With the passing of Sunderlal Bahuguna on May 21, the great social activist who added the “Chipko Movement” to the glossary of environmentalists worldwide, COVID has found one of its most illustrious victims. Bahuguna was hospitalized on May 8 after testing positive for the coronavirus and breathed his last nearly two weeks later, dying from complications arising from COVID. His death is rightly being mourned as a monumental loss to the Indian environmental movement. He was also, however, one of the last great witnesses to the Gandhi era—that is a loss which is almost inestimable.Continue reading
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.
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.
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.
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]