On Sunday, March 11th, a wave of 50,000 red-flag-waving farmers washed over Mumbai, the nation’s commercial hub. The 200-km march over six days not only highlighted the schizophrenic divide between urban India and rural Bharat, but also seemed to ring a wake-up call of sorts across the nation.
Mumbai was tense as the scene was set for a communication flashpoint between both groups. The farmers under the All India Kisan Sangharsh Committee (AIKS), however, had already won the hearts of the ordinary Mumbaikar. They thoughtfully walked at night to spare exam-writing schoolchildren. Mumbai residents responded with flowers, food and footwear, as well as outpourings of sympathy on social media, for the weary villagers.
The crisis, however, did not escalate to the level feared. Surprisingly, the state government quickly agreed to most of the farmers’ demands, including debt waiver, Minimum Support Price (MSP) guarantee, land rights and compensation for failed crops.
All’s well that ends well, but while the protest has been called off and farmers look happy, it is time not just for Mumbai, but for the entire nation, to introspect. Farmer protests such as this stand out as a stark symbol of the self-absorption of urban India that has persistently ignored the needs of farmers for four decades.
Cities as flash points
The Mumbai march is not the first of its kind, nor the only one.
Last November, thousands from 184 farmer groups of states such as Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, and Telangana marched to New Delhi with a common demand – one-time complete waiver of farmer loans as well as Minimum Support Prices (MSP) as specified by the M S Swaminathan recommendations.
In October, farmers protested against the import of rubber that was hurting producers in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa and North-Eastern states. Just three months earlier, in July, hundreds of farmers spilled gallons of milk on the Ahmedabad-Gandhinagar highways. Their demands were similar – loan waivers, water and MSP.
Last June, Tamil Nadu farmers sat in Delhi for 41 days, with human skulls around their necks hoping to attract attention from authorities, and subsequent drought relief packages. Nothing came of their protest, so they repeated it in August at Chennai, when 200 farmers wearing green dhotis and saris asked for loan waivers, drought relief packages, and pensions. They also joined a candle-light procession to express condolence with six farmers killed in Madhya Pradesh at a police firing. Farmer discontent and angst were a common refrain throughout the country.
Reactions to farmer protests
The reaction of Mumbaikars to the AIKS march seems to have been sympathetic and even heartwarming in cases. However, mainstream media coverage was low to begin with, with most mainstream dailies downplaying the event and relegating it to inside pages as the steam built up.
“As mainstream media shares the middle class mindset, they tend to disregard rural unrest,” said reputed food and trade policy analyst, journalist and agricultural scientist, Devinder Sharma. “The coverage or analysis of the issues has been very poor.”
Except during the recent AIKF rally in Mumbai, farmers never really seemed to have made much of an impact on urban Indians, except for creating “irritation at traffic junctions.” Most are not even aware of the protests, and if so, simply don’t care.
“It creates a lot of disruption at traffic junctions,” says Rohith, from Delhi. “I get late for office.” Anugraha from Bengaluru voices the same sentiment, “Why can’t these people just do what they are supposed to do – produce food?”
But why this strong apathy? It seems obvious that unlike the India Against Corruption protests, farmer rallies have simply not touched a chord in the hearts of city-dwellers, who feel a kind of disconnect with the issues that threaten farmers.
Neglected rural sector
It is life as usual for urban Indian as long as bad news is confined to the dailies.
One farmer dies every 41 minutes, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. Between 1995 and 2015, almost 3,18,528 farmers have committed suicide, writes Devinder Sharma. The Agro-Economic Research Centre report submitted in July 2017 shows that the recorded increase in the number of farmer suicides across India since 2014 has been 40 to 41 percent.
Meanwhile, even while the last two years were stated to be bumper production years, agricultural sector growth has slowed down to 3%, according to Shambhu Ghatak, researcher and writer at the Inclusive Media for Change Project.
The imbalance is very clear, and the inequity and injustice are perceived to be working in the favour of cities. Most governments, as well as the middle and upper classes, have always treated farmers as a burden, living off their benevolence. Government policy seems to be skewed strongly towards city-dwellers and protestors are commonly called “Maoists”.
Even though the country has enjoyed a bumper harvest in the past two years, being among the world’s largest producers of food grains and milk and second largest in production of fruits and vegetables and fish, it has still slipped down three ranks to 100 among 119 nations in the Global Hunger Index (GHI), published by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
Moreover, rural India is eating less than it used to 40 years ago. The reason is that the government refuses to improve the MSP for farmers, which forces them to invest more in, and gain less from, these bumper crops.
Is the rural populace cheap labour for industrial factories?
Are farmers merely providers of cheap food for urbanites?
It seems that is how they are perceived and by that logic, the incomes of villagers have been deliberately kept low, according to Ghatak. However, what such short-sighted views fail to factor in is that if the incomes and purchasing power of 70 per cent of India (rural citizens), is brought down, it would automatically affect the profits of the corporate world. It is a simple cycle that has not been acknowledged or examined.
Urban India seems to be having a strange misconception about poverty in rural areas. As they are living in the midst of comfort and luxury, they somehow feel that poverty in the villages does not exist, or that even if it does, should not be eliminated? Declining poverty in the villages would actually impoverish the cities, is the subconscious belief. Kashinath, an IT worker in Bengaluru says: “Villagers are anyway surrounded by food all around them. Why should only city-dwellers work hard and divert earnings to improve rural lifestyles?”
In this baffling statement, one thing is very clear – most people in the cities have simply not got the facts right. India is not subsidising Bharat. It is the other way round.
The logic of keeping one section hungry in order to enhance the comfort level of another section just doesn’t make sense. Agricultural labour is kept deliberately impoverished, so that food prices can remain low in order to match the comforts of the urban population.
Devinder Sharma points out, “If rural India, home to 70% of India’s population, is eating less and remains undernourished, isn’t that cause for alarm?”
Equality is an imperative, not an option
Cities must understand that elimination of poverty, hunger and malnutrition in the entire nation is just not possible without focus on the agricultural sector. According to Devinder Sharma, a recent US study showed that if the government invests in agriculture, it would turn out to be five times more effective in eliminating poverty, than if the state just builds up urban infrastructure.
Economists, policy-makers and the bureaucracy seem to be investing heavily in market reforms rather than in agriculture. Thus, in order to move towards eliminating hunger by 2022, it has to “reinvent farming” and enhance public sector investments. Otherwise, it is digging its own grave.
Meanwhile, in a land of plenty, food imports have shot up. Down to Earth reports that food import bill for 2015-16 totals Rs 1,402,680,000,000, which works out to thrice the amount needed for the annual budget for agriculture. Ironically, it does not seem to bother the urban citizen to see his taxes getting frittered away in importing food, that is abundantly available domestically?
In addition, sops to the corporate sector really brings down the expenditure on an essential agricultural section that directly benefits society at large. As Shambhu Ghatak puts it, “The total revenue foregone in 2017-18 on account of special tax rates, exemptions, deductions, rebates, deferrals and credits … has been more than 50 percent of the expenditure incurred by the Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare (MoAFW) and the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD) altogether in that year.”
What is the point of giving the corporate world tax exemptions, with no buyers for their products in the villages?
With farmers throwing away excess milk, fruits and vegetables, deciding to strike and refusing to supply food to the cities, urban India has to wake up to one basic lesson: Impoverishing the rural workforce would really be the beginning of their own end.