Sustainability at agricultural level, ecological, economic, and yes, even politically, has been the big victim in the whole saga of the farm laws and the protests that have followed.
If you are an optimist on India, and yes, there are seemingly quite a few around if one goes by the new highs of the National Stock Exchange every trading day, then you know what to expect from any change in law in India. Minimal impact, maximum noise. The three farm laws, which have become such a bone of contention between the government and farmers primarily in Punjab and Haryana, break that mould.
The noise both from the government in terms of their possible impact has been countered equally effectively by those against it. We believe that in all the noise, critical arguments in favour of the laws, and against the way they were pushed through parliament, have been ignored.
For one, continuing with our agricultural policies as they exist is simply unsustainable. To take just the impact on Punjab and Haryana, the two states that seem to see maximum impact, the existing status quo has simply driven farmers there to produce ever larger quantities of wheat and rice(paddy), with any link to market realities long since broken. The result has been ever higher stocks of foodgrains with the Food Corporation of India, at prices that make it impossible to export the surplus. And if , for a moment India was to bite the bullet and export even at a loss to prevent these procurements from rotting away, you can be certain that it will draw the wrath of the WTO immediately, besides sanctions from other wheat producers like Canada, Australia and more.
The tragedy, as always is that all that the farmers will achieve, even if they were to get a maximum win in the form of repeal of these laws, is time for a maximum of 5 years or less. Because these crops have already drained these states of a huge part of their water resources, fed on a diet of free power to dig ever more deeply for water and assured purchases of produce. These laws, which sought to give farmers the independence to sell anywhere, at any price, and finally to nudge them to explore other crops to grow, are important for that reason. To prevent a looming farming catastrophe not just in these two states, but other states that effectively have been shortchanged with a much lower share of procurement so far.
Farmers in Punjab and Haryana risk a far greater disruption if the government was to simply procure its grain at the MSP(Minimum Support Price) more equitably from more states. And states are going to be lining up soon enough, as their own productivity finally catches up beyond subsistence levels. Madhya Pradesh has already made huge gains, and so will Telangana, and possibly even Bihar in the coming year and more. How will they justify protests against a system that seeks fairness over complete one sidedness? For instance, FCI’s own data shows in the rabi (winter) season of 2019-20, which is largely about wheat, 38 per cent of all procurement happened from Punjab. In the kharif season last year, when rice procurement is key, Punjab’s share was 21 percent. Only Andhra Pradesh and Telangana combined had a higher share.
Politically, its time for the government to rethink its approach to every major move as a political battle for point scoring. Smug in the surveys of Prime Minister Modi as the most popular leader, the government has created a strong perception that it does not respect other democratic institutions, notably Parliament, when it comes to the process of getting legislation passed. That’s unsustainable, and was always lead to a situation like we have now, where parties on the other side will simply oppose out of sheer frustration for being left out of any meaningful discussions.
Agriculture in India needs to be approached for a major overhaul, but with the government doing just enough to avoid a crisis till now by using a combination of subsidies, procurement, minimum support prices and finally cash handouts, the crisis has only been deferred. Whether it is Sugarcane in Maharashtra, or rice in Punjab, there is an urgent need to look at larger changes to correct the descent to guaranteed pain. The farm laws were just a starting point, one feels, and much more needs to be done to make the pain go away.