Discussion on Indian Agriculture and the ongoing Kisan agitation

NB: Here are some observations which I have received from friends (or passed on by them) on Indian agriculture. The observations have been provoked by the current farmer agitation. The comments are placed in the order I received them. Some are in the public domain, and helped spark off the debate. Five of these are listed below: DS

Amandeep Sandhu on Arthiyas - extract from PANJAB: Journeys Through Fault Lines

The Three Farm Bills Is This the Market Reform Indian Agriculture Needs? Sudha Narayanan

The Agrarian Crisis in Punjab and the Making of the Anti-Farm Law Protests: Shreya Sinha

Ravinder Kaur: Has Modi finally met his match in India's farmers?

P. Sainath: Did You Think the New Laws Were Only About the Farmers? // SCBA president says farm laws 'unconstitutional', offers free services as lawyer to agitating farmers

Amit Bhaduri: Faces in mirror held up by farmers’ protest

Jairus Banaji on the Indian corporatist strategy of subordinating farm households and family labor


Comment by Vikas Srivastava:

The excerpt by Amandeep Sandhu on the Arhtiya system of Punjab is very insightful. It all the more confirms India is too diverse a system to be put into one single straight-jacket sociological analysis- especially the perpetual proxy war between socialists and free-marketeers. Coming from a family of farm-land holdings in a village called Basvakalyan in Karnataka, I see the problem differently. My grandfather along with his 8 other brothers, was a farmer for the first half of his life- until he left the village for Bengaluru, distributing the farmlands amongst his brothers. Despite being in the city, I have grown up spending every vacation/long holiday at the farms. 

Over the past one-month, I have been at my grandfather's home in the village, working and otherwise also spending time talking to many small, medium, large farm land-holders of the village. Here, unlike Punjab, all sections of farmers are not quite dependent on the state procurement. They grow and sell diverse crops according to the demands of markets of the towns and cities across nearby states. Some farmers irrespective of the size of their landholding, either due to their political clout or family are well connected with different buyers of the city and different markets of states, allowing them to sell their yield and make good margins. 

But some of them, again irrespective of the size of farm-lands, do not manage to get their yield successfully converted into income, and are trapped into debts and loans. And these farmers who do not have access to diverse buyers and markets, and are unable to convert their yield into income, get criminally exploited by the middle-men. Here, unlike Punjab, there is a whole cartel that exploits the crop cultivators, especially the small ones. So much so that, what is bought at Rs. 3/- is sold at Rs. 50/-. This disparity in some sections of farmers having access to diverse buyers/markets and some being exploited by the cartel makes almost none of them dependent on state procurement.

The consequence has been that some 'failed' farmers with decent-land holdings give up the occupation and open Kirana stores, medical & pharmaceutical shops, or work as accountants in banks. Yet despite keeping the land uncultivated and shifting to other means of livelihood, the land-holders who are not farmers keep getting or have access to huge subsidies which go into utter waste. This has led to a huge accumulation of capital year after year, without having any tax cut. Some of the ones I know in the village have crores and crores of the capital of stashed up. While some utilize this land in perverse ways to procure subsidies, others sell it illegally to local MLAs at a huge price. 

Whatever be the consequence, agriculture as an occupation is dumped and the fertile cultivable land either lays waste or is sold illegally for housing and other purposes. The agricultural land will continue to lay waste or be sold illegally, eventually for non-agri purposes if income per hectare is not prioritized along with income per farmer. (Income per hectare of farm in Bihar & Kerala, where APMC act is dysfunctional, is higher and is increasing significantly when compared to other states) 

While those small farm landholders who are exploited and yet manage to farm, are in need of access to diverse markets. There are a lot of agri-business startups that have come up and are trying to digitally integrate groups of farmers, especially those exploited, with direct buyers and diverse markets. (Here is one example: This famous Bihar-Startup has facilitated the farmers to store grains by converting them into digital assets, on which farmers can claim credits from banks and NBFCs. The farmer's income has improved hugely, and so has the startup flourished.) 

However, to me, the larger problem of Indian agriculture cannot be reduced to a proxy-battle between socialists and free-marketeers. The state-procurement of Punjab crops via MSP is not just a financial crisis but also an ecological crisis. As Prof. Mihir Shah has been saying, the agrarian crisis is a crisis of India's Water. 90% of water is consumed by agriculture, of which 80% is consumed by Rice, wheat, and sugarcane. In such a scenario, for the state to procure rice & wheat from Punjab is not just financially unsustainable (given the huge surplus with govt. with scant demand) but also ecologically catastrophic. Rather other crops like pulses & millets need to be incentivized. If those who are protesting "for farmers" do not take into account the economically & ecologically disastrous monoculture present majorly in Punjab (other state farms are more diverse & independent), while putting forward their point, their demands hold no moral air. 

