We Must Save Our Farmers

It is our collective shame that our farmers are in this sorry state today. Fundamental reforms are needed to save them, and not just short-term fixes.

Mumbai is host today to farmers from across the state who have gathered for an agitation. At the time of writing, they have been graceful in their behaviour. They do not want to disrupt life in the city. Yesterday, they heard that kids had board exams to give on Monday, and traffic blockages could be a problem. So they decided not to march on Monday, but through Sunday night instead. They care about the future of those children – but for 71 years, we have not given a damn about our farmers.

The state that our farmers are in is a collective shame. Every single government this nation has had is to blame – and so are we, for not raising our voices.

First, let us recap where we are today. More than half the country depends on agriculture for a living, though only 14% of India’s GDP comes from it. This is not sustainable. In Western countries, the figure is in the single digits – though it was once higher than ours is now. Too many Indians are trapped in farming, with no escape route. Too many farmers commit suicide every year.

These deaths are the fault of the state, and of bad public policy.

What are the bad policies that have brought us here? We discussed many of them in a Brainstorm discussion a few months ago, but let me recap the major ones.

One, farmers are not allowed to sell land for non-agricultural purposes. This means that they are basically stuck in farming. They cannot realise the true value of their land, which is like dead capital for them. This lack of mobility even exacerbates the problem of caste. And as per-person land holdings shrink with every generation, it becomes harder and harder to make a living.

Consider that many of the recent agitations across the country – the Jats in Haryana, the Patidars in Gujarat, the Marathas in Maharashtra – have been by land-owning castes for whom that land has become a burden and not a blessing.

Two, farmers are not allowed free markets in any aspect of their existence: their inputs and outputs are controlled by the state. The information that the price system would have carried if it was allowed to function never reaches them, and they do not benefit from markets as the rest of the country has. We liberalised some parts of our economy in 1991 — but our Agriculture still follows the failed Soviet model.

How can our farmers be the masters of their destiny when they are enslaved by the state in this manner?

The farmers who are agitating today are not asking for the fundamental reforms that Indian agriculture needs. They are in dire straits, and cannot wait for long-term solutions. They want farm-loan waivers. They want higher MSPs. And on on.

These measures will perpetuate the cycle of dependency that these farmers are trapped in. But we cannot blame the farmers for making these demands. Any rational person in their place would do the same. You want to eat today and live tomorrow before you think of the long-term future. You want an anaesthetic when you are screaming with pain, not an enquiry into root causes.

A friend of mine put it well: A drowning man will not ask you for a dam repair — he will ask you for a lifejacket.

These lifejackets dissolve in water.

Our farmers deserve short-term relief – and they will get it, because politicians need their votes and will listen. But beyond that, they deserve to never have to march like this again. That requires long-term fixes that our politicians do not have the incentives to carry out right now. There are too many special interests in the way – and not enough of a demand from the general public.

This goes beyond party politics. The problem started with Nehru and continues with Modi. Our politicians either do not see the problem, or they do not see the benefit of making the effort to solve it. The solution, therefore, lies only with us. Unless enough of us demand a change, nothing will happen. Our farmers will keep coming to our cities to agitate – and who can blame them if they are not always so graceful about it?

About the author

Amit Varma

Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. A journalist for a decade-and-a-half, he won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007 and 2015. He writes the blog India Uncut, and hosts the podcast, The Seen and the Unseen. He is the editor of Pragati.