Modi government has made repeal of three farm laws a prestige issue. There are lessons in how NEP-2020 received wide support from all stakeholders after the 2016 policy draft was widely criticized and the government went back to the drafting table. Modi-II regime can learn from Modi-I regime’s experiences on engaging meaningfully with stakeholders when working on crucial policy reforms.
Since November 2020, the farmers from Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and other states have been sitting on a protest, blocking all major highways leading to the national capital. They are demanding a repeal of the three farm laws passed by the Modi government with brute force in Parliament. They are also demanding that minimum support price (MSP) should be made a legal right of farmers. The non-BJP state governments are crying foul, claiming that the Centre has bulldozed its way into subjects that are clearly in the ‘state list’ of the constitution. Despite stiff resistance from farmers and several states, the government is unwilling to give in and is only ready to amend the acts if required.
The farmers are putting pressure through a blockade. The several rounds of discussions did not result in any significant progress to break the stalemate. The violence on Republic Day perpetrated by a faction of farmers was met with extreme police action. The police ended up erecting walls and installing iron rods and nails on the highway to cut off farmers. This turn of events does not augur well for a democratic state.
The Supreme Court, rather than swiftly deciding on the constitutionality of the three laws, put the three farm laws on hold for 18 months. It hoped that this step may encourage farmers to enter negotiations with greater confidence than without the court’s intervention. Whether Supreme Court is justified in putting on hold the laws passed by the legislature is not uncontested. Further, the four-member committee formed by the Supreme Court to help government and farmers negotiate was rejected by the Samyukt Kisan Morcha, the umbrella group of farmer unions, as pro-government. All four members had publicly supported the farm laws.
Are these the right reforms?
Modi government is right at least on one count: Indian agriculture needs major reforms. This has been recommended by various committees and even the previous UPA government accepted this. The empirical evidence concerning the current state of farms, farmers, and farming corroborate this argument. Despite this, it cannot be established with any confidence that the three laws introduced by the BJP government are the right kind of reforms that Indian agriculture needs. In fact, there is empirical evidence that it may not work. Bihar repealed APMC Act in 2006 and, since then, the farmers there have been free to sell their produce to anyone at market prices. Yet, the farmers in the state have continuously received significantly lower prices than MSP.
An alternative perspective to overcome the deadlock
The turn of events has resulted in a perfect stalemate with hardly any hope for reaching a negotiated agreement. Had the government followed a consultative process before introducing the laws instead of passing them without much discussion, the situation may not have turned so ugly. What could be a possible way out of this? Modi, Shah, and their cabinet colleagues (if they matter at all) may learn from the NDA government’s own previous experience.
We can draw parallels with another major reform introduced by the Modi government: the New Education Policy (NEP-2020). Unlike the three farm laws, NEP-2020 has received wide acceptance and support from all stakeholders including education administrators and academics, policy analysts, and even the non-BJP state governments. Looking at the process followed to achieve this wide support for a massive reform may have lessons for the Modi government.
New Education Policy: Attempt-1
Like agriculture, education is one sector where almost universal consensus exists that the current system is broken, and massive reforms are required. The NDA-I government set up a five-member ‘Drafting Committee for New Education Policy’ in October 2015 headed by retired bureaucrat T.S.R. Subramanian. The committee appointment was preceded by wide-scale consultations by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (headed by Smriti Irani) from June 2014 to September 2015. The committee looked at all the suggestions from consultations done by MHRD prior to its appointment, and also did its own consultations and field visits. After much deliberation, it submitted a draft policy titled “National Policy for Education 2016: Report of the Committee for the Evolution of NEP” in May 2016. This was a two-volume document, one with 230 pages (with nearly 90 suggestions) and the other with 100 pages of annexures.
The curious case of what happened next is instructive. The government was to draft a policy document based on recommendations of the committee and share it with state governments for comments. It was also to be put in public domain for feedback. Smriti Irani, the then HRD minister, had repeatedly suggested in her interviews that the policy was to be out within a year. Instead, only a 43-page document titled “Some inputs for the draft of New Education Policy 2016” seeking public feedback was made public. No one knows the exact reason why this was done. What we know for sure is that the government knew that there will be wide criticism and opposition if the report and policy based on it is put out in public domain.
New Education Policy: Attempt-2
Without making this an ego issue, MHRD shelved the whole exercise and started the process anew. The new HRD Minister, Prakash Javadekar, appointed a new committee in June 2017 under Dr. K. Kasturirangan. As opposed to the Subramanian Committee that had four bureaucrats and just one academician (infamous for bringing RSS influence into NCERT), Kasturirangan Committee had several career academicians including those from outside India. The new committee conducted several field visits while engaging in wide consultations with different stakeholders and submitted its report in May 2019. The draft NEP was shared by MHRD for public feedback and the resulting NEP-2020 received significant acceptance and support from all quarters. The states, leadership of schools and universities, university faculty and schoolteachers, education administrators, policy analysts, and even the general public have broadly accepted the policy document as a significant development.
Lessons to be learnt
How can this comparison help in resolving the contestations around the three farm laws? The new committee members were widely respected within the education sector as opposed to the Subramanian Committee that was full of career bureaucrats. The wide consultation process for NEP after the first draft took the Modi government three extra years. Yet, the wide support it received more than made up for the extra time. Modi government has also been able to avoid any unnecessary confrontation.
Obviously, there are criticisms of certain provisions of NEP-2020 and this has not yet been enacted. Still, we can see the benefits of wide stakeholder consultations before making laws, as well as not making reforms an ego issue. If the government learns from its own past actions, maybe it can gain back the support of farmers. It may also be able to avoid all the unnecessary trouble that the residents of border areas of Delhi-NCR, farmers, and the general public are going through and the economic losses happening due to the present confrontation. The process may delay the reforms by 1.5-2 years but the support it may garner will make the delays worthwhile.
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