The financial capital of the world’s fastest growing economy suddenly had thousands of farmers protesting on its streets. What’s going on? This is the story of the poverty carnival that is Indian agriculture and why no matter how ‘viral’ these protests go, they will not solve anything.
The image you see in the picture above should fill you with hope and despair. Here is a farmer, one among the nearly half of 1.3 billion Indians who make a living working in farms, being smart, innovative and resourceful.
Left to his own devices and having had a privilege of a wee bit of spare cash, he has chosen to invest it in a device that is clearly useful to him in myriad ways. Especially in charging his mobile phone, that one device more than any other which has changed the lives of the poor in India and especially the rural poor who are often stuck in places where there are barely any proper paths of communication — physical or telephonic.
But it should also fill you with despair because this farmer was part of a march of thousands of farmers that blocked arterial roads in Mumbai, the financial capital of India, and forced the government to accept their key demands.
What were these demands? Full waiver of all loans and electricity bills, a guaranteed one and a half times of input costs payment or ‘minimum support price’ from the government for farm produce, more protection for small farmers, more distribution of land to landless agricultural laborers and a halt to any acquisition of agricultural lands for development projects — especially much valued projects like super highways and bullet trains.
Photos from this march, even though it involved a very tiny fraction of the millions of farmers in India, went viral on social media. Not only because of visuals of thousands of farmers snaking up Mumbai roads was unique to many city folk who have little, if any, connection left with agriculture, but also because of pictures of bruised and calloused feet of the farmers which evoked Twitter hashtags and the sort of outrage that shivers up into a trend but also swiftly disappears like spent fireworks.
Not one of the demands, though, will change anything about the dismal state of Indian agriculture which contributes about 20 per cent of GDP.
Because India has seen this game before — and knows how it plays out. In 2016–17, the total debt relief announced by three of the country’s largest states, Maharashtra (whose capital is Mumbai), Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, amounts to around Rs. 77,000 crore or 0.5% of India’s just over $2 trillion GDP.
What about electricity? Well, farmers consume 23 per cent of the electricity used in India and pay only 7 percent of the bill.
Yet, farmers are marching on Mumbai again.
The truth is no one in India wants to face the reality of its broken agriculture sector and even though solutions are plentiful, there is no political and social will to embrace them. After all one of the most powerful politicians in India recently told farmers in Maharashtra, his home state, that they should not pay electricity bills unless they get a loan waiver.
But no amount of government subsidy has been able to, or can, fix Indian agriculture which is torn apart by blatant contradictions.
For instance, consider this. Research clearly shows how cheap (or free) electricity given as easy dole for politicians to win votes has encouraged a habit of not only never paying electricity bills and destroying the supply chain of electricity production, consumption and delivery, but also rampant abuse of ground water.
So in a country which faces a crippling groundwater crisis, farmers continue to be addicted to putting up pumps to draw out every ounce of groundwater and politicians serve this to them because it is the easiest way to win elections.
No one gives votes for being told to build water storage. People addicted to freebies do of course give votes for fueling their addiction.
One of most bandied about numbers on Indian agriculture is that of farmer suicides. Debt is one of the reasons for these deaths — but no one wants to face the truth that many farmers take these loans because they believe they would not have to pay them back. One more agitation and it would be written off. Some farmer leaders, correctly, ask why should we have to pay back loans when India is plagued with big corporations getting away — and their owners fleeing the country — after stealing billions from banks? So this is now a viciously cycle and ironically it is the politicians who feed the freebie addiction to farmers and assist business barons to steal from the banks.
Also, what is never part of the conversation on farmer suicides are two path-breaking studies, one by the think-tank Brookings and another by the medical journal Lancet, which show that the causes of farmer suicides might have different causes than what is popularly propagated.
“It appears that providing more and more institutional debt to counter rural distress is not working,” says the Brookings report. Observes the Lancet report: “suicide deaths among non-workers and other workers were about three times greater than among agricultural workers.”
In all this, the farmers alone are not to blame, what is far more to blame is a corrupt system that has destroyed the legitimacy of our agrarian system.
