The farmers' agitation points to the hazards of discarding institutional arrangements of deliberative democracy.
Farm produce, no matter what, are all sold in a buyers market. It's pointless to sing paeans of free trade to one who toils on the soil. That's why sensible governments treat farmers with kid gloves across the world. It is a million-dollar question how the politically astute Modi- Shah duo missed the point.
One Long year of Farmers Versus Government
A farmer is instinctively a gut person. Directionally the three junked farm laws made them suspicious of a back door entry to big business. Even in the USA, Cargill and Monsanto own the countryside.
Historically, the peasantry shares a common characteristic of defiance of authority across Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh. It was a cardinal mistake to rebuff and challenge it. With close to 50% of India's workforce in the agricultural sector, the farm laws became a noose around the BJP government's neck. Modi did well to nip the unrest by scrapping the three farm laws, even a little belatedly.
While Punjab may have been the epicentre of the turmoil, the political salience of the movement in UP made the government buckle.
What got the BJP government into the muddle in the first place? And what is the way out, given the agitation is not yet called off?
Problem of 'Path-Breaking' Reforms
Reform in the present dispensation follows a trajectory. At the beginning of the term of the Government, all Secretaries present a work plan for the coming five years. Once frozen by the PMO, it becomes hardcoded. The department and the minister concerned lose leverage over change or modification. The PMO undertakes regular reviews, does some interagency problem solving but essentially drives a time-bound delivery.
The bureaucracy realising the hazards of presenting innovative, complex or complicated ideas peddles incremental ones, leaving the government bereft of transformational initiatives.
Krishi Bhawan, which houses the agriculture ministry, has regular civil servants who are smart alecs and are unlikely to have proposed the laws of their own volition. It also has a technical bureaucracy of agricultural scientists who are less versed with the political economy.
This set of bureaucrats, either from within or outside, most likely sowed the seeds of path-breaking reforms in the PMO. The short-circuiting of the Parliamentary consultative process complete with the government's heft ensured their enactment without application of mind or delay.
The rest is history.
What Next for the Repealed Laws
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced a decision to repeal the laws. The Agriculture ministry circulated a 'Cabinet note' that has passed muster as no one gives candid opinion over a matter pre-decided at the highest level.
Post the approval of the cabinet, now a Repeal Bill will be drafted in Krishi Bhawan and vetted by the Ministry of Law, once again following a straight-jacketed approach. The passage in the parliament is a certainty whatever noises the opposition may make.
The farmers have done well to have placed their remaining demands on the table right away as conditional to calling off the agitation. Putting ego and technical advice of economists and agricultural experts aside, Modi government will do well to broker a political solution.
What Next in Terms of Government Vs People
Ever since the 1991 reforms, there has been excess weight put on the opinion of economists who have a slanted efficiency-driven view. There is more to running a government.
The farm sector is anything but a market in the classical sense. From land ceiling laws to fuel, fertiliser, seed and electricity pricing, marketing, and movement of grains distortions abound. Unlike the typical market participants, the farmers cannot align easily with market dynamics due to price and acreage complexities. What the farmers seek is a cost-plus price for their produce; evidence suggests they seldom get it.
The tactical retreat gives the Government a chance to return to the normative process of law-making and avoid a clash with 'we the people.'
Typically, this will entail publishing a discussion paper and consulting different stakeholders- farmer associations, traders, state governments, academics and experts. Reconciliation of views will be an iterative process and possibly time-consuming. It will point to either a solution or the imperatives of maintaining the status until a consensus emerges.
How Agricultural or Any Other Reform Needs to be Done
The next step is a draft cabinet note put to inter-ministerial consultation. The political executive usually desists from taking a position before completing such a consultative process. The cabinet note for moving a bill incorporates all ministries' views to provide the cabinet with a wholesome perspective.
It is not uncommon for inter-ministerial differences to persist. Matters mostly get resolved in the cabinet. Failing which a group of ministers or secretaries attempts to resolve the differences depending on complexity and sensitivity. On receiving the approval of the cabinet, a bill gets introduced in the parliament.
Select committees of the parliament examine contentious and complex matters before putting it to the vote. Post enactment, the assent of the President is required before a Bill becomes an Act. Presidents have returned Bills for reconsideration and even withheld consent in exceptional cases.
Such a consultative process ensures there is no miscarriage of the will of the people. A Government ignores it at its peril.
At a philosophical level, what the farmers are telling the government is it cannot impose itself on the people just because it has a legislative majority. Repeal of the laws won't resolve the impasse; following a consultative process will.
(The writer is a former Member of the Postal Services Board. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)