Brainstorm Think

The Lord of the Farms

One problem with Indian agriculture is that farmers are not in charge of their own destiny. How can we change this?

This is the midway post in our Brainstorm discussion on ‘The Crisis in Indian Agriculture’. Earlier posts: Intro123, 4.

Apologies to the readers for this Brainstorm getting held up for a while. One of our participants wasn’t well, and we hope Ajit Ranade will pitch in later in this discussion. In the meantime, we’ll move on to our second leg. Let me summarise what our participants have said about ‘The Crisis in Indian Agriculture’ so far.

Nitin Pai wrote in his essay:

Just take a look at a bulletin put out by the Union agriculture ministry and you’ll notice a flurry of activity: money being allocated, money being spent, metrics being achieved and charts showing rising graphs.

What we do not know is how India sees the future of agriculture and of farmers, and what the government, markets and civil society need to do to get there. There are programmes, schemes and budgets. But there are no goals. We are in a boat, steering and rowing in different directions at different times and different speeds, and hoping we’ll get to a destination we have not decided on.

Talking of piecemeal reforms in terms of yeh karo, woh karo is indeed going to get us nowhere. Are we going to address the root causes of the disease that plagues Indian agriculture, or just mess around with the symptoms? Do we even understand what those root causes are? I’m going to ask Nitin, in his next piece, to lay out what he feels our roadmap should be.

Kumar Anand disagreed with Nitin’s asserion that there needs to be a central roadmap:

Just as Indian IT or banking or finance or manufacturing doesn’t have any national goals, Indian agriculture doesn’t need one either. Just as participants in all other sectors can (and do) coordinate through the market mechanisms of prices and profit and loss, so could every farmer – if only we let them be.

There is no reason why agriculture should be treated differently. There is nothing about agriculture that necessitates so many interventions, except possibly that it involves a large number of adult Indians who are eligible to vote.

Kumar’s contention is that Indian agriculture is in a mess because the forms that have freed up other sectors haven’t touched agriculture yet. He says that there are no free markets in any area of the farmer’s existence. “[F]armers neither get a fair price for their produce, nor are their input costs determined in the market. They don’t even have the option of getting out without taking a definite big loss.”

I’d argue that Nitin and Kumar aren’t on different pages, and when Nitin speaks of a roadmap, he doesn’t mean an interventionist one but a reformist one. What do we need to do to free our farmers, and how do we get there? What does the political economy look like in this context? What are the interest groups against such reforms? How do we get past this?

Mrinal Pande pointed out the gender issue in farming with these stunning statistics:

It is a well-known but seldom formally acknowledged fact that women are the backbone of farming all over the world. In a developing country like India, they produce 60-80% percent of the total food output. Their work on the farms (of which they only own 9.3%, by a generous estimate) is hard, and the work hours are devilishly long. According to a report of the Food and Agriculture Association, in the Himalayan region, on a one-acre farm, women put 3485 hours of work each year. The comparative figures for men and bullocks in the region are 1212 hours (men) and 1064 (bullocks).

The state of women in agriculture is an issue that goes beyond farming, and extends to healthcare, education and, most importantly, social attitudes. For that reason, as Mrinal points out, we cannot “repose faith in a magic bullet for Mahila Sashaktikaran like “Beti Padhao Beti Bachao.” Even if were to magically solve all the structural issues of Indian agriculture overnight, we would not be able to do much about the pervasive misogyny on Indian society. But is their poverty one reason these women are trapped? Would growing prosperity empower them, at least a little?

Manoj Harit, a farmer himself, pointed out how farmers are strapped in “a vicious circle of ignorance and poverty.” Their problem is not just lack of money, but also a lack of knowledge. Manoj illustrated this by explaining how agrochemicals are used in India. He concluded:

So the long and short of the entire discussion is that the Indian farmer is a “milch cow” — that too, a stray. Everyone is preying on the farmer to milk him.

Our next post from each of our participants doesn’t have to be a full-blown essay, and can just be a pithy post with further thoughts of their own, maybe responding to the other participants, maybe pointing out angles none of us have looked at thus far. Watch this space!

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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.