When fences eat crops

A farmer works in a paddy field on the outskirts of Agartala.   | Photo Credit: Reuters

Breaking the silence on the state of agriculturists, the Supreme Court has stepped in to call for relevant governmental addressal of agriculturists’ issues. The Supreme Court is right in calling for appropriate policies that prevent the epidemic of suicides instead of the post-facto provisioning of compensation. More particularly, what the Court has highlighted is that the institutions that should be catering to the needs of agriculturists have failed to do so, for the very fences that should protect crops have now turned rapacious.

In a nation where a large number of citizens are still agriculturists, it is both ironic and disheartening that successive governments over the past two decades have continually overlooked the needs of the rural and agricultural sectors. A vast array of institutions, networks and facilities supposedly cater to the agricultural and rural sector. And yet, what passes for either pro-agriculture or pro-rural policies are really measures that continue to keep farmers in conditions of depredation.

Despite its proclamation to do so, the NITI Ayog has not generated a new and comprehensive policy for agriculture. Oversight of structural factors of agriculture, where a large majority (about 89%) are small and marginal holders and whose average size of land holding is a mere 1.15 hectare continues, and no attempts are made to address the severely skewed distribution of resources. Policies and vision documents decry the very presence of this large population in the agrarian sector and advocate an inevitable transition to urban and industrial sectors.

Instead of recognising the value of diverse agricultural practices, there is policy injunction to turn agriculturists into agri-entrepreneurs who can wield high-technologies and engage with capital. Adding to this is the failure to recognise the limitations of the Green Revolution model and the continued impetus placed on promoting productivity as a central principle in agricultural policies. Increased productivity has not met with assured pricing policies and neither have the cultivators nor the consumers gained substantially.

Lost methods

India’s rich agro-biodiversity (and the knowledge and skills associated with it) continues to be lost and much of the land is now exhibiting signs of severe ecological distress. Despite the clarion call to prepare for climate change, no specific programmes are on the ground to ensure adaptation and resilience to climate change. A new definition of agriculture has entered the agrarian world and even the smallest holder of land defines agriculture as cultivation only with the support of a tube-well, hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Promoting commercial crops with disregard for ecological specificities is resulting in vast tracts of semi-arid lands becoming arid lands and arid lands turning into near deserts. The growth of the private agri-business industry, that receives a major share of the subsidies for agriculture has meant that they now have a stronger presence than the government’s agricultural extension service, and the promotion of capital and technology intensive and dependent agriculture continues unchecked.

Providing inter-linked markets for sales of agri-inputs, credit services and purchase of agricultural produce, agri-business rather than local farmer sensibility or scientific advice now guides extant agricultural practices. Assuring easy credit and new technologies, agri-equipment companies roam the countryside inducing agriculturists to turn their rain-dependent lands into groundwater dependent economies.

While remuneration may, in good times, be substantial, the good times are short-lived and depleted groundwater, rising debts, and infertile soils stare at many agriculturists. What, in short, the dominant agricultural model has promoted are practices that are ecologically unsustainable, economically unviable and socially precarious.

Is it any wonder that these risks mark the life of many agriculturists and the way out is often suicide?

Although increases in real wages have enabled the landless working class to have access to higher incomes, there are huge regional disparities in wages. In large tracts that have no assured agricultural work, the lives of the landless continue to be precarious.

In what seems to be a contradiction, even as women’s labour participation seems to be declining. There are now vast tracts where the out-migration of men has left women to bear the burden of being agriculturists. The spread and hegemony of the new extractive economies in mineral rich belts have rendered original residents into encroachers or they are labelled and targeted as armed terrorists.

An evil nexus

The nexus between regional extractive economies, political representatives, and executive agencies mean that there are now new assemblages of expropriation and exploitation that defy the norms and processes of democracy itself.

That we do not have famines of the magnitude of the previous century is to be credited to programmes that provision basic food (the Public Distribution System) and the MGNREGA programme which provides some basic employment and income. Yet, there are calls to stem these support programmes even as data indicates that large numbers of adults and children remain malnourished.

The absence and or inadequate functioning of two key services, that of health and education, contribute to the economic burdens that rural citizens bear. An underfunded and poorly conceptualised health service that has never managed to cater to the needs of the people and which continues to be dismal, in the face of increased environmental degradation and growing disease burdens and epidemics, is only one more fence that fails to protect rural citizens.

As studies have indicated, health expenditure alone is a key factor in either retaining or pushing people into poverty.

Education too ignored

The right to education has seen an expansion of the education system’s infrastructure but without the attendant attention to teacher training and administration. The aspiration for education has now spread widely and families tighten their stomachs to make expenditure for education possible. But the rural areas remain poorly serviced by intermediary and appropriate post-school education.

And the entry into the portals of professional and job-assuring educational programmes is only a dream for many. Poor quality education feeds into the production of the educated but unemployable and there is now a large pool of youth who are fit neither for agriculture nor for formal employment.

A combination of this regime of ill-fare against the countryside accounts for the extant distress that we see. For most families, the way out of poverty and the aspirations for a new life is to opt out of a life in agriculture. Commensurate with the spread of anti-agriculture attitudes are trends where land is increasingly abandoned, leased-out, or sold.

As a new class of urban professionals or investors are entering the sector, the masses are leaving in droves or seeking to opt out for a life in low-end urban, service economies that provide neither adequate nor long-term economic support. The rural sector is in doldrums and despite visible positive changes in housing and infrastructure, the quality of life continues to deteriorate. Indebtedness is now an ubiquitous marker of most families and the lack of opportunities to adequate remuneration mean that they remain entrapped.

Failure of democracy

The larger failure of the democratic system in which the interests of the majority are not represented or pursued remains the key conundrum. Why, instead of the Supreme Court, have the elected representatives, with the majority being from rural areas, not been able to raise or address these issues?

The priorities of new economic aspirations (of becoming a global super power via a non-agricultural economy), a political system that has not made accountability its corner stone, and a deeply differentiated and eroded rural society unable to mobilise around its own needs continue to mean neglect and distorted policies for rural and agrarian citizens.

Myopic policies, misplaced priorities, and a failure to recognise the complexities of rural India continue to act as flogging whips against the rural masses. And, the fences that should protect and care are now dispensing distortion, displacement, and violence.

A.R.Vasavi, a social anthropologist, is the author of the book Shadow Spaces: Suicides and the Predicament of Rural India.

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Printable version | Jun 18, 2021 6:19:46 PM |

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