Brainstorm Think

The Crisis in Indian Agriculture

In which we kick off yet another Brainstorm discussion.

Indian agriculture is in a crisis. In these charged times, it has become fashionable to ascribe political reasons to everything: and yet, farmers across the country are not agitating for political reasons but for humanitarian ones. As India talks of marching ahead, our farmers are being left behind.

Welcome to the second edition of Brainstorm, the discussion section on Pragati. Every few weeks, we will gather a few fine minds and discuss a specific subject in a leisurely way, one essay at a time, over a few weeks. (You can read about the modalities here.) Our discussion will be civil, unrushed, respectful. In our first Brainstorm, we discussed ‘The Future of the Indian Republic.’ The theme for this one is ‘The Crisis in Indian Agriculture.’ Our discussants are Ajit Ranade, Kumar Anand, Manoj Harit, Mrinal Pande and Nitin Pai.

The crisis in Indian agriculture is an ongoing crisis, and not a new one. And yet, after decades of bad policy, we are now reaching a breaking point. In many different spheres, we have simultaneously come across a critical crossroads. Agriculture is the most important of them.

Consider that half our country lives off the agricultural economy, either directly or indirectly. The comparable figure in most advanced countries is a single-figure percentage. Around half the country engaging in a sector that produces around 14% of our GDP is not sustainable.

Furthermore, thanks to bad regulations, our farmers are effectively trapped in agriculture. They are not allowed to sell agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes, which reduces the value of their land. (To as much as 1/40th of its worth, as Shruti Rajagopalan explains in this podcast.) Corporatisation is not allowed, which forces farmers to master two very different skills – farming and entrepreneurship. (Pavan Srinath and Karthik Shashidhar speak about the unfairness of this here.)

Due to these regulations restricting the sale of land, land holdings get divided with each generation, till they are too small to be sustainable. It is no surprise that many of the recent job agitations in India – the Jats in Haryana, the Patidars in Gujarat – come from land-owning castes. (Vivek Kaul speaks about it in this podcast.) Farm-loan waivers are equal to giving a paracetamol to a person with terminal cancer, and do nothing to alleviate the problem, as Kaul and Kumar Anand illustrate in this podcast.

In that same episode, Anand points out how free markets don’t exist for farmers. They have price controls in place when it comes to inputs, and restrictions placed on them when it comes to selling their produce. While much of the rest of the country has moved on to relatively free markets, our agricultural sector is still stuck in a failed paradigm owing much to Soviet Russia.

These discussions can sometimes get dry and wonkish, and while we chase the bigger picture, we can sometimes lose sight of the smaller ones. What is raw data for an economist is millions of individual human tragedies, playing out in home after home in village after village in this country. It is important to keep an eye on these countless unheard stories – especially on those of the women, the invisible half of our population, who are often left out of this discourse, and who labour under the dual burdens of Policy and Patriarchy. Mrinal Pande wrote eloquently about this a few weeks ago, and we look forward to more insights.

As far as possible, a new Brainstorm piece will appear every Tuesday and Thursday. The first essay in this series will appear on Thursday, July 13, and will be written by Nitin Pai. Watch this space!

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.