Understanding the Indian farmer

The media turns to him only when he does something TRP-worthy, like committing suicide

Sopan Joshi | July 8, 2015

#farmers   #farmers suicide   #farmers suicide india   #indian media farmers suicide  

The story goes like this: A bunch of news photographers had pooled resources and hired a taxi for an assignment in rural West Bengal. The taxi driver – a sardar – pulled over in a deserted stretch, got out of the taxi, and squatted to urinate. One of the photographers noticed that from a certain angle behind the squatting driver, it was possible to see patches of cracked soil in the backdrop. He sneaked out, shot a photo, returned to his seat in the cab, and announced that he now had a photo to go with a Punjab drought story.

It is difficult to verify this story; perhaps it is just one of those yarns spun out in a press club. Nevertheless, it tells a bigger truth about how farmers and agriculture are understood and depicted. The image of a desperate, dhoti-clad farmer squatting helplessly on dry, cracked soil is used repeatedly in the press during the summer, when drought hits some part or the other of the country. This has become a stereotype of a farmer. Who is a farmer? One who sits in cracked earth during a drought.

TV news has the opportunity to go beyond this cliché, to show moving images of farmers and agriculture; to provide a real glimpse of India’s most widespread occupation. With moving images, it is possible to bring alive a distant world, for urban people to understand rural people and agriculture.

Reporting, though, has long gone out of fashion on TV news in India. It is a risk our news channels are not willing to take. There is little reported content from the cities, much less from the villages. In these times of cost-cutting in newsrooms, TV channels and their star anchors prefer to stage nightly primetime slugfests, in which they moralise and condemn the political class for lacking concern for the poor farmer.

Another trope is the journalistic power to ask questions. How about journalists asking some questions of themselves? Like why they remember farmers – well more than half the country still engages in agriculture in some way or another – only when there is a crisis? When there is a violent reaction to land acquisition, or another TRP-worthy crisis materialises, farmers suddenly appear on TV! The awkward manner of questioning makes it obvious in an instant that the journalist interviewing them has never had a real conversation with a farmer. S/he has no clue what will be good questions to ask a farmer.

India’s press and media habitually respond to cues from the government on agriculture, not bothering to find things out on their own. In 2004, after the UPA came to power on a ‘Congress Ka Haath Aam Aadmi Ke Saath’ slogan – in the face of the NDA government’s ‘India Shining’ campaign – the media suddenly discovered agrarian distress. Farmer suicide stories became fashionable.

Similarly, reports on the UPA’s employment guarantee scheme were mostly about either the money delivered or about corruption, devolving into slang matches. There was little examination in the media of the assets created by the scheme. How about asking: did the assets help the village economy and ecology? Will those assets help farmers cope with the vagaries of climate change and the increasingly unpredictable pattern of the monsoon?

The norm for reporting on farmers was actually set much earlier. Newly independent India faced food scarcity and wars with Pakistan and China. Farmers were required to feed the nation, as also provide their sons to fight for the country. Be it in films or in the popular press, farmers were described in a teary-eyed idiom, in terminology of sacrifice and nation-building, borrowed from the freedom struggle. Think ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’. In the Bombay film world, villains were moneylenders who exploited farmers, and the protagonists were Manoj Kumar variants, willing to trade away their ploughs for guns to protect the national border.

This nationalist energy played a big role in implementing the dramatic technological changes of the 1960s: the Green Revolution. This is when the idea of the risk-taking, progressive farmer took root. For the first time, newspapers started assigning reporters to agriculture. It had become a legitimate beat.
A new genre emerged in journalism: the agriculture story of hope. Stories of remarkable increases in yield, of nationalist scientists of the Indian Council for Agriculture Research (ICAR) developing high-yielding varieties, of villagers increasing their incomes by applying technological inputs subsidised by the government. Doordarshan’s national channel used to run an unwatchably boring daily programme called ‘Krishi Darshan’, which gave a TV version of the same material in a dull, sarkari lingo.

By the 1980s, India had a food surplus. The days of scarcity were gone; government godowns were full. In the 1990s, the media’s attitude towards farmers changed. This was also a time when India’s economy changed dramatically from government control to market control. The national focus changed from necessities – food security, border security – to consumption, manufacturing and services.

The country needed trained workers and service-sector talent. Farmers came to be viewed with dry eyes now. As stubborn rural people, unwilling to transform into English-speaking service-sector individuals, who could serve either the foreign markets (BPOs, export, etc.) or serve the English-speaking elite that was becoming rich from the opportunities created by economic reforms. An elite that benchmarked itself against Europe and America.

