Where have India’s farmer leaders gone?

Movements thrive when participants believe their cause is worth fighting for. Agriculture per se is no longer viewed as an avenue for upward mobility.

Written by Harish Damodaran | Published: May 5, 2015 12:50 am
agriculture, agriculture india, india agriculture, agricultural industry india, india agricultural industry, india farmers, farmers india, farmer leaders, agriculture news, farmers news, land bill news, india news Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Mahendra Singh Tikait addresses a farmers’ rally at Sisauli in the presence of then Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, Deputy Prime Minister Devi Lal, and UP Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav. Express Archives

Almost everyone agrees Indian agriculture is in crisis. And while 2014-15 may have produced the “perfect storm” by way of sliding global commodity prices, monsoon failures and untimely rains/hailstorms, this is a crisis that’s been building up for long.

But that raises a question: Given the extended “crisis” in farming, why do we have so few farmer leaders of standing today? This, for a country with a history of agrarian activism going back to Sir Chhotu Ram in undivided Punjab, Sahajanand Saraswati in Bihar, Baldev Ram Mirdha in Rajasthan, Charan Singh in UP, N G Ranga in Andhra — and, more recently, the likes of Mahendra Singh Tikait, M D Nanjundaswamy and Sharad Joshi?

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By contrast, one cannot name any notable ground-level mobilisers of farmers now. The influence of Raju Shetti and V M Singh is confined to the sugarcane belts of southern Maharashtra and western UP respectively. Other self-appointed ‘farm leaders’ have no base among those they claim to speak for, and draw sustenance more from agri-business corporates or European aid agencies.

What explains this decline in autonomous, grassroots-based farmers’ movements — remember Tikait’s Boat Club rallies that used to bring Lutyens’ Delhi to a halt in the 80s? Shouldn’t crises be breeding ground for new generations of farmer-activists, rather than creating a vacuum for the Rahul Gandhis and the Arvind Kejriwals to rush into?
Well, the reason this isnt happening is probably because the current “crisis” in agriculture is different from the earlier ones.

In the past, Indian farmers largely saw a future, both for themselves and their children, in agriculture. The increase in crop yields from the Green Revolution and rising disposable incomes made agriculture a worthwhile career option, notwithstanding the occasional crop failure or price slump. Having experienced upward mobility through modern intensive agriculture, they developed a collective consciousness to defend these gains. Movements thrive when participants have a stake in the cause they believe is worth fighting for. When the farm sector was doing reasonably well and options outside of agriculture were limited, it was natural for farmers to assert against any perceived injustices and rally behind leaders from within their own ranks.

That situation has changed. Between 2003-04 and 2013-14, thanks to the global commodity boom, rural incomes went up — but it also fuelled rising aspirations in a context of overall economic growth creating employment opportunities outside of agriculture. A 2003 NSSO situation assessment study revealed that 40% of Indian farmers would rather “take up some other career”. In the following years, they, perhaps for the first time, actually saw exit options open up.

The nature of farmers’ demands, too, has evolved in recent times to reflect their non-agricultural aspirations. Not many now envisage a future for their children or even themselves as agriculturalists. While retaining one foot in farming, the old commitment and motivation — extending to laying siege to the national/state capitals for weeks over power tariffs or minimum support prices — is missing. When agriculture per se is no longer viewed as an avenue for upward mobility, it shouldn’t surprise that even the odd farmer agitation is centered more on issues of land acquisition or job reservations, as against remunerative prices for crops.

The protests against the Land Acquisition Ordinance is precisely because of farmers’ willingness to explore options outside of agriculture, while, at the same time, not forgoing their bargaining power with respect to pricing of land. That power is what the dilution of the “consent clause” in the 2013 Act is seen to be taking away.

The farmer knows his land has value beyond the crops it produces. It is unlocked when put to non-agricultural uses, and the bighas get converted into square feet of real estate. This new value can’t be captured only by a quadrupling of so-called market rates.

Farmers’ movements could yet get a fresh lease of life — even though the issues might not be “agrarian” in the conventional sense. The government is partially right to say that farm suicides or falling crop realisations have little to do with the Land Ordinance. But to the extent it has become a rallying point for “real” farm issues to also emerge, technical distinctions may have only limited relevance.

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