Agitating farmers on Day 16 in the national capital
Agitating farmers on Day 16 in the national capital

It is two weeks since the farmers have been agitating but most urban Indians, who grasped the complexities of the US polls, can't quite comprehend why the peasants are revolting. The kisaan andolan truly brings out the urban-rural divide in India.

The cityslicker can hold forth on TikTok versus Telegram but not Kharif versus Rabi; India's two major farming seasons. How many of us know that they are taken from the Arabic for autumn and spring respectively.

Of course, when it comes to virtual farming, the townie is a seasoned hand at FarmVille, Hay Day, Big Little Farmer... A far cry from Mahatma Gandhi's belief: “To forget how to dig the earth and tend the soil is to forget ourselves". A bania, he learnt this first-hand at the Tolstoy Farm in South Africa and then by fighting farmers' battles in India.

Rabi sowing done

Kharif and Rabi also explain how hordes of farmers have deserted their fields – after all crops can't be grown with a click -- to besiege Delhi. Kharif crops -- paddy, jowar, bajra, etc, which are sown in the monsoon -- have been harvested and the winter Rabi crops -- wheat, gram, mustard etc, have been sown -- leaving the farmer with time on his hands.

So divorced from nature are city-dwellers that 'urban farming'' is the latest fad. These kitchen-gardeners are so pleased with their tomatoes and chillies that Instagram is flooded with their achievements, or should one say, growth stories.

Imagine the bemused farmer when Bollywood roses pose with lemons and cucumbers. Actually, few city-dwellers have seen vegetables in situ, prior to being plucked. The largest gathering at Mumbai's annual fruit and flower show is not around orchids but around plants laden with brinjals and bottle gourds.

Most of us have no idea where the food on our plate comes from. Mumbai's wheat comes from UP and Punjab, the pulses from Bihar, some vegetables from Gujarat, milk, at times, is sourced from Karnataka and fruits from all across the state and the country.

Small holdings

Our farmers not only feed the country but also export grains, fruits and processed food products to 120 countries. In 2016, India exported $38 billion worth of agricultural products, making it the seventh largest agricultural exporter worldwide.

However, the average Indian farmer owns a small piece of land; less than one hectare, which is 2.5 acres or four bighas; slightly bigger than a football field. Given our low farm productivity, the kisaan grows just enough for himself.

Despite the Green Revolution quadrupling produce in five decades, the national record for wheat per hectare is just 6.5 tonnes (Punjab) whereas the world record is 17.4 tonnes (New Zealand). The average wheat yield per hectare in India ranges from 1.6 tonnes in Madhya Pradesh to 4.2 tonnes in Punjab.

At the minimum support price (MSP) – the price at which the government purchases directly from the farmer -- of Rs 2,000 per quintal, 1.6 tonnes amount to Rs 32,000 and 4.2 tonnes to Rs 84,000. Why would a farmer slog six months for this paltry sum when he can make more money selling peanuts at Mumbai's traffic junctions?

Agricultural income

The average agriculture household income in 2016-'17 was a mere Rs 8,931 per month (NABARD). The rural per capita income, in terms of net-value added, is less than half the urban figure; Rs 41,000 versus Rs 98,000.

So, most tillers can't afford farmhands, who prefer the sarkari employment guarantee scheme (under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act), which ensures them Rs 200 a day for at least 100 days a year.

If the farmhand migrates to Mumbai, he gets Rs 700 per day as unskilled begari labourer. And once he learns carpentry, masonry or plumbing, he can quote his own price. There are plumbing contractors who go around from site to site in a Honda City.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi aims to double farm income through increased productivity of crops and livestock, greater efficiency of input use, increase in crop intensity, diversification towards high-value crops and improved price realisation by farmers. All this takes patience, persistence and planning.

Contentious new laws

The set of three new laws Modi has brought in are part of his grand doubling scheme and they encourage large-scale farming. Farmers say that the laws were passed hurriedly without consulting them. They are also afraid of a corporate takeover of agriculture.

Anyway, after the disastrous demonetisation and the GST mess, the PM needs more than just jumlas, such as 'More crop per drop', to be taken seriously.

On the other side, having been treated with disdain and been called names, the infuriated farmers have hardened their stance even though the government is willing to bend. As Confucius noted: "A general of a large army may be defeated, but you cannot defeat the determined mind of a peasant.''

Perils of plenty

A slight digression here to 2011 in Deesa, 60 km north of Ahmedabad, when Modi was the CM of Gujarat. After three bumper crops, cold storages ran out of space for the prized potatoes of Deesa. Prices fell to Rs 3 per kg, which did meet even transport costs. Distressed farmers started dumping sacks by the river.

After months of petitioning Modi, farmers staged a spectacular protest; dumping truckloads of the tuber on the main street to be crushed by passing vehicles, which soon started slipping on the squishy mess. The sub-divisional magistrate was greeted with a hail of potatoes. Cops got the same 'ouch potato' treatment.

We may poke fun at the ignorance of the urban elite at matters agricultural but there exist win-win urban-rural tie-ups. For example, Crop-Connect, set up by two young city-bred entrepreneurs, helps cultivators meet niche market demands, such as linking remote kiwi farms in the northeast with metro markets. Another of their initiatives is assembling a package for diabetics by sourcing a rice variety from Karnataka, a millet variety from Uttarakhand and jamun powder made by tribals in Jharkhand.

Win-win solution?

Can't there be a similar win-win solution to the current impasse? Most certainly, there can. And India needs it desperately.

The farmers need to realise the inevitability of reforms and the government needs to realise that everything can't be achieved through stealth and strong-arm tactics. The ruling party needs to build a consensus on farm reforms. Debate it. Agriculture is not agree-culture.

As the agitation snowballed, it has dawned on the decision-makers that they too could have behaved like the ignorant and arrogant urbanite. The government is willing to tweak the new laws that do away with MSP and would have left farmers to the vagaries of the market.

It now needs to convince the farmers that allowing the sale and purchase of crops outside the state government-regulated market yards, the mandis of the APMC (agricultural produce market committee), will not harm their interests. That the Bihar fiasco will not be repeated. If need be, safeguards can be built into the law.

Instead of battling farmers, the government should be fighting the farmers' battles. That will lead to Ram rajya.

The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.

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