Whoever makes two ears of corn, or two blades of grass to grow where only one grew before, deserves better of mankind, and does more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together. Jonathan Swift.
The recently introduced farm bills passed by voice-vote in Parliament has expectedly stirred up a hornet’s nest, largely in states not under the ruling BJP’s dispensation. Punjab and Haryana have been the most vociferous and the farmers have taken to the streets, marching towards the capital, doing their own version of Gandhiji’s Dandi Salt march. The bills were formally tabled as Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, Farmers’ (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance, and Farm Services Bill and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill. These bills, as is the norm, received formal approval from the President of India and became Acts. They aim to provide farmers with multiple marketing channels, break the so-called monopolies including that of government regulated mandis (market yards), the avaricious role of middlemen and provide a legal framework for farmers to enter into pre-arranged contracts among other things. That, of course, is the government’s position and avowed intention. The opposition, as is their wont, read insidious motives and are up in arms over what they consider to be a grave injustice to the entire farming community. Battle lines have been drawn, and we can expect this struggle to go right down to the wire. The Government has invited the farm lobby for discussions, but both sides are playing footsie, keeping their cards close to their chests. Plenty of political brownie points are up for grabs.
It is always fascinating for a disinterested observer to ruminate on how a piece of far-reaching legislation can turn so acrimonious. The government claims the new laws are revolutionary, long overdue and frees up the farmer to deal with and buy from any party, while retaining his existing option to engage with the mandis. On the other hand, those opposed to the bill view it as draconian, intended to hurt the poor farmers and put more money in the pockets of a few rich corporates. Depending entirely on where one’s political sympathies lie, you can take sides with either of the two attritional protagonists, ranged on either side of the binary, who are going hammer and tongs at each other. The Government sees this as a win-win situation for the farming community, while the naysayers cry ‘shame-shame.’
On television any number of experts, self-appointed or otherwise, are holding forth on the subject. Some provide studious, long-winded, academic dissertations while others merely froth at the mouth. Clarity of thought is a scarce commodity. The average viewer is not fully abreast of the nuances of APMC (Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee), a fancy name for the mandis and MSP (Minimum Support Price), and wonders what all the fuss is about. MSP is at the heart of the matter. Under the circumstances I thought it prudent to approach an economist with whom I have a nodding acquaintance and buttonhole him for an interview. I explained my predicament, which included a complete lack of understanding based on the daily ruckus on TV and requested that he answer my questions in a clear and concise manner, such that it will make sense to the meanest intelligence. He readily agreed on condition of anonymity. I am therefore giving him a pseudonym, Jogendranath, Jogi to his friends. We chatted on Zoom.
SS – ‘Good morning, Jogi. Thank you for agreeing to this virtual meeting on a vitally important matter. I won’t beat around the stubble bush, and will get straight to the point. Why do we find ourselves in a situation where something being viewed as good for the farmers is also being castigated as being terrible for them?’
Jogi – ‘That is a very good question, very good question indeed.’
SS – ‘And you are about to enlighten me with an answer?’
Jogi – ‘Patience, my friend. There are all sorts of factors at play here. The issue is complicated and there are no easy answers. As Adam Smith said, “I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.” What is also worth noting is the support expressed for our farmers by Justin Trudeau of Canada.’
SS – ‘What has what Adam Smith said, god-knows-when, got to do with anything? As for Justin Trudeau, he is famous for dropping diplomatic bricks, particularly on matters concerning India. He is actually currying favour with the Sikh community in Canada. Forget about Trudeau. Just tell me why so many people seem to think, fallaciously some aver, that these new Acts will summarily do away with MSP and APMC, meaning the mandis.’
Jogi – ‘I am an economist. Adam Smith is my god, kindly do not speak ill of him. And you don’t have to spell things out for me. If I have to start from something as basic as MSP and APMC, then I am wasting my time. I can do no better than to quote Philemon, “A farmer is always going to be rich next year.”’
SS – ‘Who on earth is Philemon and what on earth does he mean?’
