In Ashok Dalwai’s view, the government's price support scheme alone cannot offer incentive to farmers. (Illustration: Suneesh Kalarickal)
For Ashok Dalwai, chairman of the Committee on Doubling Farmers’ Income, one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s most ambitious projects, the withdrawal of the three farm bills is `very unfortunate’.
``It is bad for the economy. We were going on the right track. We need to know what we stand to lose. I feel that all stakeholders should take a larger view of the situation. We should have implemented the laws and then see what changes are needed. The government was more than keen to incorporate changes,” Dalwai told Moneycontrol.
In his view, the Modi government was even keen to keep the laws in abeyance for two years. Looked at the withdrawal of the bills from this perspective, much-needed reforms in the agriculture sector have been stymied.
``The three new farm bills would have helped create a new market. An entire ecosystem has been invented to ensure that farmers get better prices in a truly open market, more than ever before,” Dalwai said.
The Modi government had advocated doubling farmers incomes by 2022 from the levels of 2016. The government spoke of remunerative pricing in this regard. In April, 2016, the government set up a Committee on Doubling Farmers’ Income chaired by Ashok Dalwai. The high-powered panel, after consultations, submitted its proposals, encapsulated in 14 reports in September 2018. The farm laws were based on the insights provided by this committee.
According to Dalwai, the three legislations were aimed at providing barrier-free trading platforms to farmers, addressing their post-production challenges, and ensuring better returns. The bills constituted the continuous efforts of the government to liberalise the agriculture sector, which is long overdue.
The former IAS officer and representative extraordinaire of the Modi government on all things related to agriculture, is also the CEO of the National Rainfed Area Authority (NRAA).
In Dalwai’s view, the government's price support scheme alone cannot offer incentive to farmers.
The now-withdrawn farm bills were aimed at post-production reforms, intending to offer incentives to producers so that they could generate higher incomes by getting better remunerative prices, and simultaneously adopt new technology and management practices for higher productivity, he said.
Dalwai believes post-production processes have been a major challenge in this country. In 1965, the government had initiated the Green Revolution for achieving higher farm productivity and meeting food security. Now, the country is in surplus, he said.
``The first seed of farm sector liberation was sown in 2003. Unfortunately, notwithstanding 18 years, the journey of reforms has not been steady. In the last seven years, what the government has tried to do is to put reforms on a more robust track," pointed out Dalwai, who is credited with introducing several changes in Odisha’s agrarian sector as a young IAS officer.
In his view, it is important to remember that all nations, without exception, who have invested in economic liberalisation and reforms, have begun their tryst with agriculture. India remains one honourable exception.
``The fact is a lot of time was lost and just when things were getting on to an even keel, comes this setback. We can get complacent. There is no doubt that agriculture needs reforms. Procurement has broadened and safety nets, such as minimum support price (MSP), were inbuilt into the system,’’ Dalwai pointed out.
Why was the year-long agitation linked only to wheat and paddy cultivators? Why didn’t the stir attract farmers from the sugarcane or commodity sectors, for example?
The key to the farm reforms was the attempt to link paddy and wheat to industry, as in the case of sugarcane, which is connected to the agro-industry; or biofuels, which are linked to science and technology; or cotton to the textile industry and a commodity market that trades in the primary economic sector rather than manufactured products, such as cocoa, fruit and sugar.
``These farm laws were the first attempt to tie up food crops to the industry to ensure the best returns possible for farmers and cultivators,” explains Dalwai.
Is it the end of the road now for agriculture reforms? Does the withdrawal jeopardise the much-vaunted doubling of farmers income by 2022?
Says Dalwai: ``Certainly not. We are not at a dead end. We can find answers and discover a way out. The government has recently announced that it is not going to do away with MSP. So, it is a question of just finding the right answers, which I am sure our system is designed to take care of.”
That appears to be the most optimistic assessment thus far of the ongoing firefight between the government and the farmers.