Nassim Nicholas Taleb, renowned mathematician and statistician par excellence, in his book Skin in the Game, coins a new abbreviation: IYI, which stands for Intellectual Yet Idiot. He uses it to describe well-born and privileged ‘experts’ who have little knowledge but have an opinion on everything. In Taleb’s view, these people, though small in number, have a disproportionate influence on policymaking and since they don’t accept any risks for their recommendations, they have no qualms in telling common people what they should do, what they should eat, how they should think and how they should speak.
I hope Taleb is closely watching the way farmer protesters are being dealt with by the Narendra Modi government in India, and the way the poor protesters (who have not even used an iota of violence) are being termed as ill-informed, misled, selfish and, most despicably, as militants. Of course, it doesn’t occur to these experts that unlike them, the protesting farmers have produced bumper harvests, led the green revolution and, in the process, made this country self-sufficient in food.
On the contrary, the so-called ‘expertise’ has often resulted in terrible consequences. The Bengal famine of 1943 was not caused by crop failure but due to bad government policies and poor economic advice resulting in a black market, withholding of stock and hoarding. Further, lack of governmental oversight in procurement and distribution for the local population all led to that monumental disaster.
Parity, not charity
Coming back to the ongoing protests, the farmer is justified in asking why the three controversial farm bills were introduced in the first place. Why were they not brought before the public, discussed with policymakers, and most notably with the farmers? And once the farmers had started protesting, why didn’t the Modi government reach out to them and talk? Instead, it chose a condescending tone and had the audacity to imply that the farmers do not understand agriculture!
Naturally, the farmers, having protested in their respective states, started moving towards Delhi to intensify their protest. If the Union Government had heeded the farmers or even listened to the Punjab government’s suggestions, the agitation would not have reached Delhi’s outskirts. However, it does remind me of the famous farmers’ protest in the United States in 1979, when during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, hundreds of tractors entered Washington DC. Their slogan was “Parity, not Charity”. They demanded “parity” between what they were spending on growing crops and the returns that they were receiving from their crops.
Indian farmers are asking for the same. They are asking for parity and not charity.
Second, the Indian farm laws are as convoluted and ill-advised as the notebandi. Those who work in farms know this — these Acts amount to ‘farmbandi’. This is nothing less than demonestisation of the rural economy.
I am yet to meet an agricultural expert who speaks in favour of the three farm laws brought in by the Modi government, except for a dwindling number of armchair commentators who cannot tell the difference between jowar and bajra, and who cannot distinguish between saffron and a mustard crop.
Unfortunately, they are surreptitiously packaged under the umbrella of “reforms”. History informs us that collectivising farms was also touted as a reform in totalitarian regimes, and they resulted in hunger, famine, misery, and deaths of millions of people. So, before lapping up everything sold as reform, one must analyse the consequences of such legislation.
If the Modi government does not relent, I am afraid the situation could turn for the worse. I hope wise counsel prevails and the BJP government realises that the threatening tones, the concerted efforts at patronising, and the juvenile attempts by media managers to paint the Indian farmer as the devil will ultimately result in a severe backlash.
Let us also take a look at the respective roles of the farmer and the government. What is the job of the farmer, and what is the job of the government? The farmer’s job is to plant the crop, but it is the government’s job to help the farmer nourish the crop so that nature gives us a bountiful harvest.
The farmer plants the crop every season, but the government’s responsibility is to provide good fertilisers, quality insecticides, adequate water for irrigation, and support from scientists and extension workers to help the farmer. Unfortunately, the government is attempting to run away from a vocation that deals with 60 per cent of Indians’ direct livelihood.
Supporting farmers is a universal obligation. One-third of the EU budget goes into agriculture subsidies. India’s agricultural subsidy is way lesser than what would be ideal, and it is much lower than Indonesia, South Korea, and Japan (to quote a few), and only 10 per cent of what China provides as agricultural subsidy.
Trust farmers first
The Punjabi farmer is well-aware and has been at the forefront of embracing technological change. Punjab’s farmers have unleashed agriculture revolution not only in parts of India but also in New Zealand, Australia, the US, and Canada. They have virtually resurrected Parmesan cheese in Italy and given a boost to groundnut farming in Argentina. They are the true children of soil and will face all hardships to turn even the most sterile tracts into fecund fields. They know what suffering is and what all it takes to feed hungry stomachs.
I would appeal to the citizens of India to try and imagine their plight and give them credit for all that they have achieved thus far. The so-called experts or biased media have no skin in the game. They don’t understand agriculture and the sacrifices it entails. As the great Hindi poet Sudama Prasad ‘Dhoomil’ once wrote, “Lohe ka swaad, lohar se mat puchho, us ghode se puchh, jiske muh me lagam hai.” If you want to know the taste of iron, don’t go to an ironsmith, but ask a horse, which carries the bridle in its mouth.
Manpreet Singh Badal is the finance minister of Punjab. Views are personal.