SC's experts are pro-reform economists
All four members proposed for the committee — economists Ashok Gulati and PK Joshi as well as farm activists Anil Ghanwat and Bhupinder Singh Mann — have either publicly endorsed the laws or want them amended. That is a gripe among farm unions protesting the laws they say will hurt their livelihood.
A committee of four formed by the Supreme Court to examine three contentious agricultural laws has people who mostly believe in freer markets and economic reforms, analyses of their publicly held positions on agricultural issues show.
All four members proposed for the committee — economists Ashok Gulati and PK Joshi as well as farm activists Anil Ghanwat and Bhupinder Singh Mann — have either publicly endorsed the laws or want them amended.That is a gripe among farm unions protesting the laws they say will hurt their livelihoods.
The protesting farmers on Tuesday said they didn’t want to be part of the committee because its views in favour of the laws were well-documented. The farmers, in any case, have held that their opposition was not to the validity of the laws but to how they were “anti-farmer”, and therefore they needed to be repealed, not amended.
A key figure in the committee, economist Ashok Gulati, has been arguing for decades for a market-led, enterprise-driven agricultural economy, which supports half of all Indians but is largely an antiquated sector.
Gulati is an agricultural economist who knows policymaking firsthand, has held public positions and headed non-profits in the farm-rural-food sectors, apart from writing copious amounts of original economic research in prestigious journals.
He is currently the Infosys chair professor of agriculture at the New Delhi-based Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (Icrier). He has served the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council and led the International Food Research Institute in South Asia (IFPRI).
Gulati had a direct role in policymaking during the previous Congress-led regime when he headed the Commission on Agricultural Costs and Prices, the federal body that recommends minimum support prices or MSP for farm produce.
Gulati has praised the pro-reform laws currently being opposed by tens of thousands of farmers as a “1991 moment”, a reference to India’s first major economic reforms that saw the opening of markets, privatisation and currency devaluations but which left agriculture untouched.
He has also been a harsh critic of many policies of the Narendra Modi government, his main argument being that the shackles around agriculture and statist policies can’t lift farm incomes. He had dismissed the possibility, for example, of farmers’ incomes being doubled in six years as the Modi government has promised to do by 2022.
But the recent laws came in for abject praise from Gulati. “The Narendra Modi government deserves compliments for finally introducing reforms in the country’s agri-marketing system,” he wrote on May 10 in a column he writes in The Indian Express.
Gulati has consistently opposed the government’s obsession with keeping domestic food prices low by frequently imposing food-export bans, which he argues keeps Indian farmers poor. “That’s an implicit tax on farmers,” he had told HT a year ago.
“I don’t think any economist will lose sight of rationality but yes, he has been an advocate of agri reforms. That doesn’t suit the farmers’ positions,” a former colleague of Gulati said, not wanting to be named.
Economist PK Joshi is a former chief of IFRI in South Asia and a food policy specialist who, too, advocates reforms of his own. His research has contended, much like Gulati’s, that the MSP system of fixing floor rates that is effective only for wheat and rice has devastated the environment by incentivising over-extraction of water.
He has often argued that MSP reaches a small percentage of farmers, distorts market prices and does little to help a majority of farmers who don’t have marketable surpluses, meaning small farmers who can’t grow enough to sell.
“There is an ongoing debate on whether minimum support prices for various agricultural commodities can be replaced by a system of price deficiency payments to farmers,” Joshi wrote in the journal EPW in May 2018. In it, he argued that price deficiency payment — a model where farmers are paid the difference between open-market prices and MSP — is a more efficient way of supporting farmers.
Anil Ghanwat, the third member named for the committee, belongs to Shetkari Sangathana, one of India’s main pro-technology and pro-reforms farmer organisations founded by the late Sharad Joshi, a well-known farm organiser.
In an earlier comment to HT, he had said: “The government should consult farmers to examine the laws taking our suggestions, but the laws must not be repealed.”
Bhupinder Singh Mann is a former Rajya Sabha member and a farm leader who currently chairs the All India Kisan Coordination Committee, a platform of farmers that is not part of the protests and whose members recently met agriculture minister Narendra Tomar recently, urging him not to repeal the laws.
First published in the Hindustan Times