Overview: Civil Society Dialogues on Agriculture

Paper for the Conference Titled,

Who is Farmer  ?

“Who is a farmer? Regional Identity and Rural Culture.”

For More .. Click Here for PDF 



SADED- Civil Society Dialogues on Agriculture 

Dr. Uma Shankari

This essay is written with the objective of providing an overview of the dialogues and debates on agriculture happening in India among civil society groups (CSGs). It focuses particularly on the period after the WTO was signed in 1995, ushering in liberalization, globalization and privatization (LGP) in agriculture, and opening up of Indian agriculture to global economy. The impact of LGP post- WTO have been has often been devastating on farmers and Adivasi groups, which is well documented in statistics as well as in descriptive narratives of stakeholders as well as by advocacy groups.

SADED has always responded to current/contemporary concerns, especially of the marginalized sections of people. It has organised  some dialogues from its own resources, and otherwise participated in very many dialogues covering a large canvass of issues. SADED has also joined protests of farmers and others on issues relating to agriculture both wth a view to support them as well as to know the concerns from the affected people’s point of view.

In this essay we will outline in very broad terms the CSG  concerns in agriculture and the people involved in agriculture, as depicted in SADED dialogues and those of others and try to point some issues which can be taken up for further dialogue and research. For details and nuances of the issues and debates the reader may refer to the references and links we have provided in a separate End Notes section.

Section I: Land ownership and use

India has been essentially an agricultural country through history.

India’s arable land area of 159.7 million hectares (394.6 million acres) is the second largest in the world, after the United States.*1. Agricultural land as a share of land area of India increased from 59.7 % in 1966 to 60.4 % in 2015 growing at an average annual rate of 0.03 %. Agricultural land refers to the share of land area that is arable, under permanent crops, and under permanent pastures.*2.

        Needless to say access to arable land is an essential requirement for carrying out agriculture. The British colonial govt. had already brought about changes in such a way as to make purchase and sale of land easier by bringing about exclusive individual property rights on land.

Private property rights did exist on land even before the British period, and inheritance and land transfers by sale did take place; but there were obligations to several occupational categories in the community, which were also transferred, so the village community functioned as a whole unit, with several castes and occupational categories having a rightful share/stake in the village land and produce, be it land or grain or fishing rights, or grazing rights. The British brought a fundamental change in this scene: they created exclusive rights for the individual property owners, and the village community no longer existed as a collective of shareholders in the village land and produce.*3* Land ownership in pre-British India By Karashima) *

Land Reforms: In the wake of the country’s Independence from colonialism, one of the first reforms carried out was Land Reforms. But it faced a lot of resistance from landed classes and could be carried out only partially. Benami ownership became rampant, and continues to be so. *4(appu, yugandhar, narendranath, …)

But even so land ownership passed from big landed zamindars to their erstwhile tenants who were also often from lower castes in the caste hierarchy. In some states like AP, government land was allotted to the poor, called “assigned lands.” *5. (Narendranath, others).They could be taken back by the government if needed for a public purpose, but  usually this did not happen, and the allotted people  enjoyed it for life and passed it on to next generation. Meanwhile land transfers happened through sales, and most often they were purchased by neighbours in small parcels for agricultural or domestic purposes. The urban middle and upper classes with surplus incomes invested in urban plots for investment and resale purposes, rather than rural/agricultural land, as real estate values rose much faster in urban areas than in rural areas.

Tribal communities who lived in and off the forests where they did farming on a small scale were provided special protection by declaring their areas as scheduled areas, where buying and selling land by non-tribals was not allowed.*6

Essentially agri. land was seen as best vested with agri. Communities in rural India, and landless poor as deserving preferential treatment for allotments and land redistribution. This was the case till the LGP era.

But after LGP became the official philosophy/model of development, urbanization has been increasing, agri. Land has come to be seen as a marketable asset/investment resource, and not so much as a source of income generation for farming communities.  This has been exacerbated by the fact that agri. has become economically less and less viable for the farmer. Meanwhile the real estate prices have been going up and even farmers have come to see agri. land as an asset for real estate purposes rather as a source of income. In this process Land ceiling *7 is seen as an impediment to LGP process; the view being land market should be well developed so that people who have money to invest in land should be free/allowed to do so. Land ceiling is by- passed by allotting huge tracks of land to companies for developing plantations or green belts. Further, agricultural income is not taxed in India and therefore agricultural land has become a preferred investment, so that income from other sources, especially black money can passed off as agri. Income. The official view is also veering around to liberalising the land ceiling to allow for land markets to develop and to facilitate large land holdings.