The case for Crop diversification, either via MSP incentivization or via bringing in private buyers/ diverse markets, is what any side claiming to be pro-farmer must argue for. The problem is complex with genuine concerns on all sides, but it is also an opportunity holding the potential for economic flourishment along with ecological sustainability. I wonder if we will come to a consensus on this or continue to be trapped in ideologies. 


Critical remarks on the above 

I disagree on many counts.

1) You seem to be saying that the only thing wrong with these bills is the way they were passed in Parliament. However, I am of the opinion that these farm laws are not only against the interest of farmers but also unconstitutional. The laws contain among the most sweeping exclusions of a citizen’s right to legal recourse in any law outside of the Emergency of 1975-77.  

2) Before jumping into the naive textbook economic fairytale of connecting farmers to open-markets where they will have multiple buyers to choose from, I wish to address your ecological apprehensions. In the 1960's, it was the government that rammed wheat and rice down Punjab/Haryana's throats to ensure food security for the country through MSP procurement, seed and petrochemical fertiliser, tubewell subsidies etc. Within a decade, farmers knew the disastrous ecological and health effects of this system. Yet they were bound. To cry out loud, Punjab has a cancer belt with cancer trains running. We know how deep this crisis is, and yet we are helpless. Every farmer knows this. Nobody wants to feed their families chemicals, nobody wants to creep more into debt by spending money on digging deeper borewells to guzzle out precious water for paddy. 

In a time like this, it is most irresponsible for the government to leave farmers high and dry to the vagaries of the market on a 'good faith' assurance of MSP which has never been implemented in the past except for paddy and rice (and by the way the increase in MSP over the years has been disproportionately small to the cost of inputs); and also twist the narrative in such a way as to shift the burden of solving the ecological crisis to the shoulders of farmers. There is an extent to naivety. If you want to call this socialist idealogy, go ahead, but I have no belief whatsoever in the 'good intentions' of the govt or the corporates seeing the precedents that they have set.

3) Crop Diversification is not rocket science. A farmer asks two things: what should I sow? and what price I will get for it? Farmers will diversify if they get a price for it. I see people giving all sorts of bewildered reactions when asked why MSP cannot be legalized. "It will distort the market, demand-supply determines prices, this goes against basic economics" are arguments given... If these very people who sit on theoretical high-horses and shell out market logic, had their own salaries dependent on laws of demand and supply, I wonder what then there opinion would be.

The experience of farming across the world tells us that the standard laws of supply and demand do not work in food production. That is why even the developed capitalist world, where free markets supposedly rule, subsidises its farming communities. Monoculture must be tackled, the government is responsible for creating it, it must help farmers move away from it.  Why MSP is a must for farmers

4) You cite Bihar as an example. I would like to point out some flaws in the article you shared. It says: "We looked at what crops were produced in these states using data on the value of output (VOO) from GoI. In 2015-16, Punjab’s agricultural output (current prices) valued at about Rs 1.3 lakh crore and Bihar’s at Rs 1.1 lakh crore. While Punjab’s agricultural basket emerged cereal-centric, Bihar’s was more diversified...Cereals are low-valued crops compared to F&V, oilseeds, or pulses. In 2019-20, MSPs of major cereal crops were below Rs 20/kg (wheat Rs 19.25/kg, paddy Rs 18.35/kg, maize Rs 17.6/kg). But for pulses, MSPs averaged Rs 60/kg (gram Rs 48.75/kg, moong Rs 70.5/kg, tur Rs 58/kg), and for oilseeds, MSPs averaged Rs 44/kg (groundnut Rs 50.9/kg, soybean Rs 37.1/kg, mustard about Rs 44.25/kg)."

If you haven't noticed all these value calculations are THEORETICAL, calculated only on paper. The MSP of fruits and vegetables is higher than cereals, great. But go and ask the Bihar farmer what he got for his produce in the market (private buyers, NOT APMC!). If you cannot guess, let me tell you that it was way, way below MSP.

If Bihar is becoming a fruit and vegetable producer, then why do all Bihar farmers not move into fruits and vegetables? Why do their farmers grow paddy? Rohtas and Sasaram are now the highest paddy yielding districts, yet they sell their produce to traders for huge loss and traders sell the produce in Panjab where MSP is available? During our ELM with PARI in Haryana, we met multiple rotational migrants who after sowing their own fields in Bihar came to Haryana to work as farm labour for two-three months. Ever wondered why?

