Across the Aisle: Reminding us of August 1942


Farmers during their ongoing protest against the new farm laws at Singhu Border in New Delhi (PTI Image)

We are reminded of Gowalia Tank Maidan, Mumbai (then Bombay), on August 7-8, 1942. Mahatma Gandhi gave the clarion call ‘Do or Die’, and asked the British to Quit India. Today, Singhu, on the border of Delhi, is the Gowalia Tank Maidan. There is no Mahatma, but every farmer is imbued with the fervour of non-violent protest. The call is the same ‘Do or Die’, and the farmers have asked the government to repeal the new farm laws.

Another round of talks has failed. It is clear as daylight that the government has a pre-determined mind. It will not countenance repeal, it will only propose amendments to miscellaneous provisions other than the three key demands, and it will not allow the State Legislatures to have their say in their respective states. On the other hand, the protesting farmers insist on three demands:

  • do not allow unregulated private ‘markets’ in competition with APMCs;
  • give a legal guarantee for MSP;
  • do not allow the entry of corporates into purchase of and trade in agricultural produce.

As the talks ended on December 30, to be resumed on January 4, the government claimed it had agreed to two demands: (1) power subsidies will not be affected and (2) no punishment to farmers for stubble burning. These two issues are far away from the ‘core’ of the demands; consequently, the distance between the protesting farmers and the unrelenting government remains.

Reforms needed, but what reforms?
All economists are agreed that agricultural produce marketing needs reforms. The APMC Acts are deficient not because they benefit no one but because they benefit only a small proportion of farmers nation-wide. The answer to the weaknesses of the APMC system is not to debilitate it, but to create thousands of lightly-regulated farmers’ markets across the country in small towns and large villages to enable farmers to sell their produce at MSP and without being exploited on non-price factors such as weight, moisture, quality etc. That is precisely what the Congress manifesto (2019) promised. The government is unable to understand the distinction between debilitating the APMC system and expanding the APMC principle.

The same argument applies in the case of MSP. MSP is a deficient tool, because only a small proportion of farmers are able to sell at MSP and that too only in the cases of wheat, paddy, soyabean, sugarcane and cotton. The answer is not to allow corporates to buy directly at a so-called negotiated price, but to legally ensure that no one may sell or buy a notified produce at less than MSP.

What Constitution says
There is a more formidable argument in favour of the protesting farmers. The Prime Minister paid obeisance to the Constitution of India. That is not enough. He should read the little book every time there is a doubt. If he did and if he turned to Schedule VII List II, he will find the following entries listed as legislative subjects reserved for the states: (see table)

Once we read the entries, the solution to the current man-made crisis suggests itself: leave the subject matter to the states. Let each State Legislature decide what its people need and what law should be made. Let there be a Punjab model and let there be a Bihar model. If the farmers of Punjab wish to sell their produce at regulated markets, after paying a fee, let them do so. If the farmers of Bihar do not wish to have an APMC Act at all and they wish to sell (which they do in the case of paddy at Rs 800 per quintal against an MSP of Rs 1,850 per quintal), let them do so. Why should the Central government be concerned about the law prevailing in a state? If the Central government is concerned that the FCI should procure enough grain to supply to the PDS (including the supplies under the National Food Security Act), let the Centre expand the reach of the FCI and make it a more efficient instrument of procurement, storage and distribution. No state is opposed to the FCI’s operations.

Trumpism will fail
The Modi government seems determined to assert its majority-inspired supremacy. It is a perverse application of the discredited slogan ‘Modi hai, to mumkin hai’. Mr Modi cannot have his way in everything, however wrong the path may be. That is what I call ‘Trumpism’, and every Mr Trump will be brought down sooner than later. Saint Thiruvalluvar said nearly 2,000 years ago “If the farmers fold their hands, even those who have renounced life cannot live (Kural 1036)”.

The coronavirus has taught the world many lessons in humility. I believe that the farmers’ protests will teach our rulers (present and future) lessons in humility in governance, passing laws in Parliament, and ruling according to the wishes of the people. Mr Modi has indeed won the right to govern India, let him do so with humility.

Website: pchidambaram.in
Twitter @Pchidambaram_IN

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