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Why rural distress is not triggering organized farmer unrest

Falling profitability is one reason why farmer movements have weakened

According to the Census, between 2001 and 2011, India had 9 million fewer farmers, but added 38 million agricultural labourers. Photo: HT
New Delhi: The crisis in India’s farm sector reached a peak over the past two years fuelled by scanty rains and lower prices of key crops like rice, wheat and cotton. While the Narendra Modi-led government at the Centre kept a hawk eye on food inflation to protect consumer interests, it ignored demands of farmers for better support prices or higher compensation for crop losses.
One reason governments across the Centre and states could afford to ignore farmers—despite the fact that they still account for two-third of India’s population—is due to the reality that farmer movements are at their weakest at present. They lack the teeth to force policy change, or worse, to make themselves heard.
Why so? Experts tracking the sector concur that farmers are split across regional, caste and crop lines—for instance, the problems of a tobacco farmer from Andhra Pradesh are different that from a wheat grower in Punjab. Besides, India’s 140 million farm holdings are so fragmented that they don’t have any collective bargaining power.
This wasn’t always the case. In 1988, the Boat Club rally organized by feisty Jat farmer leader Mahendra Singh Tikait literally brought Delhi down to its knees. Lakhs of farmers from Western Uttar Pradesh joined him in Delhi demanding better cane prices and waiving of electricity and water charges. The rally continued for a week with farmers pitching tents, preparing their food and defecating in the open. When the stench became unbearable, the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government relented.
“Tikait’s Bhartiya Kisan Union has 22 factions now and the failure of farm movements is partly due to the inability of the (current set of) leaders to keep the flock together,” said an analyst in close touch with farmer leaders, who did not want to be named. “While political parties used farmer unions to their own advantage, most leaders now complain that it is others who do not have a following.”
But this is not the only reason why farmer movements are weak. Yogendra Yadav, political scientist and co-founder of non-profit Swaraj Abhiyan, sees this as tied to non-viability of farming as an occupation.
“For any farmer politics, you need one class of farmers who have some resources, some staying capacity,” Yadav told Mint in a recent interview. “In the 1980s there was this section of society which was resourceful enough (after reaping the gains of Green Revolution years) to be able to support a movement… right now, those who made any money from farming have either moved out, because now, there is no rich farmer, they don’t exist.”
The result? Today farmer leaders do not command more than one or two districts, while earlier they had state-wide presence, Yadav said.
He added there was also a problem of limited perspective. “(There was) the rich farmers’ movement, and the left wing movements which saw the landed peasantry as their enemy. From both sides there have been active attempts to keep themselves separate.”
The liberalization of the economy in 1991 also had its fallout. “It led to a split between those who supported the free market and those who opposed joining the World Trade Organisation and called for more protection,” said Vijay Jawandhia, a farmer leader from Wardha in Maharashtra.
A flashpoint came about in Tikait’s 1988 rally. Sharad Joshi, who rose to prominence organising onion farmers in Maharashtra and who was a liberal who argued for free trade in farm produce, was literally thrown off the stage at the Boat Club. Joshi, a trained economist who worked with the United Nations, had differences with the rustic Tikait.
But Tikait wasn’t the only one. M.D. Nanjundaswamy, a scholar professor and leader of Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha was vociferously opposed to Joshi’s idea of opening up agriculture to global trade.
“The professor, who had an impish humour, once organised 10,000 people to sit down outside Bangalore town hall and do nothing but laugh at ‘democracy’,” The Guardian wrote in an obituary in 2004. “The state government reportedly caved in to their demands. But he also advocated arrest and taking responsibility for actions; on one occasion, 37,000 of his supporters were arrested in one day.”
The sorry state of India’s farm movement is inextricably linked to the non-viability of farming now, said Jawandhia. “Land holdings have become smaller and farmers everywhere are struggling to run a family and survive. Where is the time or resource to invest in a movement?”
The numbers clearly show this. According to the Census, between 2001 and 2011, India had 9 million fewer farmers, but added 38 million agricultural labourers. The average monthly income per agricultural household was estimated at `6,426 by a Situation Assessment Survey released by the National Sample Survey Office in December 2014. The survey reported that 52% of farm households were indebted, with levels of indebtedness as high as 93% in Andhra Pradesh. In Punjab, the cradle of green revolution, each farm household lives with a debt of `1,19,500.
Raju Shetti, member of the Lok Sabha from Maharashtra and leader of Swabhimani Shetkari Sangathana, added another angle. “Apart from being financially weak, farmers for southern and western India cannot travel to Delhi to argue their case before the Centre. Agriculture may be a state subject but Centre’s trade policy interventions have often hurt farmers (for instance, onion farmers taking a hit after the Centre imposed a minimum export price to protect domestic consumers),” he said.
Further, said Shetty, farmer issues have failed to become national priorities and impeded the growth of a pan-India movement as most news are relegated to the local editions of print newspapers. “Television does not understand the depth and complexity of our problems and people are often clueless on what is happening in different parts of the country.”
In 1988, Tikait gathered nearly half a million farmers to Delhi’s Boat Club. Today no farmer organization in India can match that number, even on enrolled membership. And sadly, the recent round of protests in traditional farming communities—be it Patidars in Gujarat or Jats in Uttar Pradesh—are centred on demands for reservations to government jobs, not to revive their fortunes in farming.

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