Decolonising the ‘idea of the farmer’ through the eyes of Munshi Premchand

A critical analysis of the Hindi author’s stories can help policymakers empathically tear into the cobweb that has the Indian farmer trapped at the intersection of poverty, migration, deprivation, and despair

By Swasti Pachauri
Published: Tuesday 23 April 2019
Illustration: Tarique Aziz/CSE
Illustration: Tarique Aziz/CSE Illustration: Tarique Aziz/CSE

It is the season of manifestos, freebies, and promises. Everyone is in love with the peasant, the small and marginal farmer, and the landless labourer. With over three lakh farm suicides between 1995-2016 (the data for which has not been released since 2016 by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), several farm processions taking place in the country (according to NCRB, farmer protests increased from 628 in 2014 to 4,837 in 2016) and farm pressure groups demanding a special parliamentary session for farmers, income sops to farmers have suddenly dominated the pre-electoral manifesto discourse.

Measures such as the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi were announced in the Union budget of 2019. The Congress’ manifesto 2019 focussed on ‘Nyuntam Aaay Yojana’ (NYAY) and a separate Kisan budget. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) manifesto focussed on agricultural welfare, especially pensions for small and marginal farmers over 60 years of age.

State governments have existing programmes such as Odisha’s KALIA scheme, Rhythu Bandhu in Telangana, Bhavantar Bhugtan in Madhya Pradesh, and Bhavantar Bharpai in Haryana for select crops and vegetables. However, humanitarian nuances plaguing small, marginal and the landless farmers, have remained limitedly addressed.

In a scenario where 42 per cent of the land area in India is marred by drought, farmers are recuperating and rehabilitating themselves after demonetisation, sugarcane arrears in Uttar Pradesh are mounting, there are bureaucratic hurdles in availing farm-related schemes, there is tardy implementation of land reforms, and women farmers not being recognised, ‘ad-hoc’ solutions are being promised via computerised manifestos, devoid of empathetic language, expression, and emotional relatability, in many cases.

Re-examining the farmer problem

In this context, seasonal and convenient research expeditions before elections and occasional village tourism are not going to solve the problem. Instead, a sustained methodology, focused on ameliorating distress in the short and long term, need to be re-examined. This may include participatory ethnographic research, revisiting popular culture tools and literature, and strengthening grassroots politics, with local actors, resonating echoing ground realities.

Consider, for instance, Vaishali Yede (28), a farm widow from Yavatmal. She is contesting the Lok Sabha elections from the Yavatmal-Washim constituency, as a nominee of the Prahar Janshakti Party, a local political outfit. In Yede’s case, relatability with the ‘marginalised woman’ in agriculture will help her voice the issues plaguing women in farming to a national audience, whether or not she is voted to power.

Second, ethnographic research-based works such as A Rural Manifesto: Realising India’s future through her villages by Varun Gandhi present a detailed account of the rural conundrum in India, where he effectively decentralises research, reporting issues of the countryside, and recommending implementable local solutions, focused on empowering the small and marginal farmer.

Third, understanding rural India is incomplete without pondering over Hindi author Munshi Premchand’s writings who was deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and other nationalist movements dominating the decade of the 1920s through 1930s. His stories detail British colonial oppression and are important commentaries, integral to understanding the dilemmas faced by the farmer of the past, present, and the future at the mercy of the feudal troika: the money-lender, the political representative, and the uncertainty of nature that together prevent him from escaping rural debt traps.

A critical analysis of Premchand’s stories and watershed cultural tools, like filmmaker Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen (1953) written by Salil Choudhary — an equally important commentary on rural helplessness and hopelessness, can help policymakers empathically tear into the cobweb that has the Indian farmer trapped at the intersection of poverty, migration, deprivation, and despair.

Rural deprivation, aspiration, and Premchand

For instance, Premchand’s Poos ki Raat, set in colonial India, is a comprehensive reference point underscoring the myriad issues facing the farmer. Indebtedness, weather vagaries, constant trade-off between savings and repaying debts, the relationships that a farmer shares with the environment and animals, fatigue, exhaustion, and exasperation from agricultural travails, and finally, the role of women in keeping the economy of the rural household intact, are some facets of this watershed story written in 1930.

In the story, Halku (a farmer) guards his fields with his pet dog (Jabra), night after night during a frosty winter with a torn blanket to avert crop degradation by Nilgai (blue bulls). According to Money Control (2018), around 30-40 per cent of crops are lost owing to wild animals. In this light, it is relevant to note the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana included crop losses due to wild animal attacks in November 2018, highlighting the gravity of the problem.

The dilemma of the consequent trade-off gnawing at Halku is between buying a blanket for Rs 3 much needed for the wintry night, or repaying the money-lender. Eventually, he succumbs to the demands of the money-lender and his fate of manning the fields in the bone-chilling cold.

This story depicts the plight of an average farmer in India left at the mercy of the weather, an inculcated extortionist system, and the dilemma associated with quitting farming, or working as a labourer to address the immediacies of hunger and deprivation. De-peasantisation, in fact, has come to characterise Indian agriculture, with 1.5 crore farmers dropping out of agriculture during 1991-2011, with many becoming landless labourers, according to P Sainath.

Similarly, his story Sava Ser Gehun (1921), throws light on the dominance of landlords and the upper castes — and the consequent entrapment of Shankar (a simple farmer, innocent of worldly machinations) into the clutches of the exploitative machinery.

While depicting the transfer of resources from the poor to the rich, Shankar survives on jau ki roti (barley flatbread), yet borrows sava ser gehun (a little less than a kilogram of wheat) from ‘Vipraji Maharaj’ (a Brahmin) and offers food to a visiting priest. The Maharaj, realising his naivete, exploits and robs him off his share of grains, and continues to charge him year after year for the little amount of wheat he once borrowed, and even diligently returned. As a result of this ‘manufactured’ indebtedness mounting over the years, Shankar eventually becomes an agricultural labourer from a farmer, and remains in servitude for 20 years, before succumbing, leaving his son in the clutches of the perpetual trap of poverty and indebtedness.

The story presses upon the need of formal banking and credit accessibility to farmers and not temporary farm loan waivers which are short-term solutions, in addition to minimising administrative work, while addressing the structural issues in agriculture for long-term sustainability.

Decolonising discourses

While experts discuss methods to implement recommendations of the Ashok Dalwai Committee (doubling farm incomes by 2022), basic nuances of the day-to-day hurdles of a farmer need to be addressed with immediate priority so that the narrative of the next general elections can empathetically incorporate holistic aspirations of the rural poor.

In many of his other stories and novels, Premchand depicts rural distress, the cruelty of poverty, and class and caste-based discrimination that, if understood well, can provide important cues to the policy makers of today.

Some of his works that should be analysed are: Panch Parmeshwar (1916), Boodhi Kaki (1921), Thakur Ka Kuan (1924), Idgaah (1933), Kafan (1936) and Godan (1936). A careful study of these works will help policy makers decolonise research by minimising the tyranny of distance between elected representatives, policy influencers, and the rural poor, enabling consultative exercises set outside of the ivory towers of Lutyens Delhi, away from the myopic ‘Khan market consensus’, devoid of empathy and sentimentality, much needed in decentralised approaches of understanding poverty. Premchand pre-empted the ‘Freire-ian’ idea of rural upliftment early in the 1900s, where he perceived the rural poor as ‘active participants in development’ and not as ‘passive recipients of charity’ — a much-needed idea to revisit, especially, in the season of elections.

Swasti Pachauri is a social sector consultant who has worked as Prime Minister's Rural Development Fellow in Seoni district of Madhya Pradesh, India

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