By Prof. Anirudh Deshpande
There was a recent peasant upsurge in Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh where six protesters lost their lives in police firing and several others were injured. However, it is only the tip of the emanating crisis in India’s agrarian iceberg. The high level of agrarian distress in modern and contemporary India is both a symptom and a consequence of the development model followed by the country since independence.
Faulty agricultural policies
In post-colonial India, the only time when agriculture briefly became a focus of policy was during the Green Revolution period in the early 1970s. However, critics argue that even this modernisation of Indian agriculture was lopsided. They say that it only favoured north-west India which had inherited the bulk of irrigation infrastructure created in India by the colonial state.
Since the 1980s, the focus of Indian policy makers was fixed decisively on the industry, the IT sector, financial markets, and a neo-classical globalisation. This has translated into a neglect of agriculture, the peasantry, and the rural poor in general.
The State didn’t take the right measures
The Indian state has failed to address the endemic structural problem of India’s monsoon dependent agriculture. It has, instead, resorted to populist measures and measly benefit payments in an effort to check the glut of migration into the country’s increasingly unlivable cities and towns. Further, it has fiddled with support prices which have little meaning in a private unregulated mandi instead of addressing the acute problems of lack of credit and proper crop insurance, unsustainable rural technology, and non-availability of infrastructure.
Many peasants in several Indian states have committed suicide in the last two decades. However, this has not prompted the Indian state to make and execute a truly pro-peasant agricultural policy so far. The peasant unrest visible today is set to spread to Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Punjab.
The threat of a widespread agricultural setback
Mandsaur is a dry desert-like area in Madhya Pradesh where crops like wheat, jawar, onions, and garlic are grown. Peasant indebtedness is high here because a large number of peasants are indebted to private money lenders. The infrastructure is also poor and the traders in the large mandis are powerful.
A similar situation prevails in most Indian states. In Punjab, it is clear that the peasants are grappling with the long-term consequences of the Green Revolution. They look to each successive government for succour. Thus, things are not going to be easy for the new Congress government there. In Tamil Nadu, peasants protested for weeks. Maharashtra faces an acute shortage of water and a huge peasant debt crisis. In New Delhi, peasant distress is at an all time high. Conditions in Gujarat, despite the much-touted model named after that state, are no better and the Patidar agitation is in danger of spinning out of control.
The need of the hour
More violence and deaths can be expected in a context in which the governments in power have failed to take any substantial measures to improve the agricultural scene. Instead of indulging in serious introspection, they try to grab media footage. The middle class is consumerist, while the governments are openly partisan. Thousands of crores are being spent on statues and domestic freebies. In these conditions, a popular unrest is inevitable.
What the country desperately needs is a new agricultural policy which will infuse life into rural India and create the demand necessary to pull the economy out of the slowdown it faced in 2008. If this doesn’t happen, the peasantry will revolt sooner or later and the promise of growth will truly fall apart.
Prof. Anirudh Deshpande is Associate Professor of History at the University of Delhi.
Featured Image Source: Visual Hunt
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