So on the one hand there is a thrust for liberalising land ceiling and on the other there is a shortage of agri. Land ( see sec. Below) and landless poor are demanding redistribution of land by lowering the ceiling and /or by state buying land in the market and allotting the same to he poor rural landless families. Some governments have made electoral promises to do so and have carried out redistribution to some extent. (Rajasekhar Reddy regime in AP, KCR)

In the meantime govt. Has put forward a national Land reforms policy draft for discussion in 2013. *8. It has many radical suggestions and recommendations in line with the demands of activist working on land rights on behalf of the landless poor and the tribal people. But the ground reality has been to facilitate development of land market and real estate markets, which inherently favour the rich.

Land rights of women have also emerged as an important concern the demand arising from women’s movement as well as feminization of agriculture. In spite of the fact women enjoy de jure inheritance rights , women are not given equal inheritance in landed property in most parts of the country, in continuation of the traditional mindset (and traditional inheritance laws prevailed in the past), in which land was inherited in patrilineal lines  though male consanguines only. Only where there were no male offsprings were females allowed to inherit a small parcel of land in inheritance. Decision making regarding land continues to be the prerogative of males largely. A nation wide network of concerned persons and institutions has recently been formed called, Mahila Kisan Adhikar Manch, MAKAAM for short, to carry on advocacy of women farmers issues. *9. (Declaration )

Computerization of land records:  is another major issue in the very recent years. It has been taken up on a large scale, faced with many complaints. *10

Land acquisition : While land reforms and scheduled areas gave some protection to the farmers and Adivasis, government has been acquiring land from farmers and in scheduled areas for various development projects, particularly irrigation, power and mining projects. Land acquisition by the government has always been a contentious issue between the farmers and the governments in the country. Initially it went unopposed as land was available for agriculture in plenty, and farmers believed the government used such lands for public purpose. The governments got away with paying pittance as compensation and those who opposed them became weary fighting long drawn cases in courts.

By the eighties opposition to land acquisition by governments gained ground and serious conflicts erupted especially in irrigation and mining projects. While the government was keen on conceiving and implementing larger and larger projects, opposition also grew proportionately. For example, from 1980 onwards The NBA questioned the series of projects planned on Narmada river , incl. the Sardar Sarovar Project which involved displacing around 2 to 3 lakh people. It questioned – not only on land acquisition but also on the wisdom of destroying forests, on the danger of seismic activity, on the destruction of life and livelihoods of the Adivasis,  and so on. It marshalled detailed information of the victims, held scores of public meetings/hearings, and militant protests and stalled the projects for several years, compelled the government to make modifications before they commenced again and completed. In short it raised the question, “development for whom?”  The NBA *11has inspired several protest movements cross the country on land acquisition, displacement and rehabilitation, which resulted in the formation of National Alliance for People’s Movements (NAPM). *12

Adivasi communities have been arguing that land for them is not just a resource  to be bought and sold, but that land is their very identity, even their names connected them to their lands. Land is not just agri. Land, but also meant forests, waterbodies, the flora and fauna, medicines and spirits, gods and ghosts, in brief, a way of life for them. By taking away their lands the govt. is destroying their very way of life.

A few tribal communities have refused to surrender their land for land acquisition, and have fought and won their cases in the courts. But development and export possibilities of minerals have remained a strong urge for govts. To keep acquiring lands belonging to adivasis. The Adivasis feel betrayed as land and forests where they derive their livelihood are taken away on the promise that they would be given jobs, but these promises are never kept up . Neither their consent is obtained without force, nor training the Adivasis for new modern occupations is undertaken.  In this process repeated bloody and violent  clashes have occurred between the communities and the govt. These regions have come under the influence extra-constitutional forces advocating violent opposition such as Naxalism.  In one case the forest communities got together and formed a mining company to execute and profit by mining; and to show to the world that smaller companies can do as good mining as the big corporate companies. Struggles by forest communities has resulted in Forest Rights Act being enacted in 2006.*13

Further integration into world economy through LGP from 1990s has  brought forth a new global class of investors with  huge surplus incomes, looking for investment opportunities. At the same time government on a new high growth imperative, began acquiring agricultural land from farmers and forest lands in scheduled areas on an unprecedented scale, for starting new projects in infrastructure and industry. The concept of state being ‘eminent domain’ was invoked to acquire  the lands.

