In UP, Yogi Adityanath called Him a Dalit. MLA, Laxmi Narayan Chaudhary said He was a Jat. Acharya Nirbhay Sagar Maharaj called Him a Jain. MLC Bukkal Nawab claimed that he was a Muslim. Last heard, former Indian cricketer, Chetan Chauhan labelled him a sportsman.
For a state that contributed the maximum number of protesters during the Kisan Mukti March, it is appalling that the Chief Minister and many others from the State Assembly have been more vocal debating their God’s caste. Yogi Adityanath did publicly discuss farmer suicides in UP and the rest of the country. When confronted with the issue however, he was prompt in explaining that the phenomenon was something his state has only inherited from past governments.
Farmer suicides are now commonplace in India. Year after year, thousands of agricultural workers have surrendered to droughts, floods and famines. While statisticians redefine metrics and alter numbers to present an improved picture and conform to the demands of the government, the state of the primary sector in reality has continuously deteriorated. Revised indicators are a mere consequence of their need in otherwise hollow electoral campaigns.
Politicians are perhaps not the only ones to blame for the current plight of farmers. Media agencies in India, have over the past few years become proponents of political ideologies rather than unbiased presenters of information. Distortion of facts and twisting of statements to increase audience appeal, with headlines that serve as click baits, are the new trend. The result is that pressing problems have taken a backseat, and increasing viewership and swaying public opinion have become primary objectives. There is more emphasis on divisive word wars between leaders – no wonder Lord Hanuman has taken centre-stage.
Issues in the agricultural domain in India, alongside several others, suffer because of these trends. They draw attention from the media only in the event of mass protests, as happened this year when thousands of farmers and daily wage workers risked their income and lives in their march to the Capital. In other years, the news of so many deaths does incite debates for a couple of days but the ‘fury’ is short-lived. Little has been done by the media to actually build pressure on the government and push for actual empowerment.
A good example of this is the recent scrutiny that the newly formed Congress governments faced, given their decision to waive farm loans. While economists stand best judges of the ramifications of the same, the act did receive significant attention. Loan waivers are a good political promise and probably the only immediate respite for farmers in times of depression. The fact that successive governments from across different parties have actually employed loan waivers repeatedly is however a clear indication of the vast gap that needs to be bridged.
During the recent protests across India, farmers raised two demands – Instant relief through loan waivers and Long term development schemes. There is so much that can be done about the second. At the level of land holdings, seeds and fertilizers can be provided free of taxes, local expertise can be exploited to provide irrigation facilities and popular crop varieties can be promoted. Farmers can be educated about sustainable practices through effective knowledge transfer from ongoing research. More important steps need to be taken though to enhance the post harvest supply chain. Currently, lack of cold storage facilities means that farmers need to spend huge amounts of money to simply transport produce to markets within the shelf life of the crop. Despite the existence of minimum support prices, most farmers are either not aware or are deprived of the benefits because of rampant corruption. It is not uncommon to come across farmers selling harvest at less than the cost price.
A surprising disparity moreover lies in the demographics of these suicides. Majority of the deaths happen in Maharashtra and Karnataka, two of the most affluent and economically progressive states. On the contrary, the poorer regions of Bihar and West Bengal have reported zero instances of suicides in a long time. While researchers attribute these to a plethora of reasons including socio-cultural differences, colonial history, government regulations and so on, some programs are noteworthy. In West Bengal for instance, PepsiCo, which operates Frito-Lays’ largest production facilities in India from the state, has entered into unique contracts with farmers. PepsiCo provides farmers with quality seeds and buys potatoes from them at prices decided before the sowing season. These rates are generally two to three times those available to farmers in other parts of the nation and the eradication of middle men ensures they reap complete benefits. Adoption of such initiatives wherever possible can go a long way in boosting rural economies.
Numerous startups, some philanthropic but most profitable, have latched onto these opportunities and capitalized on building farm to fork supply chains locally. Where this has happened, there has been a win-win situation for producers and consumers alike. The use of technology in agriculture through drones and satellite imagery is also picking up. For farmers plagued by more primitive issues, multiple governments have responded with what are popularly perceived as appeasement gestures. Real development of the primary sector shall however happen only when it receives adequate and prolonged attention from the media and the public, vastly different from the present state of things and sufficient to pressurize the government to act meaningfully.
In India, off late, pledging political allegiance has superseded active deliberation on agendas of national interest. Be it the media or the common man, before one can actually understand the plight of the agrarian community, or the impact of loan waivers, the first and last task often is to characterize the merit of a move based on political inclination. With such an approach, holistic questions shall seldom be thrown at the government, deaths shall persist as paltry statistics and inclusive growth shall remain far fetched. And the media and us, until then, can both can successfully debate, who deciphered Hanuman’s caste.
By Anirudh Tusnial