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Mainstream, VOL LX No 24, New Delhi, June 4, 2022

‘Ingenious Farmers and Ignoble Experts’: Case of the Supreme Court Appointed Committee on Farm Laws | H.S. Shylendra

Friday 3 June 2022

by H.S. Shylendra

Introduction 

The fifteen-month long farmers’ agitation in India held between September 2020 and December 2021 demanding the total withdrawal of the three contentious farm laws was a major social movement staged successfully using democratic and non-violent methods against a domineering state backed by corporate power (Shylendra 2022). The movement because of its sheer conviction of purpose, tenacity, and innovative strategies can hold several lessons for agitational politics of the indignant groups.

One of the tactical moves adopted by the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), the umbrella organization of forty farm unions spearheading the movement, was to boycott the  Supreme Court (SC) appointed high profile committee on farm laws. The SC while temporarily staying the operations of the three farm laws constituted a four-member committee to hear all the stakeholders and submit a synthesized report to aid in the review of the three laws. From day one, the committee faced the ire of the agitating unions as its composition was biased in favour of members whose views were strongly supportive of the farm laws going by what they had shared until then in their individual capacities (GoI 2020). Further, the farmers had objection to being compelled into a binding mediation besides not favouring the instrument of a committee for resolving their problem (Yadav 2021). Incidentally, one of the members of the committee, Mr. B. S. Mann with affiliation to a farmers’ union had recused himself from the committee by saying that he was not ready to compromise on the interests of the farmers given their apprehensions over his potential role in the committee. [1] The rest of the members had continued their association with the committee and submitted a report in March 2021 to the SC without sharing the same with the public.

Even before the SC could restart the hearing on the farm laws and make use of the findings of the committee’s report, the changed political circumstances compelled the Government of India to announce a total repeal of the three laws in November 2021. The sustained agitation of the farmers and the resultant build-up of the anti-government sentiments close to the ensuing assembly elections in a few major states had apparently rattled an adamant government to retract its stand. The parliament of India repealed the three acts forthwith at the behest of the government which timidly did not allow any discussion on the matter. The rescinding of the farm laws was hailed as a great victory for the farmers who demonstrably succeeded in forcing the government make a U-turn. The success symbolized an ideological triumph of the peasants against the forces of imperialism and neoliberal policies (Patnaik 2022).

The annulment rendered the case before the SC on farm laws infructuous as the matter was settled politically. By virtue of that even the findings of the committee got reduced to one of mere academic interest. A member of the committee, who had demanded the SC earlier to make the report public, has recently released the same by justifying that it would contribute to the discourse on reforms. [2] The member at the same time claimed that his union would now launch a major agitation of farmers demanding implementation of market-oriented reforms making clear his prejudice against the farm laws as suspected by the agitating famers.

Oblivious of Politics 

Before we make a critical analysis of the actual findings of the committee’s report, it would be relevant to assess the significance of the decision of the agitating farmers’ unions to boycott the committee. As obvious from the report available on internet, [3] the committee had come out with the findings which were totally supportive of the government’s stand on the farm laws. The foresight and the clarity of farm unions to boycott the proceedings of committee becomes noteworthy. In the political slugfest that was being played out during the agitation, the boycott was meant to reject the committee and to dent its credibility, if not its legal standing. As per the suggestion of the SC, the committee did invite for talks the agitating unions who instead  expressed their preference to negotiate directly with the government given its onus and accountability for resolving such social issues. By their stand, the farm unions were clearly sending a message to the government and the SC that  they were neither willing to fall into a trap from where they may end up legitimising the government’s views through the committee nor ready to give up their right to assert for an expeditious political solution for their problem in place of a judicial review ridden with uncertainty. As such, the agitating farmers had not approached the SC, even as the court gave some temporary relief by way of a stay on the three laws.

The farmers displaying a total commitment did accomplish their final goal directly through the path of mass agitation without recourse to the judicial averment. The farmers would have fallen into a trap which would have clearly legitimised a biased report (as explicated in the following section). If the agitation were to continue and the SC would have heard the case, one cannot rule out the possibility of the report influencing the decision of the SC, though the SC was free to take its own stand.