Jogi – ‘That’s two earths you employed in the same sentence. Well done. Agriculture is all about the earth – tilling the land, growing the crops, selling the produce in the markets and praying for rain. Not necessarily in that order. It’s a simple business demanding simple solutions, when you think about it. Why politicians have to go and complicate it I shall never know. And since you ask, Philemon is a Biblical character. That’s all you need to know. Occam’s razor.’
SS – ‘How much?’
Jogi – ‘Occam’s razor. A theory propounded by William of Ockham in the 14th century that postulated that from a set of alternative solutions “the simplest explanation is usually the right one.” But try telling that to our farmers and politicians.’
SS – ‘Look Jogi, I can’t understand a word of what you are saying. Can you stick to the subject on hand, which is to do with the farmers’ agitation over the recent Government announcements?’
Jogi – ‘Ha ha! Reminds me of what Alan Greenspan said, “If you think you understand what I am saying, you do not understand what I am saying.” Does that answer your question?
SS – ‘Have you anything to say for yourself Jogi, or are you going to keep throwing quotes at me, that too all by foreigners?’
Jogi – ‘I’ll have you know I went to the London School of Economics. But I am not without an Indian sensibility. Let me quote the father of India’s green revolution, Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, who said, “If agriculture goes wrong, nothing else will have a chance to go right in the country.” Happy?’
SS – ‘No, I am not happy. All very well you showing off about LSE. It’s JNU that matters here. Even our Finance Minister is an alumnus of JNU. I want you to throw some light on whether these announcements are good or bad for the farmer. If so why, and if not why not? You keep saying you are an economist. You are an economist, aren’t you? Is that too much to ask? And if we must trade quotations, here’s John F. Kennedy on farmers, “The farmer is the only man in our economy who buys everything at retail, sells everything at wholesale, and pays the freight both ways.” Try that on for size.’
Jogi – ‘JFK, eh. Nice one, but don’t become agitated, my friend. You are not a farmer. Leave the agitation to them. Remember what Samuel Johnson said, “Agriculture not only gives riches to a nation, but the only riches she can call her own.” You ask me, rather naively, if these measures are good or bad for the farmer. What is sauce for the goose is not always sauce for the gander. Capiche?’
SS – ‘Capiche? What are you, a card-carrying member of the Mafiosi? I am at the end of my tether here. For the last time Jogi, do you think the government will be able to bring the farmers round to their way of thinking? Right now, neither side is willing to yield an inch. One side says no rollback, and the other side refuses to roll over and die. Where does that leave us, and what is more, how is the government planning to explain the scheme and convince the farmers of their good intentions?’
Jogi – ‘Boy, you do ask a lot of questions. Good intentions? The road to hell is paved with good intentions, my friend. What we have here is a face off, with neither side wanting to lose face. The need of the hour is a bit of give and take. I believe the government’s proposals are fundamentally sound. Only they have not sold the idea articulately to the stakeholders. Remember Marshall McLuhan’s famous line, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”’
SS – ‘I thought that line was from the Paul Newman classic, Cool Hand Luke. You’re getting all mixed up, Jogi. Marshall McLuhan was an advertising guru who said, “The medium is the message,” which is quite appropriate in the present context. I really don’t know why I invited you over. Anyhow, I am calling time now. Next time, I’ll invite a farmer. I am sure he will be better informed. Thanks for nothing.’
Jogi switched his monitor off, muttering strange oaths. As for me, I’ve tried everything. Observing pundits over television and the press, as well as talking to reputed economists, and I am none the wiser for it, other than learning a few new aphorisms. This vexed subject of agricultural reforms announced by the government has foxed me. We have an ace communicator in our PM and yet the message has been lost in translation. I think I’ll take a leaf out of my friend Jogi’s book and sign off with a snappy quotation from the Mahabharata. This is Ashwatthama to Duryodhana, ‘Passion, engagement, skill and policy – these are the means to achieve objectives.’
Top that, Jogi.