Farm Laws and tending to the fragrance of the soil

Farm Laws and tending to the fragrance of the soil

In calling out the central government for pushing foundational agricultural reforms through ordinances during the Covid-19 crisis and without a discussion in Parliament, the farmers are also reminding everyone that a democracy is fundamentally about open consultations, and that clandestine efforts have no place here. Credit: PTI

The gathering of over three lakh farmers from Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh at Delhi’s Singhu border during the last three weeks is a truly momentous event. Standing firm in the cold winter, they are asking for the three recently introduced farm laws to be scrapped. In calling out the central government for pushing foundational agricultural reforms through ordinances during the Covid-19 crisis and without a discussion in Parliament, the farmers are also reminding everyone that a democracy is fundamentally about open consultations, and that clandestine efforts have no place here. They have affirmed that farmers have a say in how the country is managed and cannot stay passive bystanders when their welfare is undermined in the name of development or progress or whatever else.

The farmers’ apprehensions that the farm laws -- which aim to unify farm market access across Indian states and also place corporates in a position of advantage in their contracts with farmers -- will enable big corporations to control Indian agriculture deserve to be shared by all as the latter is a threat to Indian society at large. The American experience with the corporate takeover of agriculture can prove instructive in this regard.

The American poet and agriculturist Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (Sierra Club Books, 1978), a soulful meditation on how the industrialisation of agriculture and the emergence of corporate agribusiness undid an entire way of life that traditional agriculture stood for, offers lessons of relevance. Obsessed with “quantity over quality,” the US agro-industry’s deployment of large capital investments, big technology and artificial chemicals destroyed small farms, reduced crop diversity, poisoned the soil and set in place long-distance control over agriculture. The subsequent acceptance of the financialised and mechanised agriculture by Americans, Berry observes, was nothing short of a crisis of character and culture.

Actively promoted by the US government, the transformation of American agriculture as a corporate sector in the twentieth century, Berry argues passionately, undid “a healthy farm culture” which could “grow only among a people soundly established upon the land; it nourishes and safeguards a human intelligence of the earth that no amount of technology can satisfactorily replace.”

Contrary to the shibboleths of mainstream economists, India need not repeat the industrial experience of the West. Seeing how the rise of the industrial cities in the West simultaneously brought a great diminishing of its countryside, many early Indian planners did see a similar destiny for an industrialising India. It would be foolish and evil to continue to think that way in the present. Despite the haphazard and opportunistic policy treatment of the government, the last seven decades have shown that rural India is still managing to get by. As the massive transport rush to villages at the time of festivals shows, rural migrants and settlers in towns and cities actively maintain ties with their villages. And the slow but sure-footed shift in the demand for naturally grown fruits and vegetables, traditionally processed cooking oil and jaggery, and unpolished food grains, among others, among Indians reveals a growing awareness of the ills of industrialised farming and food processing, and perhaps a nascent sensitivity, too, towards the welfare of farmers.

If the government truly cares for rural India, ensuring that big corporations do not take control over the livelihoods of farmers is a primary task. Further, everything must be done to provide affordable good quality school and health infrastructure and easy, low-interest credit facilities, without which small farmers’ incomes become lower than they are. Low-cost, ecologically sane technologies for managing agriculture need to be encouraged. A wise government would act as if India’s future was decidedly plural, where the farmers – as well as rural artisans, fishermen and tribals – and urban dwellers retain autonomy over their lives and are not in a mutually dissatisfying relationship. And, when a government acts truly responsibly, we will be able to tell.