Home / Opinion / Columns /  How the government lost farm reforms to rich farmers

Once Prime Minister Narendra Modi could deny Indians their own cash for several days, and not only survive the stunt, politically, but thrive. Now his government has had to take back a plan that may have enriched the poor, a plan I want to present in half a sentence. But then, it is hard to avoid the messiness of its details, a reason why our most famous storyteller could not market his most humane attempt yet to liberate Indian farmers.

On Friday, about 14 months after his party enacted three farm bills, he told the nation they would be repealed. It was a triumph for rich north Indian farmers and the rural middle-class movement they led. Many urban humanitarians, too, rejoiced. And if you were clueless about India, like a conscientious Barbadian singer who has a good heart but is too busy to read policy, you may think the three farm laws of Modi’s government are filled with evil designs to rob and torture poor Indian farmers (and then somehow win elections after doing that).

In reality, those laws were reforms that intellectuals have talked about for decades. They aimed to free farmers constrained to sell their produce at state-designated marketplaces, usually done through profiteering middlemen; thus also free them to sell their crops online or through private contracts; and free the market from an old law that marks some superstar crops as “essential" commodities that cannot be hoarded in large qualities, paving the way for corporations to buy directly from small farmers.

If the laws were so good, you may wonder, why should farmers object? They were told a good story, and like most good stories, it was simple and scary, and it was told by their rich.

Affluent farmers of Punjab and Haryana gain the most from an old procurement policy under which the government guarantees a floor price for major crops. These farmers are entrepreneurs but do not face all the risks of entrepreneurship. They could have gained the most from the new laws, too, but then why risk revolutionary change when the current system suits them? They have no incentive to experiment with other crops instead of dumping rice and wheat on the government. Why should they risk change? So, they told a story, not entirely implausible, that minimum support prices would end; that farmers will be at the mercy of the market, that they will be left dependent on big companies that will offer high prices at first but eventually squeeze them dry. And, what if this is the start of a devious corporatization of farming? What if all this leads the government to withdraw as a big buyer, and what if free or cheap electricity and other subsidies vanish, and worse, what if farmers are asked to start paying income tax?

Rich and middle-class farmers were afraid of change and they sabotaged reform for the poor while claiming the moral high ground. Same old story.

Also, most protesting farmers were led to believe that according to the new laws, if they had disputes with corporations, they would not easily be able to go to court. This is true, but the new laws offered an alternative dispute-resolution mechanism manned by government servants and private players. Foes of change framed this as a system where bureaucrats would play judges. The way some people lamented this dispute-resolution system, you would think Indians love their courts and judges.

The farmers’ movement, like the anti-corruption movement earlier, was an upper-class political movement that recruited the rest. Just as the Congress party could not counter the anti-corruption movement, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could not fight the farmers’ moralizing story with its own story because the farm laws, however good as policy, were a terrible yarn. It did not have a clear villain. Procurement agents were not as appealing as villains compared to the imagery of Indian farmers being enslaved by Reliance, Walmart, the Adani Group or “a new East India Company". Also, the defence of the reforms was in the details. Our doom as a species is in the fact that stories are a poor medium for complexity, and stories control the world.

Not just that, the BJP told a very bad story in a very bad way. For instance, it got some of the richest actors and cricketers to defend its reforms. These celebrities earn by endorsing brands. So even their admirers know they are paid message peddlers. Why would you use famous liars to tell the truth? Also, the party was unable to draw farmers in other states to demonstrate their support for reforms. There is a reason for this. The fuel of an agitation is lament, not optimism. No agitation in support of something can be as electrifying as an agitation that is against something.

It is not as though those who protested the farm bills did not have good reasons. All the reassuring elements of the new laws were hypothetical and set in a distant abstract future. And, the Modi government’s record on the execution of its esoteric ideas has been very poor. Actually, forget revolutionary ideas, the BJP is unable to even fix roads and street lights in places where it controls both the state and municipal administrations. Also, the covid pandemic’s second wave hurt the reputations of Modi and his party.

So, what now? Many of the reformist ideas proposed are already in practice in several states, like the freedom of farmers to sell outside designated marketplaces. Otherwise, things will continue as before. And poor farmers will one day cease to be poor farmers, when they become poor security guards and factory workers. Some of the refined foes of farm reforms will then write heartbreaking poems about poor landless migrants.

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