The Indian Farmer is Protesting About Much More Than Loan Waivers

It is about agriculture’s place in the life of our country, equity’s place in the life of our agriculture and farmers’ place in the world of equity.

The Indian farmer, and Indian agriculture, is at a cross-roads and whether they go towards ruin or rejuvenation depends on the policymakers. Credit: Paralog/Flickr CC-BY-ND 2.0

P. Sainath has to be crazy.

Or all those who read him, hear him and do nothing about what he is writing, saying, doing, have to be crazy.

He says of the Indian drought : ‘Drought horribly exacerbates misery. It adds cruelly to the crisis. It is not the cause of it. There has been deep rural distress in good monsoon years as well. Our crisis is driven by human agency, drought is that awful last straw on the agrarian back. Farmers have dealt with drought through history – today, they’re incredibly more vulnerable to it.’

Drought is accompanied by a shadow: callousness in the human agency.

The wealthy classes of the Page 3 type and the upwardly mobile middle classes are hardly hurt by drought. Hardly or not at all. They can in fact even feel good, for droughts jerk charity, generate work at the ravaged sites so that immediate hunger and thirst are alleviated. Down and out? Look at me, I am giving you a leg up! Rise and shine. So he says everybody loves a good drought. Sainath has to be crazy.

When was his book Everybody Loves A Good Drought published?

One hell of a long time ago?

Not too wrong.

Twenty years ago, in 1997.

This year is its twentieth anniversary.

Sainath was a year short of 40 then and was already known for his work in Russi Karanjia’s provocative Bombay tabloid, Blitz. He was what Blitz’s banner claimed for itself: Free, Frank, Fearless. Blitz stayed throughout its career a magazine by the city of the city and for the city. Its writers, readers were urban, its pulse throbbed radically but in spasms of metal, urban metal. Sainath was not from the villages either. Born in Madras, educated in that city and in New Delhi, he was a city-zen. But in some inexplicable switch of genetic magnets he thought gaon, felt dehat, and wanted to write facts, gramin facts. That is, facts and not stories not about the ‘top 5%’ who were dominating media but the ‘last 5%’ who seemed to exist only for Premchand pre-independence and Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, post. This was contrarian and even more ironically, helping him with a scholarship to study those facts was that mega metro Moghul, The Times of India.

Nothing golden about these fields. Credit: Prabhu B Doss/Flickr CC 2.0

That was in 1993. Villages being real India, India being ‘real’ only in the villages, ‘Go to the villages if you want to study India’, were standard clichés then as they are now. Not for Sainath, whose desire to come to grips with rural India’s rock-hard realities was a passion amounting to an obsession – impressive for most sensitive people but also tedious, hugely tedious, to those wanting the good life. Don’t see, don’t know, don’t worry. The obsession took him to a clutch of states including, principally, Bihar, then in the grip of a drought of particular ferocity.

No place, in 1993, could have been stonier, sterner and starker in its drought-caused devastation than Bihar. Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao announced large, almost unprecedented scales of relief for Bihar. Drought-relief work started then as it does now, almost wholly state-driven. The drought was asmani, the relief, sultani. Money came in, as it should have, but so did the patrimony of selection, the clasp of patronage, the power of largesse. To the two crops – rabi and kharif – was now added, Sainath heard a small peasant organiser in Palamau say, a third.

‘Where is everyone ?’ Sainath had asked him, pointing to an empty BDO’s office.

‘Everyone is at work…’

‘At work ? But I see no one…’

‘Not here…but out in the fields…reaping the teesri fasal, the third ‘crop’ – drought relief’.

Everyone, including those swiped by the evaporation of the two fasal, hailed, celebrated the third. It stood in for the failed two. It gave some food for the starving, water to the thirsty. But did it solve the roots of poverty? Did it suffice to tackle the causes of abject destitution? Was poverty, of which drought is a dramatic spectacle, to be tackled with relief, not rectification?

There was a déjà vu to all this.

Indira, JP and the great Bihar drought

Some 27 years earlier, in 1966-1967, Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh had been through a similar trauma. No rains and so no water, no crops. No crops and so no food, nothing to sell or even to eat. Dry shards of land, thirsty rib-cages of cattle and, worst of all, parched human mouths. Not monsoon failure, nor drought, but those dreaded two syllables in Hindi – a-kaal , and two in English – fa-mine. Indira Gandhi, as India’s new prime minister sensed the inadequacies of the government machine. After some weeks of indecision and prevarication, she saw that relief needed not just credit but credibility. The turbine of inspiration, determination and action in Bihar was Jayaprakash Narayan. Belatedly but clearly, she saw that drought relief, under his oversight, would stay clean and so work credibly. His non-official, all-party Bihar Relief Committee was consequently made the independent supervisor of all government relief operations and coordinator.

JP’s committee received and spent Rs 40 lakh in relief-donation, and disbursed, for the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund, Rs 90 lakh more. JP appealed for funds nationally and internationally. The pope contributed, among others though mahants nearer the scene kept their purses closed tight. The peasants were grateful for what they got, but JP was far from happy. ‘The reactions I met in Delhi to my appeals ’, he said to his biographer Wendy Scarfe, ‘were a bewildering medley of self-righteousness, complacency insensitivity, cynicism and hypocrisy. Their reactions were : “It is the Biharis own fault…You appeal for money…But what’s the use? You can’t trust anyone…”. I felt too fed up to protest or argue back’. JP discovered that some officials – even ‘back then’ in 1966-67 – were , in his words , ‘trading in human miseries’. They were realising 200 rupees per pumping set supplied to the peasant. Depressed though he was, he did not give up. In the end, Bihar relief got the better of the Bihar famine.

Sainath’s reactions are not very different. Complacency continues, callousness rules, only their nature has diversified.