It declared SEZs*14 and special purpose areas such as Biotechnology Parks, and so on.

“In order to give a boost to manufacturing, increase exports and create employment opportunities, government announced Special Economic Zone (SEZ) policy in April 2000 and Special Economic Zones Act 2005 was passed by the Parliament in 2005. After SEZ Act in 2005, 491 formal approvals have been granted for setting up of SEZs, out of which 352 have  INDIA Research and Publications—IIMA  W.P. No. 2015-06-02 Page No. 4 been notified and are at various stages of operations. Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Uttar Pradesh account for the nearly 85 per cent of the SEZs approved so far. About 56,067 ha land has been acquired for formally approved SEZs in the country as on December 31, 2014 (GoI, 2015a). However, some concerns have been expressed about the land acquisition for SEZs. For example, the Comptroller and Auditor General Performance Audit Report on Special Economic Zones has categorically mentioned in the report that land appeared to be the most crucial and attractive component of the scheme as out of nearly 45,636 ha of land notified for SEZs, less than half of it (42.9%) has been utilized and remaining area is lying vacant in the processing area (GoI, 2015b). In addition, developers have also de-notified the land purchased for SEZs. For example, out of 39,246 ha of land notified in the six States, about 14 per cent was de‐notified and diverted for commercial purposes in several cases.” ….(Vijay paul Sharma 2015, https://web.iima.ac.in/assets/snippets/workingpaperpdf/20799648232015-06-02.pdf

And often these lands were acquired at prices lower than the market prices, and allotted to industry and commerce at higher prices, implying that the government literally works like a broker.  All this was done in utter callousness, with little regard to what happens to the displaced people.  Even as the government has continued land acquisition- for -high growth trajectory, the protests had also grown more widespread and vociferous. The protests led to Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013.*15 But the GOI faced pressure from within and from the industry to amend the Act. The argument was that the Act has made land acquisition too cumbersome and will therefore delay all projects. The GOI on a high growth syndrome responded by making two ordinances  in 2014, 2015,  diluting the Act. There were protests again forcing the government to stay with the Act till date.

Meanwhile the 2013 Act gave enough room for states to bring about their own rules, legislations and amendments to the Act of 2013. The state governments were already dissatisfied with the Act for the same reasons of delay and difficulties in land acquisitions for so called industrial development projects. Some of the state govts are trying to bypass the 2013 Act by what is called land pooling mechanism through enacting ordinances and legislations to the effect.  And protests have again emerged against land pooling. *16

Land Use , Agricultural Land transfer for non-agri. Purposes:

In the last few years concern has been voiced over large scale transfer of agri. Land for non- agri. Purposes, esp. of agri. lands which are very productive and where two to three crops are grown. *17 Concern has also been land pollution due to industrial effluents, air pollutants, making agri. Lands uncultivable.  The govt. View , not stated explicitly, is that we are producing enough and surplus food to sustain 14 bn. Population in the world, and enough food within India too; we can always buy food from  the world market, therefore we need to put efforts on developing other sectors for a higher growth and employment in other sectors.

“India has the second largest population in the world but scarce land resources. In 2011, India’s population reached 121 crore, about 17 per cent of the world population while net sown area was about 140 million ha in 2012-13, about 0.12 ha per capita, and less than half of the world average of 0.23 ha (GoI, 2015). This problem of limited availability of land has been compounded by growth in population, urbanisation and diversion of productive agricultural land for non-agriculture purposes. During the last two decades, India’s population has increased by about 18.4 crore, while the total agricultural land has decreased by about 3.2 million ha. According to the recent Land Use Statistics of the Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India, a total agricultural land of nearly 3.16 million ha (1.5 lakh ha per year) was lost to other sectors in the years between Triennium Ending (TE) 1991-92 and TE2012-13 (GoI, 2015). On the other hand, area under non-agricultural uses has increased by over five million ha (21.3 million ha to 26.4 million ha) during the same period. Taking into account the additional area added by reclamation and rehabilitation of culturable wastelands (about 2.4 million ha), it is estimated that a total net sown area of about 4 million ha (1.8 lakh ha per year) has been lost during last two decades. This loss of agricultural land is mainly due to rapid economic and industrial development, infrastructure expansion, rising population, urbanization, land degradation, etc. …

….(Vijay paul Sharma 2015, https://web.iima.ac.in/assets/snippets/workingpaperpdf/20799648232015-06-02.pdf)

UP and AP and Odisha have seen the greatest increase in agri. Land shifted to non-agri. Purposes -600000 and 500000 hectares in two decades. 1991 to 2011.

