*The Lonely Battle of the Indian Farmer


Farmers marching to Parliament Street.  Source:  Hindustan Times.  Some Indian newspapers seemed rather more concerned about the disruption to traffic and gave real time updates on Twitter and Facebook so the public could avoid thoroughfares through which the farmers were marching.  Perhaps in future some intrepid souls will give updates in the hope that people will join rather than avoid the demonstrating farmers.

Thirty-five thousand farmers, from across the nation, marched in Delhi this past weekend to highlight their long-standing grievances and to move a largely indifferent country into giving some thought to the fact that Indian agriculture is in a state of acute and precipitous decline.  To say that the farmers also acted to stir the conscience of the present government would be true but for the circumstance that there is little to suggest that the vast majority of those who run the country have any conscience at all. Even the word “crisis” is inadequate to describe the depth of the problems which afflict farmers, constituting a monstrous assault on their dignity and reducing them to a state of destitution.  Their plight and unfathomable despair is captured by the fact that, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 300,000 farmers committed suicide between 1995-2015.  The NCRB has thus far not released final figures for 2016 and 2017, and even the data that it released for 2014 and 2015 suggests that some of it was doubtless manipulated.  Who will believe, for instance, that there were no farmers’ suicides in 12 states in 2014?  The brute fact of the matter is that conditions for Indian farmers have not improved an iota in recent years.  The problems did not begin with the present government, but they have doubtless become much worse under the present dispensation.  The BJP led by Narendra Modi ran in 2014 on the electoral promise, “Acche din aane wale hain” (“Good days are about to come”), and farmers have seen what misery that has been wrought in their lives in the wake of the present administration’s unabashed collusion with many of the country’s wealthiest men.


A typical newspaper headline from an English daily in India.

I remember a visit with Sunderlal Bahuguna, the renowned Chipko activist, at his ashram near Ghansali in the Tehri-Garhwal region three decades ago.  He told me then, “Bharat ki atma desh ke lakhon gaon me hain” (“India’s soul resides in its countless villages”).  Some might construe this as an idealized account of the torpid Indian village, the village that never was except in the imagination of those who are critical of industrialized modernity, but there can be little doubt that village life revolved around agricultural seasons and agriculture was the main source of livelihood.  The classics of Hindi cinema, from Do Bigha Zamin (1953) and Mother India (1957) to Upkaar (1967), spoke to this sensibility.  Even with the extraordinary growth of Indian cities over the last several decades, it is only with the last census in 2011 that urban India for the first time added more people than rural India.  The recent report, “State of Indian Farmers”, by the nationally reputed Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), based on a survey of over 5000 farming households across 274 villages in 137 districts, confirms that 76% of farmers would rather do some other work, and 61% of the farmers said they would rather be employed in the city.


The children of an Indian farmer who committed suicide hold up a photograph of their father.  Source:  BBC.

If farmers are abandoning their ancestral profession by the droves, or would like to give it up for good, they are doing so for sound reasons. The problems are too numerous, but some may be enumerated briefly.  Many farmers—62% of the interviewed farmers in the CSDS study—are not even aware of the Minimum Support Price (MSP), and those who are agree that this price is woefully inadequate.  Water shortages have critically impacted Indian agriculture and the evidence is overwhelming that such shortages will become more acute in the near future.  Climate change has introduced more unpredictability, and aggrieved farmers everywhere complain of damage to crops owing to unseasonal rains, floods, and droughts.  Rural indebtedness is a grave calamity, accounting for a huge number of suicides, and the scourge of the moneylender remains even as Indian banking has truly expanded its tentacles throughout the countryside.  Indian farming cannot be understood without an appreciation of the fact that large farmers, each owning ten acres or more of land, account for only 7% of all farmers; 60% are small owners, in possession of 1-3 acres, and another 14% are landless.  The remaining, 19%, are farmers who own 4-7 acres of land.  The huge majority of those who have benefited from government schemes, subsidies, and bank loans at low interest rates are large farmers:  thus the credit crisis afflicts mainly the small and poor farmers, since most of them are compelled to take recourse to the moneylender who lend money at usurious rates.  The intensification and corporatization of agriculture under capitalism, though it does not account for every ill, has certainly played a huge part in the impoverishment of the small farmer. It is for this reason that there have been sustained protests and demonstrations against the encroachment upon Indian agriculture of the notorious biotechnological giant, Monsanto, whose predatory practices have been the scourge of farmers in India and elsewhere.

