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Friday, January 28, 2022

Lessons from the farmers’ movement

M Kunhaman writes: Apart from meeting all their demands, a comprehensive centrally-sponsored land reform programme must also be implemented

Written by M Kunhaman |
Updated: December 17, 2021 9:48:36 am
Farmers return from Singhu border to Punjab

The historic struggle of Indian farmers has ended with the central government acceding to many of the movement’s demands, the chief one being the repeal of the controversial farm laws. If only the prime minister had taken the decision much earlier, many precious lives could have been saved. But then, this is human nature — lessons are learnt late, especially in the case of experiential learning. At any rate, better late than never. The demand to extend legally-guaranteed MSPs to all crops has far-reaching implications for crop diversification, optimising land use, ensuring environmental and economic sustainability and regulating migration by bringing about rural-urban osmotic sustainability.

The farmers’ movement was, by no means, an all-India struggle but one by a relatively better-off section of Indian rural society from three states (Punjab, Haryana and UP), who had the economic power and an unswerving commitment to their cause to sustain the protest.

The farmers successfully withstood the ingenious attempts of political parties to appropriate the movement by parachuting career leaders from “above” and “outside”. Many political parties are likely disappointed by the loss of this unprecedented opportunity to serve the “annadatas”. It was a struggle (by no means a class struggle, as no class was ranged against another class but against specific policies) under an organic leadership, relying on conviction, grit and tenacity. The movement thus managed to project a form of non-party politics, reminiscent of the fisherfolks’ struggle in Kerala in the 1980s. Additionally, the movement was non-violent, despite the state resorting to underhand and unethical means (including efforts to divide it along communal lines).

The lesson from this is clear and loud: A struggle, in order to succeed, need not necessarily be violent. After all, peace yields high dividends. Governments, both at the Centre and in states, are forced to carefully and patiently analyse questions before designing their responses, rather than treating them as matters to be “dealt with” as “law and order” problems. Political sagacity and equanimity can be superior to the brazen use of state power.

Not being swayed by quotidian political aspirations, reliance on organic leadership, adhering to non-violent methods even in the face of provocations and violence gave the farmers’ cause credibility, authenticity and drew support from across the world. No less important is the solidarity showed by landless farm labourers, the most vulnerable section of society, whose precarity arising from a lack of economic security came to the fore during the Covid-19 pandemic as never before.

For historical reasons, the majority of this precariat belongs to a specific social category. Their survival depends on a viable land reforms programme predicated on two criteria — employment and a source of income. Such a programme needs to be designed on an all-India scale, deployed as a central law. In various parts of the country, land struggles of the dispossessed and deprived farm labourers are taking place. These struggles now need the farmers’ support. These labourers are under the tutelage of trade unions, controlled by career politicians, “leaders” whose class interests are antithetical to those of the landless. They support struggles for wage rise but suppress demands for land. Such movements must also be led by an organic leadership. Let us build a new solidarity to create a “society of freely associated
producers”.

In India, the time is not yet ripe for a “minimalist state”, given the bearing economic policies have on socio-economic situations and behavioural patterns. However, the state’s “responses from above”, rather than being determined solely by electoral compulsions, must, instead, be predicated on the long-term considerations of sustainability and equity. Such a perspective calls for statesmanship rather than decisions that emanate from fluctuating political reflexes. The need to provide universal economic security, and raise rural incomes by enhancing productivity and ensuring higher value realisation is unexceptionable. The fate of the rural economy cannot be left to the vagaries of the market: While producers should be enabled to avail themselves of market highs, they must not be left completely at the mercy of the downswings. This entails calibrated policy interventions. Rhetoric and emotions must take a back seat in policy formulation.

It is worth mentioning that the farmers set great store by government policies, highlighting that they do not favour a laissez-faire approach, even in this neo-liberal era. It has also been made clear that while welcoming market forces, they are unambiguously opposed to the corporate takeover of the agriculture sector, thus indicating the importance of food security. The Centre and state governments must recognise that the investment in the sector is deplorably low and immediately raise public investment particularly in irrigation, land improvement, technology and enhancing and enforcing land connectivity.

In addition to conceding to all the demands raised by the farmers, the clarity and relevance of the vision emerging from their position must be recognised and utilised. The fact that they do not want to be swamped by “outside” (read corporate) forces augurs well for the country. The challenge, in addition to dealing with the range of issues emanating from meeting the demands raised by the farmers, is to bring about a comprehensive centrally-sponsored land reforms programme and convert the rural sector into a society of independent producers.

This column first appeared in the print edition on December 17, 2021 under the title ‘Moving to clean energy’. The writer is an economist and a former professor at TISS, Tuljapur Campus

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