Restive farmers, responsive State - Hindustan Times
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Restive farmers, responsive State

Feb 19, 2024 08:00 AM IST

Agriculture in India needs redress — but its problems are not exceptional

Farmers in certain parts of the country are restive once again. They have started marching towards Delhi to exert pressure on the Union government through sit-ins. They claim the government has not kept the promises it made to them. However, one question arises: If farmers are present throughout the country, why is their agitation not nationwide? I’ll try to explain this in a bit, but first, let us first talk about a similar situation in Europe.

Farmers Union members sitting on protest at Ladhowal Toll Plaza in Ludhiana on Saturday. (Manish/HT) PREMIUM
Farmers Union members sitting on protest at Ladhowal Toll Plaza in Ludhiana on Saturday. (Manish/HT)

Farmers from several European countries recently drove their tractors into major cities there. They blockaded highways and attempted to halt the operation of ports. Governments in France, Germany, Belgium, Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy, Poland, and Spain all succumbed to the protests. Farmers were angry owing to the policies of their respective governments, and they believed they were being treated unfairly. Resource-rich France and Germany swiftly agreed to some of the farmers’ demands. France reinstated cuts to fuel subsidies and scrapped the law that restricted pesticide use. Germany has also announced similar measures. The European Union has put forward numerous proposals on the use of fertilisers and pesticides that farmers believe are not in their best interests. They have also been assured that the policy would be reassessed.

Can European farmers be compared with those in Punjab and Haryana? The circumstances are certainly different, but there are similarities as well.

Agriculture in India needs a new vision and strategy, and not just ad hoc interventions. It will now have to adapt to changing circumstances. Agriculture has shaped our society and culture for centuries, but farmers have always been under stress. They continue to worry over the decreasing size of land holdings, increasing water scarcity, and land becoming progressively infertile. Has the government turned a blind eye to their problems, forcing them to obstruct road and railway traffic?

In the 2019 interim budget, the Union government resolved to grant farming households 6,000 each year from the treasury. Similarly, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the government began providing free foodgrain and edible oil every month to the needy.

These schemes have since continued, and are regarded as a great aid in the villages of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Bihar, which I have visited. The central and state governments also operate numerous social programmes for children of farmers and agricultural labourers and for women involved in farming. The needy benefit from direct cash transfers to farmer accounts. Not just that, this class is also entitled to several other agricultural concessions. It does not require any great insight to discern the positive impact these have had on the rural economy.

If this is the case, why are farmer and farm worker suicide rates climbing year after year?

According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, 11,290 persons associated with agriculture died by suicide in 2022. Of these, 5,027 were farmers, while 6,083 worked on farms as labourers. This year, such deaths have grown by 3.75% over last year. These are worrying figures, to be sure, but not everyone who is experiencing bad luck is associated with agriculture. In data from 2022, 170,921 suicides were reported to the NCRB. Of these, 11.6% were self-employed, 11.6% were housewives, 9.6% were unemployed, 9.2% were employed, and 7.6% were students. Another 26% were daily wage workers. Farmers ranked seventh on this list.

But a suicide is a suicide. The entire social and economic system must be held accountable for this, but the solution takes resources, time, and patience.

Another issue also needs to be discussed here. It is commonly stated that the agriculture sector contributed more than half of India’s gross domestic product (GDP) when the country gained Independence in 1947. In 2022-23, this became just 15%. This figure is sometimes presented as a reflection of the deteriorating situation in agriculture, despite the fact that in rapidly developing countries, industry, trade, and service sectors are expanding significantly. Had this not occurred, agriculture’s small percentage of the total GDP of the richest countries in the world — the United States and Germany — would not have continued to remain at just 1%.

Are the demands made by the protesting farmers unjustified? No. They have their own grief and suffering. We have to look at these. But it is impossible to overlook the fact that other sections of the population also require government assistance just as much, if not more, as the figures here make evident.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. The views expressed are personal

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