Home >politics >policy >Are farmer movements in India changing course?

New Delhi: In the winter of 1988 when the feisty farmer leader from Uttar Pradesh, Mahendra Singh Tikait, laid siege to Delhi with thousands of cultivators and their cattle literally creating a mess of the boat club lawns, agriculture’s share in India’s gross domestic product (GDP) was about 30%.

About three decades later, the farm sector’s share in GDP has plunged to around 15%, but the share of workforce dependent on agriculture has not seen any significant fall. About 55% of India’s workers are either farmers or farm hands; in the 1980s, this number used to be 60%.

Between then and now, the nature of farming has changed, with rural households moving away from producing grains for subsistence to growing high-value commercial and perishable crops where price risks are high.

For the $2.3 trillion economy of India, Asia’s third largest, one number—over half of the country’s workforce engaged in an enterprise that is not only non-remunerative but also fraught with production and price risks—tellingly explains the anger which took over India’s rural hinterland in June. The fact that farmers chose the bumper crop year of 2016-17 to protest means they were willing to pardon governments for consecutive years of drought (in 2014 and 2015), seeing it as an “Act of God", but not when crop prices plunged while the government allowed cheap imports.

While India’s farmer movements remain as fragmented as its farm holdings—by a moderate count, there are more than 200 farmer organisations divided across crop and regional lines—yet, by end of July farmers across the country successfully put forth two of their core demands to policymakers at the Centre and the states. They did so in innovative ways like spilling milk and vegetables on highways, or appearing to consume dead rats, soil and urine at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, even filing a complaint with the government for weather forecasts gone wrong—certain that each of their moves will be picked up by television news channels and force governments to act.

To begin with, these protesting farmers demanded a waiver of loans and better prices for their harvest. But that is not the end, they said.

They want a say in trade policy which they think have a pro-consumer bias. They are aware of the bailout packages and bad debts of the industries. They ask questions how metropolitan bank branches advance agriculture credit even as tenant farmers borrow from moneylenders at exorbitant rates. They also ask why farmers should bear the burden of keeping food inflation in check.

“There is this new class of young farmers who can no longer be hoodwinked," said Avik Saha, convener of the Jai Kisan Andolan, a farmer movement, on the sidelines of a protest in Delhi’s Jantar Mantar in July. “They are not your dhoti-clad, topi-wearing, hookah-smoking farmers... they have aspirations, they are educated and tech-savvy, they want a better quality of life while living in their villages."

So, it does not come as a surprise to listen to a young farmer leader from Madhya Pradesh, Kedar Sirohi, astutely dissect the Centre’s flagship crop insurance scheme at a policy think-tank’s workshop in Delhi some days back. Armed with data and field insights, Sirohi told a top official of a public sector insurance company that the farmer will be better off if the government directly pays the farmer rather than subsidizing “ridiculously" high insurance premiums.

“In some districts of Rajasthan, the actuarial premiums are 50% (of sum assured). The insurance companies are pocketing that money. Do you think we are fools? Why don’t you give us that money and we won’t trouble you when the crop is lost?" Sirohi suggested.

When asked if the Madhya Pradesh government will waive farm loans (taking a cue from states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Karnataka) to assuage farmers in a state where five died in a police firing in early June, Sirohi’s answer was a mix of strategy and humour.

“They will announce it next year just before the elections (in 2018). If they do it now—they will have to do it twice actually... once now, then again before the elections. They are not stupid. Farmers are also not stupid... we will stop repaying loans ahead of the election and force the state government to give us a waiver," Sirohi said.

Sirohi belongs to a new breed of young leaders who are avid farmers themselves and the recent round of unrest is grooming many like him: from horticulturalists in Maharashtra and potato farmers in Uttar Pradesh to avid social media campaigners like Ramandeep Mann, a Delhi-based marine engineer-turned-farm activist.

“The problem is farmers are yet to realise the power they have due to their large numbers... but just before pressing the button on the electronic voting machine a farmer forgets the identity of a farmer. He becomes a Hindu, a Muslim or one of his own caste... the day this changes things will be different and politicians will wake up to a different reality," Mann told Mint, during a visit to meet potato growers in Haryana.

“And that is a project that can consume an entire generation," said Yogendra Yadav, member of Jai Kisan Andolan, a pan-India farmers’ movement, and president of political party Swaraj Abhiyan. “What we have for now is a generational change... today’s angry young farmers have the rural experience and the urban exposure. They ask questions. They are seeking changes in policy."

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