The Indian farmer’s optimism is as abiding as the futility of farming existence in India, reflected in the 300,000 or more farmer suicides over the years and the state of abject penury in large areas in the countryside. The November farmers’ march to Parliament organised by a joint front of 208 farmer bodies, during which the Opposition made hay, had some farmers seemingly bask under hitherto elusive coverage.
Kaushalya Devi, the sarpanch of Nauwa village in Bihar, returned to her village happy that with the political leadership in support and reporters covering the rally, it is not the farmer who is the “only one suffering” and “there are thousands of others who share your problems”.
Truth to tell though, no one really shares the farmer’s joyless existence, even if there is something enduring about the image of an urban three-year-old juggling bottles of water that she is taking to the fatigued farmers at Ramlila maidan. India does not really care about the price that wheat fetches for the producing farmer if the price at the consumer’s end is under control and thereby hangs the tale.
Inflation control is the government’s primary agenda and the farmer at the other end bearing the brunt is something that the government will do little about notwithstanding the tall talk about doubling farm incomes.
Even so, farmers seem to have sent the message loud and clear about Ayodhya nahin, karz maafi chahiye (Not Ayodhya, we want debt write off ). From the sustainability perspective, however, debt write-off is hardly a permanent solution. If the cause of the debt remains, the debts will recur; governments will write them off in election season and the problem will return in a vicious cycle.
The 21-day parliamentary session that the farmers want would perhaps provide an opportunity for India’s policy makers to understand some issues leading to this sustained distress. It is the unsustainability of the numbers where inflation-driven expenses, mostly fixed by the Centre, are higher than the incomes, also determined by the Centre and impacted by its whimsical import and export policies around food.
The farmers and farm sector workers account for 54 per cent of India’s employment and it can be nobody’s case that this class can be ignored. Nor are the numbers difficult to understand. Inflation figures in public domain show that prices of rurally-consumed commodities were up by an average of 3.6 per cent between July and September 2018.
Experts argue that this indicates an inflation-adjusted ‘real income’ of farmers was lower by 1.6 per cent in the second quarter of the current fiscal, even worse than in the previous year. The ‘real’ income growth for India’s farmers has been calculated at “just 0.8 per cent in the first six months of this fiscal year”. Can any other enterprise make do with such untenable numbers? Can any government ignore such grim prognostications?