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Farmers’ Walk To Dignity

Farmers’ Walk To Dignity

·       On January 10, 2017, the Tamil Nadu government declared a drought after 144 farmers ended their lives between October and December, 2016.

·       In Kashmir, concerns are being raised about apple crop and availability of water coming summer, as the area received no snowfall this winter and spring.

·        In September of last year, farmers in Rajasthan’s Sikar and Sri Ganganagar districts held a 13-day agitation and called off the movement only after the government agreed to waive off debts upto Rs 50,000.

·       Statistics provided by Karnataka’s State Agriculture Department last year revealed as many as 3,515 farmers committed suicide between April 2013 and November 2017 due to drought and crop failure.

·       In 2016, the farmers in Kerala were fighting the worst drought in 115 years when the central government announced demonetisation. Falling prices coupled with unfavourable weather conditions dealt the agrarian community of the state a mighty blow, the effects of which still have not subsided.

·       Failing monsoons and a waffling government that did not offer any help forced farmers in Tamil Nadu to observe a 41-day agitation in New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar complex. In a span of six months, 150 of them had taken their lives, and the protesters threatened to eat their faeces if the officials did not respond.

·       According to a National Crime Record Bureau report released in 2017, Telangana is the second top state in suicide by farmers, with 1,358 cases in 2015 alone.

·        About 5 lakh farmers have left agriculture for good and lakhs of hectares of land is left fallow in Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh. The farmers blame crop failure and debt.

On March 6, 2018, 30,000 farmers and tribals, began marching toward Maharashtra Vidhan Sabha from Nashik. As they reached their destination six days later on March 12, they were sudden subjects of national attention, banner headlines and primetime slots. Some sympathised with their struggle, while others called it politically motivated. Both camps did not exactly answer what made the farmers undertake the arduous task of covering 180 kms on foot. The farmers meant business. They wanted to be heard. They were done trying to communicate with a government that hid behind complex application forms and Kafkaesque, bureaucratic maze. They wanted answers and they wanted it now.

Despite a comfortable monsoon in 2016-17, farmers faced difficulties selling their produce after prices crashed in the wake of demonetisation in 2016. A failed monsoon in 2017 significantly affected agricultural productivity and severely impacted income of farmers, who were already reeling under debt. Additionally, the state has recorded 1,293 farmer suicides in 2015 alone. With loan waiver schemes not being implemented properly, and the promises made in the previous decade still left as empty words, this long march was also the farmers’ long walk to freedom, life and dignity.

The demands of the farmers participating in the long march were comprehensible and honest: implementation of a complete waiver of farm loans; remunerative prices for crops; pensions for agricultural labour; recommendations by the M.S. Swaminathan Commission on minimum support price and the Forest Right Act; and providing relief from economic losses sustained due to demonetisation.

As Bharat met India and the rural converged with the urban, the government, put on the spot by the grit of the farmers, was quick to agree to all condition and demands of the agrarian community, and eager to close the book on agricultural crisis.

But is it really the ending or is it the beginning of another chapter in farmers’ revolt? If the above accounts are any indication, the plight of farmers in Maharashtra is symptomatic of the discontent that is fomenting in several other parts of the country.

History is littered with accounts of farmers’ uprising. Just last year, 50,000 farmers marched down to Parliament Street, near the Parliament of India, demanding loan waiver and fair prices for their crops. Among those shouting slogans like “kisan ki loot nahi chalegi” and “kisano ko karza mukti deni hogi” were families of farmers who ended their lives unable to cope with the burden of debt.

The earliest such rally can be traced far back to 1971, when former Prime Minister Chaudhary Charan Singh, the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, called for a grand protest by the farming community. “Fifty lakh kisans from thousands of villages have come to ventilate their grievances,” Mr Singh had declared then. He had been one of the few to oppose former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s insistence on investing in and prioritising industry and urban development over agriculture and rural sector towards the end of his tenure. Logistics put the number of attendees at the first-ever rally at eight lakhs, because that was only how much Kasturba Gandhi Marg could accommodate. The figure was much less than what Mr Singh announced, but it was still awe-inspiring.

Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Mahendra Singh Tikait, who came from the sugarcane-rich region of western Uttar Pradesh, also was a pillar and guiding force for many enduring farmer protests in the state and the national capital. He rose to the leadership of farmers when farmer politics was falling back owing to the demise of Mr Singh. Since then, many small and sizeable farmer protests and demonstrations have sought to highlight and shine a spotlight on the agrarian crisis in India.

Unfortunately, as the years progress things have only been going downhill for farmers. Distress is an everyday phenomenon for them. Not able to exercise control over their lives, the farmers feel a sense of defeat, caused not only by indiscriminate nature, but also by the discriminate oppression of criminal landlord and state machinery. Their everyday living is accompanied by repeated humiliating experiences, which leave them with a diminished sense of their own being. Scattered here, there and everywhere, their pain and anxiety is spread over time, space and region.

We know from a quick recap that this march was not the first of its kind. Our experience observing the power-wielders helming the country will tell us this march will not be the ultimate one either. As a matter of fact, CPI(M) Politburo Member Hannan Mollah has already hinted at an even more formidable farmers’ convergence that will march to the national capital New Delhi. This long march won’t have just farmers from Maharashtra participating. There will be man, woman and child – everyone from the length and breadth of this vast country who till their land and plough their field.