“ In total, an estimated 1.59 million ha of prime farmland was converted to nonagricultural uses during the 20-year period 1991-2011. This translates into an average annual loss of over 75,000 ha of productive land. Net sown area declined in all states except 3 states: Rajasthan, Gujarat, MP.

The recent Ordinance to amend the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 has led to a renewed debate on diversion of productive farm land to non-agricultural uses. It is true that more land are required for urban expansion, and related activities such as housing (both rural and urban), roads, airports, railways, industrial estates, rural infrastructure like irrigation development, storage and warehousing, and social infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, etc. but unplanned and uncontrolled conversion of agricultural land would have serious adverse impact on food security and self-sufficiency of the country as well as livelihood of millions of farming households and agricultural labourers. Therefore, there is a need to formulate a comprehensive land policy which takes into account both the rural and urban perspectives.

Can agriculture and industrial development and urban expansion co-exist? That is the challenge.

Agriculture land should be acquired only for rural and social infrastructure which is needed for rural development and poverty alleviation.” ….(Vijay paul Sharma 2015, https://web.iima.ac.in/assets/snippets/workingpaperpdf/20799648232015-06-02.pdf

Land fragmentation: Percapita availability of agri. Land and  net sown area declining. Shortage of agri. Land.

“The small size and fragmentation of land holding raises considerable concerns about their economic viability and has led to an intense public debate regarding the impacts of fragmentation (Lerman and Climpoies, 2006). There is a need to increase effective farm size either through land consolidation or appropriate land tenancy reforms. The land tenancy can be used as an effective tool for consolidation, which benefits both lessees through increased farm incomes and lessors through income from rent payments for their land.

The inverse relationship between farm size and productivity has been intensely discussed and a large number of authors provided evidence (Sen, 1964; Mazumdar 1965; Khusro, 1968; Hanumantha Rao 1966; Saini 1971; Bardhan 1973; Berry, 1972, Chand, et. al., 2011). However, very small farm size does not produce enough income to lift people out of poverty. “

….(Vijay paul Sharma 2015, https://web.iima.ac.in/assets/snippets/workingpaperpdf/20799648232015-06-02.pdf)

Jt. Farming societies were formed but not successful.  One of the ways farm frgn. Can be avoided is to form farmer producer cooperatives, pool in sources – land, labour and capital- to carry out production, and marketing. *18

Tenancy: Tenants come usually from small and marginal farmers and landless agri. Workers. Often they have no other skills, no other avenues of occupation, except daily wage work. In pre- modern period, tenancy was the only way to access agri. land for non-owners. Terms of tenancy were always exploitative, mounting to two thirds of the crop.  Still tenancy was preferred to daily wage work as it meant having food at home vs. going hungry. The caste hierarchy and terror unleashed by the upper castes effectively curbed any rebellious tendencies among the tenants. Nationalist fervour and socialist struggles gave an impetus to tenancy reform legislations and many states enacted tenancy reform acts.

But Tenancy reform legislations have never been implemented in true spirit except in WB and Kerala, and even there only partially. There has been a fear among the land owners that land would be taken away from them. Therefore land lease arrangements have continued to be oral and temporary terminate-at-will agreements.

While tenancy reforms were never carried out, tenancy itself has been increasing and is becoming even more common in the last three decades as more and more people move out of agri. to non- agri. employment.

Terms of tenancy has come down to about 50% from two thirds of the crop nowadays. But in many areas of the country tenants are expected to pay the amount in cash, upfront , before the season, and very high rates are often quoted. This is because land is limited;  aspiring tenants are larger in number as compared to landowners willing to lease out land; so there is a high competition for land. Tenants also tend to be very optimistic about returns ; if they didn’t offer attractive quotes, the  tenants may not get the land. But returns in farming have been decreasing over the years; at the end of the season they are left with very little incomes/margins, they start negotiating with the owner to the chagrin of the latter. The owners invariably feel that giving land on tenancy is a big bother, and may prefer to leave the land fallow. Tenants continue to suffer as government support schemes go to the owners of the land and are denied to them.