The present agitation of Indian farmers is shaped both by short-term demands and long-term grievances. The Farmers’ Freedom from Indebtedness Bill (2018) and the Farmers’ Right to Guaranteed Remunerative Minimum Support Prices for Agricultural Commodities Bill (2018) have been languishing in Parliament since the early part of the year.  Though loan waivers and an increase in the MSP are critically important, it must be understood that these are of little if any interest to landless laborers; among them, there are other problems, such as the fact that in most states, women are paid only half of what men earn for the same amount of labor and as little as Rs 100-150 a day. The farmers and their supporters are demanding the implementation of the recommendations of the commission headed by the eminent agricultural scientist M S Swaminathan which issued five reports between December 2004 and October 2006, and insisting that Parliament devote 21 days to a discussion of the plight of farmers and the perils to Indian agriculture.

Volume Two of the Fifth and Final Report of the Swaminathan Commission commences with two epigrams, one from Gandhi—“To those who are hungry, God is bread”—and the other from Nehru:  “Everything else can wait, but not agriculture.”  The majority of Indian farmers and members of their households have only two meals a day, and at least 10% have only one meal a day.  That those whose labour helps put the food on the tables in the country’s towns and cities should not have enough food for themselves is particularly odious and cruelly ironic.  The indisputable fact is that a third of the world’s malnourished children live in India, just as it is clear that the problem is not one of scarcity but rather of accessibility to food.


Farmers march to Mumbai, March 2018.  Source:  The Hindu newspaper.

However, this is not just another “crisis” and what is at stake is more than even the dire state of the Indian farmer and agriculture.  Though I advert in the title of this article to the “lonely battle” being waged by farmers, it is heartening that the march organized by the Kisan Sabha earlier this year which saw 40,000 Maharashtrian farmers walking over 200 kilometres before making their entry into Mumbai earned them the goodwill of the city and the support of students, academics, urban workers, and many others.  Nevertheless, the work of reigniting the links between the rural and the urban has barely begun, and urban India has to recognize that it has brutally eviscerated the village and excised the farmer from its imagination.  What we banish in this fashion will come back to haunt us.  India cannot be made whole until and unless it confers on farmers the centrality that they, the toilers of the soil and the sustainers of the nation, deserve.

[First published under the same title but in a shorter version on ABP Live, 5 December 2018]






23 thoughts on “*The Lonely Battle of the Indian Farmer

  1. Pingback: Factors for a better life: An analysis of rural poverty and improvements for tribal communities – Chhattisgarh, Kerala, Maharashtra & Mizoram | Tribal Cultural Heritage in India Foundation

  2. A very moving account. I suspect that the urban/farm divide is true for many countries as well outside of India. China for example, even the US. If we are removed from our rural sources of food/agricultural sustainability then our minds & souls are also dislocated and severed from reality.


    • You’re absolutely right, Russell. I have in fact thought thinking about doing a follow-up piece largely on the state of US agriculture and the near evisceration of the family farm in some parts of the country. The most eloquent writer on the subject is Wendell Berry. There is the question of the rural / urban divide; there is also the old Marxist contempt for the countryside. There is furthermore the problem that we don’t characteristically know where the food on our table is from, and that the relationship between the food, the soul, and the body cannot at all be understood mechanistically.


