Republic’s task cut out: Back India’s farmers, don’t go after them

The focus needs to be steadfast on India’s agrarian crisis and problems faced by farmers, not on what happened or didn’t on one single day 

By Joyjeet Das
Published: Wednesday 27 January 2021
Farmers tractor rally in Delhi on Republic Day 2021. Photo: Adithyan PC

Republic Day 2021 turned out to be a surprise. Even as the parade on Delhi’s Rajpath continued a colourful tradition, tens of thousands of farmers gathered at its borders for their planned tractor rallies. By afternoon, a section of them chucked pre-decided routes, clashed with police personnel to enter New Delhi and eventually some put up flags on Red Fort.

Since then mass media has been abuzz and divided. The focus has shifted in 24 hours: From the validity of the agriculture-related laws that the Union government ramroded in Parliament last Monsoon Session to the validity of the farmers’ protests against it.

Law-enforcement personnel fire tear-gas shells at the farmers’ tractor rally on January 26, 20201. Photo: Vikas Choudhary 

Broad brush strokes are being used to paint entire communities and classes in one colour; simultaneously, there are efforts to isolate some and put them under the microscope. The chaos of a few hours on the Capital’s streets has turned paltry in front of that manufactured to control public opinion.

“India is an event-driven society, not a process-driven one,” a veteran journalist, who has covered farmers and their issues for decades, is fond of saying. It is at display again: Six hours in a city is clouding out the great Indian agrarian crisis, which started a lifetime ago. Logic, however, demands the opposite: What happened on January 26, 2021 underscores the problems faced by millions of agricultural labourers, farmers, traders — the entire primary sector that is the foundation of India’s economy.

Being a farmer

It is fashionable to substitute economic wellbeing by one measure: Gross Domestic Product, or GDP. An influential quarter in India has followed this global trend and tom-tommed GDP growth. What often gets smoke-screened is that even that unequal growth was possible because the agriculture and allied sector made India self-sustaining: It can feed itself.

What about the providers of that food? They have been at the receiving end. And their numbers are growing — nearly 120 million farming households and another 144 million engaged in agricultural labour. There’s no point blaming the population, which is already stabilising. Rather, in the next couple of decades, there may be more mouths to feed than hands to work.

The land they till, of course, can’t keep multiplying; fragmentation of holdings have meant that nearly 83 per cent of them are small now and make up 42 per cent of the cultivated land in India. The average size is a mere 1.08 hectare.

One hectare could fetch only Rs 7,639, according to an analysis — enough to indicate how cornered an average farmer can feel. While her remuneration doesn’t increase (rather, it decreases in real terms), the price indices remain on the trot, making her even more vulnerable.

The income that is generated is also mostly for big farmers. An overwhelming 85 per cent get a meagre of 9 per cent of the pie. Forget provisioning for future, every second agriculturist is in debt, which often becomes a vicious cycle and eventually snuffs out lives — farmer suicides have continued unabated since the mid-1990s.

Being the government

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has tried to paint a different picture: He, his ministers and party colleagues have celebrated increased yield, dispensed pearls of wisdom (how Israel benefits from drip irrigation) and prophesised on how “markets” will break the perceived “shackles”.

The facts remain:

  • That only one year is left in his promised timeline to double farmers’ income — the real income, that those households can see, spend and save.
  • It can’t be achieved without active government support — not tokenisms like a Rs 6,000 dole.
  • Without keeping this foundational sector intact, the entire economy runs the risk of collapsing like a house of cards.

Modi loves comparisons with other countries. He must look at some of the developed economies to understand what makes them aatmanirbhar (self-dependant). As our editor Sunita Narain pointed out recently:

In rich countries like Japan, South Korea, Norway and Iceland, producer support ranged between 40 and 60 per cent of the gross farming receipt in 2019. In the United States it is roughly 12 per cent and in the European Union it is 20 per cent.

The developed world is also innovating fast to guard the vulnerable providers of food against climate change — it is not a concept for fancy seminars; it is a real threat that has already started devastating homes and families and villages in India and hurting output. It will hurt even more in the future.

Here’s where the governments must step in. “That government is the best which governs the least” is a slogan that has gained much currency from the time Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the PM. It hasn’t worked; not for those who are most vulnerable and get the least say when governments yield agency to the private sector.

On the other hand, enabling legislations have yielded positive results, be they to guarantee employment or rights of communities over forests.

Being a welfare state

The focus should not be which farmer did what on Tuesday; it must be on how farmers can be enabled so they can keep doing their job every day. They have a right to it, like all other segments of the population.

The genesis of the three laws date back to Ordinances brought in last summer as part of measures to boost a flagging economy amid a countrywide lockdown to curb the novel coronavirus disease pandemic. Ironically, agriculture was one sector that remained rolling and delivered the goods, including growth.

Agricultural experts were alarmed when the Ordinances kicked in; soon, farmers hit the streets in protest. Instead of discussing nuances of the proposed laws that can potentially alter the basics of Indian farming, the government steamrolled opposition within and outside Parliament. Even proper voting was skipped in Rajya Sabha.

The government overlooked demonstrations across the country — even told the Supreme Court that there were no protests in south India — and labelled critical voices “liars”. When protestors reached the national Capital, they were called for talks that eventually yielded no result: Agriculture minister Narendra Tomar made it clear that the laws can be put on “hold” for a while, but eventually they are not going anywhere.

This won’t do. Rather, the establishment needs to take a step back and get back to the drawing boards. The upcoming Budget session provides a huge opportunity to heal the wounds, take people, farm representatives as well as the Legislature into confidence.

What is required a comprehensive suite of enforceable rights, planned support and budgetary programmes to enable farmers to collectively move ahead. Not a one-way corridor that threatens to scuttle the little framework of support that Indian farmers have through the system of mandis, support price and laws to govern essential commodities.

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