Ask anyone if Indian farmers deserve better and almost anyone will say yes. The over 60% of India’s population involved in agriculture, generates only 18% of GDP, implying our farmers are much poorer on average than the average Indian. This when India itself is a low income country. China, for instance, has a per capita income ($10,000) five times higher than India’s ($2,000).
These numbers alone tell you that the Indian farmer is particularly poor. Change and reforms are needed. Farmer incomes have to rise. Agriculture has to become more productive, competitive and lucrative. There’s no reason it can’t. If Swiss and French cheese can become global brands, there’s no reason Indian dairy products can’t. If Colombian coffee can command a premium, there’s no reason Indian agri products can’t.
Actually, the only reason Indian agriculture won’t progress is what stops anyone in life from progress – resistance to change. We want change, but we are also scared to change. There’s a comfort or familiarity to the status quo. Change represents something new, unfamiliar and uncertain.
Many people hate their jobs. Deep down they want a change. However, the job gives them a salary, some benefits, predictability in life. Doing something different would bring in uncertainty and risks. Hence, people do nothing. They remain stuck in dead-end jobs, living a sub-par life. This change vs status quo paradox is classic human behaviour, and applies to an individual, organisation, company and even an entire nation.
Ask anyone if India needs to change, and the answer is yes. Get that change going, and the answer is ‘we are blocking all the highways to Delhi.’
This piece is not meant to disrespect the feelings of farmers or any protestors against the various new farming laws. It’s awfully cold in Delhi. There’s something truly admirable about believing in your cause so much that you can brave the cold and park yourself on the road for weeks.
Broadly, the new farming laws aim to liberalise agriculture. Currently, the farmers sell their produce at government approved mandis. The farmers get a minimum support price, which offers a certain amount of security. Middlemen and brokers abound even in the current system. The state of the Indian farmer is pathetic compared to global standards, but he or she still survives.
The new laws enable farmers to sell to private buyers, enter long term contracts and set prices with the buyers directly anywhere they want, independent of geographic location. In other words, the farmer is allowed to sell in the free market, which in the long term leads to the best returns as evidenced in almost every sector that was liberalised.
Is this big change a bit scary? Yes, of course it is. Is there a worst case scenario? Yes. The farmer might have a free market, but could have little or no bargaining power, leading to exploitation by the private buyers. This worst case scenario causes the fear of the new laws.
Make no mistake, the fear is real, the worst case scenarios are real. However, it’s not a rational way to make decisions. The laws may well have some issues. Some clauses may need reworking. However, a full repeal will be a step back for Indian agriculture. We say we want reform. To thwart any attempt to do so out of sheer fear makes no sense.
The bigger issue is, how do we deal with the status quo vs change paradox in life? The mistake we make when it comes to change is this – we compare the best case scenario of the current situation against the worst case scenario of the new change. We say, the current system assures farmers MSP and keeps them secure (best case) but the new system could lead to full exploitation (worst case). Notice what we did – we compared best case of the current system to worst case of the new system.
With such comparisons, you will never change. To cite the dead-end job example, it’s the same argument as ‘at least I get a salary. If I do my own business and it fails I will be ruined.’
The right way to evaluate change is to compare best case with best case. If the new laws work, best case is this: Private capital could flood into Indian agriculture, leading to huge improvements. Farmers could sell at the best prices and become richer. Middlemen could be eliminated, leading to huge efficiency improvements. Or, in the dead-end job example, if your business works, you will make multiple times more than your job.
And if you do want to compare worst cases, look at the worst case of the current system too. In the current system, the MSP could be too low, the farmer has no choice but to sell and won’t even recover costs. He could get buried in debt. Most farmers don’t get MSP for their produce. Similarly, in the dead-end job example, if you don’t leave, you could lose your health, mind and become a frustrated alcoholic. Maybe quitting it doesn’t sound so bad after all?
In life, if you want to grow, you have to embrace change. For this, we need to conquer our fears. Also, one must compare best case to best case, and worst case to worst case to make a more rational comparison. Laws that seek change may not be perfect, may need modifications that we should make, but we must encourage them overall. Let’s have a change oriented, reform mentality and continue to move the nation forward.