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Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

Widen the review panel to get farmers on board

The panel appointed by the top court to review our farm laws needs diversity for a dialogue with farmers to make headway. It’s about time either side truly began hearing the other out

WWith talks between the government and farmers on India’s three agricultural laws failing to break the current deadlock, the Supreme Court’s Tuesday intervention might yet be the best hope to find a middle path agreeable to both sides. Unfortunately, this process has also got vitiated right at the onset. The impartiality of a panel of four experts appointed by the apex court has been questioned, with farmers pointing out that all of them have taken a public stance in support of the laws in focus. As the outcome of the proceedings can therefore be guessed, farm protesters argue, another fait accompli is being thrust upon them. A glance at the quartet’s past views would indicate that such critics do have a point. Agricultural economist Ashok Gulati, a prominent member of the committee, has been a vocal advocate of farm reforms in general and these laws in particular. He has likened the move to India’s 1991 opening up. Pramod Joshi, former South Asia director of the International Food Policy Research Institute, has opposed any legal backing of minimum support prices (MSPs), a key demand of farmers, under our public procurement system. He has also advocated contract farming, which farmers fear may result in their subjugation to powerful corporations. Similarly, Anil Ghanwat of Shetkari Sanghatana, a pro-reform farmer union, has openly backed the laws, as has Bhupinder Singh Mann, national president of the Bhartiya Kisan Union. To be fair, almost all of them have offered nuanced arguments, favouring amendments to assure farmers easy access to judicial recourse or continuity of the state-procurement regime.

It is another matter that the basis on which India’s judiciary intervened was questionable, since it should have restricted itself to judging the constitutional validity of the laws that protesters want repealed. But now that a panel is in place to review our farm reforms, it deserves a chance to do its job. The court has been clear that this is not mediation, which would call for its acceptability on both sides, but a way to have grievances heard and recommendations made. Hence, the individual views of panel members ought not to matter. Also, we must not presume that they would let their own opinions prevail over the broader interests of farmers. Indeed, it would serve farmers best if they cooperate with the committee instead of rejecting it. Lest they turn down these talks, our top court should expand the panel by inducting other experts with diverse views. This would not just help the committee earn the trust of farmers, but also enliven the review process in a manner that a relatively homogenous body cannot do.

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Ideally, the confabulations should result in clarity among all stakeholders (including food consumers) on India’s need to unshackle farms and adopt market tools to overcome stagnancy in a sector that is an underperforming relic of our socialist past. As suppliers to the state, with their economic agency restricted by a cobweb of controls, our farms are largely unresponsive to demand signals. This riddles the sector with inefficiencies and distorts our food economy. In theory, trade disintermediation, inflows of private capital, technological upgradation and greater space in general for market forces to operate at the ground level will enhance productivity and boost farming. Done properly, reforms should aid farmers. But then, only a genuine dialogue can clarify how.

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