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Saturday, July 21, 2018

A claim for dignity

It is morally obtuse and analytically misleading to see farmers’ long march as a demand for handouts

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Updated: March 13, 2018 11:09:02 am
The farmers’ rally was a deeply poignant and dignified reminder of important political truths. The farmers’ rally was a deeply poignant and dignified reminder of important political truths. (Express Photo by Prashant Nadkar)

The “long march of the farmers” in Maharashtra refocused attention on the crisis in certain regions in Indian agriculture. It should be the headline news that jolts the nation out of a complacent stupor. The protest made a series of long-standing but familiar demands: Loan waivers, increase in MSP, implementation of Forest Rights Act and wider diffusion of effective property rights, improvements in irrigation. Experts can debate the different measures needed to address these demands. But the moral significance of a moment like this is not just about the technicalities, or political partisanship. It is about the terms of the social contract.

From that point of view, the farmers’ rally was a deeply poignant and dignified reminder of important political truths. First, there is a structural invisibility of farmers that transcends political parties. It is not just a function of urban bias or the capacity of media and many other modes of representation to render our society invisible to us. It is also a function of the larger political economy, where agriculture interests are not represented effectively in political parties. And even those that are, pertain largely to defending large farmers, rather than small and marginal ones. The dignity of this protest comes from the fact that it was not just, as is sometimes the case with protest movements, relatively more privileged agrarian castes and groups asserting their power. This protest was indeed speaking the grammar of the most marginalised, many with barely an acre of land or none at all, and often hard to organise. This was not farmers as a mere pressure group wanting more; this was farmers who are being pushed even more to the margins, trying to hold on to a modicum of existence. It deserves moral attention beyond the calculus of bargaining.

It would be a mistake to think of addressing these demands of farmers merely as a form of populist gestures. The way the middle class should see this movement is not in the usual framing of palliatives and handouts. Instead, it is rather an important form of state making that perhaps more honestly articulates what so many middle-class movements profess to want, but deny others. The dispute over which cost method should be used (A2, A2 plus FL or C2) to calculate MSP support, is not about more handouts. Its underlying premise is the one that economists who are wary of populism should applaud: It wants a true reckoning of costs, rather than a misleading representation of the costs of production. Its aim is to invert the one construction of their identity that farmers are made to labour under: That they are a group that perpetually needs subsidy. But the reverse is true: By not looking at the full costs we render invisible the ways in which farmers subsidise us.

Similarly with loan waivers. In a well-functioning system, loan waivers would not be necessary, and they can be, under some circumstances, counter-productive. But it would be foolish not to recognise that in the political economy of loan waivers is also embedded a question of distributive justice and real costs. It is difficult to imagine how anyone can look the farmers in the eye and call loan waivers to them populist, in a context where banks and crony capital have been receiving unprecedented write-offs. The language of moral hazard, as applied to farmers, seems, in this context, not so much a piece of sound economic analysis, as much as a way of telling farmers that their claims don’t count for as much as those in power who can hold entire financial systems to ransom. The moral hazard lies in not taking these distributive claims seriously.

In Maharashtra at least, part of the crisis has been induced by the colossal failure of irrigation projects. There has been a shift in rethinking the appropriateness of large projects. The governance framework for irrigation has failed. Again, it is a question of how irrigation is imagined. Over the last few years, there was a qualitative shift in attention to infrastructure — roads, ports, power capacity etc and several governance and contracting innovations at least created better infrastructure on the ground, even if it did not entirely eliminate corruption. Rather than treating irrigation as a “farmers” problem, how does it become more central to our institutional and ecological imagination? Would an anti-corruption movement focus on it the same way in which spectrum became a focal point? It used to be said that the primary measure of state capacity is its irrigation system. The claims the farmers are making go to the heart of state formation.

The Forest Rights Act is controversial and many are not convinced it is the right solution to the tension between common resources and private property for livelihood. But in some ways the fact that it has been enacted, and demands are being made for better implementation, is a claim for the wider diffusion of property rights and their enforcement in the service of independence.

It is also familiar that agriculture labours under so many differential burdens. As Harish Damodaran has pointed out, agriculture is not a business in the conventional sense. It faces production and price risks. It is so regulated on a range of things from marketing to trade that the farmer has to struggle for being recognised as an economic agent. The background regulations and risk assessment required for technology adoption presupposes enormous state capacity. The political economy of federalism in India means that subsidies are unfairly distributed across crops and states. And rural India bears the brunt of the double social disadvantage that our failures in health and education impose. The rural crisis is not just an undifferentiated agrarian crisis. It is also for instance, a crisis in health, with several studies linking farmers’ suicides with high levels of morbidity. And it is also an identity crisis: A way of life often being constructed as a dead-end in part due to land fragmentation, a condition that needs to be transcended. Except there are no visible means of doing so.

In short, it would be morally obtuse and analytically misleading to see this long march as simply a demand for palliatives, subsidies, waivers. Those constructions are often used to disguise the questions of distributive justice at play, and they reinforce the stereotype of the farmer as a mere victim. The long march is instead a claim for economic agency and rationality, human dignity, political representation, and cultural visibility. It needs to be engaged on those terms.

The writer is vice-chancellor, Ashoka University. Views are personal

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