Gajendra Singh Kalyanvat killed himself at the AAP rally on Wednesday, apparently in a bid to draw attention to the plight of farmers. The political blame game over his death has been manipulative and insensitive. It does grave disservice to the issues he sought to highlight. The grim reality is that unseasonal rains have destroyed crops in large parts of northern India — over 93.81 lakh hectares, according to a government estimate — when farmers are still to recover from last year’s drought. The controversy over the land bill may only have added to the mounting insecurities in the countryside. The political class’s sudden interest in the farmer’s predicament and its hastening to take up his cause would be welcome if the current discussion promised to yield anything more than a rehashing of frozen cliches. So far, it doesn’t.
Politics centred on farmers is as old as the independence movement. With over half of India’s workforce still dependent on agriculture, they make for an influential political constituency. Communist parties have focused on landless farm workers and peasants in the south and the east, while the socialists mobilised the better-off farmers in the northern states. The Congress, too, cultivated a farmer votebank, especially in the western states, while the BJP primarily concentrated on non-farm communities. Down the years, however, though the rural economy has diversified beyond agriculture, the political discourse hasn’t reflected the change. When Rahul Gandhi calls the Modi government “anti-farmer” and the BJP retorts that it is with the farmers, both appear to be talking of an idealised figure bonded to the soil. Parties could serve farmers’ interests better if they went to the field, did a reality check.
Agriculture is showing stress because of the lack of crucial reform in the sector — in procurement, marketing, credit, storage and crop insurance — while policy continues to view agriculture and industry as silos. The two sectors must be seen as part of the same economic continuum, the dots must be connected, complementarities identified. That would go a long way in alleviating distress on the farm — the result of overreliance on the monsoon, unstable prices, fragmentation of land holdings, degradation of farm land — and also help farmers to explore greater livelihood options outside agriculture and supplement their earnings from non-farm work. As in Punjab, for instance, where the gains of the green revolution plateaued long ago, the Indian farmer needs a new wind to move ahead.