The farming infrastructure in Punjab lay in a shambles and the Punjab State Agriculture Commission considered all stakeholder opinions to prepare a policy document, which could be implemented.

Punjab never had a policy for agriculture. When asked to formulate one by the state government, the Punjab State Farmers Commission (PSFC) drafted a Farmers’ Policy. The conclusion of the consultation process is an opportune time to elucidate its reasoning for drafting the policy and the way it was drafted. An essential logic of a consultation process is not to limit it to the establishment or academicians but to reach out to as many stakeholders as possible for sugges-tions to improve it. As a first of its kind measure, the policy has been published in major Punjabi newspapers with a WhatsApp number available for people to send comments.

Regaining trust in the establishment

Within the first month of joining office, it was apparent that Punjab’s financial health was in a precarious state. After visiting government offices for six months, it was realised that institutions had been literally allowed to collapse. Rules were being blatantly flouted, there was a lack of inter-department coordination, per-petual delays in decision-making, absence of will to enforce rules or initiate dis-ciplinary action, to name a few. Literally, there is poison on our plates, to name a few. Thus, we proposed a revenue-neutral policy, which is not a wish list, as many want it to be but focuses on reforming governance, ushering in transpar-ency, accountability and delivery of services to farmers.

The greatest hindrance to happier livelihoods in Punjab is not any disagreement on what is required but that crisis of credibility facing the government. Without regaining the trust of the people lost over a decade, the leadership will not find the courage to administer much-needed long-term critical reforms. The key el-ement to regaining the trust is to radically improve governance and farm exten-sion services. Many naively believe the policy goes beyond its mandate and fo-cuses on governance reforms but without such reforms, the farmers’ policy will not be worth the paper it’s written upon.

Choosing to be practical

The Commission was advised to also suggest recommendations for the Central government but the policy was framed specifically for Punjab. It was more prac-tical to list out the challenges that are beyond one’s control but have a strong bearing on our lives as we have come to expect of it.

Not that laws do not exist in the state; there are many. For example, gram sabhas or innumerable welfare schemes look good on paper. It is  just that they do not get implemented. Establishments are incapable of evaluating themselves; it is proposed that stakeholders be involved to do the needful. Lack of quality data in Punjab inhibits evidence-based decision-making and, with officers lacking the capacity to make informed choices, the result is execution failures and leakages. Creating a data bank on the farmers’ ecosystem to enable machine learning with mandatory e-documentation will form the foundation for the desperately re-quired change.

The policy document is in the long-term interest of the largest number of farm-ers, particularly the small, marginal and landless ones. A vast majority of sugges-tions of agriculture labour unions and unions representing small farmers have been incorporated. The Commission took a conscious decision not to disclose views that could be attributed to particular individuals or organisations to give them space to speak freely and rein the urge to respond to publicly expressed bigoted opinion pieces.

A lot of what has been happening is wrong. The Commission has not hesitated to state it because people need to be informed. Where it hesitated was in sug-gesting solutions that could be politically contentious and bitter; prescriptions that unpalatable for the larger public which is used to populist sops. A gradual shift is the only way. An attempt was made to make not an ideal policy that meets the expectations of every stakeholder but a pragmatic one, which can  be im-plemented.

Reaching out for suggestions

Many economists that one turned to for endorsement felt that the policy stops short of the final solution to the existential crisis of depleting groundwater and biodiversity. The Commission would have loved to follow their advice but after wide deliberations, it targeted the  achievement of a consensus to move forward quickly on as many aspects as possible rather than getting bogged down in in-terminable discussions and not achieving anything at all. From withdrawing elec-tricity subsidy to the better-off farmers to changing the mechanism of transferring the subsidy, the options are numerous. One is hopeful that as awareness in-creases amongst the farmers, leaders of farmers’ unions and political parties will have the courage to stand up for their convictions.

The Commission intentionally prepared a crisp 15-page document to not only enhance the readability factor but also make a policy that is indicative of where the Commission intends to be heading and not an exhaustive document. A con-scious decision was made to write in a style easily understood by ordinary peo-ple and not to confuse the public with intellectual semantics. Many correctly summarised that social sustainability was bearing down too heavily on other as-pects of the policy, as was intended. There is disbelief that unlike anywhere in the world, the policy avoids even citing ‘increasing agriculture productivity’.

The Commission’s proposals on attaining quality food are so basic that their sig-nificance  seems to have been missed. Rather than impractically pursuing things close to one’s hearts, the policy goes to considerable lengths to seek a reduction in the use of farm chemicals. A combination of proposals on market intelligence cell and marketing will help diversify agriculture, which in the face of conflicting factors of higher MSP for paddy and free-of-cost electricity has failed to take off.

Based on the feedback that the Commission is fortunate to have received, a re-vised policy will be submitted to the government. Only after the policy is adopt-ed by the government, can an action document be prepared by various depart-ments. In the days to come, the farmers’ commission will reach out to the peo-ple directly; the policy clearly advocates a periodical review, based on ground implementation, changing mindsets, inception of new ideas, reversing cynicism. It is not just the fear of failing to deliver that weighs heavy on the Commission. It is also a race against time to save Punjab for future generations. A policy can be best described in the words of Sun Tzu, China’s military strategist of the 6th cen-tury BC, who coined the word ‘Xiaxiace’ or ‘the least bad option’.

The writer is the Chairman of the Punjab State Farmers Commission