According to The State of Agriculture 2017 report, the agriculture sector employs nearly half of the workforce in the country. However, it contributes to 17.5 percent of the GDP (at current prices in 2015-16). With added emphasis on industry over the past few decades, the manufacturing and services sectors have increasingly contributed to the growth of the economy, while the agriculture sector’s contribution has fallen from more than 50 percent of GDP in the 1950s to 15.4 percent in 2015-16.

The report further states that agricultural growth has been fairly volatile over the past decade, ranging from 5.8 percent in 2005-06 to 0.4 percent in 2009-10 and (-)0.2 percent in 2014-15. The farming community has to bear the brunt of this downfall as such a variance in agricultural growth has an impact on farm incomes as well as farmers’ ability to take credit for investing in their land holdings.

The factors that play a part in bringing down agricultural productivity include decreasing sizes of agricultural land, continued dependence on monsoon, inadequate access to irrigation, loss in fertility of soil due to its imbalanced use, dissimilar access to modern technology in various parts of the country, limited procurement of grains and produce by government agencies, and failure to provide financial aid to farmers. These problems are not exclusive to any one particular area in India. These influence and have a bearing on every patch of agricultural land, big or small, in every state.

From Kashmir to Kerala and Mizoram to Rajasthan, a farmer will be the first to experience climate change and first to undergo financial crunch. One cannot stress enough that agrarian crisis is not a predicament limited to the state boundaries of Maharashtra. Farmer suicides and agrarian distress are a pan-Indian reality. Wherever there has been a bad crop, there shall be endless nights of no sleep and anxiety over how to make ends meet.

It’ll do good to understand that a genie in the lamp will not solve the agrarian crises and that farmers are not pawns in a game to be influenced by vote bank politics and perfunctory budgetary outlays. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and leaders before him have thus far framed the issue with colourful hyperbole. But to give credit where it is due, Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojna is a step in the right direction. However, it will only be effective when subsidy is paid well within time and it benefits every kisan. If the government does not offer immediate help with regards to subsidy, it is pushing farmers into a bigger pit of financial crises. This crisis is attributed to growing burden of credit on farming community and their inability of making repayment as a result of constant crop failures.

Further, as of now, only 50 percent of the gross cropped area is brought under the purview of the Yojana, which roughly means the interests of only half the farmers of this country have any semblance of protection. The plan was announced in 2016, this is 2018; two years have passed and farmers have not had it any better in this period. Yet, instead of speeding up the process of implementing the Yojana across the nation, the government is dilly-dallying over non-issues like cow protection. Five farmers in Uttar Pradesh killed themselves in two weeks despite the loan waiver, but the government had eyes and ears only for flagging off the Gauvansh Chikitsa Mobile Vans, the state’s cow ambulance service.

As per the latest update, it will be another one year before the Yojana is made available to the entire expanse of gross cropped area.

Now, there are also reasons why mainstream politicians fail to take cognisance of the plight of the farmers. That these failures border on incompetence and apathy should be clear to all voters. No culpable politician of any seniority has stood up and offered an apology or come up with plausible solutions to emancipate the farmers. In the farmers’ long march in Maharashtra, the state’s chief minister, Devendra Fadnavis, was aware of the storm brewing up in the hinterlands, yet he paid heed to their demands only when nearly 50,000 of them came marching 180 kms to his doorstep. Surely, he could have positioned his government to be farmer-friendly, have the compassion to listen to their accounts of utter hopelessness, lend a helping hand when required. But, no! They sat around in their comfortable chairs in their air-conditioned offices and waited for the farmers to come to them, bleeding from their calloused feet. It is complacent, apathetic mainstream politicians like these who pave the way for farmer suicides.

If at one point the nation reverberated under the loud cries of “jai javan, jai kisan”, today we are fooled by the pretentious baloney of “sabka sath, sabka vikas”. If indeed “vikas” is on top of the mind of our democratically elected leaders, we would have a pan-Indian, farmer-friendly network, instead of mere political hogwash.

What do not help the farmers are vain, placatory attempts. Transformative infrastructure projects that fuel demand for a productivity renaissance in the agriculture sector is what will help the farmers. For starters, capitalise on the idea of Make in India. We need interstate flyovers and arms to protect our borders, but more than that we need to alleviate the distress faced by the agricultural workers who spend their days in fields under the scorching sun and fight the forces of nature to ensure there’s food for us – from their plough to our plate.

Investment in agriculture is investment in change. Large-scale, multi-state projects like agri startups will also go a long way in lifting up farmers. Aibono, an agritech company that provides farm-related intelligence and expertise, or Crofarm, a farm-to-business venture, are a few examples of startups that can begin to work towards bringing a positive change in the lives of farmers. Establishing Kisan Sabhas to battle ingrained corruption is also a doable task.

A bad crop leaves debilitating scars on a nation’s development that endure for decades, perpetuating a cycle of poverty and aid dependency. It is not rocket science to figure out what is called for: a sincere apology for mistakes made, a commitment to set things right, and a credible plan for how to move forward. It’s bizarre that India, where indebted farmers commit suicide in droves, accounts for the second highest farming output in the world and is the largest producer of fruits and vegetables. Words and promises have run their course. What we – the farmers, the women, the students, the unemployed, the oppressed – need is a vision that leads to a project, which in turn builds a future, a future for every farmer. Let us sincerely hope tiring circumstances don’t force another farmer to sacrifice his life.

“Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
the emptiness of ages in his face, and on his back the burden of the world.”
‑Edwin Markham

(Published on 19th March 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 12)