AP in 20..enacted a loan eligibility ordinance by which tenants are eligible for crop loans and other schemes such as crop insurance. But this has also been facing resistance from not only the land owners (for the same reasons as above) but also the bankers, for lack of clarity on collateral. A significant number of farmer suicides are of tenants. This problem continues to be vexing. Another solution being proposed is lowering the land ceiling and large scale redistribution of land. Another solution suggested is for tenants to form farmer producer cooperatives, pool in sources – land, labour and capital. *19

Section II

Farms, Farmers and Farm workers.


What is happening to agriculture and farmers have been a pressing concern with civil society groups since around 1995 when farmers’ suicides were first reported. Farmers’ suicides have been and are continuing with depressing regularity since then to the present. They are showing no sign of stopping. A small reprieve in this depressing scenario is that not only civil society groups but citizens at large in India as well as successive governments and political parties have woken up to the issues of farmers, food and agriculture; and have been actively engaging in these issues.

Earlier in the pre-LGP period, agriculture and the state of farmers was not centre stage of debates in the social sector; the educated elite saw farmers broadly as land lords belonging to upper castes, whose local and political clout should be controlled through land reforms;   the rest of the marginal/small/landless workers were seen as unskilled daily wage workers in unorganised sector; the latter was organised by the left political parties to some extent; but the category of self-employed cultivator-farmer had been neglected, except to throw subsidies and schemes to increase production. Farmers had to rely on their own organizational strengths; and now and then they did erupt into protests. But caste, class, regional diversity and political affiliations prevented them from becoming a strong sustained movement, athough the numbers  affected was very large, as till recently 60 to 70% of the population was directly or indirectly involved in agriculture.   Recent years have witnessed huge protests by farmers in different states and efforts are on to bring about  nationwide networks of farmers to press for their demands.

But before we go into the deplorable status of farmers, and the reasons of suicides, a fact sheet on the agriculture scene would be in order.

Climate and rainfall have a mind of their own : It is a myth that India is dependent on monsoon for agri. production. As climate change is becoming real, all over the world it is being realised that climate is critical for flora, fauna and for human beings too. Rainfall plays a critical factor in agri. prodn. In India, but equally other factors- temperature, cloudiness, wind, frost, fog, and seasonal fluctuations in each of these make agriculture a complete gamble game we play with nature. This in spite of the many advances we have made in irrigation, fertilisers and pest protection- chemical, mechanical, and natural. To make the complex more complex, each crop needs a slightly or widely differing climate regime for it to come to full potential. This is at once a blessing and a curse; it is a blessing because if one crop fails in one kind of climate, another may thrive; it is a curse because howver much humans try to minimise the influence of climate, it remains uncontrollable, adding to the uncertainty of yields. Completely unexpected  abundance bordering on the ludicrous in one season may be followed by dismaying dearth in another.

In this situation climate resilient agriculture is being emphasized in the debates. Multi and Intercropping as against monoculture, traditional seeds as against genetically improved seeds, small/organic as against large/chemical-industrial farming are emphasized in civil society debates. Slowly governments are also waking up to  climate change. For example AP, Sikkim, etc.

Irrigation : a mixed blessing:As rainfall occurs mostly through monsoons in India, it has always, through the centuries,  shown a keen interest in developing irrigation structures for use in non-rainy days/seasons- diversion canals, irrigation reservoirs, step wells and water lifting devices, etc. China and India have the highest area under irrigation. In the post-Independence era, it continues to be almost an obsession among both governments and farmers, almost seen as the panacea for all ills in agriculture sector. Modern big/high dams revered as ‘temples’ have been constructed in such large numbers as to provoke a ‘big dam debate’ in civil society dialogues. Worry on various counts. – seismicity, displacement of large populations, forest destruction, large areas acquired for small benefits, negligence of rainfed crops/areas; promotion of water intensive crops leading to over-exploitation of ground water, salinity, water logging, etc. etc. have been expressed. Farmers have also pointed out that irrigation is only a mixed blessing- it forces the farmer to grow only water intensive crops like paddy and sugarcane at the cost of multi-cropping, and that have sometimes precluded them to go for high value crops.

Rainfed regions/ crops are different: have suffered in spite of the fact that since 1970s experts have been warning the governments about their neglect. The GR model was imported into these regions, with little regard for the limitations of water, periodic droughts, terrain. Support systems of the governments favoured the high-rainfall/irrigated regions/crops. This has resulted in unsustainable ground water mining and farmers incurring huge losses chasing water, yields and incomes. It took a civil society visionary like Anna Hazare to show the way about what can be done about these areas. His watershed development experiment caught the imagination of several groups and governments launched them in different states. But again there was widespread political and bureaucratic corruption, and instead of a people’s program it ended up as a contracts program to feed money into political party cadres. Eg. AP.

