The Plight of the Indian Farmer

The changed pattern of land holdings, changed cropping pattern due to shift from light to cash crops, liberalisation policies which pushed Indian agriculture into the global markets without a level playing field, growing cost of cultivation, uncertainty of crop output, lack of profitable prices, indebtedness, neglect of agriculture by the government and its agencies, decline of public investment, individualisation of agricultural operations, so on and so forth. This constitutes the vicious cycle an indian farmer is trapped in.

Reeling from the worst drought in decades, fluctuating prices of crops and declining output, India’s agrarian sector is a tinderbox waiting to explode. Over the past year, the government’s policies of demonetisation, pushing of Aadhaar and rapid digitalisation have further alienated the farmer, who .

The recent farmer protests that have gripped the country are linked to the sweeping changes that have been brought about in Mandasaur in Madhya Pradesh and the gunning down of five agricultural workers is representative of a systemic problem that needs looking into.

The demands of farmers have been more or less the same over the years, from procuring loan waiver to respectable minimum support price for their yield.

A couple of months prior to the farmers’ uproar in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, we saw Tamil Nadu farmers protesting for a month at Jantar Mantar, Delhi, with almost the same demands. To remind the reader, similar apathy and insensitivity has been served to farmers in the country for long now.

Such deliberate attempts to de-legitimize farmers’ protests is also an attempt, though failed, to repackage the development agenda by the Indian state. Thus, what at this juncture becomes crucial is revisiting the political economy of agrarian distress in India.

In a land where reincarnation is a commonly held belief, where the balance sheet of life is sorted out over lifetimes, where resilience and recovery has been the characteristic of the “kisan,” the peasant cultivation, why are Indian farmers committing suicide on a mass scale?

Most of the farmers are killing themselves, as much as one farmer everyday, over inability to pay off their loans. June has been the toughest, as farmers especially in western and northern Maharashtra are up in arms against the Devendra Fadnavis government, demanding complete loan waiver, which the state government has now accepted in part.

Farmer suicides are not a new trend. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 2,195 marginal farmers reportedly committed suicide in 2015, while 3,618 “small farmers” undertook such drastic steps, with Maharashtra alone seeing 1,285. More curiously, a larger number of small farmers rather than marginal farmers reportedly committed suicide in States like Maharashtra, Telangana and Karnataka. Somehow, small farmers are also bedevilled by the agricultural crisis, and this is not the case in just the traditional drought-stricken States.

We in political theory presume that the voice of a larger number of people tends to have a say in mass electoral democracy. But this does not seem to be the case in India. The fact that one fifth of the population engaged in agriculture is not cared for by successive governments, whoever may be running it, in a democracy, remains an aberration. So, how and why is it that farmers are marginalised both economically and politically?

The new advancement led to cultivation of a single crop under the pressure of market. Now, a farmer had to draw more and more credit to plough the land. In addition, lack of remunerative prices would further intensify the trouble. The uncertainty of crop yield and fluctuation in prices constituted distress to the farmers. It actually is a double-edged sword. As our agriculture is mostly dependent on a good monsoon, a very good monsoon ( which occurred in most northern states last year) would lead to surplus yield driving down the prices or drought which was experienced by most parts of Maharashtra and the southern states would lead to deficient yield itself

The question here is – Are they only protesting to waiver off their loans?

To be honest, the agitation in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh facing violent repression including police firings and preventive arrests, is not about loan waivers alone. It is about agriculture’s place in the life our country, equity’s place in the life of our agriculture, and farmers’ place in the world of equity. Farmers and farms are in crisis. Loss of topsoil, loss of dignity, loss of livelihood and behind all this, of the injustice of the pricing system, the purchase system, the profit system, nationally, non-politically, but passionately, is what the agitation is about. And to compound the crisis is a new zulm – the preventive arrests of farmers and farmers’ leaders.

We need to ensure that institutional financing is available and accessible and benefit provision is simplified while disbursed funds are effectively monitored. States should seek to establish early warning signals, monitoring farmers who go past set limits and seek unsustainable loans. Village-wise lists of deeply indebted farmers must be prepared annually to identify farmers on the flight path to penury and potential suicide.

Waiving of loans is neither  correct nor economically viable, the only sane and the viable thing to do is creating an environment, both economic and agrarian, which would enable our farmers to once again become those drivers of the Indian economy as they were, many decades back.

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