Also, it must be noted with bitter irony that the political party that organized the march on Mumbai has overwhelming power and influence in the southern state of Kerala but Kerala is among the states which have the highest rates of farmer suicides. “Kerala, which is often presented as a model of success in terms of public health and human development, has the highest male suicide rate. Indeed, if Kerala was a country its male suicide rate would be the highest in the world–a position currently held by Lithuania. Bihar, on the other hand, which is one of the least developed states in India, has the lowest male suicide rate,” noted a seminal research paper called ‘The political economy of farmers’ suicides in India: indebted cash-crop farmers with marginal landholdings explain state-level variation in suicide rates’ published in 2014.
Consider another demand of this protest — to distribute land more widely. Now it is true that farmers who hold land bigger chunks of land tend to be more prosperous but that is because they are able to consolidate more effectively. Already 85 per cent of farms in India are less than two hectares. This is likely to go up to 91 per cent by 2030 according to government estimates. The only way Indian agriculture can raise productivity and farm income is to consolidate land parcels — and in such a scenario it is highly unclear how to distribute land to who, where it would come from and to who it would go. In addition, there is a regressive resistance among certain sections of India’s political class to development of new infrastructure, like highways and bullet trains, even though it is clear this is one of the best ways of boosting productivity. For instance, as India’s airline industry has opened up, more Indians have flown than ever before. Mumbai airport recently created a world record handling 969 flights in one 24-hour cycle.
Interestingly most of these farmer leaders do not want large companies to come into agriculture who could invest in much needed cold storage chains, expand processing dramatically and build stronger market linkages. In fact the strongest support for such corporation driven consolidation in agriculture is supported by the poorest and most marginalized sections of farmers. How could consolidation happen without effective market connects and investment? Unclear.
But none of this is taken into account when a hash-tagged march appears in the heart of India’s financial establishment. At that moment, the lazy clichés seem to suggest themselves — big business versus impoverished farmers, Dalal Street versus desperate proletariat, long live the revolution.
When the farmers came marching in, the streets of Mumbai — a city where more than half of the people live in slums, filled with gleeful watchers cheering them on. It soon became another festivity, a tamasha where the poorer people were entertained by the distraction and the richer people shared and tagged and posted their outrage.
Sociologically, the retweets and reposts of this so-called #KisanLongMarch is a form of Indian middle class guilt. Cut away from most indigenous things, people feel that by unthinkingly cheering this ‘protest’, they are doing their bit. These days many urban Indians think that their food comes in packets from supermarkets and most have never been to a farm or met a farmer.
It is curious that in a country where governments tumble if the prices of onions rise, people are outraging about farmers having low income. The first step towards farmers getting more income is for people to understand that like everything else, the price of food also rises. But Indians want the cheapest food, whose prices barely rise, but also want farm incomes to steadily rise.
Slowly but surely there is an organic food movement starting to mushroom in India but most buyers would prefer imported quinoa to local amaranth. Most Indians do not care to research about the wealth of the agricultural produce in a country that once produced nearly 100,000 varieties of rice and would not pay a little extra to buy locally produced organic food — but they outrage demanding more prosperous farmers.
The whole thing would be hilarious if it wasn’t so tragic. Of course if you tell impoverished farmers that the government — that illusive, omnipotent being — should do more for them, they would agree. It is the only source of relief that they know. But do what and how? Who wants to ask that?
What would of course change Indian agriculture is, for instance, a push from sucking up electricity and not paying bills to a decentralized system using renewable energy especially solar energy — in a country which is trying hard to push its solar potential — as evidenced by the street-smartness of the farmer whose photo you see at the top of this essay. A thoughtful transformation in the food consumption habits of Indians would have a huge impact on Indian agriculture as would structured large investments in agrarian infrastructure, supply chains and market linkages.
But whether it is the use of renewable energy or mobile telephony, the solutions have to come from the empowered Indian farmer. A march demanding free power and loan waiver does not empower Indian farmers, it deludes them.
Editor's Note: Originally published here: https://medium.com/@hindolsengupta/the-farmer-who-went-walking-with-a-solar-panel-on-his-head-ba6336a42fac .. It has been republished with the author's permission.