As the government digs in deep to crush the farmers, who cling on for their survival, it is imperative that both reevaluate their positions to come out of the mess with positive outcomes
Before the agitating storm takes a turn for the worse or drops in intensity, it is important that farmers reassess their needs and seek positive concessions. After the end of the agitation, no one will want status quo ante, which will be inevitable unless they take stock of the situation. Meanwhile, Haruki Murakami’s words best describe the farmers’ protest and plight: “Unfortunately, the clock is ticking, the hours are going by. The past increases, the future recedes. Possibilities decreasing, regrets mounting.”
Frustrations over a decade of low farm-gate prices form the genesis of the farmers’ protests — a consequence of the government’s carefully-crafted agenda to keep the urban consumer vote bank placated. This costs farmers their livelihoods and dignity. In face of the determined agitation, the government realises that it has erred. Without acknowledging as much, it has relented and amended the Acts within weeks of their enactment.The farmers, however, demand that the Acts be repealed.
The farmer position is best exemplified by an analogy. A family is about to take delivery of its new car that it has purchased. Before it has left the showroom compound, the car stutters and stops. On closer examination, it is found that the electricals have failed and the engine has a manufacturing defect. The company offers to repair the car free of cost. What does the family do? The family obviously wants a replacement not a repaired car. The farmers similarly want the Acts to be replaced, not amended. Theseus’ paradox presents the same quandary: is a ship with all its parts replaced still the same ship?
As tens of thousands descended on Delhi, the hate-spewing social media brigade, anchors of some media channels and politically-motivated members of the academia, flush with past successes in subduing demonstrations against the government, began a media blitzkrieg to vilify the agitating farmers. The protests morphed into a nationwide movement that has gathered international attention. Worse, a cold-blooded attempt was made to divide farmers on religious, occupational and regional identities. The trolls have not only antagonised the farmers but they have also damaged the Prime Minister’s image considerably. His good intentions have been laid to waste.
Faced with the protests, the central government forces dig10-feet broad trenches on the national highway and use cement blocks topped with concertina wires, cranes, parking shipping containers and tear gas canisters to stop protesters from entering Delhi. The farmers get the feeling that they are mere supplicants and not equal citizens at the gates of what is now the new Republic of India.
The strategy to make farmers believe they are alone and can be defeated seems to have backfired. Talking to the farmers sleeping in tractor trolleys, shivering in the biting wet winter cold, one gets the sense that this is what led to the hardening of their stand for a complete repeal of the three Acts. It is time for the leadership to put a leash on the trolls as they are painting the centre into a corner from where it is becoming increasingly difficult for it to extract itself honourably.
The compassion shown by government interlocutors in the meetings with farmers is contradictory to how leaders address the issue in public – this adds to the distrust. This makes a negotiated settlement even more problematic. The problem, one suspects, runs deeper. Even after a better understanding and eight rounds of discussions, the central government has refused to repeal the Acts because it feels such a step will set a bad precedent and open a Pandora’s Box of demonstrations for caste reservations, minority rights and also by labour unions that feel that they have been literally hung out to dry by the labour law reforms.
Like manna from heaven, the Supreme Court has redeemed itself by providing an amicable solution to the stalemate by suggesting that the Acts be held in abeyance. In the light of the trust deficit and point-blank refusal to repeal the Acts, the government will be wise to accept the court’s suggestion. It is common knowledge that with the present Acts, it is impossible to achieve the PM’s promise of “doubling the farmer’s income”.
The government should re-evaluate its response and agree to four other points. One, circulate the draft of the amended Acts; two, explicitly define its MSP commitment; three, hold wide-ranging consultations with various stakeholders; four — if it is unable to agree on a one-person committee — constitute a small committee. Otherwise, it will be interpreted as a ruse to scuttle the issue. The Acts cannot be set right even with amendments and not just because the farmers are saying so. To usher in the much-needed tangible agricultural reforms, it would actually be wise to put in place a new legal framework.
Today, the perception is that farmers are on one side of the trenches and the government on the other. This is a pivotal moment for the government and it should not have come to this. In every negotiation, both sides must have a face saver for the victory to have a lasting and positive impact. In the present circumstances, it is absolutely essential to provide a way for the farmers to return home with dignity. Heart-wrenching tales of distraught farmers returning home in hundreds of thousands, feeling betrayed is an omen of bad tidings. A learning that one has wrung out of the agony is that “it is better to have smart foes than a foolish band of cohorts.”