IT was the early 1960s and I spent two years in my ancestral village in Punjab, two searing summers and two bone-chilling winters — all without electricity and its attendant conveniences. Life for the typical farming household started before daybreak around 3 am in summers. I would hear the tinkling of the bells as the farmers would start moving out with their ploughs and oxen in order to finish the day’s ploughing before the sun came up. An acre was the maximum you could plough with oxen and irrigate i.e. if you were fortunate enough to own a Persian wheel. Otherwise you put in the seed and looked up to the sky for rain. It is pertinent to mention that farming was still being done in the old organic way minus the commercial fertilisers, pesticides and all the overheads that come with modern agriculture. In addition to the ploughing, fodder had to be fetched, cattle taken for grazing, water had to be brought, etc. All in all, it was a hard but simple life, with joys and sorrows which were shared by all. There was hardly any money and consumerism was unheard of, the old barter system took care of the basic needs. The village was indeed one big extended family. But time, science and greed were conspiring to change all this, to disturb this tranquil balance.
India, at the time, was deficient in foodgrains, requiring regular imports which a poor country could ill-afford. Governments both at the Centre and the state brought in a transformative change, new technologies came in — and with a vengeance in the shape of the Green Revolution in Punjab and Haryana. Modern agriculture was introduced, which brought with it new seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, tubewells were bored and canal systems improved. The innovative and hardworking farmer of this region took up this challenge and answered the then PM Lal Bahadur Shastri’s call of ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’. As a result, wheat and rice yields went up. MSP was ensured by the Centre, and this brought in more money into the pockets of farmers, but it went out in the shape of expenditure on pesticides, fertilisers, electricity, water, diesel and new farm machinery. The farmer was never good at bookkeeping and his accountant and ATM was the ‘arhtiya’. The ‘arhtiya’ advanced money for everything from marriages to farm inputs. The farmer made good his dues when the crops came in. It was a system that worked, maybe a bit unfairly at times. It is one of life’s biggest ironies that the farmer is the only producer who does not set the price of his produce — the government does it for him or the buying agencies. Even if the MSP is laid down, the buying agency raises many objections about the quality and hustles on it.
The increased expenditure on inputs, the non-payment of MSP in most cases, the small landholdings and the changed social scene all contributed to lay the debt trap. A farming community traditionally used to a barter system was forced to change to a cash-based economy and given the fallacy of having more money — which was already owed to debtors and suppliers. Furthermore, the farming community was faced with a new social pressure of increased lifestyle consumption. The situation continued to worsen as the landholdings dwindled and the cost of working on depleted land (over-worked farm lands get depleted of nutrients and require greater use of fertilisers; also, intensive farming needs more in terms of pesticides) increased. Not in a single case has the increase in MSP kept up with the increase in input costs.
Simplicity left the village and the coming of the panchayat system brought in factionalism. I started with the 1960s and I do not remember a single case of farmer suicide even though there was not much money, but now they’re in thousands. Debt, lifestyles and breakup of the social fabric has led to this. Can a compensation of a lakh or two be enough to replace a working farmer and a family member? Who is going to run his farm (if any has been left after trying to pay off his debt)? Who is going to feed and educate his children, what about medical aid? Today we have trains called ‘Cancer Special’ and till recently ambulances carried pictures of a political chieftain (what a shame). It has been false promises all the way from governments of all hues. I heard a CM in 1979 telling the farmers that special flights would take off from Amritsar carrying vegetables to the Middle East, which would bring thousands of crores to Punjab. The flight of fantasy is yet to take off.
Industrialisation did not take place in Punjab as it was considered a border state and thereby it was not encouraged by the Centre; the result was that tertiary industry did not come into play, resulting in negligible lateral or vertical growth of the farmer. Having achieved food security, the Centre’s interest reduced and the next level of growth which should have been encouraged and brought about in the shape of agro industry was largely ignored. One answer that the people found on their own was immigration to foreign lands. Lakhs of young men and women have left. Our manpower was our biggest asset and ‘natural resource’; our loss has been the gain of foreign countries. Even traders in small towns are selling off and leaving as their fortunes were tied to those of the farmers. The affluent class is also insecure and as a first step has started sending children abroad; while earlier they went after graduation, they are now leaving after school.
The past few years have broken the back of the MSMEs, the ‘kiryanawala’ and the labourer. These blows came in the form of demonetisation, faulty implementation of GST, lockdown (labourers became migrants), with its resultant unemployment and falling GDP. The economy is in freefall but we are engaged in cultural activities and educational adventures. Now, coming to the last bastion of rural India — the farming class. Distressed as they were, the final death blow is sought to be delivered in the agricultural reforms announced lately. Leaving aside other issues, why not have the MSP till a better alternative is found? Why cannot the FCI procure grains as earlier? Why let the oligarchs loose to prey on the farmers? Was there a demand from the farmers for these reforms and did they agitate for them? Did any state government request for these reforms? How has the Centre decided suo motu that this would benefit the farmers? They now say that the MSP will stay, if so, why not put it in the Act? Your mala fides are clear because you have a history of broken promises. Why put the farmers at the mercy of the oligarch who will swallow up his land without a hiccup? How is the farmer of 2-5 acres of land going to fight these multi-billionaires? They will not be able to do so, but rest assured that they are not prepared to give up their land. Because, that is the turban on their heads, that is his pride, he’s not going to commit suicide on a mass scale. He will fight back — how, I do not know. The ‘ann daata’ of yesterday who turned this land into the granary bowl of this country and brought us out of being a food-dependent nation is not going to be reduced to carrying a begging bowl. As I reflect on the time gone by, I do hope that this will not be the farmers’ swansong. I leave you with Oliver Goldsmith’s words: ‘Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, where wealth accumulates and men decay: Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade; A breath can make them, as a breath has made; But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride, when once destroyed can never be supplied.’
— The writer is ex-chairman of UPSC, former Manipur Governor and served as J&K DGP