Similar trends in social forestry and community/joint-forestry programs.

In the recent years micro-irrigation, multi-cropping, tree crops, organic farming have been much advocated in these regions. And farmers have taken to these measures with some eagerness, but, prices and incomes being what they are, farmers in rainfed regions continue to be  in distress.

The Green Revolution era: Poverty in Plenty. It is well known that India launched its Green Revolution (GR) in the late 60s when the country was facing a ship-to-mouth existence with severe food shortages. Today, it has food production sufficient to feed twice the current population. This in spite of a( three fold )huge population increase.  It has joined the club of food sufficient, food exporting countries, from food deficient, food importing country. Yet there are areas of serious concern, as follows below.

GR spiked the productivity of rice and wheat, followed by several other crops- mainly cereals, pulses and oil seeds- through the hybridization technology, creating several high yield varieties. Agri. scientist community in public sector research institutions  had a crucial role to play in this journey.  The surplus grain was absorbed through procurement by government through the FCI, for distribution to the poor and needy at subsidised rates through the PDS. Investments in irrigation, power and fertilisers required for the success of GR were made by successive governments and these were provided to farmers to grow the GR crops through subsidies.

Cracks appeared soon in about two decades, but particularly glaring after the WTO. The central paradox in agriculture scene in the country  is the fact that while agriculture production has soared and has reached self-sufficiency and even surplus production in food production, it has not translated into better incomes and standard of living for the farmers; nor has it eliminated hunger and poverty in rural areas. The other major paradox is that while yields and production have increased, there is a veritable ecological crisis in the rural areas manifesting in acute water shortages, land/soil degradation, pest explosions, disappearances of natural species, permanent loss of genetic resources, and so on.

Ecological crisis: Impact of GR on  seeds, water, soil.  GR brought about seeds which are genetically manipulated. They need more and precise watering schedules, and chemical fertilisers; they are inherently vulnerable to pest attacks, and need pesticides to bring out their full potential. This agronomic package has resulted salinity and soil degradation in many areas, unsustainable ground water mining in other areas, uncontrollable pest attacks resulting in crop failures. Genetic manipulation has continued from traditional seeds to improved seeds to hyvs, to hybrid seeds, to now genetically modified seeds. Farmers have had no say in this journey except as consumers of the seeds brought out of the labs. Seed conservation and preservation of gene pool has entirely passed from farmer to s&t labs. Traditional inherited knowledge of seeds and varieties have been completely ignored to the peril of loss of some genetic varieties forever. The scientist establishment working under the sponsorship of corporate agri-business-industry has in fact literally ‘stolen’ local knowledge without acknowledgement or rewarding it, taking it for granted; worse, it gained huge profits by patenting and profiting from it; in fact to the extent of prohibiting the original users from using it, in the name of patent violations! This was vociferously raised by the CSGs and patent laws were sought to be suitably  modified to recognise the role and contribution of farmers in seed development and distribution. In fact the new seed laws have been jammed by CSGs from proceeding further in our Parliament.

Several groups have also sprung up which preserve traditional seeds and these regularly hold seed festival to distribute them free of charge or  for nominal fees to those who are interested. Farmers have shown a lot of interest in these festivals as they can not access these seeds from the labs owned/ managed by governments and research institutions.  Nor can they grow them on a regular basis being caught with growing easily marketable crops and generating incomes for their families.

The GM technology of cross-gene transfer in seeds has brought about an entirely new debate. The GM technology has till now been introduced in cotton in India, known as BT cotton. The initial increase in yields and favourable markets have resulted in a huge increase in area under BT cotton. But in the recent years the yields have reduced and crop failures have become common, as the pest has developed resistance to the BT cotton. This has led to developing second and third generation of BT cotton varieties and these continue to be debated for their pros and cons.

