The Curse of Agriculture

One positive outcome of the recent debate over Land Acquisition has been the return of agriculture into public discourse. The media – whether print, electronic, social has mostly been oblivious to the plight of farmers and agriculture sector in general. Of course most of this apathy and bias stems from our own ignorance and lack of interest in such issues since the media caters to our requirements and thirst for information. After all, how can destitute farmers compete with celebrity wardrobe malfunctions. Not to mention that the wardrobes are themselves made of textile manufactured from crops grown by those very invisible farmers.

Instead of simply listing down various issues faced by farmers in the course of their daily lives, we have tried to present them in the form of a story of a typical Indian farmer (remember that the farmer described below is a typical average farmer and not a one-off case. As per NSSO data, almost 33% of all farm households have less than 0.4 hectares of land). It is to put the everyday difficulties in their proper context. This will probably make it easier to understand that the struggle is very real and not a figment of imagination or a relic of the past just because it is not visible to us from our air conditioned gated societies.

Gurmit was one happy man. There was a new hope in the air. Gone were the days of the corrupt and decadent UPA rule. Now ache din were not far. The weather too had been merciful last year. Maybe this year too the rain gods would spare him their wrath. Maybe this was his time. Maybe he would finally be able to lift himself and his family from poverty and provide them with a life that they truly deserved. His little girl, Manjit had spoken her first words a couple of days back. “Mamma” she had said. How very English and sophisticated of her. Maybe, thought Gurmit, she would become an engineer one day or maybe a doctor or who knows maybe even a Tata or a Birla.

Gurmit shivered with excitement at the thought but soon composed himself and reminded himself to focus on the task at hand. He was going to the local moneylender for a loan for the coming season. It was a part of the master plan – a plan for his conquest over poverty and deprivation. He was aware of all the ingredients for a good harvest this Rabi season – quality seeds, fertilizer, pesticide, credit from the local moneylender for better tools and implements, enrolling in the new crop insurance programme to protect himself from any unforeseeable circumstances and of course lots and lots of praying to Waheguru to be on his side. After the harvest he would ensure proper cleaning, grading, packing and storage. Then take the harvest to the nearest APMC Mandi and sell it for a remunerative price.

The plan was riddled with assumptions and externalities which Gurmit was aware of but brushed aside as unnecessarily pessimistic. He was quite confident that God was on his side. He had done no wrong and caused no hurt to anyone in the 32 years of his life. The meeting with the moneylender did not go well. He was demanding an exorbitant interest rate given Gurmit’s poor credit history and existing debt. He had heard from some co-villagers that the banks were offering credit at much lower rates. If only the village had a bank branch life would have been much easier. But he agreed to the harsh terms of the money lender anyway because there would be sufficient amount after the harvest to pay him back.

So along with his wife, Gurmit set to work. With the money he had borrowed, he set his plan into motion. He bought good quality seeds, got the motor on his farm repaired and started preparing the field for sowing. Last year there had been a feud between Gurmit and his brother over the family land and they had then divided it among themselves. The small 0.5 acre field he was left with was all he had. But it was atleast something he thought to himself – and wondered how the landless labourers and sharecroppers survive. They even had good irrigation in Punjab unlike some of his brothers in Maharashtra who were completely at the mercy of the rains. So he didn’t complain and sought to make the most of whatever he had. When he was finished with the sowing, it had already cost him a fortune. The rates for all inputs had sky-rocketed – whether fertiliser, seeds or labour. This didn’t make any sense. Had the leaders not promised reduction in prices of essential goods before the elections? What was going on?

As the season progressed, he grew more and more sceptical of his plan. His troubles kept increasing and a new problem cropped up everyday. The Minimum Support Price announced by the government was lower than the previous year and much lower than the costs he had incurred. The soil had gone bad and none of his friends could figure out what the problem was. He felt helpless. Whose door should he knock? Where should he go for help? Where was all the promised technology and extension services, labs for soil health now when he needed them? It had been a huge farce. He looked enviously at the neighbouring field belonging to the wealthiest farmer in the village. Acres and acres of sprawling lush green fields just like in the movies – equipped with all the latest technology and paraphernalia including drip irrigation systems and sensor technologies. It reminded him of his grandfather telling him once about how the government was planning to take away land from the wealthy and distribute it more evenly in its programme of land reforms. It made him angry thinking the large field could feed atleast 10 families.

Then things took a turn for the worse. The western disturbances arrived and lashed across the Punjab countryside day after day for more than a month and it was all over by then. The crops and along with them Gurmit’s hopes were flattened. He assured his wife that everything was under control but later cried himself to sleep like a little girl, knowing deep down that his fortitude and tenacity were not enough to put food on his family’s plate.

But he kept his faith and turned to the insurance programme for relief. The officials told him that the unit of insurance was the village and their village did not qualify as the net yield of the village was above the threshold. It sounded gibberish to him but the bottomline was insurance was not going to help. The politicians had started coming to the village in their usual i-don’t-care-about-you-but this-photograph-will-help-me-get-votes attitude. They promised compensation and relief to the farmers and then went away in their luxury cars whose contrast with the surroundings was an insult to the entire village. When compensation was announced, Gurmit rushed to get his share. Like beggars, the farmers were handed out a pittance that would barely help them clear their fields let alone build their shattered lives again. He was denied even that small sum of money because apparently the land records still showed his elder brother as the rightful owner despite having followed every procedure for the transfer last year. In a cruel gesture, the official asked Gurmit for a bribe of Rs. 2000 in return for releasing his meagre Rs. 1500 compensation.

Meanwhile, his daughter Manjit had developed some ailment that the doctors identified as a result of Uranium poisoning. In fact the problem had been spreading in the entire Malwa region of Punjab due to the use of phosphate fertilisers having high concentration of uranium. The doctors said that Manjit’s mental health had been affected and it would directly impact her learning capabilities.

Next day, Gurmit was found hanging from the tree right next to his farm. Far away in the country’s financial hub, Mumbai, a young professional read the news and updated his Facebook status, “Can’t understand why people commit suicide. Life is beautiful! – Feeling puzzled”

P.S. If you have reached here, then we have been able to give you a useful read. Please like and review us at the following link to keep us motivated to bring such reads to you every week Know India.

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