Mahendra Singh Tikait’s political career took off long after productivity growth in Green Revolution had begun to taper off. The career of this rich farmers’ leader—who died on Sunday—was emblematic of what went wrong with policymaking on agriculture in India.
Urban India always associated Tikait with negative images: the chaos on the roads of Delhi whenever he and his followers descended on the Capital to press some demand and the mess these sons of the soil left behind. But he was much more than that.
After the late Charan Singh, he was the moving force behind the formidable farm lobby in north India. Seen from that vantage, one could say he became a leader in his own right only after Singh left the stage. But seen from the prism of the political economy of agricultural policymaking, he began long after the initial package of incentives for farmers in Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh had mutated into an addictive mix of subsidies. Today, it is impossible to wean off farmers from them without explosive political consequences.
One can divide the period from the late 1960s—when the Green Revolution began—to 1995, which can be marked as a typical post-Green Revolution year, into roughly two phases. The first phase lasted until 1980 or thereabout and the second from 1980 to 1995. In the first period, a package of high yielding seeds, artificial irrigation and readily available credit were used to boost farm output.
Tikait’s successes and ability to mobilize farmers occurred in the second period. This is not surprising. For this was the time when farmers in north India were most vociferous about cheap fertilizers, fuel, and free electricity and, of course, skyhigh minimum support prices for crops such as rice and wheat. The original Green Revolution package was expected to provide enough surpluses to farmers that at a later date they could plough a part of these returns back into farming.
Instead, by 1985 these farmers had organized themselves into a formidable lobby that demanded cheaper inputs and higher returns for their produce. By that time north Indian states were producing large amounts of foodgrains whose cost—in terms of subsidies required—could not be justified. Tikait, among others, ensured that these expensive and wasteful policies continued unabated. Given their geographic concentration and relatively small number (compared with the number of farmers across the country), their “success” was astounding. The cost to the country is, however, another matter. That is the legacy of Mahendra Singh Tikait.
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