Meanwhile  GM technology was sought to be introduced in food crops as well, beginning with brinjal or egg plant in 2008. The CSGs took up its cudgels and successfully stalled it by forcing the government to declare a moratorium against it. Now since 2016 the government is planning to introduce GM in mustard and soya bean , rice and maize, and a series of food crops to follow; and again there has been a huge resistance from CSGs and farmers associations. They have repeatedly questioned the necessity of GM crops when very good alternatives exist in conventionl seed technologies; they have loudly voiced concerns about bio-safety, irreversible genetic contamination, unknown and uncontrollable genetic behaviours of the manipulated species leading to cascading and irreversible dangers/losses,  corporate control through patents, harmful influence on health of human beings and other life forms and natural species with documentation and evidence. Meanwhile traditional pesticides continue to be used with much harm to plants, human beings and other life forms. Eg. Loss of honey bee populations. Pesticide Management Bill is being circulated.

A big organic farming movement is taking shape in the country as a way of resisting all the above negative impacts of GR. This is being assisted by the safe food movement by urban consumers. In fact the demand for organic crops and food is growing disproportionately to supply of organic produce, but this is soon to get resolved as farmers are fed up of ecological problems on the one hand and market failures on the other. Meanwhile a few states have officially declared programs for encouraging organic farming. Organic shops have mushroomed in the country so much so that again the government has sought to bring standards for the same through process of certification. FSSAI debate. Certification process again may threaten farmers from gaining from organic farming and may push OF to corporate control.

Markets, Prices, wages, incomes: Farmers have been  repeatedly told to increase production through adopting new seeds and to grow new, so called high value commercial/cash crops , esp. cotton, vegetables and fruits, to increase their incomes. And farmers have switched to them on a large scale with a hope of getting better incomes. However, this switch has not benefited them as there are not adequate forward and backward linkages. Cost of production of such crops increased to very high levels but the prices and incomes   for the farmers did not rise commensurately. This has resulted in a situation where there is neither food nor cash with the farmers. Farmers have come to depend on the open market for most of their food needs and food inflation has been a worrying feature in the recent years.

  • Access to inexpensive food for the poor has always been the concern of successive govts. The distribution costs of the PDS  became very high as compared to the prices at the PDS. However electoral compulsions and competitive populist party politics have brought down the PDS prices to absurdly low levels, widening the gap between open market prices and PDS prices leading to leakages, hoarding and black marketing in PDS operations.
  • As open market prices and food inflation rose civil society groups compelled the govt. To enact a Food security Act. to ensure a minimum level of food security at extremely low prices to the BPL families. Food subsidies has become a major issue both in international as well as domestic arena since the last decade. This has been questioned in the WTO process, as affecting international trade.
  • Increased production crashed prices in the open markets. Govts. Intervened often in favour of the consumers when consumer prices increased, but did not intervene to provide price protection to the farmers, except in wheat and rice. While it declared MSPs for several crops, it did not enforce them, and farmers incurred heavy losses. Their income fell in real terms.
  • Meanwhile the country faced severe droughts and rural migration to cities increased to unprecedented levels. MNREGA was enacted. While wages increased in real terms for rural workers, it resulted in increased wage costs of cultivation even further. Farmers almost came to see wage workers as their primary enemies. As workers were getting used to unsupervised work in MNREGA works, work ethic suffered. And as workers gained in money and status, they could exercise some choice whether to work or not, whom to work, and at what terms. In a state like AP, high cost of labour, non-availability of labour and lack of attentive/committed labour has been frustrating factors for farmers.
  • However, MNREGA has not stopped rural migration, as urban wages are much more, almost double that of rural wages. As the country launched into a high growth trajectory, industrial employment particularly in construction industry increased giving hope to millions of rural workers that if they go to cities, they will get some wage work. Non- availability of workers and high cost of labour is a constant complaint among farmers. Farmers have been looking to mechanization but low cost machines don’t exist for all operations.
  • Meanwhile LGP in other areas increased the costs of living to very high levels, especially in health, education and transport which were earlier highly subsidised through public sector institutions.
  • Post-WTO period has witnessed particularly high volatility and price crashes and the government has been both helpless and has mismanaged the price situation for farmers. This has been due to mandatory imports due to WTO agreement sometimes, and at other times due to over production and glut in the market.
  • This has resulted in further suicides and a deep distress and anger among farmers. In the pre-WTO period, quantitative restrictions on imports  was possible, govts. Could regulate imports of agricultural produce depending on the production and price situation of the crops.  WTO replaced quantitative import restrictions with a regime based on tariffs on imports/exports. This has tied the hands of the governments on price regulation. Dumping cheap imports and price crashes have not been uncommon. Although WTO is said to have allowed for several concessions to developing countries, the net result has been huge losses to farmers in the post WTO period.
  • Due to protests all over the world by farmers in Developing countries, the Agreement in Agriculture (AOA), called the Doha Round , in the WTO process has itself been stalled, and till date has not been resolved. However, it seems almost impossible to stop the juggernaut of LGP and farmers have been the victims of the same. LGP has increased inequality all over the world, and even more so in developing countries like India. And high levels of growth has in fact exacerbated it, instead of mitigating it, contrary to expectations.
  • science – industry – profit- driven farming has pushed control over farming into the hands of transnational corporations, and have marginalised and alienated farmers from their own profession. They have no role in either creation of agriculture science and knowledge or in setting the prices and markets. Meanwhile agricultural science has focussed wholly on yields, with little attention to agro-ecology, bio-diversity, gene pool preservation, water pollution, and other such environmental considerations. Subsidies in power, irrigation and fertilisers rose to unsustainable levels, affecting fiscal deficit. There was much pressure from WB and IMF to reduce fiscal deficits. Structural reforms towards LGP was initiated particularly in power and fertilisers. Subsidies were questioned and have been reduced, increasing the costs of cultivation for the farmers.
  • One of the fall out of GR has been reduction in soil fertility. Soil fertility has become a casualty in many areas as farmers took to chemical fertilisers and neglected to add adequate humus to the soil. Waterlogging and salinity due to excessive irrigation in some areas were the other factors impacting soil fertility. Reduced soil fertility has meant increased use of chemical fertilisers, pest-weedicides, which in turn has increased the costs of cultivation for the farmers.
  • Agribusiness, corporate control of agriculture through seeds, The GM crops vs. Organic farming debate….

