Mandsaur, the farmers’ story

I remember years ago the Delhi School of Economics had many great scholars visit the campus. They talked passionately and knowledgeably not just about the subject but about knowledge as a vocation. One of the most memorable of these performances was by Teodor Shanin, the economic historian who also edited Peasants and Peasant Societies. He talked quietly about his love for his subject and confessed, “I have been studying the peasantry when it was out of fashion, I am in it now when it is fashionable, and I will be there long after it has become out of fashion again.” I recollected his passion as I read sadly about farmers’ protests across India, particularly in Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh.

It was not the nature of the reports that was distressing. It was more the way the regime was reacting to it. It was a kind of repeat of its response to the farmers complaining about the long drought in Tamil Nadu. Watching the protest and its drama, one sensed the regime did not care. The protest was dismissed as a colourful spectacle. The peasant as victim was dismissed as a futile clown, a failed trickster.

Weaving the narrative

One must emphasise that this was not due to the callousness of media reporting. Over the last month, journalists have captured the protests of the farmers in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh. They have emphasised that what is rocking India is not only the battle of caste groups or worker struggles but the huge range of farmer protests across the country. Yet, one senses news is not enough. Information has not graduated to storytelling or even knowledge to dent the regime’s idea of agricultural policy. Something like what Buddhist monks dub “a touch of wholeness”. Somehow the narratives of agriculture have never possessed that sense. One misses an Indian Shanin, who can weave theory and practice, storytelling and policy together.

The government’s reaction, bordering between illiteracy and indifference, has often made social scientists cynical. They retreat into the realm of jokes, of slapstick or concentration camp humour. The jokes might sound silly but they hit home, conveying the despair of the spectator and witness. I remember two in particular.

A former member of the now disbanded Planning Commission asks his class at the Delhi School of Economics, “What is the difference between the Congress and the BJP?” Answer: the Congress knows economics but not agriculture. The BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) is illiterate about both.

The second comment comes from the tragedy, the continuous epidemic of agricultural suicides that have haunted India for over a decade. The question is why John Maynard Keynes is not applicable to India. This joke remembers Keynes’s observation that in the long run, we are all dead. In India, we are dead in the short run too if one looks at suicide and starvation deaths. Behind the drab comedy, there is a poignant point. We might be an agricultural country, but our rulers lack a sense of political economy or sociology of agriculture.

The security paradigm

One has sensed this watching Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan respond to the protests at Mandsaur. There has been no sense of an agricultural crisis in their language. The BJP, in its paranoid way, converts every protest into a problem of law and order, into an internal security threat, imagining the forces of insurgency behind it. It creates a cordon sanitaire around the area, preventing activists and Congress leaders from reaching the area. The suicides of more than a dozen farmers create no sense of connectivity with similar happenings elsewhere.

Muting protest without articulating debate corrodes the texture of democracy. The BJP fails to understand any problem sociologically. Behind every protest it sees an insurgent or a terrorist. As a result, the sufferings of citizens go unheeded. Their sense of the hidden or invisible hand lies in security threats or terror, not in the forces of economics. Policy hardly responds to the suffering on the ground.

Worse, Mr. Chouhan added his own obscenity by starting a counter-fast against the violence. Threatening an indefinite fast against what he dubbed incendiary activities, he expectedly cut it short, quickly accepting the proverbial glass of lemon juice and announcing a whole slew of policies. The farmers were not impressed, invoking the all but forgotten recommendations of the Swaminathan Report that the support subsidy should cover half the production costs of a crop.

A meeting of farmers’ associations condemned this as a “nautanki”. To the crudity of the Chief Minister’s response, one has to add the silence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But since Mr. Chouhan has been in power for over a decade, it is his policies we need to examine, and policy is almost ironic in its consequences.

Ethnographies at the ground level in villages around Mandsaur reveal four disastrous decisions. First, the procurement price of the crop. The prices have plunged so disastrously that the farmer is not able to recover the mere cost of investment. Second, adding salt to the procurement injury, is the demonetisation policy of the regime which has devastated the economy. For instance, farmers receive cheques which were not cashable for over a month. They remained literally promissory notes that could not be redeemed. Third, the government does not allow the export of many crops. And fourth, the farm holdings in many cases are so small that survival is difficult. The changes in cost as crops follow the cash crop economy has created its own strains. What democracy needs is an answer to this, but the responses cannot be palliative. Policy does not seek problem-solving. We are groping from crisis to crisis as even a bumper crop becomes a prelude to a disaster. Questions of sustainability and livelihood need debate. One has to rethink the axiomatics of agriculture beyond price to water, soil management, diversity, questions of food processing. The current scandal has to be located within the overall crisis of agriculture. Instead of seeing agriculture as problematic and crisis-ridden, I wish the regime would see agriculture as a way of life. Instead of fetishising agriculture into a false gau rakshak economy, one wishes the government would open up the debate on agriculture.

Light at the end of the tunnel?

I wish Mr. Chouhan and Mr. Singh had visited the National Seed Diversity Festival at Anna University, Chennai, held earlier this month. It was a scientific mela in the true sense of the term, with the Indian farmer elaborating his knowledge about diversity, especially when a society can talk of the nearly 40,000 varieties of rice. It was literally a festival of agriculture, not an attempt to enact out agriculture as a dismal science as policy groups often do. Second, one also wishes that civil society activists proficient in policy were consulted in policymaking. They would go beyond cost-benefit to a sense of suffering of a people. The government’s hysterical attempt to introduce genetically modified (GM) mustard might meet with more thoughtful and ethical responses in this group. Third, the question of farmer’s agency must be emphasised. Sometimes, agriculture as a form of victimology loses the sense of farming as creative and competent. What I want to emphasise is the necessity to see agriculture holistically, not in terms of the silos of the mind. If the protests at Mandsaur can trigger that one thought, maybe all the hardship will have a meaning some day.

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