Both the Supreme Court and the committee failed fully to understand the political import of the movement given especially the way policy narrations are built in the current milieu. Surprisingly, the SC had no qualms in appointing a committee packed with only members holding a prejudiced view on a major conflict having significant socio-economic ramifications. Also given the ideological nature of the movement, the SC should have made a more diligent attempt to constitute a balanced committee capable of conducting negotiation-based assessment. In a way, the final findings of the committee were a fait accompli given its composition. Given the political economy in which its members were placed, the committee could not have given a report which was against the stated position of its members and that of the government, leave aside being balanced. Even if the findings of the survey would have been unfavourable, the committee, in all possibility would have tried to tilt the balance by its own inputs and analysis as can be inferred from the report made public now. Moreover, the committee being more a technical kind of a group was not helpful for any kind of a negotiated assessment. Probably, it was for these reasons that Mr. B.S Mann withdrew from the committee at the beginning itself. The presentiment of the farmers’ unions about the outcomes from the committee and the decision to boycott were both profound and prescient.

Devious Analytics

Let us also look at some of the analytical aspects of the committee’s report. The committee had adopted a four-pronged approach, what it called as four pillars, to get inputs and information for its report: direct interactions with the farmers’ organizations (FOs); questionnaire-based survey; comments through email; and evidence-based analysis.

Curiously, the report based on the interactions with 73 FOs says ‘...the results indicated that of these 73 Farmer Organizations, 61 Farmer Organizations, representing 3.3 crore farmers, fully supported the Acts — a majority constituting 85.7 percent of the total farmers’ (Report, 2021, p13) The committee is presenting the findings as though 85.7% of farmers in the country support these laws. This is sophistry at its best by a group of experts to depict and build a particular kind of a narration. By a survey or talks with the representatives of 73 FOs, the committee is generalizing for the nation as whole. It is a sheer attempt at making mountain out of a mole hill. It is highly imprudent on the part of a committee of experts to equate the opinion or feedback of a representative of an organization to that of its entire membership, an absurd logic at the least.

As per the committee, it invited 306 Farmers’ Organizations for its first data pillar, which included unions as well as farmers’ collectives. However, only seventy-three of them responded to its invitation which is only about 24% of the invited organizations. Why did most of them (233) did not participate? The Annexure-3 of the committee report only mentions that forty-one protesting FUs boycotted the meeting. There is no way by mere interaction one can clearly know what magnitude of membership these participating organizations represented. Unless a more accurate information was available, it was not possible to arrive at a figure of 3.3 crore farmers. The claim 85.7% farmers supporting farm laws amounts to clear manipulation. Another basic fact ignored is that the participating organizations consist of both farm unions and farmers’ collectives which tend to have huge duplication of members between them. All unions draw their membership from farmers at grassroots level who are associated with various farmers’ collectives. Even such basic statistical propriety has been thrown to the winds by the committee in its attempt to grind own axe.

Similar kind of distortion is seen in the presentation of data about feedback obtained through online questionnaire-the second pillar. The committee says an encouraging 19,027 responses were received by it from diverse sections. Based on the questionnaire survey, the committee says 2/3rd of the respondents supports the Acts. Out of 19,027, responses 5451 were farmers, 929 FPOs, 151 were farm unions (FUs), and the rest 12,496 were other stakeholders. The moot question is who these 12,496 other stakeholders were, other than farmers, constituting 66% of the responses and who have shown interest to fill-up the questionnaire. There is no information in the report. Though there could be traders and businesses under this category but one cannot also rule out proxy entries in these periods of trolls and spams to influence the outcomes. Many of the respondents under ‘others’ could be urban and tech savvy groups. Assuming they are genuine, the committee erroneously has clubbed farmers and non-farmers to obtain its exaggerated result of 2/3rd support. Why has not the committee reported this data for farmers and non-farmers categories separately? It is probably because the committee wanted to show a bigger support for the acts and hence resorting to concoction of data. On the crucial question of farm laws linked to the farmers’ livelihoods, how relevant it would be to mix-up data of such groups. Again, there could be overlaps in the direct interactions and questionnaire-based responses. Only state-wise data of farmers and others is presented with 2100 hailing from unspecified states.

