Agrarian Distress in India

Photo Source: The News Minute

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe UpFront


India is not only a country that now has the world’s tallest statue, but it is also a country of debt-ridden and anguished farmers, malnourished children and where millions of people still sleep on the road pavements, and can’t have ample meals for a day.

A protest march called ‘Dilli Chalo’ (Delhi March) by hundred thousand farmers, mainly an amalgam of two hundred seven organisations called All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC), just months before next prime ministerial election, reflects that Narendra Modi’s slogan ‘Sab ka Saath, Sab ka Vikas’ (everybody’s support and everybody’s development) hasn’t resonated well with every citizen in the country.

For these dissenting farmers, hoping for a better future of their children, the protest march to New Delhi has involved a great amount of sacrifice, because people have been travelling in trains and tractors, taking long journeys, and leaving back their homes, during the lucrative harvest season. As per the charter drafted by Nation for Farmers on the occasion of Kisan Mukti March, “credit crises and exploding rural indebtedness” was discussed.

Some protesters carried skulls and bones of farmers who had killed themselves in desperation. Some farmers stripped themselves naked and laid themselves down in front of TV cameras, to draw attention to their protest, demanding loan waivers and remunerative/minimum prices for their produce. 

It seems that the left-leaning political institutions have remained crucial in their mobilisation, as thousands of protestors marched towards Ramlila Maidan from five different locations.

The whole scenario also reflects a lack of redressal policies. Farmer suicide has remained a core social issue in states such as Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Telangana and Odisha. Farmers fetched about Rs 36,000 crore less in the last crop season, due to lower market prices of commodities.

Agriculture remains the leading occupation in India, where it provides livelihood to 58% of the population, but agriculture only contributes 15% of the total GDP. This reflects a huge imbalance. Also, the mafia of commissioning agents, who control the supply chain distribution network and marketing element of the produce end up charging the consumer, way higher prices. In the end, the farmer is neglected, as he sells his produce for meagre amounts to the agents.  

Lower rate of inflation during Modi's tenure has unfortunately resulted in dwindling agricultural incomes. Loans offered on higher interest rates has become another issue for Indian farmers lately. Add to that, increased input costs such as fertilisers, pesticides, diesel and higher cost of tractors have also added to their grief.

As farmer incomes are becoming lesser and lesser, it seems that farmers have been put to a knife’s edge because small and marginal farmers are turning towards daily wage labour.

According to Sukhpal Gill, of Punjab Agricultural University, there were some solutions finalised by the erstwhile Planning Commission – such as farmer cooperatives, self-help groups and farmer producer organisations (FPOs) to help marginal farmers. As per research data compiled by Gill, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employee Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) can provide work to distressed farmers. FPO’s are in their infancy in places such as Punjab and Haryana, where the National Bank of Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) have been its main promoters. In India, there seems a need for public investment in agriculture, including research and development, technology and infrastructure.

If we go back to history, around fifty years ago, when Lal Bahadur Shastri was incumbent as prime minister, India faced a terrible famine, but he had urged soldiers and farmers to unite and collectively squabble the crises. Politically, Shashri’s words became a symbolic gesture in the coming time, but no such mantle has been experienced by people during Narendra Modi’s tenure. In fact, his government has produced no report of farmer suicides done in India, since 2015. Nor has his government shown a clear blueprint regarding climate science and climate change, a discourse that is taking place globally. These issues have not been conceived as important political questions in India until now.

In current times, a lot of agricultural research is blaming neoliberal economics, climate change, environmental degradation developed through WTO, World Bank and IMF. Under WTO guidelines, the interest of international markets and rich farmers takes precedence. That’s why, under the recommendation of M.S Swaminathan Committee, an opportunity was provided to quit WTO’s Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) and to draft an independent policy.

According to an article written by Roshan Kishore in Hindustan Times, the present government has targeted inflation, and it has not proved as a right policy because it has directly worsened the trade of farmers. It is because non-farm prices have increased more than the farm prices, as it is bothering policy makers deciding on the structural reforms. Add to that, unfavourable weather conditions such as skewed rainfall has added to the agrarian distress for Indian farmers. As per Kishore, this crisis might also propel caste wars in the coming future.

Despite Hindutva becoming a favoured political idea, in urban and small cities, mainly amidst the youth, it seems that the Modi’s government is favouring a hegemonic discourse of cultural and religious aggression over the welfare of its people. The events that happened during Modi’s tenure vouch for them – it includes a ban on beef trade and the Ram Mandir issue. It has appeased his Hindu nationalist voter base but has divided the country on other social and economic issues.

In a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multilingual country, such as India, democracy has shown its flaws by not representing everyone. Lately, Modi’s demonetisation drive, an initiative that demonetised around fifteen lakh crores to mainly tackle corruption, was also received with mixed reactions, especially by poor people, living in far-flung areas, with no functioning financial institutions around them.

During that time, India’s poor struggled with the overall guidelines dictated by the central government. In a cacophony around them, people were getting killed in ATM queues. About twenty-five died in the first week of demonetisation drive. Modi’s demonetisation decision, earlier, had put the country in the doldrums.

Modi had promised to double farmer income, during rallies, but as a collective anger reverberates, it seems, he has failed miserably to win their hearts.

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