And the income per hectare calculations done in the article are an example of bad economics, I would argue even bad mathematics. Data means nothing without context. Dividing the avg income/month by avg land holding tells you nothing conclusive. I suggest you see this week's primetime coverage on the issue by Ravish on NDTV. He looks at the issue very thoroughly. The ground reality is vastly different.

In November 2018, well over a lakh farmers from 22 states and four union territories gathered near parliament in Delhi demanding implementation of key recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission. They also sought a debt waiver, guaranteed MSP, and many other demands i.e, many of the very things the farmers are now demanding. Protests are happening all over the nation. You need to open your eyes and see. There are many more points where I find your arguments flawed, but I will reserve further comments


Response to the above by Vikas

Here are a few of things I thought I'd clarify and add briefly: 

- My argument is not against MSP incentivization. The govt must certainly incentivize diversifying of crop patterns via MSP. I don't know about the feasibility of doing it Centrally though. Prof. Mihir Shah believes pulses, millets and oil seeds can be introduced in Mid-day meals, MSDP, PDS etc of India. Regarding legalization of MSP centrally- Of what I understand, MSP has been more of an administrative excerise and not a law. A demand to legislate it centrally on the contrary would undermine the argument of federalism. 

-  Regarding the constitutionality of these bills, I am not an expert on law. But if that is the case, then the SC should rightly be pressurized to resolve it. But I doubt that, looking at the current state of Indian judiciary. 

- I also feel the believers of 'blind privatization in the service of corporate monopolies' are equally deluded towards issues of ecology and radical wealth inequality. There is nothing 'free' about free-markets. It has only widened the gaps between 'haves' and 'have nots'. A new wealth distribution system  however needs to emerge. Development must certainly not come at the cost of displacing adivasi livelihoods. Hence, it is heartening to see voices against corporate monopolies perpetuating oligarchy. 

- However, if these expressions come from a collective belief that renewable energy transition is a capitalist myth and digitzation of economy is a neo-colonial imperalism. Then I believe we seriously ought to reconsider our assumptions. 

- A stance against free market fundamentalism & corporate monopolies, in my view, must not be a stance against local entrepreneurship, small scale businesses and local industries. Being an engineering graduate, as much as I have seen rampant joblessness- I have equally seen young people collaborating to create small scale startups that facilitate FPOs by integrating them digitally. This has helped them hugely. 

- Mahatma Gandhi wasn't a socialist. Of what I know, both Gandhi and Marx had envisioned a stateless society. But for Gandhi a society ought to be co-operative at its foundation. If that wasn't the case he wouldn't have made GD Birla institute FICCI in 1927. Farmers, industrialists, etc need to figure out a way to work in co-operation and not in conflict. 

- Yes the green revolution was unfairly shoved down the throats of the farmer at at a time when India had immense food scarcity. But now that there is surplus, a new wealth/energy/resources distribution system is needed which goes beyond socialism & capitalism.

Finally, I just want to say that the protests against the bills, are very legitimate and valid, but however in my view they do not represent the entire farming community. The voices against the bills would perhaps do well to drive their energies in demanding things which would incentivize organic produce, apart from many of their other hard-lined demands. 

Something like - An Ease of Organic Certification which takes years and is currently mired in corruption. Or Incentivization of natural indigenous seeds. 

We musn't underestimate the Renewable Energy transition and the Digital revolution which humanity is currently witnessing and participating in. I believe it has far reaching consequences on human consciousness- It has hope, not because technology will solve problems but perhaps we will end up at no other way but to work in co-operation. 


From Muddam DixitThanks everyone for initiating this conversation. I would like to dwell a little on this based on my observations in Uttarakhand and Telangana.

Ramgarh - The economy in Ramgarh is mostly horticultural and tourism intensive. It is the region of surplus where absolute poverty is unknown. The peaches of Ramgarh sell in Mumbai with very few intermediaries and fetch good income for the farmers. But the downside is- it is heavily infested with pesticides. During our butterfly research this summer and monsoon, we found the lowest insect diversity in these fields, which is alarming as this is one of the very few places in the country with diverse biodiversity. And most farmers here feel there is no other way to cultivate the fruits which would fetch them this kind of income. The story is the same for cabbage, peas and potatoes which are other major crops. As long as they get a good price for their produce, they'll maintain the status quo. Maybe this is the reason(others being media propaganda) why there isn't much opposition to the present laws among farmers of Ramgarh. 

Telangana- Here in Telangana, the rate at which farmers are giving up agriculture is alarming. At Least 20 farmers in my father's generation in my extended family have either sold their lands or given them to real estate dealers. This is not because it wasn't sustaining them but their inability to catch up in the aspirational world. When asked about present laws, none of them were in opposition to it even after being aware of its provisions. Even the Bandh that the farmers called for received very little support in the state and was forced upon by the ruling party(TRS) in certain areas. 