  3. I was thinking of Wendell Berry too. It is a chancy occupation, farming, on any scale except corporate. I have long wondered where the farm families go after the farm is lost or sold here in the US, or India, and the eventual results of the transition a generation or so later. It would be wonderful to see a column from you on that subject.


    • Someone such as P. Sainath is likely in a better position to answer your question, which is very pertinent, about what transpires in the lives of farm families in India after a farmer commits suicide or the farm is lost on account of unpaid loans. I haven’t actually seen much literature on this subject and it would require a persistence on the part of social workers to track a family over some years.


  4. Some of these problems of course are traceable in part to the ongoing deleterious effects of the “Green Revolution” in India (while some of the short-term effects might be characterized as ‘positive’ according to conventional economics criteria, a political economy picture is rather different), a critical literature on which has taken some time to make its presence felt in the social science literature.

    Readers may find some relevant titles in this bibliography: https://www.academia.edu/12376054/Beyond_Capitalist_Agribusiness_Toward_Agroecology_and_Food_Justice_A_Basic_Bibliography


  5. Hi Patrick,
    You’re of course right about the deleterious effects of the ‘Green Revolution’ and how that has contributed to the misery of the farmers in the long run. There is, fore example, a large literature on how the soil has been adversely impacted in the Punjab. My intention, needless to say, was not to give an exhaustive account, indeed I’m only touching the surface. But I also wanted to highlight some points that are usually lost in the left critique which focuses on capitalist intensification of agriculture and has little patience for the village, and similarly has little to say about the necessity of reigniting the urban-rural links.


  6. Vinay, Incisive, helpful stuff, as usual.

    On the rural/urban links you rightly mention, the Left in Kerala appears to have made considerable progress in overcoming this dichotomy, at least according to Vijay Prashad: “One of the key features of Kerala is that the urban-rural divide is not as stark as it is elsewhere, even in West Bengal. In driving through the state, one might be forgiven for the belief that the countryside seems urban and the cities seem rural–the interpenetration of each into the other is quite remarkable. A social outcome of this attachment between the rural and the urban is that the countryside is not denuded of intellectuals, and urban intellectuals are not far removed from the countryside [organic Gramscian/Gandhian intellectuals?!].” Prashad proceeds to cite Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP/the Kerala Science Literature Association) as illustrative of this intellectual network across traditional rural/urban division. My latest post on an article by Ashish Kothar in The Hindu also touches a bit on this: https://www.religiousleftlaw.com/2018/12/beyond-ideology-the-participatory-praxis-of-movements-of-democratic-resistance-and-socialist-construction-in-india-and-e.html


    • Hi Patrick,
      I would agree to some extent with your observations (after Vijay P.) regarding the attenuated form of the urban/rural divide in Kerala. There are a great many considerations here, among them the fact that ‘village’ never quite left the ‘cities’ anywhere in India in some respects–the slum, too, is part of the city, and one reason that the slum evokes distaste among the middle and upper classes is that it is reminiscent of the village, not just with respect to poverty (which is more obvious) but with respect to lifestyle and sensibility. Th links between the rural and the urban that have to be reignited refer to the idea of the village that the the city folks have disavowed. Then, to take something very different into consideration, recall also that land reform in Kerala was much more extensive than anywhere else in India, and certainly far more so than in what was until recently the other great CPM-ruled state, West Bengal. So the situation on the ground in Kerala is quite different. But I think it is true that the intellectual class in Kerala is scattered around the state and the countryside to a greater degree than in other parts of India, and of course neither Kochi nor Trivandrum hold the same place in the life of the Kerala intellectual that Kolkata does in the life of intellectuals in West Bengal.
      I did see previously the piece by Ashis Kothari and I have looked up your post.