As regards email responses (5120), the third pillar, about 53% support the three acts as per committee. Without doubt most of these respondents sending email feedback can be again taken as those belonging to urban, organized, and educated sections participating in a discourse on farmers. Though nothing wrong in them sharing their views but such a kind of data cannot be quantified to present a tall claim. Moreover, the committee has failed to provide a list of names of the actual participants and organizations under all the methods, so much for transparency in a period of ‘good governance.’

Thus, a considerable segment of respondents of the committee could be those who may not have any direct links with farming as such. While no doubt such groups can also express their views, but the bias the committee has brought in by its devious analytics is a matter of serious concern which cannot be ignored. Out of the three survey-based methods, in two of them other stake holders dominate the respondents. Surprisingly, though the committee says that it would also consider the views or concerns of the agitating farmers but none of these methods have explicitly captured the major views of the agitating unions.

Let us now look at the fourth method which is the evidence-based desk research. This evidence-based analysis is committee’s own creation as the SC had not suggested any such approach explicitly. Given the stalemate that had been reached, the SC had suggested the committee to engage with the government and farmers’ bodies — supporting or not supporting farm laws, and other stakeholders and submit a report. The committee has exceeded the mandate by adding this fourth instrument to buttress its statistical jugglery.

The committee’s major conclusion based on the evidence-based analysis is that India has moved from a food scarce economy to a food surplus economy besides experiencing structural changes like declining average size of landholding and declining share of agriculture income. With the changing consumption pattern away from cereals and increase in food grain stocking and post-harvest losses, there is a strong need for integrating production with markets. Based on such a rationalization the committee argues that the present system of APMCs along with the Essential Commodities’ Act (ECA) have created enormous barriers for agricultural growth. Further, the existing policies based on minimum support prices (MSP) and input subsidies have created major distortions in the economy, both fiscally and environmentally, and for crop diversification.

Given such challenges, the committee found the three Acts in alignment with the structural changes unfolding in the agricultural sector. Dissecting each of the three Acts, the committee considered them relevant and appropriate to tackle the problems in their domain. About APMC Act, the committee says, that the Act gave a greater freedom to the farmers particularly to move towards ‘one-nation one-market.’ The ordinance passed was timely specially in the wake of Covid-19 experience about the working of the agricultural markets. The Act can break the monopolistic tendencies of APMCs and help to create a level playing field for the emergence of the competitive markets. As regards the Contract Farming Act, the committee says, it is justified on the grounds of the need for a common national framework to bring in uniformity in the provisions and to encourage innovations to make contract farming become politically and socially acceptable. On Essential Commodities’ Act, the committee says that the new provisions are justified to balance the interests of all the stakeholders to enable agri-produce to move up the value chain though investment in cold storage and warehousing by the private sector without fear of discretionary controls.

Overall, the committee based on its four-pillar analysis, says that majority of farmers and other stakeholders support the farm laws. In view of the transition of the country from a food deficit to food surplus one, there is need for policies matching the dynamic requirements of the agricultural sector to access best technologies and expanding markets. In view of the majority supporting the farm laws, ‘....... the Committee recommends that a repeal or a long suspension of these Farm Laws would, therefore, be unfair to this `silent’ majority who support the Farm Laws’ (Report 2021, p49).

In deference to the diversities across states and given several limitations of the three laws, the committee says it has tried to make a few suggestions for their improvement: States may be allowed flexibility for the implementation of the laws; provision of alternative dispute settlement via civil courts is needed; strengthening of agricultural infrastructure; enabling aggregation and quality through FPOs; constitution of an Agriculture Marketing Council to implement and monitor the Acts; and a massive communication campaign to alleviate apprehensions of the various stakeholders on the laws.

There are also a few specific recommendations made law-wise, given their gaps. As regards the demand for universal and legal MSP, the committee say, it is neither based on a sound logic nor it is financially feasible. To the committee, the government must revisit the MSP in the current context and put a cap on procurement of wheat and paddy with the states allowed freedom to devise their own ways of supporting farmers.

Critical Analysis

As feared by the farmers, the committee based on its survey and evidence-based analysis has produced findings and arguments which are largely in tune with the views being put-forth by the government and its agencies supporting the three laws. It is a clear attempt at rationalizing the state’s neoliberal logic, not mention the justification of nationalist rhetoric like `one nation-one market.’ Going by the committee’s conclusion, it seems, the farmers were fighting for a cause which was `unjust for silent majority,’ as though the ‘minority’ (i.e., the farmers) had no right to fight for any of their just cause.

