Farmers should shed rigidity
Fifty-six days after farmers — largely from Punjab and Haryana — blocked Delhi’s borders, demanding the repeal of farm laws, the government, on Wednesday, offered to suspend the farm laws for a period of 18 months and set up a committee with representatives from both sides to discuss all issues. The farm unions, on Thursday, rejected the proposal, reiterated their demand for a repeal of laws, and decided to continue protests. This is questionable, both in terms of principle and tactics.
This newspaper has stressed that the farm laws will open up India’s agricultural markets, enable greater choice for farmers, and create a mechanism for closer agri-industry interface. The ideal scenario would have been sticking to reforms after winning over the protesting farmers and addressing their reservations. But the government’s decision to retreat was understandable. The political logic of continuing with the reforms, in the face of the mass movement, at a time when there are multiple other crises facing the nation, was becoming increasingly untenable. With its offer, the government was hoping to send a signal of reconciliation, defuse a potentially volatile situation, and buy time. The retreat holds a lesson — any structural economic change must involve wider democratic deliberation.
But even as the government has stepped back, farm unions have stuck to a rigid position. This suggests disregard for the process of lawmaking. In a democracy, farm groups exercised their right to protest — but they should not take over the rights of a sovereign Parliament and an elected government, and dictate terms from the streets. It appears that farm groups are not willing to meet the government midway, when it has, for all practical purposes, backtracked. This derails the process of democracy, which necessarily involves a spirit of accommodation. Farm groups also run the risk of losing out on wider public support and solidarity. In the middle of an agitation, protesters can make the mistake of overestimating their strength — but then a law of diminishing returns sets in. This is a crucial moment for farm groups. They would be served well to treat the government’s new proposal as a victory, revise their position, and engage in consultations with the government to chart future reforms. India needs agri reforms — and it can only come through a process of dialogue. The government has stepped back. It is time for farm groups to reciprocate.