Time for a white paper on the condition of Indian farmers. Credit: David Baxendale/Flickr CC-BY-ND 2.0

JP predicted then that the new high yielding crops that were being introduced by new farm technologies could sharpen existing inequalities and polarise the rural community unless the benefits flowed to small tenants and landless cultivators. It could, he said, even lead (in Wendy Scarfe’s words) to ‘ an explosion until a national minimum was assured…’

A national minimum? JP too sounded crazy. Even the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, Asoka Mehta, an old JP comrade who helped the Bihar committee enthusiastically, could not comprehend the idea of the national minimum.

Swaminathan ignored

Half a century on, in 2017, what JP said then and what Sainath has been saying over the last two decades is happening right in our faces. Not just droughts but endemic neglect and wrong-doing have made India’s agriculture a theatre of crises and turned farmers, in a world record of grimness, to suicide. As rural affairs editor of The Hindu earlier and now as the founder of the Peoples Archive of Rural India – PARI – Sainath has been speaking and writing, documenting and reporting unceasingly. Neither he nor Yogendra Yadav who with his Swaraj Abhiyan has been sensitising India to rural poverty will accept comparison with JP. But who was – or is – crazy ? The whistle blowers or those who refuse to hear the warnings?

The ‘Farmers’ Report’ presented by the chairman of the National Commission on Farmers, M.S. Swaminathan, to the erstwhile UPA government had warned of telescoping disasters. The Swaminathan recommendations included

  • Improvement in implementation of minimum support price (MSP) not just for paddy and wheat but for crops other than paddy and wheat as well. And, most significantly,
  • MSP being at least 50% more than the weighted average cost of production.

The MSP has been at the heart of farmers’ agitations in recent weeks. It was my privilege to accompany Sainath for a day, a day too little, in western Maharashtra earlier this week. Monsoon clouds were out in the sky. They seemed determined to moisten the earth. But Maharashtra’s peasants were out in the fields all over the state. They were determined to stir the state. ‘The agitation is spreading’, Sainath told me. ‘There is a great new determination among the peasants to ask for what they see as their fundamental right. It is not about loan waivers alone. It is not about relief but justice. It is about produce and pricing, work and wages… And this in a situation where statistics are being manipulated to show a decline in farmers’ suicides against the testimony of actual corpses.’ As we motored into the interior news came in of preventive arrests. Farmers agitating non-violently for basic human needs being arrested preventively ? Crazy – who ?

What farmers want

My visit to the Karad region of Sangli was in connection with a commemoration organised by PARI of a memorable event that had occurred during the freedom struggle – the Shenoli train loot of June 7, 1943. Leaders and members of a revolutionary band called the Toofan Sena had stopped a train that was carrying payroll, seized the currency and, keeping what was necessary to organise ‘independence’, distributed it to the local peasantry. Satara district, of which Sangli was then part, came under what is called the prati sarkar or parallel government which ran miraculously and memorably for some three years – 1943 to 1946 – under the leadership of Nana Patil. This was a formidable occurrence, as rare as it was audacious. ‘Original players’, now in their 90s, of that movement and their descendants had converged in the village of Kundal, to mark the anniversary. Speakers stayed to the agenda, namely, commemoration of the train loot and of the prati sarkar. But the ongoing agitation is what was on everyone’s mind.

Farmers sowing seeds on their field at Yenpe village in Karad, Maharashtra on Saturday. Credit: PTI

As farmers were being fired upon, jailed, beaten we heard of the RBI’s governor speaking of the ‘moral hazard’ of loan waivers and of ‘fiscal rectitude’ in not giving the waivers. Urjit Patel is not to be faulted. He was doing the dharma of an RBI governor. But others in the country who are trustees not of currency but of life, not state budgets but of domestic livelihoods, have their own dharma to perform. They must think of the moral hazard of farms turning into doormats and farmers into helots. They must think of the ethical rectitude of letting our food providers languish. Are the chief ministers of UP, Punjab, Delhi, Tamil Nadu and other states taking upon themselves the onus of repaying banks and waiving loans doing something that is void of morality or rectitude ? Making fiscal deficit figures a priority in a drought-exacerbated year of agrarian distress is akin to painting the horns of a bullock that is dying of thirst. And saying, as we polish it, ‘Look how they gleam!’

But the agitation in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh facing violent repression including police firings and preventive arrests, is not about loan waivers alone. It is about agriculture’s place in the life our country, equity’s place in the life of our agriculture, and farmers’ place in the world of equity. Farmers and farms are in crisis. Loss of topsoil, loss of dignity, loss of livelihood and behind all this, the absence of someone like Jayaprakash Narayan to speak of their agony, of the injustice of the pricing system, the purchase system, the profit system, nationally, non-politically, but passionately, is what the agitation is about. And to compound the crisis is a new zulm – the preventive arrests of farmers and farmers’ leaders.

The waiver of farm loans and MSP+50% are necessary but those essential steps may also end up being a new ‘love of drought’, unless we see agriculture with completely fresh eyes. Sainath asks for a special session of parliament, 10 days at least to

  1. discuss the agrarian crisis
  2. study and debate the Swaminathan Commission’s report
  3. place a white paper on the table, not on agriculture growth figures, but the condition of India’s farmers
  4. decide on which way, in what direction, India’s agriculture should go.

To not do that would be morally hazardous.

And historically unacceptable in the centenary year of the Champaran satyagraha and of Lokamanya Tilak’s declaration ‘Swaraj is my birthright,’ made on 1 June 1916, not far from where a hundred and one years later , on  June, 8, 2017, Dhanaji Chandrakant Jadhav hanged himself leaving a suicide note that said ‘I am a farmer…I am committing suicide today…’ .

I see now more than ever before why P. Sainath simply has to be crazy.