*The Lonely Battle of the Indian Farmer

FarmersProtestDelhi30Nov2018

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.

VidarbhaFarmersCommitSuicide

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.

Farmer'sSuicide-FamilyWithPhoto

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.

FarmersMarchToMumbai2018

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]

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

*The Provocations of Ashis Nandy

 

For close to four decades, Ashis Nandy has occupied a liminal presence on the Indian intellectual scene.  In nearly every respect, whether from the standpoint of the intellectual positions he has adopted, the trajectory of his professional life, his stance towards religious faith, or the politics that he embraces, Nandy has carved out a worldview that is distinct even singular.  Though he is viewed in the public domain as an academic, he has always kept a distance from university life as such and has spent his entire career as a Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.  There are few scholars who have subjected the very idea of ‘development’, and the certitude with which experts speak of ‘developing societies’, to such rigorous scrutiny as has Nandy.  For all his immense learning, he has little use for the pedantry that often passes for scholarship –– one reason, among others, why some people characterize him as a maverick, gadfly, or contrarian.

 

Trained as a clinical psychologist, Nandy has disavowed the profession of psychology.  Some of his readers grumble at his propensity for psychoanalytical readings of personalities, but his use of Freud is, so to speak, homegrown.  There was a time, though this is much less so the case now, when left intellectuals routinely branded Nandy, born into a Christian family, as a Hindu fundamentalist.  I doubt very much that he can at all be described as a man of faith, but he has kept faith with the idea that non-believers have no higher duty than to defend the right of each person to his or her faith.  One could continue in this vein, almost ad infinitum:  thus, to take one last illustration, though one can hardly describe Nandy as a biographer, it is striking that much of his work pivots around individual lives, whether it be Gandhi, Tagore, Rammohan Roy, Jagdish Chandra Bose, the mathematician Ramanujan, the ‘first modern Indian environmentalist’ Kapilprasad Bhattacharjee, the ‘first non-western psychoanalyst’ Girindrasekhar Bose, the jurist Radha Binod Pal, and many others.  These lives provide the frame around which Nandy has spun complex narratives, though some will call them yarns, about the culture of politics, the politics of culture, and the manner in which knowledge systems insinuate themselves into the praxis of everyday life.

 

The highly anomalous mold within which his thoughts are wrought lead Nandy to some extraordinary insights but also make him unusually vulnerable to attack. His writings on communalism and secularism provide a case in point.  Though scarcely all the nuances of his position can be enunciated here, one might begin with his firm view that communal riots in India are largely an urban phenomenon.  There may be many reasons for this, among them, to use Gandhi’s phrase from an interview he gave to the Reverend Mott in the mid-1930s, ‘the hard heartedness of the educated’.  This was in response to the query, ‘What filled Gandhi with the greatest despair’.  The educated in India are also prone to deploy the idioms of historical thinking, and one cannot begin to understand the conflict over the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmasthan until one has an awareness of how middle-class Hindus, much like nationalists elsewhere, have mobilized history, with consequences that were to be seen in the aftermath of the destruction of the Babri Masjid, in the service of the nation-state.  Though myth is one of the ugliest words in the lexicon of Marxists, positivists, liberals, and modernizers alike, Nandy has argued eloquently that myths are a more reliable and humane guide to the past –– and link to the future.  One of the many hidden transcripts in his recent comments on corruption among OBCs, SCs, and STs, which have enraged some people, is the implicit suggestion that the liberation of the Dalits will be better achieved by their use of creative myth-making than by attentiveness to the history of their oppression.

 

In an essay that Nandy penned on ‘the alternative cosmopolitanism of Cochin’, he demonstrates amply the radical tenor of his thinking.  He set out to inquire why Cochin, which has large numbers of Hindus, Muslims, and Christians, has been free of communal riots for 500 years.  The people he met from these ‘communities’ do not even remotely describe themselves as secular; indeed, shocking as this might be to the liberal sensibility, which insists upon the ‘caring’ ethic, an anodyne form of good neighborliness, the elimination of prejudices, even (as in the United States) diversity workshops, nearly everyone Nandy met admitted to holding rather severe stereotypes about members of the other communities.  Nandy concludes that it is, in a manner of speaking, a healthy balance of prejudices that has sustained Cochin’s religious pluralism.

 

Cochin’s ‘cosmopolitanism’ has not been imposed from above, as a diktat of the liberal state, nor does it stem from the Enlightenment’s putative idea of the fellowship of liberated rational subjects thinking beyond themselves and invested in the fate of the earth.  While the vast bulk of liberal and left scholarship has been concerned with exposing the pathology of irrationality, Nandy has spent the better part of his life zeroing in on the pathology of rationality and its most characteristic outcomes ––development, the nation-state, vivisectionist science, an (aggrieved) sense of history, to name a few.  This has entailed immense risk-taking, even hazardous remarks on more than one occasion, but where is the ethical intellectual life without such provocations?

(Published under the same title in The Times of India – The Crest Edition, 9 February 2013, p. 9.)

See the related post:  From the Ludic to the Ludicrous:  The Affair of Ashis Nandy on this site.