View: True dynamics of the farm agitation

The Supreme Court’s stay on farm laws and formation of a committee on Tuesday should lead to a reasonable dialogue to end the farmers-GoI stand- off. Sadly, the first reaction of farm leaders reflects their determination to obstruct any progress in resolving the deadlock or improving agriculture.Agriculture’s share in the economy has fallen from about 50% in 1947 to barely 15% today. Mirroring this decline is the mindset of farm leaders determined to enrich middlemen who gobble large chunks of value created between farm and fork. They want to force farmers to sell their produce to monopolistic, inefficient and often corrupt mandis, and stop institutional buyers from revitalising farms with modern inputs and profitable output.Indian industry was once equally lacklustre. Inefficient industrialists lobbied hard against any competition. But reforms dramatically changed the landscape to modernise the corporate sector and revolutionise the lives of its employees. Indian agriculture and farmers desperately need a similar transformation, which requires major changes in policies that were designed in a situation of food scarcity and extreme poverty. The three new farm laws may or may not be the 1991 moment for agriculture, but they are a major step forward, and a statement of honest intention to rev up the moribund sector.Farm leaders and well-entrenched vested interests are battling hard for status quo. They see venerable national interest in safeguarding the mandi monopoly, the agricultural equivalent of the BSNL landline and pre-Maruti passenger cars.Rich farmers and traders who milked the old system are the ones fighting fiercely against change today. The most cavalier disregard for farmer interest comes from people who drain out precious aquifers to plant water-guzzling crops; poison the soil and water with pesticides and fertilisers. The same lot is determined to poison the air across north India with lethal fumes.Stubborn farm leaders are not only doing disservice to agriculture in the bread-bowl state of Punjab. They are also destroying industrial employment opportunities for the youth. The new farm laws offer a golden opportunity for the predominantly agricultural state to attract the food processing industry and take its industrial landscape beyond making products like cricket bats and hosiery.The city dweller is already paying a good premium for agricultural products that are hygienically processed and packaged. Farmers obstructing highways would gain much more if they used even half their energy and political clout in attracting the food processing industry, which can make the region a global hub.But the reality is depressing. In ease of doing business, Haryana ranks 16th in India, while Punjab is 19th, just ahead of Assam, Kashmir and the Andamans. With the attack on a private company’s telecom infrastructure in the name of farmers, and with wild allegations against leading business houses about them gaining from farm laws, the protests are doing enormous damage. Thanks to myopic farm leaders, instead of trying to attract industry, the region will struggle to retain whatever little it has.Even if Punjab is happy with the path of repelling reform and hounding industry, protesters have no business to deprive farmers in other states from benefits of change. If farmers in Maharashtra can team up to bypass middlemen and sell their produce directly in prosperous Mumbai, why should this bother leaders blocking arterial highways to Delhi? Farmers in most parts of the country would be enviously seeing how their counterparts in the pampered parts of northern India can stay away from their farms for nearly two months, get generous supply of food along with inputs to keep them warm and relaxed, and threaten to disrupt the Republic Day pageantry with impunity.Compared with the rest of the country, farmers in some parts of north India have been so pampered for decades that the give-and-take concept seems blasphemous to them. This is evident in their stance in negotiations with GoI and the first response to the Supreme Court order. For them, negotiation means their extremist position is non-negotiable. Their message is clear: do what we want or we will block highways, disrupt city life and threaten national security on Republic Day.Constant pampering has spoilt them. This must change. If the carrot doesn’t work, they are begging for the stick.
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