In India, Farmers Face a Terrifying Crisis

Indian farmers during a protest in Mumbai in March. Thousands of them walked more than 100 miles to protest the country’s agrarian crisis. Credit Indranil Mukherjee/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Indian farmers during a protest in Mumbai in March. Thousands of them walked more than 100 miles to protest the country’s agrarian crisis. Credit Indranil Mukherjee/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

On March 6, about 40,000 subsistence farmers and landless peasants, many from impoverished indigenous tribes, marched to Mumbai from Nashik, a city 112 miles northeast of India’s commercial capital. The sea of humanity flooding the highway to Mumbai captured national attention and focused it on the problems tormenting the marchers and tens of millions of other farmers in the country’s two-decade-long agrarian crisis.

Most of the farmers in the protest owned less than five acres each. Many marchers who couldn’t afford shoes walked barefoot in the searing heat. Some of them had wrapped their soles with sellotape to prevent blisters. They were headed for Azad Maidan, a traditional venue for political protests in South Mumbai.

On March 11, without resting from their exhausting journey, they walked the last 10 miles to the venue after midnight, in darkness and silence. Thousands of students in the city had their board examinations in the morning. The farmers did not wish to disturb them. “Our children write exams too, you know,” some female farmers told me. “We didn’t want to cause roadblocks and traffic jams.” They reached the protest ground hours before the kids set out for their schools.

Mumbai responded to the marching farmers with heartening warmth. Middle-class employees and workers — many themselves poor — offered packets of food and water. These acts of sympathy and solidarity stood out in sharp relief against the callousness of India’s governments and elites to the deepening rural distress. Taken by surprise, India’s corporate-controlled television networks and newspapers, which mostly ignore the poor, scrambled to respond to the dignified protesters.

Policy-driven agrarian distress is very real. India’s last national census — conducted every decade — in 2011 recorded nearly 15 million fewer farmers than there were in 1991; that’s a dropout rate of about 2,040 every 24 hours. Many of those fell from being farmers to being landless agricultural laborers, into the ranks of the agrarian underclass.

Cultivation costs have risen manifold since the mid-1990s, but the farmers’ incomes have stagnated or declined. Seed, fertilizer and pesticides are firmly in the hands of corporations. Agricultural credit from public-sector banks increased significantly in the past two decades — benefiting agribusiness, not farmers.

In the western Indian state of Maharashtra, where the farmers marched last month, India’s National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (Nabard) allocated over 50 percent of its projected credit flow in 2017 to Mumbai and its suburbs. The two most devastated farming regions of the state, Vidarbha and Marathwada, got less than 16 percent.

Public-sector banks have turned away from small and marginal farmers since the late 1990s, forcing them to borrow from lenders who charge upward of 60 percent annual interest. For loans that the banks still gave small farmers, the terms grew adverse. Peasant indebtedness soared.

A waiver of their bank debt was among the key demands of the marchers in Mumbai. It would cost the state $5.23 billion — about $758 each for 6.9 million farmers. Another key demand was from farmers from the indigenous tribal communities who have for generations cultivated forest lands that are not officially vested in their names. They seek the implementation of India’s Forest Rights Act of 2006, which could confer them title deeds to those lands.

And the marchers, like all farmers across India, demanded minimum support prices for their produce at levels that governments have long promised. Prices received by farmers have seen repeated collapses. Dependence on the monsoon has been joined by an even sharper vulnerability to a rigged market. A severe water crisis, often driven more by unequal access than by poor rainfall, has further damaged agriculture.

The census in 2011 showed that for the first time since Indian independence in 1947, urban India added more people to its population than rural India did. Millions have left their villages for other villages, small towns and cities in search of jobs that are not there. As many male farmers moved out of their villages, the burdens of female farmers rose in ways numbers cannot capture. Between 1995 and 2015, the National Crime Records Bureau logged over 300,000 farmer suicides.

Successive governments have connived at and hastened the corporate hijacking of Indian agriculture, privileging the profits of a few over countless livelihoods. Millions of poor rural Indians whose transactions are almost entirely in cash were badly hurt after Prime Minister Narendra Modi in November 2016 banned two bills that account for a vast majority of all currency in circulation and decided to introduce new bills. The expansion of existing bans on cow slaughter wrecked the livelihoods of millions of farmers who bought and sold cattle.

Rural India’s deepening distress unfolds against the canvas of policy-driven inequality over the past two decades. The roughly five-member Indian farm household, according to the National Sample Survey Organization, a federal data collection agency, had an average monthly income of $99 in 2013.

The number of Indian billionaires on the Forbes annual list rose from 55 in 2011 to 121 in 2018. The collective net worth of our 121 billionaires was estimated by the magazine to be $440.1 billion, equal to roughly 22 percent of India’s gross domestic product. We now rank fourth in the world on the Forbes billionaires list and 131st on the United Nations Human Development Index.

The net worth of India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, rose to $40.1 billion on the 2018 Forbes billionaires list from $23.2 billion in 2017. To cumulatively make the amount Mr. Ambani added to his income in a year, 18.7 million rural Indians working under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the country’s flagship employment program, would have to work for 12 months without a day off.

Indian elites and rulers largely ignore rural distress except in election years and when it causes them embarrassment in the West, where they desperately seek acknowledgment and applause. But there are solutions they could turn to.

The National Commission on Farmers, headed by M. S. Swaminathan, India’s most distinguished agricultural scientist, submitted detailed reports to the Parliament over a decade ago. But the Indian lawmakers are yet to have a day’s serious debate on Dr. Swaminathan’s reports and recommendations. Indian lawmakers need to devote a few weeks to a special session of Parliament on the agrarian crisis and the related issues, and discuss those reports.

A vigorous and conscientious press could remind them, but the failure of India’s corporatized media to report from rural areas makes things worse. No major television network or newspaper has a dedicated reporter who travels across the countryside speaking to ordinary Indians. Agriculture correspondents cover ministries in the cities, not farmers in the field. One national news agency sent its crime reporter to cover the farmers’ march in Mumbai.

Had this event been a tsunami, a flood killing thousands, you would have seen more media people than relief workers, with tales tugging at the tear ducts. How agonized we are over how people die. How untroubled we are by how they live.

P. Sainath, the founder and editor of the online People’s Archive of Rural India, is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought.

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