Aruna Roy on India’s agrarian crisis: ‘Policy without dialogue is killing our farmers’


70 years after Independence, India’s farming community has seen little progress. With little access to land holdings, limited formal credit, and continued droughts & crop failure, farmers face a bleak future.

A farmer cries during protest and hunger strike in Delhi. Image Credit: Anil Shakya

28 days, 115 hours and Rs. 20,01,00,000/minute. This is amount of time and expenditure the Indian parliament has borne on discussion of “important issues” since 2014, under the category of agrarian crises. The issues include the plight of farmers, rising suicide rate, the prevailing drought and consequent price rise. Given that parliamentarians time and again profess that farmers comprise the largest population in India and require adequate attention, it is a wonder that a mere 28 days were spent discussing their welfare, apart from legislative business hours.

The ongoing protests and farmers’ agitation in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka among other 11 states in the last 2 years speak volumes about the apathy faced by the farming community.

Discussing the root cause of this spreading agitation, Aruna Roy, social activist and founder of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, says,

Nobody is having a dialogue with farmers. The entire farming sector is being threatened in multiple ways. The first thing the government needs to do is sit down and talk to them, considering they are such a huge number in India.

Adding to the agrarian crises stands the tall suicide figure. The National Crime Records Bureau states that 8-10 percent of suicides are by farmers - 11,458 in 2016 as against 12,602 in the previous year.

Visible Work, Invisible Women. Image Credit: P. Sainath/PARI

The Agriculture Ministry has stated that, “Deficient and uneven rainfall in the last two agricultural years adversely affected overall agricultural production.”

But despite government interventions, only 66 million hectares against 140 million hectares in India have access to irrigation. The Ministry of Food Processing Industries reported that India loses Rs 92,651 crore, three times the annual budget for the agriculture sector, worth of produce during the harvest and post-harvest season due to transportation and cold storage problems, among other reasons.

These statistics reflect the poor response to the various agriculture ministry schemes aimed at supporting an estimated 11.87 crore farmers and 14.4 crore agricultural labourers.

No land for the farmer

One of the key contentious issues and hotly debated topics over the past few years has been the Land Acquisition Act. Politics over land and ownership have dominated India even before the pre-independence era; they formed the basis of class and caste hierarchy in the British Raj. Land is central to farming and denied access can spell disaster to already troubled farmers.

Roy says, All farmers’ movements and many other subsets, including the Dalit farmers movement, is just asking for land. They are saying that just give us land, and forget about us. We will handle everything after that by ourselves. Because land is principal to agriculture; so when you don't have land, or have access to your own land or you are being threatened with acquisition, where is the notion of farming?
A field, but not one’s own. Image Credit: P. Sainath/PARI

As of 2017, small and marginal farmers’ 86 percent of land holdings are less than 2 hectares of land. In 2012-13, 140 million hectares of land was used for agriculture purposes, which later got fragmented into smaller pieces. From 36 million in 1971, the number of marginal land holdings increased to 93 million in 2011. Farm land at present largely consists of smaller land holdings passed on to farming families for generations or leased to farmers by a larger holder.

According to the State of Agriculture 2017 report by PRS Legislative Research, “Ten percent of land has been given out on agricultural leases, with the percentage of leased-out land varying across states. Different states also have different ceilings on the area of land which may be leased.” At times, cultivators do not possess the formal lease agreement which denies them access to formal loan credit or benefits from government-sponsored schemes.

Farmer policies need direction

To mitigate the farmers’ crises various governments have advocated policies of loan waivers, fertilisers subsidies, soil cards and government mandis among others. Yet the distress prevalent in the community goes beyond the vision of the legislative agenda.

Roy, who has been instrumental for the enactment of the Right to Work (NREGA) and the Right to Food Act, says,

Farmers’ battles are innumerable. There is the acquisition of land, there is loan waiver, there is drought, there is failure of crops - there are so many things. And it all comes down to policy; there have been a series of policies which have been totally anti-farmer, anti-rural.

Rather than focusing on providing availability to bank credit in real time, enabling access to markets, and mentoring of farmers, the current rhetoric around farm distress centres on loan waivers, a higher crop pricing mechanism, and monetary “farmer package” to cover drought-caused losses.

Related More:

The biggest drought in 140 years- why Tamil Nadu must concern us all

3 reasons, 2 demands, and 1 proposed solution for the Madhya Pradesh farmers’ agitation

Worried by this growing trend, RBI governor Urjit Patel stated that farm loan waivers could become a “moral hazard” for the national balance sheet.

Economist and author Shankar Aiyar says, “A farm loan waiver is like a saline drip for a patient in critical condition. It is a prescription not for cure. Farming is a private sector activity. Yet it is bound by several rules, regulations and conditions because of which the farmer, though he produces, does not get the price.”

Eighty one per cent of all Indian women workers are cultivators, labourers, forest produce collectors and small livestock handlers. Image Credit: P.Sainath/PARI

Prof. MS Swaminathan , as a long-term solution to drought and financial support to farmers, advocated the implementation of the Minimum Support Price. He recommended pricing and procurement based on total cost of production plus 50 percent principal. Although, this MSP formula has been accepted and spoken about at all farming political rallies and meetings, the advocacy remains in letters alone. Despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi agreeing with Prof Swamininath’s recommendation and including it in the BJP’s election manifesto as the NDA government feared “price distortions in markets”.

Roy says, Politics cannot interfere with people’s needs and crises. We will have to now deal with these as a failure of governance; it just cannot be dealt as ‘this is my domain and that is yours’. For the person on the ground, it is life in crises; so if you don't deal with those crises adequately, you are just playing politics. I think in all this we have to use constitutional rights and say that you fight your battle somewhere but we citizens need uniform treatment.

While farmers’ problems might vary region to region, the underlying statement remains that for the past 70 years the farming community has made little progress, and their plight has been used as a political ploy. Uplift of the farm sector needs to be prioritised; our farmers deserve the same treatment and status as workers in other sectors.

“The fact that they need immediate attention and must be seen as a strong lobby politically is beyond doubt,” Roy says.

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