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Repealing farm laws was a tough decision; tougher tasks lie ahead

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The more the government refused to repeal the laws, the more the farmers distrusted the government. Separately the manner of rushing the laws via ordinances raised farmer suspicions even more.

Repealing farm laws was a tough decision; tougher tasks lie ahead
The decision to repeal the farm laws is a positive step for the agricultural economy, not because the current Minimum Support Price (MSP) regime is a good option, but because these new farm laws have created too much distrust of the government and that has prevented other much-needed steps for the agri-economy, from being taken. The government has tried to explain that crores of farmers have welcomed the laws but because it hasn't been able to convince a section of farmers, it is repealing the laws. This doesn't sound fair. If certain laws are good for most of the farm economy, they ought not to be repealed to favour a minority.
The truth is a sector like agriculture cannot and should not be ruled by national laws. There is a reason why our constitutional fathers put agriculture on the state list. The agri issues of Punjab, West Bengal, Gujarat and Kerala are way too different to be amenable to a central law or laws. The voracious appetite of the central government to gobble the policy space of states is hurting our understanding of farmer problems. There isn't "a" farm problem that's true for the whole country. Each state has a unique set of farm issues.
The best example is procurement at MSP. The MSP works for only two crops – rice and wheat in about 5 states – Punjab, Haryana, UP, MP and Telangana and Andhra to some extent.
Likewise, the Farmer Produce Trade & Commerce Act which claims to release farmers from being forced to sell in the APMC obscures the truth by painting APMCs as a national evil. The truth is in over 20 states, farmers are allowed to sell outside the APMC mandis and fruit and vegetables in most states don't come under APMC. This means, as the farmers of Punjab, Haryana and Western UP saw it, the central law appeared to be passed only to weaken the only APMCs in their states.
Here's how a Punjab farmer read the impact of these laws: for the first few years, private trade may offer higher prices. Then if the global cereal prices crashed, they will prefer importing to buying domestic grains or at best offer beaten-down prices. But by then, the APMCs would be a spent force with few farmers paying them any cess or mandi charges. APMCs in the northern states, enriched by cess and mandi charges, today provide storage, warehousing, sorting grading. All these may go to seed.
The government too, having provided private trade as an alternative buyer, may simply vanish from the scene as a buyer of the last resort. Thus the farmers of Punjab, Haryana and Western UP saw the Farmer Produce Trade & Commerce Act as a sugar-coated hemlock to kill their APMCs and weaken the MSP net. Concurrent analysis from government committees calling for the winding up of the Food Corporation of India only strengthened these fears.
The more the government refused to repeal the laws, the more the farmers distrusted the government. Separately the manner of rushing the laws via ordinances raised farmer suspicions even more.
Well, now that the laws will be repealed, what’s the best way to move forward? The government can start by concentrating, one by one, on issues where farmers absolutely need to act with more responsibility.
First up is stubble burning. The government needs to encourage private and government labs to come with a technological solution to clear stubble and then harness the administration in the states to ensure stubble burning is stamped out, using carrot and stick. In the background of the farm law protests, such constructive steps may be tough, but probably soon after the state elections next year, the Central government should start incrementally going after stubble burning with the same zest that it went for vaccines and their administration.
The next step should be to wean Punjab farmers away from rice. The government needs to come with a crop diversification package and simultaneously educate farmers about the perils of falling water tables and the emission of methane and nitrous oxide in paddy farms grown in irrigated fields. (Rain-fed rice emanates less methane and nitrous oxide) Crop diversification needs to be taken up on mission mode with agricultural scientists, the state administration, the state government and non-state actors contributing in equal measure. The centre needs to look for outstanding NGOs, farmer leaders, agri-tech startups to make a success of non-rice cultivation.
If Punjab farmers are weaned away from rice, it's possible a part of FCI's problems will be resolved. Some senior officers in the Central government are already talking about incentivising states to adopt model APMC codes and contract farming laws. The Centre must not rush but hasten slowly. Like the PLI and SEZ schemes, it needs to approach the weaning of the North-western farmers from rice and wheat through a package of measures. Now is the time for quiet, patient, intelligent governance – not sloganeering and drama. Also, the Centre needs to gulp down a basic truth ignored by Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi alike: that state governments are elected semi-sovereigns and need to be treated as such, rather than as insubordinate juniors.
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