The missing forum for farmers’ welfare

The missing forum for farmers’ welfare

In the evening primetime show, following the news of the financial package to revive the Indian economy in mid-May, a news anchor of a major television channel turned to the president of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII): “A voice from India Inc on what the PM has announced. What’s your first reaction?” The guest said: “I’m smiling. I’m relieved. Within the first three weeks after the Covid crisis broke out, the CII asked for a package of roughly Rs 7 or 8 lakh crore. Last week, we upped our demand and asked for roughly Rs 15 lakh crore and that comprised a lot of things that we believed would take the country ahead. But the Rs 20 lakh crore package is way beyond our expectations.”

Had any forum placed demands before the government on behalf of rural India? Why didn’t the news anchor feel the need to seek a reaction from a farmers’ representative? The absence of an all-India organisation to clarify to the government and to the country how best to secure the future of rural India, where two thirds of Indians continue to make their lives, must count as a bitter irony.

India has indeed seen several powerful farmer movements over the decades. Centred on charismatic leaders such as Mahendra Singh Tikait and MD Nanjundaswamy, these movements dissipated following their demise. Their inability to evolve a second rung of leadership and their decision to enter electoral politics, which made them vulnerable to tough electoral realities, are among the chief causes here.

Large mobilisations of farmers continue to be seen periodically. Two years ago, for instance, around 50,000 farmers in Maharashtra marched to Mumbai asking for assured minimum support prices and compensation for crop damage. In the previous year, the Kisan Mukti March saw over one lakh farmers from across the country gather in New Delhi to ask for stable prices for their crops. Usually led by a coalition of farmers groups and political parties and focused on retail demands, such mobilisations have been short-lived.

Lobby groups of specific crop growers, like the sugar lobby in Maharashtra or the coffee growers’ lobby in Karnataka, which bargain with the government to secure their sectoral interests, have been around. But a durable, non-partisan platform to articulate the concerns of Indian agriculturists is what is needed: a dedicated forum for understanding the means by which farm-based livelihoods can be sustained and nourished, to ask the government to act as if the welfare of rural India mattered, to make Indians understand the sophisticated knowledge and art that constitute the activity of agriculture and take pride in how farmers enable food security as well the dazzling culinary universe of the country.

Such a forum would proactively offer constructive policy proposals to the central and state governments and critically monitor their governance measures aimed at farmers. It would seek innovative solutions with the ideals of farmer autonomy and ecological sanity in view. (From this ethical vantage point, cooperative land cultivation is a wiser solution, for instance, to the problem of low productivity arising from small land-holdings, than contracting the latter out to large corporate companies, which would take away the autonomy of farmers in deciding what to grow or how to treat the soil). It would engage with democratically committed farmer and ecological activists, scholars and policy experts grappling with matters of agriculture across the country and abroad and emerge as an intellectual powerhouse in the world of Indian agriculture. It would build media platforms to help the wider public grasp the historical and contemporary picture of agrarian India. And, staying non-aligned between political parties, it would insulate the livelihood concerns of farmers from the cynical compulsions of party politics.

Farmers, of course, are not a monolith community: some of them are landed and some landless; some own large-sized holdings and some small ones; some have dry land and some have access to irrigated water; some grow cash crops and some food crops; some are upper caste and some lower. Internal differences like these, however, do not preclude the pursuit of a common maximum programme for farmers.

Building a forum for the welfare of Indian agriculture indeed needs ample financial and infrastructure resources, but a modest start needs to happen with the hope that it will galvanise goodwill and support towards ensuring a future for India’s agriculture.

Over 330,000 farmers have taken their lives over the last 25 years. For economists and policymakers, the agricultural sector continues to be an afterthought. And, last month, three ordinances which are said to bring adverse shifts in Indian agriculture were passed by the central government without consultation with any farmer representatives. It cannot go on like this.