‘Ramrao: The Story of India’s Farm Crisis’ review: Why the farmer stands alone despite shiny new schemes

India’s farmers, at the mercy of blind and blanket agrarian reforms, continue to fight administrative apathy, says a journalist

November 06, 2021 04:23 pm | Updated 04:23 pm IST

P. Sainath published Everybody Loves a Good Drought over two decades ago, marking a new beginning for development journalism. Such was the power of the reports in the slim volume that it became the go-to manual for anyone interested in understanding rural India. But unfortunately, development journalism in India could not catch up with the pace set by Sainath in the 2000s.

Not many journalists preferred taking that tough route. However, Nagpur-based Jaideep Hardikar is an exception. Taking a road less travelled, Hardikar now works with People's Archive of Rural India (PARI), a platform that documents India’s villages. PARI, founded by Sainath, has been producing impressive work. The Long March , a novel by Namita Waikar, an editor with the institution, also looks into the farm crisis in Maharashtra.

Despair all around

Like his previous work, A Village Awaits Doomsday , Hardikar’s latest, Ramrao: The Story of India’s Farm Crisis, is a hat-tip to Sainath’s work for the sheer honesty and emotional fervour with which it approaches the subject. The book is titled after Ramrao Panchleniwar, a cotton farmer in Vidarbha in Maharashtra, who tried to end his life after struggling with farm debt and despair.

But this is not the story of Ramrao alone. Hardikar follows the plight of the hapless farmer to tell the horrifying tale of what’s gone wrong with the way India treats agriculture, a sector that still feeds more than half of the country's 130-plus-crore population. Like John Steinbeck’s disturbingly truthful portrait of Depression-era America in his 1939 classic work of fiction, The Grapes of Wrath, Hardikar’s non-fiction unravels stories of peasant misery. Ramrao is Tom Joad, the forlorn, jobless and vulnerable man who became the poster face of the great financial crisis of his times.

The crisis that Hardikar tells you about could be worse than the ones that hit America in the 1930s. For instance, in Vidarbha alone, more than 60,000 farmers committed suicide in 20 years. But it was not given enough press, sparing a few years in recent history when the number of farmers committing suicide in Maharashtra skyrocketed triggering vociferous protests in some parts of civil society, jolting policymakers out of their genetic lethargy to do some ‘planning’ to tackle the crisis. But most of it has turned out to be hot air. As Hardikar says, the story of India’s agrarian crisis is “turning stale”.

Dole economy

This book is a grim reminder that nothing much has changed on the ground despite the “shiny new schemes” and the doles politicians promised. Farmers in the country continue to fight administrative apathy, and are at the mercy of private money lenders and touts who stand between them and the market. Blind and blanket agrarian reforms do not address the new, dire realities of climate change and corporate tampering of Indian farming. Ramrao documents the helplessness in graphic detail.

You come across a crowd of characters in the book. Farmers who write poems before they kill themselves, thick-skinned politicians, farmers who face life and crisis with sarcasm and untamed wit — “The good thing about note-bandi (currency ban), quips cotton farmer Pramod Metkar, is that “it does not hurt those with no money. Like me!” — and more. Together, they tell us that agrarian reforms in India continue to remain an unfinished business and whatever is being done in the name of reinvigorating the sector is not enough. For those who are in the know, that’s stating the obvious. But for others who care, this is a wake-up call.

Farmers in India continue to hit the street, begging, shouting, blocking ways to record their protest, to highlight their demands; but to no avail. For obvious reasons, Hardikar, who has been covering India’s agrarian crisis for decades now, does not bother to be seen as objective. His prose is emotional, biased and sharp. Hence, it lacks the indiscreet charms of the scholarly works on poverty that we generally come across and can dull you at times with a heavy dose of data. But the effort is worth your time and energy. Because this is the story of how we bite the hand that feeds us.

Ramrao: The Story of India’s Farm Crisis ; Jaideep Hardikar, HarperCollins, ₹399.

The reviewer is founder and editor of India Art Review .

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