Despite the attempted congruence and rationalization, the frantic decision of the government to repeal the farm laws has turned the committee’s report worthless. The victory gained by the farmers through their ingenious way was a slap on the face of the ignoble committee. Despite the committee itself identifying several lacunae in the laws, shamelessly it says that any attempt to repeal the laws will be an injustice, clearly passing an unwarranted moral judgement. The total repeal hence has exposed the committee which was pushing for its own agenda. No doubt agrarian problems have economic basis, but the multi-dimensional nature of them cannot be ignored in any holistic assessment. The farmers exactly did this by taking a democratic route of agitation with openness to negotiate with the government. It is not clear in what way the committee tried to accommodate the concerns of the farmers. Moreover, what were the views of the government put-forth before the committee as part of the negotiations? Did the committee invite the government? None of these are fully clear from the report of the committee.

Erroneous methodology apart, many of the arguments put-forth by the committee to rationalize the three laws themselves are ridden with half-truths and contradictions. The committee continuously argues that India has emerged as a food-surplus country and there are no acute challenges of poverty, malnutrition, and food security. Even mere perusal of some of the available assessments on food security issues like the 2021- Global Hunger Index (von Grebmer, et al 2021) would have enlightened the committee. The groundwater depletion in Punjab and Haryana is attributed majorly to the procurement policy ignoring the basic livelihood challenges. Few other states which are not similar beneficiaries of procurement/MSP also have the same problem of over exploitation as depicted in committee’s report. Foolishly, the committee says the lockdown’s positive experience of agriculture has prompted the government to bring the ordinances on farm laws ignoring the fact that ordinances were brought at a much early stage of Covid-19 pandemic itself. The last argument was merely an attempt to rationalize the bad timing and egregious enactment of the laws.

Similarly, if diversity and competitive conditions are necessary, why justify an overarching contract farming act over decentralized acts? The report depicts as though the dialogues of two decades over agri-reforms were a futile exercise when the government itself admits most states have taken varied reform measures though the results have not been commensurate. While at one level, the committee makes arguments for centralised laws ignoring the states but arrives at solutions for crucial problems of MSP and procurement through decentralized state level action. Similarly, though contract farming is identified as not perfect, yet committee argues for making it socially and politically acceptable. On the contrary, if APMCs are not perfect, they must be suppressed by more efficient and private markets.

Conclusion 

The experience of the committee on farm laws can be summarized as a story of ingenious farmers beating the state and its experts in their own game. The committee constituted for a deliberative assessment of a major conflict has through its ‘intellectual chicanery’ tried to depict a distorted picture about the farm laws by pushing its own agenda in line with the interests of the state. Even more ignoble was its gambit of using devious methods to present half-truths and exaggerated claims buttressing its views besides passing an uncalled-for moral judgment on a democratic movement. The committee adopted an approach devoid of sensibilities required to understand the true nature of the crisis. Despite its acclaimed expertise, in a way, the committee has bitten the dust in front of sagacious farmers who accomplished their goals by sheer strength of their conviction and democratic means. The Supreme Court of India also cannot escape the responsibility in this fiasco of the committee.

The farmers not only have won a great battle but, in the process, have etched some useful lessons for democratic politics in the country.

(Author: H.S. Shylendra is associated with Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA). Email: hss[at]irma.ac.in)

The views expressed here are personal

References 


[1Supreme Court committee cracks, key member opts out saying he is with farmers, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/bhupinder-singh-mann-recuses-himself-from-four-member-sc-panel-to-discuss-farm-laws-7146111/ , downloaded on 18/5/22

[2Mr. Anil Ghanwat one of the members of the Supreme Court Committee released the report, see, ‘Who Gave Inputs For Farm Laws Report?’ March 22, 2022,
https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/file-an-rti-court-appointed-panel-member-on-gap-in-farm-law-report-2836802,  downloaded on May 18, 2022.

[3See, Report of The Supreme Court Appointed Committee on Farm Laws, March 2021, http://swatantra.org.in/Documents/Report_2021_Supreme_Court_Committee_Farm_Laws.pdf, downloaded on May 18, 2022.

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