Is farming profitable?” Now, take a guess: from which part of India do you expect to hear a ‘yes’ to this question? I bet you would say, Punjab and Haryana, followed by Maharashtra and other western states. South might come after that. And you would expect to hear a loud ‘no’ from eastern India and, of course, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
You are wrong. In the first week of this month, Gaon Connection asked this question to 5,022 farmers across 54 districts in 16 states and got very surprising results. Northwest India, comprising Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh in this survey, was the only region to return a negative verdict: 53 per cent said farming was not profitable, compared to 40 per cent who said it was. Western India was more or less split (44 per cent no to 50 per cent yes), followed by the South and the East. Farmers from UP and Bihar gave the most positive answer: 63 per cent said farming was profitable to just 23 per cent who said it was not.
Your first reaction would be to question the survey itself. I checked its methodology and spoke to the team. This survey may not meet the highest standard of random sampling and social scientific protocols of fieldwork, but its sample is large and fairly representative in terms of regions, castes and landholding. The questions are neutral and seem to be administered reasonably well. After decades of looking at survey data, I can say that the broad conclusions of this first nation-wide survey on the Narendra Modi government’s three farm legislations can be trusted.
Most farmers are unhappy
Actually, this seemingly odd finding holds the key to understanding the mood of the Indian farmers captured by this survey. Farmers who are relatively better off are also more unhappy about their lot, more anxious about their future and angrier about the latest farm acts passed by the Modi government. Farmers across India have a sense that something big and possibly bad is on the way, something they don’t fully comprehend. They also know that farmers are angry and protesting in many parts of the country. But their own response varies. Farmers in the Northwest are angry, those in the West are anxious, those in the south are unsure, those in the East are placid and their counterparts in UP and Bihar are oblivious to everything.
The farmers’ level of awareness about the laws and farmers’ protests surprised me. As many as two-thirds of the farmers (as many as 91 per cent in Punjab and Haryana) know that farmers are protesting in the country. When asked why, nearly half of them can say that they are protesting against the new farm laws. Quite impressive, I thought. Even more impressive is that two-thirds have heard about the new farm laws (82 per cent in Northwest, but only 48 per cent in the East), even though the awareness of each of the laws is much lower and most of them may not be able to say what these laws are about. Interestingly, WhatsApp, Facebook and YouTube contribute about as much to the farmers’ awareness as TV or newspapers.
The bad news for the government is that the farm laws are getting a bad name among the farmers. When asked whether they are in favour or against these laws, the verdict is negative: 52 per cent against and 35 per cent in favour. To be sure, more than half of the defenders and opponents don’t really know the details of these laws. And, as expected, the responses are uneven across geographical and class divides. Yet, this general negative impression is what matters in politics.
Farmers speak up
The survey shows that the farmers’ reservations against these laws are driven by three real anxieties. One, they fear that the existing mandi system may be dismantled. Nationally, about 39 per cent farmers share this anxiety, while 28 per cent don’t, and one-third don’t have an opinion on it. Two, about the same proportion of farmers fear that the government system of procurement of some crops at a minimum support price (MSP) will come to an end. Three, there is a stronger fear (46 per cent yes to 23 per cent no) that these laws will open the way for exploitation of the farmers by big companies. All the three fears are likely to be accentuated as the Congress governments begin enacting state laws against these central laws. These state legislations may never come into force, because the President is unlikely to assent, but these can play a major role in shaping public opinion.
The survey underlines one undisputed aspiration and demand of the farmers: guaranteed MSP for farm produce. When asked whether MSP should be mandated by law, the response is a resounding yes: 59 per cent farmers vote for it while 16 per cent are against it. Obviously, the support is higher (81 per cent in the Northeast, 80 per cent in the West) in areas that have a functioning system of procurement and among those farmers who sell their crop for MSP. But the votaries of MSP outnumber the sceptics even among farmers and regions that don’t currently benefit from government procurement. No wonder, BJP leaders find it very hard to respond to farmers on this specific demand. Their task is harder after the laws passed by the Punjab assembly.
The bad news for the opposition is that despite clear and growing resentment against these three laws, the Modi government is still not seen to be “anti-farmer”. Those who say so are 28 per cent, against 44 per cent who still think it is “pro-farmer”. The only exception is, again, Haryana and Punjab. But when the same question was framed differently, there was a subtle shift. When farmers were asked to name the group the Modi government cares most for, 35 per cent said it cared most for the farmers, while 45 per cent said the Modi government cares most for the traders, corporates and MNCs. Another wave of farmers’ movement and the Modi government could well earn the tag of being “anti-farmer”.
The All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC), the largest coalition of farmer organisations in the country, has given a call for “Dilli Chalo” on 26 and 27 November [Disclosure: the author is a member of its apex working group]. Before this street-battle takes place, the next one month will witness a battle for farmers’ minds.
The government and a section of the media would live in denial if they see and present it as a rebellion of the entitled. The opposition and farm activists would indulge in a wishful fancy if they interpret it as a revolution of the enlightened vanguard. As of now, it is no more, and no less, than an outcry of the enabled, of those who have what it takes to stand up and speak up. Such an outcry tends to percolate. If so, the Modi government is on a losing wicket.
The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.