  7. A very sobering and accurate account. The evisceration of any idea of social solidarity whatsoever is stunning in this regard. It is happening all over the world. Though, in my view, in the Indian context this is part of what has been called the afterlife of caste. This ancient system of power still persists and gives a certain strength to the worldwide notion that inequality and a lowly position of the very people who do the most important work in society is only natural. This can be seen in the absolutely vulgar and disrespectful way in which janitorial and service workers are treated in this country. Even still, the degree of the spread of a certain capitalistic and Americanized brand of individualism and selfishness today is remarkable and unprecedented.


    • Hi Aakash,
      Thanks for your thoughtful remarks. It is important to underscore the phrase “in part” in your comments about how caste contributes in India to the “evisceration of any idea of social solidarity” and the widespread disrespect, as you point out, with which janitorial and service workers are treated. The problem extends beyond India, of course, and to countries where “caste” is not a consideration: I see that in the contempt, which may not always be palpable but is present in the very structures of renumeration, with which manual workers are treated in the US. The idea of ‘education’ has something to do with it as well, since education from at least the 18th century onwards has effected a split between work with the mind and work with the hands and created hierarchies. I am now “working” on a lecture on what we mean by “work” and why a certain conception of work has monopolized our imagination.


      • Yes, I would certainly agree with that analysis, of course. And much research has shown that even the cultural structures in the US which ostensibly exist to help these workers, such as tipping, often do more to harm them by making their source of income variable and unreliable. I think one illustration of the impact of caste in the Indian context, or varna or whatever term you wish to use, is that teenagers and adolescents from middle and even some upper class families in the United States often take up these jobs, particularly retail cashiers, to earn money or help themselves pay for college, for instance, whereas I do not see this happening at all in educated middle class Indian families. In fact, one has the impression that the sensibilities of these families would not allow this at all. While this discussion has drawn us away from the plight for farmers, I cannot help but think that this cultural institution has relevance in the justification of the inequality now fostered by global capitalism.


  8. Great peice. On the topic of relationship with the status of farmers in the United States, this map below of global child malnutrition was brought to my mind. On first glance one notices that the Indian subcontinent fares much worse on malnutrition than sub saharan african nations and that it is truly a national shame that the Indian government has not dealt with this crisis of child malnutrition like the public health emergency that it is even as some Indians have become obscenely wealthy. Truly provokes the question of what the point of democracy even is if India has no interest in feeding her poor but chooses to invest in nuclear weapons. On second glance, though, one notices that there is not even any data collected on the first world. Whether on farmer distress, women’s disempowerment or malnutrition, a neocolonial attitude wherein the first world gauges the third world but not itself is observed.


    • Hello Rajeev, Excellent point, in that it is the privilege of the ‘first world’ to observe the ‘third world’. The UN recently sent a Special Rapporteur on global poverty to the US and his presence in the US was greatly resented by all American politicians, who argued not merely that there is comparatively little poverty in the US but that the UN has no business overseeing countries such as the US. I would go so far as to say that we need international monitors for most things in the US, from poverty, election fraud, and voter suppression to outright racism and suppression of reproductive rights of women. Theorists of a previous generation spoke about the ‘gaze’, who observes who and with what right.


  9. Very Informative article, I believe this is an occurrence that happens in many countries where local governments prioritize industrialization over other aspects of society that are more in need. In specific countries such as India that feel they are behind other global powers in terms of Industrialization and nuclear power.


    • Agreed. In capitalist societies, the plight of the poor does not matter as much as what they are able to produce. Like Dr. Lal said,

      “The intensification and corporatization of agriculture under capitalism, though it does not account for every ill, has certainly played a huge part in the impoverishment of the small farmer.”

      It saddens me that the small farmers and their families are stuck in a cycle of debt, and even if the farmer commits suicide their debt is transferred to their family. Reminds me a lot about how upon graduation, so many students across the US are in crippling debt that is also transferred to their families if they cannot pay it back in their own lifetime.


