Farmers’ protest and why we should care: Memories of a political journo

I remember how agriculture was a mind-numbing field for an urban kid like me, though it was a beat very close to my heart, writes the author.
Farmers protest during ‘Delhi Chalo’ march
Farmers protest during ‘Delhi Chalo’ march
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In the current scenario of the ongoing farmer protests in Delhi, I was remembering how agriculture was a mind-numbing field for an urban kid like me though it was a beat very close to my heart. I recall the bewildering experience of trying to talk to farmer leaders in Delhi during my Mail Today days. I’d ask my chief Poornima Joshi: “Gehuu is wheat? And ganna is sugarcane?” Because, of course, I only knew godhi, kabbu

Agriculture was a foreign language and north Indian agriculture was even more foreign (sorry I’m from the south and learnt Hindi the hard way). However, I made the effort and learnt. So, I do understand that most people outside the farming sector don’t really get why Punjab, Haryana, West UP and Rajasthan farmers are agitating and why an open market with ‘good’ prices appears like a nightmare to them.

Here’s an attempt to ‘translate’ for those of you who are like me and don’t know what is going on or indeed why, or why it should matter to us.

There are discussions about taxing farmers and about why the question marks on a minimum support price (MSP) and subsidies has led to grandpas and uncles and aunties and the young and even the infirm and the weak agitating on the roads, taking on teargas and water-shelling in Delhi’s cold.

My guru C Byre Gowda (who was Agriculture Minister in the Deve Gowda/JH Patel cabinets) once asked me: “Nam raithrella tomato iluvari ashttoo rastege bandu suridralla ... ninge yenaadru annista ma?” (When our farmers threw their entire tomato harvest onto the highway, did you feel anything at all?)

That question is the crux of the problem really. All of us, who have the money to go into supermarkets and buy cleaned and packed tomatoes at will – do we even see those who actually toiled in the fields in the sun, fearing too much rain or too little rain, harvested those tomatoes and ended up with less than a pittance for their efforts?

Those farmers were so heartbroken at the pittance they were offered on the open market due to the glut tomato produce that they threw their entire year’s work and all their hopes on the road and cried. It hardly made a dent or a difference to anyone. Because it’s not our problem, right?

But pretty soon it will be. If we take away subsidies given to the sector, don’t ensure a proper market infrastructure, don’t ensure a bare minimum return on their investment, we soon won’t have farmers. And yes, we won’t have those tomatoes we blithely buy in the supermarket. Or if they are available, they will be either imported or too expensive even for us urban elite.

We’re already seeing farmer suicides in lakhs – but that has become the same old boring story, right? Mostly fake, right? No, mostly true, as they’re not able to get sufficient returns to repay their loans.

Yes, people like Madhuchandan SC in Mandya and other people with good ideas to raise farmer incomes are trying to make a difference. But our farmers are mostly reliant on the government – the MSP that nobody seems to understand – a minimum price set for produce, for the farmer to break even. This is not set for all crops, but for 22 essential foods – baththa (rice), godhi (wheat), togari (toor dal), ragi (finget millet), jola (jowar), etc. About three crops are covered under MSP in most states.

However, the MSP is a safety net. Like a minimum wage set for a labourer. Farmers are assured that if they grow that particular crop, they will get at least that much. If the open market prices are higher, naturally all of them will sell there rather than to the government. Else, they will get at least that much. The process was put in place when India was not self-reliant in food grains – 1965. The same as the much hated and much feted Green Revolution.

India has been self-reliant for decades now and none of us know what it is to import rice/wheat, our staples. ((We do import some of our wheat but we source most of it from our farms.) We don’t know and we don’t care.

But we need to care. If we’re to pull out and change the old process of prices and agriculture procurement, what is the thinking or what are the implements we have in place to ensure that India continues to be self-reliant in food grains?? What are the safeguards? Open market and contracts for crops are great ideas and wonderful – when they work. But do we have a fail-safe if they don’t work? Also, if it’s all contract and commercial crop – fancy stuff like sunflower, chia seeds, etc – that bring in way more money that poor gehuu and ragi, why indeed should anyone grow the staples? And what are you and I going to eat? Sunflower?

I remember discussing some of this with Krishna Byre Gowda (who like his father also held the Agriculture portfolio in the recent Siddaramaiah government). We discussed whether farmers had enough land to grow the crop needed for the growing urban mouths. It’s a serious problem that has to be dealt with very soon. If we sell more and more of our farmland for industries and dwellings, how are we to produce the food we need?

But that is now becoming a secondary question. We’re facing an even more essential issue: why will anyone grow crops at all, if all it yields is hard work, heartache, pain and poverty? And in this context, if we take away the MSP and ask the farmers to deal with the vagaries of the open market without any sort of safety net – why should they do it? Will any of us do it?

The economic argument of taking away subsidies and letting supply-demand factors work – I had long chats with my other guru, Prof MD Nanjundaswamy, on this. He was the founding head of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha, which is the state’s premier farmer organisation even today, a maverick politician and former MLA who fought at the grassroots against MNCs like Monsanto.

The economist in him was all for no subsidies. But, he said, only if we fix all the other problems first: adequate returns for investment for the farmer; proper marketing, cold storage and warehousing for perishable products; improved soil productivity and diversified cropping. I can go on, but the point is: the farmers have everything stacked against them. And despite the current situation of input subsidies and no income tax, they are barely surviving. How can we even think of taking away those? And why are we doing it? Has anyone realised, anticipated or tried to address the impact?

This is not a diatribe on farmer rights, I want to point out how it actually affects us. If we’re to eat our food comfortably in our houses, we need them to toil in the fields. That is a given. So, the least we can do in this situation is ensure they don’t get tear-gassed and water-shelled for seeking to be consulted on wide-sweeping changes?

How is it that social media and everyone around is just not bothered about the farmers’ agitation in Delhi? How is it NOT our problem? It is!

There is one more aspect that needs mention. The food grains procured through the MSP is diverted to the public distribution system – the ration card that none of us FaceBookers need. But all those below our economic status – the lower middle-class and the poor – are dependent on that ‘ration card’ for every meal. What happens to them if the MSP is taken out? Can India afford to buy food grains – even we FaceBookers – at actual open market rates?

Sowmya Aji is a political journalist who has covered Karnataka for over 25 years.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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