Let’s repeal the farm laws and start again


On 25 January 2021 I outlined the liberal position regarding the three farm laws that have caused so much controversy.

For India’s liberals the current impasse presents a difficult situation since it is we who have been demanding farm sector reforms for seven decades – but the way these have been progressed, we are now forced to ask for these laws to be repealed in order to save the reforms.

The destruction of the fundamental rights promised by the Ambedkar Constitution including property rights and the right to occupation started with Nehru’s inclusion of the Ninth Schedule into the Constitution on 10 May 1951 through the First amendment. Indira Gandhi took Nehru’s socialist interventions much further and virtually destroyed all the remaining freedoms of the farmers.

In addition, the bureaucratic micro-management of agriculture and the almost complete centralisation by the government of market decisions led to the systematic impoverishment of the farmer. As Sharad Joshi, the founder of Shetkari Sanghatana, showed two decades ago, the Indian farmer receives a negative subsidy after all his hard work – the farmer literally transfers his wealth to urban dwellers and the rich.

These three farm laws barely make a dent to the socialist distortions found in India’s agriculture sector. But they are broadly in the right direction. The mistake by the Modi government was to force them through Parliament without undertaking sufficient preparation and consultation. Reforms that affect such a large number of people require a broad-based consensus.

The matter is now in the hands of the Supreme Court. As India’s liberal party, Swarna Bharat Party (SBP) is committed to assisting the Court and the Modi government in delivering the best outcome for farmers – and for all Indians. SBP therefore lodged its submission on 31 January 2021 with the Supreme Court Committee on Farm Laws (the submission is available at swarnabharat.in/farmers).

On 5 February 2021 the party’s senior leaders: Sanjay Garg, Rahul Pandit and Rabi Kant Bharti – will meet the Committee to explain the liberal position.

From our party’s perspective, the four issues outlined below can inform the best way forward.

1. Repeal and reset Perhaps the main issue facing these laws is a lack of trust. The farmers’ views have been ignored: the farmer therefore feels disrespected, looked down upon. Lal Bahadur Shastri had laid out for all time the central value of the farmer to India with his slogan: Jai Jawaan, Jai Kisaan. Therefore the same respect that we give to the soldier is also due to the farmer. In any case, India’s institutions of governance must never disrespect any voices of dissent or ignore the complex nature of India’s democracy. The cause of reforms will be ill-served by forcing them down the throat of the nation. Our party asks the Modi government to show respect for the farmer by repealing these laws and committing to a far more consultative process. If such goodwill is not shown towards the farmers, there is a risk that the resistance engendered by the way these reforms have been implemented could set back the agriculture sector by many decades.

Moreover, these laws are effectively dead and there’s no point in flogging a dead horse. The fact that the Modi government offered to freeze these laws for 18 months during negotiations with the famers was a clear acknowledgement of the impossibility of implementing these reforms. These 18 months should be used for a much better, consultative process. In any case, it no longer matters what the Modi government wants – the Supreme Court now controls the fate of these laws. The Modi government can kill two birds with one stone by repealing these laws. First, it can show its goodwill towards farmers and restart the reform process. Second, it can take the policy-making process out of the hands of the Supreme Court.

2. Issuing a White Paper While announcing the repeal of the laws, the Modi government must commit to preparing a White Paper that provides the rationale for reform, its long-term objectives and sequencing. But even if the Modi government decides not to repeal the laws, it should produce a White Paper to provide clarity to the country. The country needs to know where we are going.

Our party’s submission discusses in detail the policy and governance issues that a potential White Paper by the Modi government should consider.

3. The separation of powers Our party is concerned about the risk that the Supreme Court might inadvertently enter into the policy-making space and thereby breach the separation of powers between the Parliament and the Judiciary, damaging the basic structure of the Constitution.

We consider that the Court should limit itself to the examination of constitutional and process issues and not engage itself in the merit of the farm policy. The Court and its Committee should uphold the primacy of the Parliament in making policy. Instead of providing policy recommendations, the Farm Laws Committee can do a great deal of good by recommending a robust policy process for Indian governments to follow.

Such a policy process could include: (a) the necessity of a White Paper for major policy changes, (b) wide consultation with stakeholders, and (c) a policy framework for the design of the underlying policy similar to the 10-point framework used by our party.

4. Potential amendments to the laws Apart from discussing the White Paper and what a good policy process should look like, SBP’s submission discusses eight policy options to amend these three laws to make them more acceptable to farmers – although, as mentioned above, amending these laws is probably not feasible at this stage given what has happened over the past few months.

I hope that the agitating farmers and the Modi government will see the value of reforming the agriculture sector in the right way, with due process: something worth doing is worth doing well. In any case, reforms cannot be successful if they lead to rancour. We must pause as a nation and ask who we are as a people and what we want to be – whether we want to live our lives shackled by the government or as free men. Let us discuss this – and the intrinsic value of freedom – with the farmers and with all Indians.

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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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