Assured MSPs (covering 55 per cent of the national procurement) have made them lazy. Their sons are wastrels with not the slightest interest in running their father’s business. Paid laborers from UP and Bihar do their work instead. The physical hardiness of the community is a thing of the past. Sikh recruitments in the army and police are at their lowest ever. The Punjab Police has more Haryanvis than sardars.

That old chestnut of Punjab being the granary of the nation thus no longer holds true. Other states like Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, even West Bengal have caught up.


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About the Author

Sudhir Kumar Singh
Sudhir Kumar Singh is an independent journalist who has worked in senior editorial positions in the Times Of India, Asian Age, Pioneer, and the Statesman. Also a sometime stage and film actor who has worked with iconic directors like Satyajit Ray and Tapan Sinha. He writes regularly for the HinduPost as consulting editor.