Farm protests, a breakdown in farmer-state trust

Farm protests, a breakdown in farmer-state trust

The situation of unrest, like many other from the recent past, forces (and urges) each of us to take a step back and reflect on one of the nation’s structural failings

Chandigarh: Police stop farmers during their protest march against the Center's new farm laws, in Chandigarh, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020.Various farmer unions today called for a nationwide strike demanding repeal of the agri laws. Credit: PTI Photo

As one writes this in the dawn of a new morning, parts of Delhi remain still engulfed in darkness, clouded with barricades, with its borders blocked by farmers who are lying down across the highways, protesting against the new farm laws. 

The situation of unrest, like many other from the recent past, forces (and urges) each of us to take a step back and reflect on one of the nation’s structural failings - a broken ‘kisan-sarkar’ contract.

The broken farmer-state-Union relationship has been one of independent India’s worst failings and contributes to widespread rural-urban inequalities - in terms of both (limiting) incomes, aspirations, and opportunities for the citizenry. 

The context of this numbing economic divide largely surfacing from the failures of agriculture, now further accentuated by a pandemic-induced economic crisis, is bound to breed collective feelings of chronic discontentment and fuel public resentment, now being witnessed on the streets. 

Having written about this previously, the root of India’s agrarian crisis is linked to the 5Ps: Price, Product, Position, Profitability and Protection. These 5Ps, in a general understanding, are the foundational pillars of strategic focus for any enterprise (even farming), or an entrepreneur (say, a farmer too).

Farmers have often found it difficult to get their main produce sold at a fair, market price at a place of closer proximity. Their cropping pattern and choice on ‘what to produce’ and ‘how to produce’ is conditioned by a string of factors that are less grounded in commercial, market principles, but are sourced more in conditions of political levering (around MSPs), poor market infrastructure, high cost of production, and entrenched middlemen-based price interventions. 

Furthermore, an urban consumer bias entrenched in our consumption pattern of farm goods further adds to the seasonal price fluctuations which become a war cry on news channels every once in a while. 

In a previous study undertaken around Haryana, we discussed some of these issues at length. Studying the average land-size under cultivation, we saw how around 68-70% of the farmers have acreage of less than 4-5 acres (with 16% land harvested anywhere between 1-2.5 acres; 24% owning anywhere between 2.5- 5 acres, and 28% with less than an acre). 

The national level scenario in this regard sees more than 80-85% farmers having less than 2.5-3 acres of cultivable land. The issue of lesser acreage, entwined with concerns around processes of land ownership, and easier availability of credit also makes the situation of women-farmers (and their own agency in farming) even more inhibiting. 

An interplay of all these variables have not only lowered a farmer’s actual income, negatively impacted her profitability but also seen pre-designed measures of social (or crop) protection schemes poorly implemented at a local level across states. 

Most states, especially those in northern and central India, don’t even pay the promised MSP to farmers on all listed crops, even though they are bound by law. 

An average farmer is self-reliant (atmanirbhar) without adequate support from the government and for worse, remains financially indebted in almost medieval-style living conditions with very little to actually be content about. This is now being witnessed in the angst of farmer unions protesting against the new farm laws.

Even during the pandemic-induced lockdown, the situation for most farmers across India (particularly in Haryana and Punjab) became worse. Ravinder, a farmer from Bhidnauli village of Haryana said, “The vegetables we could earlier sell for Rs 30 per kg (in a pre-pandemic time) can now get us only Rs 10 per kg. Our yield has already dropped by 25-30%. Farmers who generally grew around 20 quintals of wheat, have seen their yield reduced to 14 quintals.” 

As more mandis opened up, the overall demand was still low and extremely volatile, forcing most farmers to sell produce for amounts as low as Rs 2 per kg. 

Poor healthcare

Social distancing requirements, poor healthcare and safety conditions made many retailers and wholesalers averse to visiting mandis while consumers were too afraid to buy non-packaged vegetables that resulted in aggregating the demand-shock.

Neetu, a young farmer from village Rampur has been farming since the age of 12. More than the loss of livelihood due to the pandemic-induced lockdown, he expressed extreme frustration against the local and state governments for mismanaging the response to the health-crisis that destroyed his family’s main source of income and livelihood. 

He said, “Sarkaar ne hamare liye kuch nahi kiya, siraf TV pe dikhate hai sab, kisaan ke liye kuch hota nahi hai (‘The government has done nothing for the farmer, it is all a performance for the television’).” 

Therefore, the symbolic reflection of current farmer protests mirrors a deep erosion of the kisan-sarkar contract and a deeper erosion of trust between them. 

Unfortunately, there is little hope on offer. No matter what one may think on the farmers protest, or the opposition to the new Agricultural Bills, what is lucid is how our system of governance and its projected ‘economic reform’ model lack any effective institutional channel to ensure a proper debate on  ‘economic ideology’ new laws/‘reforms’ etc. Also, there is no mechanism for participatory dialogue with the concerned (aggrieved) stakeholders in a reasoned way.

 The prevailing governmentality is embedded in a monolithic command style order of functioning where law (and its institutions) is simply used as a tool of enforcement-at-cost against all, irrespective of who is at the receiving end.