The last few years have seen farmers from several Indian states take to city streets to voice their unhappiness with the national government. With elections approaching next year, the budding opposition movement has grown in intensity – to the point of provoking a military crackdown that has resulted in multiple deaths and injuries.
In recent months, hundreds of thousands of farmers have marched for miles and taken increasingly desperate steps to attract national media attention. Some of the more dramatic tactics include self-scarring, holding dead rats in their clenched teeth, throwing living snakes from the upper decks at the home opener of the Chennai Super Kings, crawling on the street fully naked while screaming “Shiva, Shiva, Shiva” in front of Parliament, holding mock burials for themselves, and dumping huge quantities of milk and vegetables on the streets of big cities.
At the origins of this anger is a complex combination of deep agrarian crisis coupled with a lack of opportunity outside of farming sectors. The feelings of injustice are compounded by a sense of exclusion from Narendra Modi’s India Shining campaign since 2014. Now, in the run-up to national elections in 2019, peasants’ demands generally enjoy public sympathy and widespread support — instilling some fears of a possible upset within the ruling party.
Rural areas without rural power
Once Indian farmers are sufficiently angered to mobilize large-scale protests, it is nearly impossible for any government to contain. Although India’s economic power is not derived from the rural side of global India, more than two-thirds of the total population – around 70% — live in rural areas.
The current Prime Minister stands accused of having abandoned his campaign promise to improve the lives of the 800 million inhabitants who still depend directly or indirectly on agriculture. But it will not be easy to to solve the structural crisis of Indian farming. Paradoxically, the agrarian distress has risen simultaneously with the expansion of productive capacities.
Since the Green Revolution of the late 1960s, India has multiplied its production and has become the world’s largest producer of cotton and the second largest producer of wheat, rice and sugar. However, the contribution of agriculture to the total GDP has decreased from more than half during the early decades after Independence (1947) to around 15% in recent years.
Among the main causes for this decline, the government’s chief economic adviser, Arvind Subramanian, identifies a distorted subsidy regime which favored cereals like rice and wheat rather than pulses and oilseeds. In the last 30 years, with the emergence of urban habits of consumption, the cereal demand per capita has continuously declined – thereby undermining the domestic market. He suggests the government should move away from subsidies to target crops in favor of direct support to farmers.
The farmers, for their part, portray themselves as victims of market forces, and bemoan the lack of adequate support from the State – which takes the form of Minimum Support Price, procurement and risk covers. In addition, the constant improvement of technological, the need for bigger quantities and more expensive pesticides and the rising prices of diesel and electricity, all weigh heavily on the sector and especially on small farmers who cannot compete in the global market. Nonetheless, small farmers make up the majority of all landholders in India.
A “jobless growth”
According to estimations from the 59th National Sample Survey for 2003-04 only 5% of rural households owned more than 3 hectares and were able to generate more income than their expenditures out of their production. One third of all rural households own less than 0.4 hectare and another third owns no land at all.
Compared with the early 1990s, landlessness and polarization around the issue of land ownership have increased. Farmland is still the primary source of livelihood for more than half of the total population, and it is getting scarcer with demographic pressure.
The country is slowly shifting from the middle to late stage of a demographic transition, but in rural areas the fertility rate remains slightly higher, averaging around 3 children per woman. Moreover, the model of joint household has been declining in rural societies – which has implications for the subdivision of land from one generation to the next. As a result, the diversification of sources of livelihood has become a normal trend in rural economy.
The structural transformation occurring in the last half century in India is also characterized by a drastic shift from the primary to the tertiary sector, leaving no room for manufacturing to absorb all of the excess rural labor force. Indeed, industry has been stagnant for the last two decades, contributing only 20% of the broader economy.
This model of development has been defined by some economists as “jobless growth” where an entire span of the population is trapped in the uncertainty of casual and informal jobs (approximately 85% of all non-farm jobs fall into the “informal sector” according to the International Labor Organization), mostly in construction and related sectors.
Investing in education to face the skills mismatch in the labor market and paying huge bribes to access government jobs is something that many parents in remote villages hope they can do for their children. A vicious circle of indebtedness is thereby aggravated, especially where access to credit is mostly confined to informal institutions that impose usurious interest rates (10 to 15% per month). Extreme debt burdens have even pushed some farmers to take their own life in anticipation of the State compensation of about 250 euros to their family.
The National Crime Records Bureau counted 8,007 cases of farmer suicide in 2015, and has reportedly continued to grow in subsequent years. Loan waivers became one of the core demands of the peasants’ movement after it was first introduced by Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.
Rural distress has worsened in the last years
Other demands that were inspired by the Swaminathan Commission Report, were submitted to the government in 2004 but never applied. The report had suggestions for “faster and more inclusive growth” for farmers and agriculture sector. Some of the key points were: land reform aimed at redistributing ceiling-surplus and waste lands, and the prevention of diversion of prime agricultural land and forest to the corporate sector for non-agricultural use with the implementation of the Forest Right Act.
Also included in the report were recommendations for the development of better infrastructure for irrigation and an expanded outreach formal credit system to reduce crop loan interest rates and to provide a system of public insurance against losses due to natural calamities for the small farmers.
The current government, ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, set itself the ambitious target of doubling farmer incomes by 2022 from the current average of 120 euros per month. Agricultural economists are optimistic about this – but that’s it.
Recent indicators suggest that rural distress has worsened under the four years of the present government because of dismal agriculture growth rates, stagnant real incomes for farmers and declining wages, along with slowdown in the non-farm sector4. The upcoming elections will likely inspire some palliative measures but there will be no panacea for the rural population forthcoming for the time being. The future of this huge mass of unhappy peasants will remain a high stakes challenge for the next government.
Photo: Vasudevan Narayanan