No single government or political personality is to blame for this impasse; this problem has been in the making since Independence.(Bloomberg)
The fifth round of negotiations between the government and representatives of the agitating farmers has failed. It is now clear that the agitation is likely to continue for some time to come. This is the first time in its six-year tenure that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has faced such a siege of the Capital and such a challenge from farmers. No single government or political personality is to blame for this impasse; this problem has been in the making since Independence.
The next round of negotiations is on December 9. The conflict will end sooner or later, but will the problems that beset agriculture be solved? Will there be an end to agrarian poverty and farmer suicides?
During the famine of 1967, my father was posted in Mirzapur. I had started going to school and could discern a visible change taking place in the city. Tribals and villagers from nearby used to come to the cities and big towns those days in search of work or food. But, they often went back empty-handed. Those who had the ability to lend a helping hand to them were themselves facing a crisis. Foodgrains like wheat had become a rarity. The red wheat that was imported from the United States (US) was being distributed through ration shops. People were not able to access wheat in sufficient quantities, as a result of which the black market was flourishing.
During visits to my ancestral village in later years, I found that more than 90% of farmers were facing various problems. With the growth in population and an increase in members in households, land holdings were getting smaller. The farmers were sticking to traditional crops. They had no one to advise them on how to change cropping patterns which could benefit them financially. If the weather was conducive, life after the harvest was bearable. If not, they faced various adversities, the obvious one being the inability to provide for their families.
Then the Green Revolution happened. India started growing more food than it needed. But the distribution system did not improve enough to deal with this surplus. So we had a situation where, on the one hand, the warehouses of the Food Corporation of India were bursting at the seams and, on the other, about 14% of the population did get enough food to survive. The farmer today does not get the right price for his crop and the consumer has to pay more than is required. It is time when we also looked at agricultural best practices from around the world.
There is no doubt that the agricultural scenario has to change. The question is how. We already have seen the sort of fear-mongering we are witnessing today in the early 1990s. At that time, then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao and his finance minister Manmohan Singh brought about economic liberalisation. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, George Fernandes and all other Opposition leaders and parties declared this a conspiracy to sell India down the drain. There was unrest on the streets and in Parliament. The whole argument was that foreign companies would now come an enslave us as the East India Company had once done during the British raj.
But, what liberalisation did was to pull at least 300 million Indians out of poverty. Coordination between the government, corporates and society improved. This helped set India on the path to becoming an aspiring economic superpower.
Many things changed for the better with liberalisation. In the mid-1990s, it used to take hours on end to make a phone call from one city to another. Whenever we went abroad for reporting assignments, we spent an inordinate amount to time to send telex or fax messages to office. I wonder, what would have happened had we faced a pandemic like Covid-19 at that time. Today, if millions of Indians are able to save their jobs by working from home, they have the communications revolution to thank for this. This and many such important measures are the results of those 1991 reforms.
To get back to agriculture, let us look at the market in milk. Milk is also an agricultural product. It has no Minimum Support Price. The dairy sector has no special government protection when it comes to the purchase and sale of milk. Barring a few semi-government institutions like Mother Dairy, most of the bulk buyers come from the private sector. The white revolution that Amul started in Gujarat through cooperatives has spread to many parts of the country. Most people who are primary sellers of milk are from villages and own one to six animals per family. No corporate entity has affected their business.
This is not to argue in favour of mindless privatisation. Most sugar mills in India are in private hands. But working hand-in-glove with corrupt government officials, the business is exploitative of farmers. In such a situation, it is necessary that farmers’ rights be not only strengthened but that administrators should also be forced to implement the rules strictly. At the same time, farmers must be mobilised to grow alternative crops and also crops for agro-industries. We need to effect positive, inclusive changes in the agrarian sector in our quest to rebuild the economy in a post-Covid-19 world.
Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, HindustanThe views expressed are personal