Last year, the farmers’ movement succeeded in forcing the government to repeal the three farm bills passed in 2020. Although unrest was mentioned in the political discourse in some parts of the electoral landscape during the recently concluded national elections, it failed to generate political consensus on most of the issues farmers were protesting against. In Punjab, a group of agricultural protesters also contested the elections but did not register their presence. Even in Uttar Pradesh, the agitation failed to mobilize farmers beyond the western belt of the state, which was the focus of farmer mobilization. It is too early to assess the impact of the unrest on Indian politics. Although election results are not the best metrics to analyze it, given the multitude of factors at play, the move did not appear to sway voters beyond a narrow geographic region.
This is partly because it was largely a response to government action rather than an organic mobilization in response to the concerns of a large majority of farmers. With the repeal of the Farm Bills, the very reason for protest ceased to exist. While the farmers deserve credit for mobilizing successfully for an extended period despite the hardships, their political articulation has found no resonance even in other parts of UP or neighboring Uttarakhand.
But the failure of farmers’ unions to find common ground is not only true for these protests, but also for other farmer protests. Over the past five years, several states have seen heavy protests by farmers, including in Madhya Pradesh, where seven farmers were killed a few years ago by police gunfire. Maharashtra farmers staged a ‘long march’ to highlight their plight. Tamil Nadu farmers protested in Delhi for 100 days. There were several other protests, but despite lively mobilizations in various states, these farmers’ movements failed to forge alliances. They have also failed to find common ground with workers in rural areas, including agricultural and casual non-agricultural workers, even though their lives and livelihoods are also affected by agriculture.
At the root of the dissonance is the changing nature of agriculture, particularly over the past three decades. One change is in the cultivation patterns in the states. Since the beginning of the last decade, horticultural crops have exceeded the country’s total food grain production. This shift from a predominantly grain-based agriculture to a more diverse cropping pattern dominated by horticulture and cash crops has implications for how the state supports agriculture and also for the interface between agriculture and market. Unlike rice and wheat, which continue to receive state support through government procurement at minimum support prices (MSP), no such protection is offered to horticulture or other crops such as coarse grains, oilseeds and pulses. This not only increases the dependence of these crops on the market, but also their vulnerability to price fluctuations. Therefore, agricultural concerns differ in states where MSP-led procurement is not dominant or state mandates are not functional.
The change in the cultivation pattern has been accompanied by a growing trend towards monetization of agricultural inputs. The need for substantial working capital is often met by loans. But greater reliance on markets has led to increased variability in commodity prices and defaults. Requests for agricultural loan exemptions are now a recurring phenomenon, with political parties increasingly willing to grant them.
Another aspect of the change is an increase in capital intensity and reliance on mechanization which has led to a decrease in the use of agricultural labor. This forced most casual agricultural workers to seek employment elsewhere, weakening the solidarity between wage earners and cultivators. With the growing dominance of the non-agricultural sector, the challenge for land policy is to go beyond the narrow requirements of loan waivers and MSP guarantees.
At a time when India’s rural economy has long been in distress amid falling farm profits and stagnating wages, agrarian mobilizations will require a broadening of the movement to have political impact. This requires building coalitions between different categories of farmers as well as wage laborers who are affected by the prevailing rural distress. In an agricultural environment that is increasingly vulnerable to the vagaries of the market, such mobilization is necessary for farmers to gain access to a stronger negotiating position vis-à-vis the State, which has a duty to protect agriculture, farmers and the environment. rural economy.
Himanshu is Associate Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Visiting Scholar at Center for Human Sciences, New Delhi
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