Government support to agriculture declined steadily as the scramble for land began – for industry, for urbanisation, for mining, even for the conservation of forest and wildlife. The growth in agricultural production began to plateau. Policy entrepreneurs began describing the need to get people out of farming, because technology had made it possible to grow more food with fewer people. This is inevitable, we were told. A new class of planning terms gained currency: ‘non-farm rural employment’, ‘urbanisation’, ‘migration’, ‘land acquisition’, ‘diversification’. The great development challenge now was to get people out of farming.

Yet India’s manufacturing sector refuses to grow like its services sector grew after the 1990s. The subsidiary questions were never discussed widely. Where is the industrial growth to offer millions of jobs? Where are the farmers supposed to go? The only answer is urban slums and low-wage jobs in the unorganised sector. How many people will get work as house-helps and security guards and drivers in rich pockets of our cities?

Farmers are expected to transform to a new age of international markets. Subsidies that were once considered essential for the nation’s food security were now described as a drain on the national budget, leading to budget deficits, preventing the government to invest anew in infrastructure of urbanisation.
Due to open markets and commercialisation of agriculture, farming has become very expensive. Leasing land – a bulk of farmers have small land parcels or are landless, so they rely on renting land – buying seeds and fertilisers, buying/renting tractors, pesticides, to borrowing money for sinking tube-wells for irrigation, hiring trucks to transport farm produce, etc. The cost of cultivation in India is the highest among comparable developing nations. Soil fertility is decreasing at alarming rates in several regions, soil salinity/hardening/desertification are increasing, groundwater levels are dropping, insect pests are acquiring resistance to the most potent pesticides.

Yet the prices farmers get for their produce have not increased. The government intervenes in the agri-commodities market to keep down the prices of food items, in the interests of the poor. This means farmers have to buy inputs like seeds and pesticides in the open market and in retail, but they have to sell in wholesale in a controlled market. They have to buy in a capitalist market, but they sell in a socialist non-market. The government’s minimum support price (MSP) regime is a joke, because it runs on inherently down-marked calculations of cost of cultivation.

The opening of international markets means Indian farmers have to compete with their counterparts in industrialised countries, who are supported by their governments with direct farm subsidies running into billions of dollars. In Europe and the US, the government pays farmers even to keep their land fallow. It is easy there, as the number of farmers is very low.

In India, however, more than half of the world’s second largest population depends on farming. Which government has the resources to provide direct subsidies? Meanwhile, the government does control food prices through large-scale market interventions and policy measures, all in the interests of keeping the food affordable to the poor. Any wonder lakhs of farmers have killed themselves over recent years? Because their income is kept low by the government to keep food prices down.

Now, the government wants to pull away its hand from farmers. The ICAR is still in the Green Revolution mindset, focused on newer technological inputs to increase yields; it has no desire to curtail the spiralling cost of cultivation. Nobody is willing to recognise that the low-hanging fruit of agricultural growth has been plucked and consumed. Now, it all about selecting from a set of difficult choices.

Today, reporting on agriculture is not about finding stories of hope; it is about collating numbers of farmers who have killed themselves. A majority of India’s farmers are neither here nor there. They are under intense distress, living and farming on borrowed money that they cannot hope to repay. There is no parallel anywhere in the world to the kind of widespread suicides by farmers in India. The most distressed farmers, usually, are the ones who take big risks against the odds.

Forget the moral need to cover half the country. For journalists who are interested in big stories, here’s a story of epic proportions. Yet, if you seek any real news on agriculture, you will have to follow the business pages or business papers, which cover the commodities markets. Here, too, the news coverage is from the perspective of agri-markets, not of farmers.

Which is why India’s media has no business talking about the failures of the political class with regard to farmers and agriculture. At least the government tries to do something in its own muddled manner. The media has completely abandoned farmers and agriculture. When unseasonal rains and thunder destroyed crops across thousands of acres, the media in Delhi hardly reported on the extent of the crises. The regional newspapers had no stories in the front pages other than photos of destroyed crops.

How about the media showing a little commitment? Agriculture in India is very difficult to understand. Farmers in Rajasthan are very different from farmers in Odisha. They will never get the help they need unless their context is understood. Unless they are described as real people with real lives who have to take real decisions that have a bearing not just on their lives but on what all of us eat. 

There was a time farmers were seen with teary eyes; the nation’s eyes are now very dry when they look at farmers. Clarity of vision does not come to eyes that are too moist or too dry.


(The article appears in the July 1-15, 2015 issue)



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