Talking agriculture

Published: Wednesday 15 October 2008

The terms in which India's agrarian crisis is discussed ensure that there is no solution

a balanced, neutral story with both sides covered does not always the truth tell. But it is not easy to fit in people with several perspectives into a television studio. Much less when it involves commentary on live news that has to fit between breaks for commercials. The farmer's story did not stand much of a chance in the days of programmes like Krishi Darshan when Doordarshan was the only television channel in India. That story has even less of a chance in today's 24x7 paroxysm of breaking television news.

The Indian farmer's story does not make for exciting narratives, unless there is an event--like a farmer's suicide--to draw out the human interest. For people who don't have any direct link with the agriculture sector, which would be a bulk of India's burgeoning urban population, the farmer's story belongs to a past they have left behind. This attitude can be found not only in call centres of Gurgaon and Bangalore but also in the Planning Commission, Parliament even.

But this attitude is the symptom, not the cause of why there is no constructive discussion of India's agrarian crisis. The cause lies elsewhere. In the statism that pushed farmers into high input-high output farming in the 1960s as part of the Green Revolution; when the country achieved food security, the farmer became a problem, to be kept happy with sops. The Left parties see farmers as an intermediate stage in the theatre of class conflict, before the proletarian revolution emancipates them from the "idiocy of rural life". So, they consider it the State's responsibility to support the farmer with the latest technology and an elaborate government machinery.

The proponents of free markets see it the same way, only they want the technology and the support to come from the private sector. Like the Left parties, they would like to see farmers move away from villages and live out their idea of development in the mainstream. Neither ideological disposition sees any dignity in agriculture. India's farmers are pitiable creatures from both perspectives.

But a majority of India's population continues to cultivate, or at least earn a part of its living from agriculture. To understand why and how, parliamentarians and media need to hang around farmers. They don't always wear deodorant, and dust and sweat have a way to combine into unsatisfactory olfactory stimulations. It is edifying to meet Mahendra Singh Tikait in his village. He doesn't talk smooth, and he hasn't yet mastered the sound byte. But he does have a story. Do you have the patience?

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