Leaving the Land

Forcing farmers to leave the land is a deliberate strategy of the Centre. No matter who is at the helms in New Delhi, they have been pursuing this strategy with a kind of religious zeal for decades. Just like it is a deliberate strategy to give massive handouts and freebies to industry and corporate houses, both domestic and foreign, who are not really delivering on jobs despite tall claims of employment generation at the time of signing every MoU [Memorandum of Understanding]. It’s all about priorities. And farmers are not a priority, albeit politicians of all hues, from Modi to Rahul Gandhi, shed tears for farmers all the time. Farmers are being consciously discouraged to till land and driven from farming while all the advantages and facilities are doled out to a failing corporate-industrial sector. And farmers are leaving in droves as agriculture is now economically non-viable because of India’s agriculture policy pursued by successive governments ever since the advent of neo-liberal onslaught in the 1990s. America and its western allies continue to impose their neo-liberal agenda, through WTO, of cutting subsidies to third world farmers and dismantling price support mechanism and the public distribution system as well. But in the USA farmers survive because of huge state support. They have created a situation in which Indian farmers are being coerced to compete or go under. For Indian farmers to compete in world market is more like chasing a mirage. Given the prevailing market reality they have no option but to turn to high-cost seeds, fertilisers and pesticides which now line the shelves of the tiniest village shops. The end result is there for everyone to see : they go bankrupt and say ‘goodbye’ to farming.

The dwindling state support, either through investments in micro-irrigation projects or in effective extension support to farmers has compounded agrarian problems. Bank credit continues to be scarce despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Jan Dhan Yoyana, compelling farmers to take loans at exorbitant rates from moneylenders. For all practical purposes farmers depend on input dealers for advice, not agricultural extension workers. And market operators quite logically force upon them highly expensive brands of insecticides and herbicides, which in the end will simply make even middle-scale farming, not to speak of small-scale farming, activities uneconomic. Forced into desperation finally farmers resort to the easiest escape route—suicide.

The farmer is not on the government’s radar. But it is not really the case with the middle class that is vocal. This class determines the mood of the nation and policies of the government to a large extent. Government policies are in the main responsible for the mounting plight of farmers. The government bans exports of agricultural produce when domestic prices are low so that prices do not increase due to exports. Such a ban was imposed on exports of cotton in 2012 and the cotton growers suffered. The government makes imports when domestic prices are high to stabilise prices, in most cases to the disadvantage of farmers, not traders. The crux of the problem lies in the middlemen who are conveniently overlooked and allowed to do their nefarious malpractices. As a result the farmer suffers doubly.

There is a price stabilisation fund initially for onions and potatoes. State governments can get interest free loans from the Centre to buy and store these commodities and later sell in the market to control prices. Whether this can reduce the manipulation of the market by the traders is anybody’s guess. If anything this will not help farmers much. There are so many nice schemes for the farmer and yet he continues to take suicide.

There is a general pattern to farm suicides in rural India. Suicides are mostly taking place in regions where farmers have been attempting a change in either the crops they traditionally cultivate, especially of high-yielding ones or the cropping programmes. The suicides are linked to loans raised by farmers to fund these ‘‘lucrative’’ changes. The mismatch of willing to take a commercial risk and inability to price it economically is what lies at the heart of farm suicides.

The fact is that ‘small is still beautiful’. So is traditional farming. With dozens of case studies from around the world, a pair of reports released at the recent World Forestry Congress in Durban, South Africa, seeks to show that the world’s 1.3 billion small-scale agriculturists and foresters, including indigenous groups and local communities, are economically and ecologically influential. The reports recommend investment in them as part of solution to rural poverty, loss of forest, rising carbon levels in the atmosphere and sustainable agrarian practice. Governments everywhere and private investors invariably ignore small-scale farming, their focus is on investment in large-scale plantation agriculture and mechanised farming. Small-scale farming too is in private sector but big investors have every reason to sideline them.

Small holders are struggling worldwide to get recognised. Not only in India! Because political parties, left parties included have stopped thinking in terms of small-scale producers. Even communist parties are swayed by dominant market ideology that typically centres on the production of a single crop and discourage small-scale multiple farming. Everybody knows the drive behind large-scale agriculture is mostly for higher profits, usually for just a handful of people. But small-scale farming even in agro-forestry, tends to be more equitable. In truth investment in small-scale agro-forestry farming means empowering the tribals and indigenous people.

Left parties have many ideas but those ideas are no longer workable in the changed context. Talking of sustainable development is meaningless unless they return to basics. Farmers are unwillingly leaving traditional farming and finally the land, jumping into anarchy and uncertainties. The point at issue is how to empower small-scale forest and farm producers—abstract theorisation and stereotyped, if not direction-less, political discourse couched in marxist jargons won’t save the day.

Vol. 48, No. 31, Feb 7 - 13, 2016