Agrarian activism has lost its bite despite India's farm sector being in crisis mode. With agriculture no longer viewed as a conduit for upward mobility, the nature of farmers' demands has changed to seeking options outside of agriculture.

On October 25, 1988, Rajpath in Lutyens' Delhi was turned into a virtual Janpath, as half-a-million farmers from western Uttar Pradesh (UP) descended upon the Boat Club lawns in the ceremonial boulevard of the Republic of India. What followed was an unprecedented week-long siege. Never before had the country's power elite been forced into this kind of arm's length engagement — literally — with people filling the entire stretch from Vijay Chowk to India Gate, with their tractors, trolleys, carts, charpoys, hookahs and cooking angithis.

October 1988 marked the pinnacle of Mahendra Singh Tikait's journey as a farmer leader, which began with a four-day dharna at the Karmukheri power station in January 1987, against the UP Government's move to hike electricity tariffs by a third. A year later came the 24-day gherao of the Meerut Commissionerate (for an increase in sugarcane prices to Rs 35/quintal and waiver of six months' power bills) and, then, the 110-day Rajabpur Satyagraha in March-June (over police firing on ryots during the Meerut agitation).

KISANS AND NETAS

The Boat Club Panchayat, in a sense, was the high noon for not just Tikait, but also for farmers' movements in India. The 1980s saw a host of them emerge — from Tikait's Bharatiya Kisan Union to Sharad Joshi's Shetkari Sanghatana and M.D. Nanjundaswamy's Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha.

But over the subsequent decade, they had all fizzled out or become pale shadows of their past. Tikait was reduced to a political non-entity much before he passed away last Sunday. His son, Rakesh, fought the 2007 UP assembly elections from Khatauli with Congress support — only to finish a distant sixth.

The farmer leaders of recent years have not been half as successful in mobilising the constituents they claim to represent. Some — very often not serious farmers themselves — have found it expedient to even cultivate European aid agencies or, alternatively, agri-business MNCs. Not surprisingly, they have tended to espouse causes — either extreme aversion or uncritical support for GM and other new technologies — far removed from the farmers' day-to-day concerns of erratic power, timely availability of fertiliser and credit, and marketability of produce. The result is that autonomous, grassroots farmers' movements of the sort Tikait led in the 1980s have practically ceased to exist.

There is a certain irony to the above decline. The 1980s were a time when Indian agriculture wasn't faring too badly. During 1980-81 to 1990-91, overall crop production grew annually by 3.2 per cent, as against the average 2.2 per cent for the early Green Revolution period from 1967-68 to 1980-81. Moreover, yields were on the rise: The national average for wheat almost doubled from 1.2 tonnes to 2.2 tonnes a hectare between the early 1970s to the late 1980s, while going up from 1.6 to 2.6 tonnes in paddy.

All these meant a peasantry that was “very sure of its future in agriculture”, as the Oxford scholar, Judith Heyer, discovered from a survey of farmers with open well-irrigated plots, or thottams, near Coimbatore in 1981-82. The prestige attached to farming was also noted by the sociologist, Ravinder Kaur, in a Punjab village study done around the same period: “The Jat might be employed as a school teacher or serve in the military, but he saw his primary role as that of an agriculturalist; his connection with land was what he held most dear.”

The optimism surrounding agriculture had, however, dried up by the turn of the century. Revisiting the same thottam farming families in 1996, Heyer encountered a community less confident and “investing in ways that would make it possible for their sons to move out of agriculture in future”. This was also confirmed by the National Sample Survey Organisation, which, in a special 2003 Situation Assessment study, reported that 40 per cent of Indian farmers, given a choice, would “take up some other career”.

FARMING NO FUN

The underlying cause of disenchantment was obviously yields. These had plateaued to 2.6-2.7 tonnes in wheat and 3-3.1 tonnes for paddy, alongside soaring cultivation costs, declining water tables and diminishing response to fertiliser application. During 1990-91 to 2000-01, total crop output growth fell to less than 2 per cent a year. While there has been some revival since 2005-06, it has not reversed the ‘crisis' discourse that now dominates discussions on Indian agriculture.

But that still begs the question: Why has the present agricultural crisis not provided fertile ground for farmers' movements? Correspondingly, what explains their success in the 1980s, when the outlook for farming was far from bleak? The answer is simple. Movements thrive when those participating have a stake in the cause they feel is worth fighting for. During the 1970s and 1980s, farmers, especially in the Green Revolution areas, saw their crop yields and disposable incomes go up significantly. Having experienced first-hand upward mobility through modern intensive agriculture, they developed a collective consciousness to defend these gains. Tikait's diatribes against city-dwellers and urban-centric policymakers appealed to farmers, just the way a newly empowered, self-righteous Indian middle-class took a shine to Anna Hazare's recent movement deriding all politicians as corrupt.

BEYOND THE FIELDS

The situation today is different, with agriculture no longer viewed as a conduit for upward mobility by most farmers. The nature of demands has, accordingly, changed to seeking options outside of agriculture.

Take the ongoing farmers' stir in Greater Noida, where the basic issue is not about remunerative prices for crops, but for land acquired by the UP Government. Or the Jat protests that disrupted rail traffic across North India in March — which was, again, about reservations in Central Government jobs.

The non-farm character of these so-called farmers' movements can be seen from the profile of their leaders. The Jat quota agitation's spearhead, Yashpal Malik, is a realtor who has developed the Vasundhara Plaza in Ghaziabad. His counterpart at Greater Noida, Manveer Singh Tewatia, owns a unit that fabricates iron doors, grills and shutters. A far cry from Tikait — who, right till the end, kept track of the sugarcane in his 160-bigha (32 acres) field at Sisauli in Muzaffarnagar.

(blfeedback@thehindu.co.in)

(This article was published on May 21, 2011)
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