Like the monsoons, just when everyone was giving up hope, it poured with a vengeance. The government made a commitment when it repealed the farm laws last year to constitute a committee, which has finally been constituted to promote zero budget-based farming, to change crop patterns and to make MSP more effective and transparent. It is exhaustive body of 28 members with cross representation from the Central and State governments, farmers, agricultural scientists and economists.
It needs to be borne in mind that the new committee was proceeded by a Supreme Court-appointed panel that in its wisdom spoke against the withdrawal of the controversial farm laws, saying that the “majority” of the farm unions supported them and a repeal would be “unfair to this silent majority”. Parking this issue for the time being, questions need to be asked about both the composition of the committee and the crux of its agenda.
Of the eight farmer members in the committee, five farmers on the committee were nominated by the government are known to be convivial to government views. While three were to be nominated by the Samyut Kisan Morcha. Citing under-representation, a boycott of the committee by SKM was a forgone conclusion.
It may be also be recalled that contrary to the expectations of the people who supported the farmer agitation, many of the SKM members contested the Punjab elections and, predictably, lost spectacularly with all but one candidate losing their electoral security deposit. Likewise, was the fate of Uttar Pradesh assembly election candidates identified with farmer protests. Consequently, the SKM has lost much of its sheen and relevance. Unions should now strive to earn respect, not popularity.
Many will criticize the committee for having farmers who mirror the government stand, which to my opinion is unfair. What one finds difficult to swallow is that one member, categorized as a farmer member has been a firm advocate of the pesticide industry. Vested interests need to be eliminated from the committee.
It is also a little curious that the Former Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture and Farmer Welfare Mr Sanjay Agarwal has been appointed chairman of the committee. He was at the vanguard of the misconceived government campaign on the ill-fated farm laws. This is precisely why Mr Agarwal should recuse himself from the position gracefully for the sake of propriety, morality and, more importantly, for allowing space for building trust with those sceptical of the whole exercise. One is not sure if he cherrypicked his own mandate and committee but it is quite out of order for a Member of the NITI Aayog, with a rank and status of a Union Minister of State being asked to serve as a member under Mr Agarwal.
Again, the committee, by design, has no state representation from Punjab, a major grain procurement state. This will be used to whip up divisive sentiments in the state.
Like many who equate incomes with livelihoods, the mandate of the committee obscures changing cropping patterns with diversification. It is, at best, a subset of diversification. The agriculture department may have an understanding of the problems but now needs to comprehend that those problems cannot be solved by having discussions centred around cropping choices and practices. Solutions require a systems approach. Limiting the mandate to crops, with the Secretary, Ministry of Animal Husbandry not even a member of the committee, is curious because one third of all agricultural GDP comes from rearing animals. It reminds of John Maynard Keynes perceptive comment: “The difficulty lies not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones”. Given this state of affairs it is not difficult to understand why things have gone so wrong and why the even worse threatens.
Like the lawyers in the US judicial system speculating on the ruling of a jury based on its composition, may I venture into unfamiliar territory but confidently predict some of the major outcomes.
- The committee will propose to end open-ended procurement of grains at MSP (wheat and paddy) and limiting procurement for 5 acres of produce per farmer. While making MSP available for a larger number of farmers across India geographically.
- It will also end unlimited availability and access of subsidized fertilizers for all farmers by proposing to shift towards a mechanism of direct fertilizer subsidy transfer into farmer accounts.
- Lip service to natural farming will continue to be the norm.
- Lastly, the committee which has not been given a time frame to deliver the report can be expected to circumambulate to eventually giving recommendations after the 2024 parliamentary elections.
For the rest, we seem to be wasting time squabbling over small mandates and short-term goals. We are limited by imagination as we lose largely unimagined opportunities of a food systems approach that are now deemed to be utopian. It will, in a few years, become essential thinking, making us reinvent the way we do everything.