The historic victory of the farmers’ movement carries the danger of a slide into a status quo that is neither desirable nor viable. Two opposite camps may push us into this abyss.
On the one hand, the evangelic market ‘reformers’ find themselves at a political and intellectual dead-end and take out their frustration at the farmers: no one can reform Indian agriculture any more, they say. On the other hand, some sections of farm movement may drift into business-as-it-used-to-be mode.
That would be a pity.
The fact is that Indian agriculture was in no good shape prior to the enactment of the three laws. It faced an economic, ecological and existential crisis. The laws threatened to bring another calamity, but their repeal does not do away with the pre-existing crisis. Indian agriculture desperately needs reforms, not the ones thrust upon the farmers but those that farmers need and want. Indian farmers are open to learning and change, provided they see the benefits. Now that the farmers have recovered their self-esteem, gained unity and occupied the national centre stage, the occasion must be used to create a new blueprint for the future of Indian agriculture. This is the most pressing challenge for the farmers’ movement.
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Case for reforms
The fact that farmers have gathered political self-confidence must reflect in intellectual and cultural self-confidence. The future of Indian farmers cannot be the past of European or North American farmers. We must give up on the false dream of extending Green Revolution paradigm to the entire country. Replicating high-input, water-guzzling, chemical-intensive agriculture throughout the country is both impossible and undesirable. Small farm size is here to stay. Agriculture and allied activities will continue to engage about two-fifth of our workforce, since no alternative avenues of employment are round the corner. Most Indian farmers don’t have much capital to invest. Canal-based irrigation cannot be extended to the entire rainfed agriculture. Future solutions for India must be based on these real-life conditions.
At the same time, we cannot simply go back to traditional agriculture that never faced the challenge of producing adequate and nutritious food for 1.4 billion people with an average lifespan of 70 years. We have inherited a rich knowledge-base of agricultural practices, but it needs to be filtered and adapted through modern science. Markets, including international food markets, are here to stay. And so is the need to keep food inexpensive for a large segment of poor outside the farming sector. Hence, the State must step in to create infrastructure for production and storage, to subsidise farmers in order to keep food affordable, and to regulate domestic and international markets.
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The way ahead
The future of Indian agriculture lies in following an Indian path, designed for our agro-ecological conditions, our limited resources and contemporary needs.
This involves pursuing three goals simultaneously: making agriculture economically viable for the farmers, shifting to ecological agriculture that is sustainable for farmers and for the consumer, and ensuring social justice for marginal sections of the farming and non-farming communities.
So far, different strands of farmers’ movement have taken up each of these three objectives — mainstream farmers movement has focused on economic viability; Left-wing peasant movements have bothered about social justice, and a small stream of environmentalists has taken up ecological issues. Samyukt Kisan Morcha offers a historic opportunity to integrate these three.
The farmers’ movement has foregrounded the issue of economic viability of farming and income security of the farmer. Once the propaganda bubble of Doubling of Farmers’ Income goes bust on 28 February 2022, we must focus on measures that are realistic and thought through.
Even though the government has escaped making any concrete commitment on MSP, it is quite clear that the political establishment will face sustained pressure on providing income security to the farmers. A key reform here would involve a legal entitlement to MSP. As has been repeatedly clarified, this does not require the government to purchase all crops. What we need is a deft combination of expanded procurement, intelligently designed deficit payment system, timely and selective market intervention and tweaking of international trade policy. MSP incentives can be linked to diversification of crops. Now that the PM Fasal Bima Yojna has flopped, we need to replace it with a universal crop insurance scheme. Farm activists have insisted that agriculture markets need multiple reforms: we need more mandis, more players in the existing mandis, reduction in taxes, improvement in the warehouse receipt scheme and direct access of farmers to the consumers. The political pressure generated by the movement must translate into a higher government spending on agriculture.
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Bring social justice to agriculture
This farmers’ movement could not have foregrounded issues of justice within the farming community, but it showed acute awareness of the differences within Indian farmers. The current attention on the agrarian sector is the right occasion to focus on some of the issues of social justice that have been languishing. While fragmentation of land has ruled out large-scale land redistribution of the kind imagined in 1950s, there is still scope to offer homestead land and parcels of uncultivated land to the landless families, while confirming the pattas once given to dalit farmers. Bhoomi Adhikar Andolan has raised this issue for a long time.
Adivasi farmers need the Forest Right Act 2006 to be implemented, while securing remunerative prices for minor forest produce. While women farmers need co-ownership, the priority for tenant farmers is some kind of identification paper that entitles them to all the benefits of government schemes without threatening the landowner of dispossession. Marginal farmers need a huge national effort to create and incentivise cooperatives — call it Farmer Producer Organisation or whatever — so that they secure cheaper inputs and better market prices. Farmers’ cooperatives must become the fulcrum of constructive work in rural areas.
The one issue that is yet to receive due attention from the farmers movement is that of ecological sustainability. Kisan Swaraj Neeti of Alliance for Holistic and Sustainable Agriculture is an exception. This issue cannot be postponed any more, with the end of the Green Revolution and the onset of the challenge of climate change. We simply cannot persist with a model of agriculture that leads to depletion of water, degradation of soil, indebtedness of farmers and toxic food for the consumers. We must shift to low-cost, low external input approaches (not just the zero-budget farming that the PM is fond of) that can yield sufficient, affordable, nutritious and non-toxic food for everyone. That would require crop diversification by drawing upon already existing knowledge on appropriate crop selection based on diversity and integrated farming, mixed cropping and crop rotation. Instead of depending on chemical fertilisers, we must shift to creating a micro-climate for soil regeneration. Plant protection and pest management must shift away from synthetic pesticides. Irrigation needs to move away from mega dams and flood irrigation to small projects, check dams and focus on essential and efficient use of water and moisture. Seed selection must shift to locally suitable and farmer-controlled varieties.
Some organisations and thinkers have already attempted this integration of farmers’ agenda. Now is the time to put this to action. Celebrations can wait, this is the moment to write a new, confident, forward-looking manifesto for Indian agriculture.
Yogendra Yadav is among the founder of Jai Kisan Andolan and Swaraj India. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)