Speaking up for dry-land farmers in Maharashtra

The discourse in the state treats all farmers—small, medium, big, irrigated and rain-fed—as a homogeneous entity, ignoring differences in the severity of their problems


Photo: AP
Photo: AP

Sharad Pawar breached an unwritten rule of Maharashtra politics. Recently, he spoke about the woes of small farmers, albeit those in the irrigated belt. He regretted that a sugarcane farmer of barely two acres of land is often viewed as a rich farmer and that too, rather contemptuously. The statement implied the defence of state support for small farmers, a rare occurrence in the state-level political discourse.

The small farmer is never the focus of a larger political debate. The specificity of his/her issues is rarely discussed, especially with any reference to landholding. Even the distinction between dry-land agriculturists and those with irrigation is rare. The discourse in the state treats all types of farmers—small, medium, big, irrigated and rain-fed—as a homogeneous entity, ignoring differences in the severity of their problems.

However, this wasn’t always so. There was a time when small and dry-land farmers received greater space in the political debate. Even Pawar, who now represents only the irrigated belt, started his political career by organizing small farmers and labourers for the implementation of MGNREGA (then known as the Employment Guarantee Scheme). This was many decades ago and he has come a long way since then. But his stature as the tallest farmers’ leader in the state remains intact.

To be sure, there are also other ‘farmers’ leaders’ not belonging to any established party. But they too largely represent farmers in the irrigated belt. It seems ironical that more than 80% of the parched land in the state hasn’t thrown up any ‘farmers’ leader’. What explains this paradoxical situation? Can a politician acquire this stature without using the irrigation plank? To answer this, we need to visit the history of the farmers’ movement in the state.

The 1980s saw an emergence of strong farmers’ movements in different parts of the country. Low output prices and rising input prices had twisted the terms against agriculture in favour of industry. The brilliant transformation of Michael Lipton’s thesis of exploitative relationship between “town and country” into “India and Bharat” by Sharad Joshi in Maharashtra caught the imagination of farmers not just in the state, but also the entire country.

Lipton’s work showed how the Indian government ‘twisted’ agricultural prices in favour of the industrial sector. This enabled them to pay lower wages to their workers as food prices were checked. The demand for remunerative prices for farm produce had a strong moral anchor in this thesis. This demand shook the established farmers’ leadership in the state. It was soon endorsed by all the parties. This agitation offered stiff resistance to the policy of price suppression and changed it to a large extent.

This was a historic success. However, there were undesirable fallouts too. For strategic reasons, the movement projected farmers as a uniform social group.

The pressing issue of irrigation, for example, was never touched by Joshi’s Shetkari Sanghatana. Those who raised the issue of irrigation or equitable distribution of water were ridiculed for ignoring the larger issue of ‘price suppression’ and were seen as a threat to the so-called farmers’ unity.

Price is one issue that unites all types of farmers. The agitation remained primarily focused on two cash crops—sugarcane and cotton—but it effectively thwarted the political discourse around the issues of irrigation and equity in water distribution.

Although Joshi couldn’t succeed politically, his politics helped the establishment to claim leadership of poor dry-land agriculturists without voicing their concerns. If this wasn’t bad enough, some of these so-called farmers’ leaders also opposed government schemes that could benefit the small farmers. The strategy was to draw a fictitious wedge between farmers and labourers. The fact that most of the small dry-land farmers are also labourers was conveniently ignored and MGNREGA was projected as a scheme only for labourers and hence anti-farmer.

It is noteworthy that political support to schemes that tackle the core issue of dry-land agriculturists came from former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan and now from current chief minister Devendra Fadnavis; both are not known as farmers’ leaders. Chavan stepped up spending under MGNREGA and gave a boost to the construction of small water conservation structures. Fadnavis has made this latter initiative his flagship programme. The success of these initiatives is another question. But this has at least put the spotlight on the core concerns of dry-land farmers.

Pawar was absolutely right when he spoke about small sugarcane growers. A sugarcane farmer with two acres of land could have an annual income of about Rs2.5 lakh and is certainly not rich. But he at least has assured water and other subsidies, including state support to the sugar industry. Most of the small dry-land farmers are not even close to this.

Maharashtra badly needs a political voice that will speak for the majority of farmers neglected for so long.

Milind Murugkar writes about contemporary economic and political issues.

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