The coronavirus pandemic is not a good time to have a conversation about farm laws, Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee told NDTV Monday night, as he highlighted a “deep lack of trust” between farmers and the centre as one reason for the breakdown in talks.
Mr Banerjee advised the centre to temporarily roll back the farm laws until the economy showed signs of recovery and a more “parliamentary discussion” could be arranged – crucially with farmers who fear the new laws will leave them at the mercy of corporate interests.
“I would say the pandemic is not a good time to have this conversation (about farm laws). The economy has shrunk. People don’t know what will happen to agriculture prices… either in the world in the next few years, or in India in particular. There is a sense the economy is in freefall. All these macro-economic concerns feed back into people’s insecurity,” he said.
To a question on why talks between the farmers and centre have so far failed (with the centre unwilling to accept farmers’ demand to withdraw the laws), Professor Banerjee listed two reasons.
“One part of the problem is that the government’s proposal is not fully spelt out. Farmers think of a scenario in which one or more corporates hold them to ransom. Whether or not that happens is anybody’s guess… but the proposal needs detail on how the government will deal with such eventualities. Will they promise to step in in certain situations?” Professor Banerjee said.
“The other part is more serious. In general, I think there is a deep lack of trust and that is what keeps getting articulated. It’s not that they think, ‘Well, the government will eventually make it good for us’,” he said, adding, “And that’s not unreasonable.”
Professor Banerjee pointed to the stand-off between centre and states over the payment of GST compensation, and said the centre’s attempted “sudden cancelling” of its liabilities did not help.
He also told NDTV that given the state of the economy because of the Covid pandemic, the centre should consider temporarily withdrawing the laws.
“People are feeling insecure… and with a bumper crop and demand deficit, this may be a good time for the government to say, ‘We hear you. We don’t agree but we hear you and we are going to withdraw this until we have a parliamentary discussion’,” he said.
Thousands of irate farmers are protesting the farm laws; on Monday the protests entered a 19th straight day, with farmers holding a hunger strike and agitating outside district offices across India. Last week the farmers held a “Bharat bandh” and hundreds remained camped around Delhi.
Multiple rounds of talks have failed. The farmers are unconvinced by the centre’s (many) assurances that MSPs and government procurement of grain will continue and want the laws to be scrapped.
The centre says it will only amend problematic sections, and has accused the opposition, and separatist elements masquerading as farmers, of engineering the protests.