The crisis of farmer politics
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Recent attempts by Rahul Gandhi to mobilize farmers during his Kisan Yatra might not revive the fortunes of the Congress party in Uttar Pradesh, but they did contribute to bringing the issues of farmers and agriculture to the political mainstream. Given that almost half of the total workers in the country are still engaged in farming and the majority of households in rural areas are still dependent on agriculture, directly or indirectly, issues confronting the farming community are naturally an important electoral plank. More so in an environment where rural areas, and the agricultural sector in particular, have been in some distress in recent years. Notwithstanding the good monsoon this year after back-to-back drought years, most commentators agree that the rural economy and the agricultural sector may not be out of distress.
While the Kisan Yatra by the Congress may be seen only as a political ploy, the real question that needs to be asked is: What happened to farmers’ politics in the country? Recently, some political parties, including Swaraj Abhiyan, have been mobilizing farmers on issues concerning them and agriculture, but this is not a substitute for a genuine farmer movement.
This is not to say that the politics around farmers’ issues is no longer relevant for political parties; most parties have a farmers’ wing. But there is certainly no pan-Indian farmer movement or leader who is seen espousing the cause of the agricultural sector.
Historically, politics around agriculture has been central to national politics. This was expected, given the high dependence on agriculture in the early years after independence. Most of the politics then was around land reform, with the land movement throwing up respected leaders. But this changed after the green revolution when regional powerhouses of farmer politics started emerging.
During the 1970s and ’80s, farmer leaders not only managed to mobilize farmers in different parts of the country but were also instrumental in changing the policy on agriculture. Notable among them were Charan Singh and Devi Lal as also leaders such as Balram Jakhar, Sharad Joshi and Mahendra Singh Tikait. The emergence of these leaders was partly a result of the growing income of farmers in regions where the green revolution was successful, even though these leaders’ influence was limited to the regions they belonged to.
But this kind of farmer politics also led to a situation where the politics of agriculture shifted from issues facing agriculture in general to specific issues concerning specific crops. Issues such as land reforms, greater investment in agriculture and profitability were pushed to the background by demands for better price support in the form of minimum support prices (MSP). Not surprisingly, most of the leaders catered to surplus farmers in western Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra and Gujarat and their demands were mainly for better MSP for rice, wheat and sugarcane.
It is also worth mentioning that most of them were seen as leaders of dominant farming communities or caste groups that benefited from rising profitability and price support.
But this changed after the 1990s. The opening up of the economy coincided with declining fortunes in agriculture, with the 1997-2003 period being acknowledged as the worst since the green revolution. Agriculture’s declining fortunes also coincided with the increasing role of the non-farm sector in rural areas, with most young people in such areas preferring to stay away from farming. But what has also changed is the nature of farming itself. One important change has been in the cropping pattern with the rise of commercial crops and horticulture, which are less dependent on state support than rice and wheat.
While the politics around MSP for rice and wheat continues, horticulture crops as well as commercial crops are more dependent on market conditions than state support.
The opening up of the agricultural sector to foreign trade has also created new sources of vulnerability such as extreme price volatility, as has been seen in recent years. Another change has been the growing monetization of input costs, which has led to increasing demand for credit in agriculture. This has also been contributed by a rise in input costs of fertilizers, irrigation and wages. With the decline in formal credit institutions and increase in dependence on informal credit institutions, the level of indebtedness has continued to rise.
Even though a substantial population is still engaged in farming, the increased rural vulnerabilities have not materialized in the mobilization of farmers on issues related to agriculture. But it has allowed traditional mainstream parties to support demands for loan waivers as short-term solutions. However, this has led to a situation where the real issues of rising input costs and the nature of state support to agriculture in a globalized world have been relegated to becoming secondary concerns.
Unfortunately, it has also led to a situation where dominant farming communities from regions that were known for strong farmer movements are now on the streets demanding reservation but no longer seem interested in seeking better incomes and state support for farming.
Himanshu is an associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi.