How Gandhi’s vision can fix today’s farm crisis

Rutam Vora | Updated on October 01, 2019 Published on October 01, 2019

Gandhian economist Dr Sudarshan Iyengar

Noted Gandhian economist Dr Sudarshan Iyengar surveys the distressed agricultural landscape, pinpoints its weaknesses, and prescribes solutions with their roots in Gandhian agronomics. Edited excerpts from an interview to BusinessLine:

Given the agrarian crisis in India today, how relevant are Gandhi's economic principles based on the village economy, and equitable distribution of resources?

They are relevant in the context of Gandhi's view of gram swaraj (village self-rule), which he emphasised through his social experiments. He was influenced by John Ruskin, and he thought that the life of a farmer and a labourer is the best. The farmer, for him, was the central point, and the only sustainable social order was a rural society. In the context of gram swaraj, a farmer’s life is necessarily one of cooperation, not competition.

Seen through the Gandhian prism, what are the roots of the current agrarian crisis?

The finance model is at the fault. Our farmers wouldn't have required the kind of commercial credit system that we now have through commercial banks. If you had a rural society (as laid by Gandhi) with more equitably distributed income and resources, it would not have caused this distress. Unfortunately, the model that we chose was of modernity and industrialisation, accompanied by urbanisation and centralised production systems. The problem with such a system, be it agriculture or non-agriculture, is that it requires huge and intensive resources, and is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands; that's where the problem lies.

But can you meet rural aspirations without modernisation?

In an essay on ‘Higher Education in Relation to Rural India’, political thinker Dr AE Morgan had listed four factors that disturbed rural Indian society: state exploitation in the form of taxes and different types of levies; corruption in the state administration, which in turn induces the rural population to resort to dishonest means to get their work done; modernity and modernisation, which Gandhi had opposed, but which (Jawaharlal) Nehru had emphasised, which triggered a migration to urban areas; and the perception that the rural life doesn’t compare with the urban life insofar as the ideal village, with strong self-administration, self-rule, cleanliness, and education was not a shared vision among he villagers. Owing to these four factors, rural India faced an evacuation. Gandhi had diagnosed the problem in his time. The satyagrahas of Champaran, Kheda and Bardoli were intended to instill the concept of gram swaraj for village self-rule. Gandhi's first republic was a village republic.



Will the gram swaraj model work today for development of agriculture and the rural economy?

Unless we share this vision of gram swaraj, we will end up talking about rural development in transition. Today, we cheat rural communities by offering them such allurements through PMFBY (crop insurance), DBT (direct benefit transfer) and so on. The state claims to provide relief to the rural population, but it is not directed at transforming them to become a vibrant self-reliant economy, but to make them dependent on the state.

Why did the planned economic development model of earlier times not make farmers self-reliant?

From the second Five-Year Plan onwards, the focus shifted to industrialisation. And by the time the Fourth and the Fifth Plans came, the government realised that we had a disaster in respect of agriculture. The Green Revolution ushered in an element of self-reliance at the macro level by bringing in two types of technologies: bio-chemical technology (involving fertilizers and seeds), and agro-mechanical technology (involving mechanisation of agriculture). These technologies work for water-rich areas, but half of the districts in India were rain-fed. The mistake we did was that in a rainfed agrarian economy, we introduced hybrid varieties, which grew in water-rich conditions. Another disaster was the Public Distribution System (PDS), which imposed wheat and rice consumption on traditionally millet-consuming people. If millet had been included in the PDS, it would have provided sustenance to the local ecosystems, but they transported food from distant places to these regions and disturbed the local ecosystem. Unless there is local procurement and local distribution, PDS at the centralised level is a disaster. It led to corruption. Gandhi insisted on making the village ecosystem self-sufficient on food. Gandhi didn’t deny the importance of a market mechanism; he was not a statist. He wanted the markets to be in the control of the communities, not the other way.

What type of an agrarian economy would Gandhi have wished today for India?

There are three types of agrarian economies. Subsistence agriculture economy is the first, where farmers grow enough for themselves without a marketable surplus. Does India still have a subsistence agri economy? Yes, we do - in certain parts of India. The second type is commercial agriculture, where farmers produce certain crops for the market, but keep their own food system intact by growing their own inputs. For both these agri economies, the payout (the cash that farmer takes out to buy inputs) is minimal. But the third type - marketised agriculture - is the most damaging: They need to buy every input from the seeds to water, tractor, fertilizers – all of which are cash-based. The agriculture refinance model is also flawed. A farmer borrows cash, spends to buy inputs, and faces the risk of crop loss due to rain-fed farming. In such a scenario, if a crop fails, he gets stuck in debt.

Gandhi saw the subsistence and commercial agriculture models as viable. He suggested cultivation of cash crops such as cotton and castor. because they could be processed in the villages, and could foster an agro-based processing industry there. This would take care of the food, shelter and employment needs of the rural community. There could be self-reliance and inter-dependence between the villages, not complete dependence.

How far does the government’s aim to double farmers' income by 2022 match Gandhi's vision of a sustainable rural economy?

Doubling farmers' income is a farcical idea. If agri production is plentiful, farm prices drop. By doing it this way, you expose the farmer to the market in such a way that price fluctuations will cause a loss to him. Before Independence, farmers practised a form of ‘natural insurance’ by way of their crop choices. They would take a cue from the monsoon’s progress and decide which crop to cultivate in the short or long term. They had their own mixed-cropping mechanism to hedge against nature’s vagaries. In marketised farming, they rush for Bt cotton crop with an eye on more money. Even a small farmer goes for cotton. And if the crop fails, suicide is the only option left. Gandhi knew this, which is why he spoke of self-reliance. More than doubling the farmers' income, securing farmers' livelihood and his granaries is more important. By doubling his cash income, you are not going to help him. Because agri prices and industrial prices have an inverse relationship. The terms of trade are always weighted against the agriculture. In this case, even if you are able to double farm income, will their standard of living improve?

We are also looking at Zero Budget Farming and going back to the roots of agriculture practices.

It was originally Subhash Palekar's idea. But eventually he too agreed not to call it ‘Zero Budget’ (farming). The point is that you are now sincerely talking about bringing down your paid-out input cost and trying to use natural inputs. But there is a danger in that, too. Slowly, market mechanism will bring premiumisation into this, just as we talk of organic food. The trouble with that is while asking a premium price for a product made by a poor farmer, you are actually supporting inequality in society, because unless there are some very rich people out there, who will buy these expensive products? This isn't sustainable.

When will we see a shining decade for India's agriculture? What's the prescription for this?

We need to understand that the backgrounds of industry and of agriculture are different. Agriculture will prosper when farming communities are able to feed themselves and their neighbours and are able to supply decent surplus to urban areas, and they villagers don’t feel the need to leave villages and go to cities. When de-urbanisation starts happening, that will be the decade for agriculture. When you have good agriculture, agro-industry, non-farm cottage industry in rural areas and in totality, as a holistic approach to agriculture, that's when Indian agriculture will prosper. We do see some green shoots now. Many farmers are working and thinking on these lines. And the government is also able to read this change in approach. If the government is able to support this, we can do it.

Published on October 01, 2019
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