  10. Fascinating that a civilization which had the largest cities in the ancient world, in Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, with advanced plumbing and infrastructure that would put cities in today’s India to shame, today feels that it is behind other cities in terms of urbanization and that it must neglect its villages and farmers to “catch up”


  11. This is an excellent and utterly sobering piece. I am old enough to recall a time when land redistribution and the simple idea that those who work the land should own it used to not only be said aloud in the Indian political domain but used to in fact be a mainstream position! Now a days if someone in India even tries to talk about land redistribution they are branded as some scary radical. I wonder why it is that while we talk about such things as farm loan waivers, no one in the Indian political establishment has the guts to talk about things like land redistribution anymore. All that matters to people, it seems, is “development”.


    • Hi Tara, Land redistribution has never been easy. India passed a number of pieces of legislation after independence to facilitate land redistribution, including the Bihar Zamindari Abolition Act (1949) and the Land Reform Act in 1950 but large landlords found ways to subvert these measures. The Bhoodan movement was a nonviolent attempt to make large landlords part with their land but studies have shown that it was largely ineffective; much of the land that was gifted was not fit for farming, for instance. But, yes, I agree that today land redistribution is not really even on the horizon of those contemplating fundamental reforms.


  12. The farmer no longer holds a significant voice in everyday Indian life. Farmers feed the large Indian population yet they are still casted away as some other worldly thing, since so many people now live in dense cities where more “opportunities” are readily available. The plight of the farmer, due to the capitalist nature of the whole business, has driven many to commit suicide because they really have nothing else to live for and their government does nothing to assist their crises. It reminds me of what is happening around the world, especially in the U.S., where small farmers are facing similar problems and want their unheard voices to be casted in the political realm. The urban and rural dichotomy is gradually growing and both sides generally have vastly different visions for their country’s future, one open to globalization and big business, while another favoring old sustainable and self sufficient status quos. If this rivalry cannot be compromised, there will be huge social divisions within the state where city dwellers and rural farmers identify as totally different people with drastically divergent visions for the future of their country. With this, conflicts may arise and divide society and the country on various political issues like it did during the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.


    • HI Matt, A person you may enjoy reading on the “crisis” in American agriculture is the farmer, philosopher, writer, and social commentator, Wendell Berry. He has distinguished in clear and unmistakable terms between the “industrial” and “agrarian” visions of life. I agree in general with your understanding of the matter though I may not agree with the language you have used to express some of your sentiments. So, for example, I don’t think that the rural or agrarian vision can be described as favoring “self sufficient status quo”: I think I know what you mean, and the “self sufficient” part is clear enough, but the agrarian vision is not in favor of the status quo, unless by that you mean ‘no growth.’ I think you mean to say that the countryside is not necessarily captive to the destructive mania of growth, and the true agrarian lifestyle doesn’t produce for the (global) market economy. The division between the city and the countryside is an old one–and everywhere in the world it still means something.


  13. किसानों को परेशान करने वाले मुद्दे मार्क्सवादियों के देश के लिए कथित तिरस्कार का परिणाम नहीं हैं। कृपया उन झंडों को देखें जो किसान ले जा रहे हैं। वे हथौड़ा और दरांती का झंडा लेकर चल रहे हैं, कोई और झंडा नहीं। हम, भारत के सच्चे किसान, अभी भी साम्यवाद में अपना विश्वास बनाए हुए हैं। कम्युनिस्ट पार्टियाँ भारत की एकमात्र ऐसी पार्टियाँ हैं जो वास्तव में किसानों की दुर्दशा की परवाह करती हैं और जिन राज्यों में वे शासन करती हैं वहाँ किसानों को लाभान्वित करने के लिए वास्तविक सुधारों की स्थापना की है। सरकार, मीडिया, विश्वविद्यालयों और निगमों में कुलीन वर्ग हमारे दुश्मन हैं। उम्मीद है, हम भारत में लागू करेंगे जो माओ ने चीन में किया था और इलाइट्स को वास्तव में खेतों में काम करने के लिए मजबूर किया था। जय हिन्द! लाल सलाम!


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