Much as in Jonathan Swift’s parable Gulliver’s Travels, the protesting farmer at the Delhi border has come to resemble Gulliver. Indeed, the gallant of modern Indian myths, the ‘annadata’ has little room left to manoeuvre as he finds himself strapped to the ambitions of a varied cast of 21st century Lilliputians.
For the workers of the world haven’t quite united behind the assortment of leftist political entrepreneurs, the anarchists, the woke bourgeois and the celebrity socialist looking to keep it real. So now this assemblage has pinned its hopes of reviving a class struggle on the backs of the Indian peasant.
It’s not that the Modi sarkar hasn’t kept the door open for a putative rapprochement by hanging out the fig leaf of resolution. It’s just that the farmer has been convinced of the justness of his cause and his struggle for relevance. Added to this, of course, are the farmers’ own simplistic conceits that prevent him from overcoming the slight of not having been consulted before the laws were written by the Centre. How could the state, he asks with indignation, have been so presumptuous as to dare chart the destiny of those who have shaped that of the motherland?
But alas, no fields of gold await the Punjab and Haryana farmer. If protesting farmers and their cohorts succeed in getting the Centre to roll back the three contentious farm laws, they would have scored a pyrrhic victory. Just about any economist will tell you that the farm laws, if tweaked just that little bit and if implemented efficiently, are the farmers’ ticket out of pastoral perdition.
Even the opposition that today eggs on the farmer to fear encroachment by the “crony capitalists” upon the sylvan “bread basket of India” knows that in another time it had viewed corporatisation with a less jaundiced eye.
For proof look at a report titled “Economic Strategy for Punjab” prepared in July last year by a committee set up to advise the Congress-led Punjab government. This vision document lays out “A Multi-Sectoral Approach To Building Resilience and Recovery” post-Covid with a chapter on agriculture calling for urgent “produce marketing reforms”. The focus, it says, must be on opening up the market beyond the state controlled mandi or Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees to enable a more “liberal arrangement”. This is necessary so as not to risk “losing potential investment by processors, exporters, organised retailers …” to other states like UP and Haryana. Significantly, the report recommends abandoning the PDS system to procure surplus wheat and rice to push farmers to diversify into high value crop cultivation that will make them richer. In short, the emphasis of this report is on making farmers and the state richer without demonising private capital.
This is not the only instance where there is a contradiction between what those counselling the farmers truly believe and what they espouse in public on the kisan’s behalf. Consider Greta Thunberg. Her precocious advocacy for a cleaner, greener world has inspired global conversations on climate change. Was she aware that “farm netas’’ had extracted a promise from the Centre to exempt them from punitive measures to stop the wanton burning of crop residue? Every year farmers in Punjab, Haryana and parts of UP burn about 100 million tons of paddy stubble forcing down-wind states, like Delhi, to shut business activity, halt construction projects and even alter school days. The loss on the economic and public health front is incalculable.
Furthermore, the origins of this toxic miasma lie in an indirect subsidy regime that is making agriculture unsustainable. Free power for agriculture in Punjab and Haryana, apart from placing an unsustainable burden on budgets, is causing irreversible environmental damage because it promotes water intensive paddy cultivation, depleting ground water at an alarming rate. The indiscriminate use of water is also reportedly pushing up temperatures in the plains of Punjab, causing long-term climate change. Conservationists have warned that continuing with this ruinous power subsidy runs the risk of ruining swaths of arable land, which in turn will spark mass population displacement and conflict.
Indirect subsidies may line the farmer’s pocket today, but they won’t pave the way for a secure future. If supporters of the kisan are truly committed to their well-being, they must untether the farmers and stop harvesting their insecurities to further their own interests.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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