In the confrontation between the country’s farmers and the Centre, the Union government first appeared to be uncaring, relying on its brute Lok Sabha majority. Before the vote on the troubling farm-related laws in September, it gave no value to farmers’ representatives who travelled to Delhi to have its ear. Bureaucrats, rather than political leaders, were sent to meet them, which basically meant reeling off the catechism. In Parliament, the government laughed off moves by Opposition parties to have the three contentious farm bills sent to a select committee for a close discussion.
And now the government appears stuck on the Singhu border with Haryana and on to Punjab, and on the UP border, where farmers from several states, with the robust contingents from Punjab becoming the toast of the country, are amassed — several divisions of them, if military terminology be permitted, with women and the elderly participating too.
Five rounds of talks between the 30-odd farmers’ unions and the government’s representatives — with the Union agriculture minister in the lead — have produced no results. The farmers have given an all-India strike call for tomorrow (December 8). The government has offered another round of talks the following day in which it has promised to come with some “concrete proposals”. If the proposed strike is met with repression in the smallest degree, the next meeting is unlikely to take place.
In any case, “concrete proposals” would appear to be wispy. This is because, in effect, the government side has so far reiterated in different ways that it is not going to budge from the stand the BJP took in Parliament. Prime Minister Narendra Modi batting repeatedly for the three agri-laws passed in Parliament has become the stumbling block. In effect he has taken up cudgels for the corporate sector directing through contract farming what crops to grow and in what quantities and then dictating the price through large-scale storage and market operations.
The Indian farmer has thus come to fear losing his agency. This is why even in states — and these are the majority — where the minimum support price is not offered in practice, farmers appear to be rallying to the wider cause being currently articulated. There are few takers for the government’s assurance that the MSP regime will not be scrapped when the new laws kick in. Since the PM’s public stance has become the limiting factor, the negotiations in Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan have been pretty pointless, really speaking. Perhaps only some assurance from Mr Modi can unlock doors at this stage.
Since farmers have risen in agitation against existing laws, only Parliament has the authority to modify them in a way that will satisfy India’s food growers, or to undo them. Calling a special session of Parliament, which the agitating farmers as well as some Opposition parties, including Congress, the main Opposition party, have demanded, to discuss the whole issue afresh, suggests itself. Also remember that the bills were passed in Rajya Sabha by a voice vote, with the deputy chairman not permitting division. This was irregular. There is also substantial legal opinion, which suggests that the subject of agriculture in all its aspects is the exclusive remit of the states and not the Centre in our constitutional scheme. This makes the three laws ab initio suspect.