Home / Opinion / Columns /  India’s divided agrarian politics has hurt the interests of farmers

The farmers’ protest is now more than four months old. While this may be the longest in recent times, it is still geographically limited to the north-western states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. It is yet to acquire a national character, even though the demands made by protesting farmer unions have found resonance across states. This has happened despite large farmer protests seen in recent years in several agriculturally crucial states, like Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka.

The fragmented nature of peasant mobilization has been a feature of India’s agrarian politics for the last five decades. It is unlike the pre-1947 period or the first two decades of independence, when farmer unions were largely unified and led major protests on issues like land reforms. Unlike the recent phase, with farmer unions organized along regional and identity lines, the unions back then cut across such boundaries. This changing nature of ground mobilization is partly due to the emergence of unions and leaders who raise demands for a narrow set of tillers aligned with their own interests.

While leaders like Mahendra Singh Tikait, Charan Singh and Devi Lal were seen to hold sway over farmers, they were influential in their respective areas of operation, chiefly. Their demands for remunerative prices, subsidies and sugar mill arrears catered to farmers in their own regions of influence. Similarly, farm leaders in Maharashtra such as Sharad Joshi were influential in their farm belts, but failed to build alliances with their counterparts in eastern or north-western India. The Left-backed All India Kisan Sabha was mainly interested in land and tenancy reforms, and it did effect changes in West Bengal, but failed to extend the gains to other states.

It was not just affinities of identity or regional interests, but also the nature of demands put forth by farmer unions that made their politics exclusionary. These groups represented the interests of specific crop growers rather than of farmers in general. Farmer suicides in the cotton belt of Vidarbha hardly evoked the same kind of response as seen in western UP, where the struggle has been to get sugarcane arrears. Andhra Pradesh saw tobacco and chilli farmers unionize, but they did little to join hands with unions in other states. One consequence of this fragmented mobilization was that scarcely any protest arose when Bihar abolished its Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) market system (of mandis) in 2006. Since it was a state where the mandi system never worked and it contributed little to the central pool through minimum support price (MSP)-led procurement, its abolition did not generate even a murmur of protest in the last 15 years.

It’s a different matter that the current farmer protest is largely to retain the same APMC mandi structure that exists elsewhere. Most north-western states, which are the epicentre of the protest, are areas with functional APMC systems that have been beneficiaries of MSP-led procurement operations. This also partly explains why there has been such a lukewarm response to the farmer agitation in the agriculture-dominated state of Bihar or in eastern states where MSP procurements are negligible. The differences are not just crop and region specific, and have led to a fragmentation in the voicing of demands of various groups within the agricultural sector. Most farmer unions, for example, seem quite indifferent to the demand of agricultural labourers for better wages, working conditions and social protection. Likewise is the case with large landholders and owner-cultivators vis-à-vis tenant farmers, who remain largely deprived of various schemes for access to credit and other subsidies.

India’s fragmented farmer politics has not only weakened the agrarian movement, it has also made space for its manipulation by governments to their advantage. Governments have gotten away by providing only piecemeal solutions to pressing farmer problems, whether these relate to indebtedness driving tillers to take their own lives or inefficiencies of the market structure. A short-sighted approach to dealing with agrarian issues based on regional self-interests has also meant that the bargaining power of farmer unions has weakened. While the current agitation may eventually be successful, a sustainable solution to farm distress requires a unified movement based on universal principles that includes diverse interest groups. Only that can ensure better returns on farming and strong support from the government.

Himanshu is associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at the Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi

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