The decision of the government to repeal farm laws should be seen as one of the best and most eagerly awaited news to come from India in recent times. Of course, it would have been better if this decision had been taken some months earlier, but better late than never.
We should, first of all, remember the farmers who sacrificed their lives in the course of the various strains and risks of the movement which continued through extreme weather situations. This has been a great democratic struggle and it gives India hope that it has ended on a note which is best described as a victory of democracy above everything else.
In this celebration of democracy, of course, the first tributes should be paid to the determination of farmers as well as their commitment to a peaceful and democratic struggle. At the same time credit should also be given to the government for not standing on a false sense of prestige and opting for a democratic solution. Some sporadic incidents had created a disturbing apprehension from time to time that at least some forces were trying to play some kind of mischief to disrupt the movement.
In the end, the government did not permit such mischief beyond a point and on the whole opted for a democratic resolution of the long stand-off. For this the government deserves credit. Some have argued that the government has done this mainly for electoral gains due to the forthcoming elections in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. This may be a part of the reason but this cannot be a complete explanation.
When something really good is done by the government one should be generous and in this particular context the government has certainly displayed a commitment to democracy for which it deserves praise. Can this be the beginning of some other welcome changes? Workers have been agitating and saying that the changes in labour laws have taken back or diluted some of the rights which they had won after a long struggle. There is at least some indication that the government may have begun to see some merit in the opposition voiced by them.
After all, the full-scale implementation of these laws has been delayed for quite some time. The government will do well to have a very transparent and fair exercise of reviewing where exactly the changes in labour laws are reducing the hard-won rights and entitlements of workers and then take important remedial action based on such a review.
Another long-standing grievance has been regarding the widespread allegations that several innocent persons have been implicated in false cases. The government will give further proof of commitment to democratic norms if it sets up one or more reviews headed by independent jurists known for their commitment to justice and democracy, and on the basis of such a review, which should be completed within two months or so, charges and cases against those persons who are found to be innocent should be withdrawn and those who are in jail should be released.
Regarding farmers’ movement also, charges against participants should be withdrawn (except in the case of those mischief-mongers who have been condemned by farmers themselves). The main remaining demand being highlighted these days relates to minimum support price. The government should be committed to making available a fair price to farmers of course, but at the same time the government as well as the farmers’ movement should also move in the direction of ecologically protective farming.
It should be realised by both sides that farming systems based on ecologically destructive practices which damage the basic resource base of soil and water; which kill pollinator birds and insects as well as soil-builders like earthworms and which are energy intensive and directly as well as indirectly contribute to high greenhouse gas emissions are not sustainable and in addition these also lead inevitably to constant rise in costs. This constant rise of costs and destruction of soil, water, earthworms and pollinators is one of the most important causes of the crisis of farmers and farming.
So, the way forward is for ecologically protective farming which can also help to reduce costs of farmers by increasing their self-reliance and by protecting their basic resource base of soil and water. We are in a fortunate position today when international funding for climate change mitigation and adaptation can additionally contribute much to such efforts.
In addition, the government should also contribute more to promoting eco-friendly farming and this should become a mass movement. Already, in a significant area of Andhra Pradesh and to a lesser extent in some other states like Sikkim and Himachal Pradesh, as well as in smaller pockets and projects in most states, we can see several successful examples of eco-friendly farming. Last but not the least, we should never forget the rural landless households who comprise the bottom half of our rural population.
In their context also there is much room for large-scale mobilisation in tasks of ecological rehabilitation. As many as 67 economists have very recently written to the Prime Minister emphasizing the urgent need to increase MGNREGA funds. In addition, the neglected agenda of land reforms should be revived so that they can get at least some land.
We can only hope that the repeal of farm laws will prove to be only the first important step to be followed by other meaningful and long-awaited changes.
(The writer is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Man Over Machine and Protecting Earth for Children)