In both places, none of the farmers want their kids to practice agriculture. It all boils down to the decline in confidence of the farmer in his own culture. Lot of us feel that by increasing their incomes it would revive. But to what extent? It is the preference to monetised agriculture over sustenance based agriculture which has aided in creation of these issues. Added to this is our education system. Our design of education is such that migration to the cities becomes almost inevitable. Idealising city life over village life becomes a norm. No kid is encouraged to dream himself/herself to be a farmer as physical labour is considered degenerate and lacks dignity. Many of us are products of such a diseased system.

Right now, I don't want to jump to any conclusions and prescribe suggestions as these issues are much more complex than we thought them to be. But we can certainly have an elaborate discussion sometime when we meet. Hope it adds to the above discussion.


From Aryaman: I just wish to make a few points.

 - We should be clear that the justification of the Green Revolution coming at the time of food scarcity and later helping India achieve food surplus is a myth. This article should be helpful in understanding this. Today what we have left with us to 'distribute' is misery and servitude.

- The Green Revolution was part of an imperialist project by USA and its agencies to control the food supply in South Asia and thus establish geopolitical control. This is just a small example of how they went about it. Today, the new policies are influenced by it again.

- What is required is a removal of this parasite, not a new and improved version of it. The new agricultural policies have been called Green Revolution 2.0 by the economists who have brought them. While Punjab and some other sections of India were the primary victims of the earlier version, this new policy wishes to democratise this extractivism to all of India. Like Krishna did with Kaliya, the snake who was poisoning the river, the parasite must be sent back from where it came. Conflict would not be required.

- Biodiversity is a gift of the Earth, not a boon of markets (however benevolent) or industries (however benign). If markets wish to participate in this diversity, they must serve the Earth and the Farmers on their terms, rather than set the terms with their own demands. If our obese metropolises prove unable to sustain themselves on these ecological principles, then the sensible thing would be to trim them down to fitness. Contract farming, on the other hand, requires crops to conform to very specific size and quality standards. It promotes monoculture in accordance with the standardised machinery and supply chains of the industries and retail markets it serves. The case of potato contract farming is just one well documented example of this.

- Industrialisation is the process of conflicting with the Earth to extract from it at an unnatural rate. An industrial way of farming, and industrialisation generally is inherently at war with the Earth and all those who live in peace in its arms. To cooperate would require us to first give up this war. Gandhi was very clear about this, and states this position explicitly in his exchanges with Nehru and elsewhere.


From Aseem Shrivastava:

Vikas, a few thoughts did occur to me while reading what you have written...so, briefly...

1. You say about formally legalising MSP: "A demand to legislate it centrally on the contrary would undermine the argument of federalism." There is no better example of the violation of federal principles than the three farm bills which the present govt has pushed through Parliament, since agriculture is normally a 'state subject' - since 1950. The central legislation of MSP would be one 'violation' of federalism that farmers across the land would welcome, one can be sure.

2. Replacing the chain of (often exploitative) small buyers and merchants with big agribusiness is certainly not the answer either to the declining economic condition of farmers or to the ecological questions raised by Green revolution disasters. Everyone knows - and certainly any govt should know - that agricultural markets are always buyer's, not seller's markets (unless the seller is a big MNC). Prices are set for the farmer - by the mandi, the govt, the corporation, the WTO, or the Chicago Board of Trade, never by farmers themselves. This is true around the world - for the whole world (in the interests of industrialisation) has discriminated against farmers since the industrial revolution, in countries capitalist and socialist alike. 

So, for the govt - and most of the mainstream media - to claim that the options are being broadened for the farmer (unbeknownst to themselves of course) by the latest legislation is disingenuous. Wouldn't legislating a national MSP offer those marginal farmers (like the ones you mention) exploited by middlemen a reservation income they would otherwise not receive?

As for ecological considerations (such as use of chemicals and pesticides), everyone knows that corporations are at best indifferent to them. Given the extent to which every govt has controlled agriculture and thus influenced cropping decisions, the onus is on the govt (through appropriate policies), not the farmers, to ensure that agriculture becomes somewhat sustainable. The corporatisation and mechanisation of agriculture (I have argued elsewhere) is the surest way to render it even more unsustainable than it already is. 

3. Even relatively conservative bodies like the National Commission for Farmers (Swaminathan Committee, 2006) had recommended fundamental reforms to address the long-standing agrarian crisis (400,000 suicides in the last 23 years since the govt signed the AoA with WTO). Few of these measures have been taken, so far as I know. Instead of carrying out its responsibility, the govt is creating new problems for the farmers.


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