Farmers,  farm workers and civil society groups in support of farmers  rising in protest :

Farmers’ protests have not been uncommon, they occurred throughout history, as state and tried to capture more and more of the surplus through taxes. Tax waiver was the most common remedy that was demanded and state machinery did grant, depending upon king and the pressures on the king. In the post –Independence era farmers’ protests have often focussed on land reforms, tenancy reforms and prices.

In the more recent years, from the year 2000 onwards, farmers and farm workers have been protesting whenever  there were price crashes in crops incl. the so called high value export crops.

It is not that the governments –both central and state, have not done anything about farmers. After all farmers and rural folk are the biggest chunk of the voters; and several schemes and programs have been launched with bigger and bigger budget allocations every year. But they have been piecemeal solutions, implemented in a half hearted manner;- A scheme here and a scheme there, covering a miniscule number of farmers, with grossly inadequate funds, and with long cumbersome procedures. Most of them go little beyond the ruling party supporters/cadres. As D. S. Says, farmers have been treated as vote bank or land bank.

As farmers’ suicides continued with relentless regularity year after year, a  comprehensive review of the farmers’ situation with a view to suggest remedies for the same was sought to be made and a high power Commission called National Commission on Farmers, alternately also known as Swaminathan Commission was set up with much fanfare  in 2004. The Commission submitted its fifth and final report in 2006. It raised a lot of expectations among the farmers who hoped its recommendations would be implemented in letter and spirit. But it was not to be. The governments in power carried on with business as usual approach, with a little improvement here and there.

The recommendation which captured the imagination of farmers and advocacy groups is the one where the Commn. Recommends that farmers should get a Minimum Support Price which is 50% over the cost of cultivation and that governments should see to it that this is made possible. And a Price Stabilization Fund must be created by the GOI when it intervenes in the market whenever market prices fall below the declared Minimum support Price. Minimum support price itself should be calculated comprehensively to cover all costs, acco. To the formula C2+50%.

As farmers started demanding the implementation of Swaminathan Commission recommendation of C2+50%, political parties, before the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 vied with each other to promise the implementation of the same. So did the party which came to power. But within six months of coming to power the ruling party retracted from this promise officially before the Supreme Court. This has further angered the farmers who feel cheated. 2017 has again witnessed violent clashes by the farmers and they have held massive rallies pressing for C2+50% price support.

The government has been resisting higher support prices in order to prevent food inflation, which will inevitably affect the poor and the unorganised sector. Differential payment system is being suggested as the remedy by the civil society groups and some states have started experimenting with it..

The other major demands have been in relation to credit, subsidies and insurance.

  Chronic indebtedness has always been the woeful feature of the Indian farmer since the British Colonial period, when taxes paid by the farmers to the state, directly or through intermediaries, were very high and had to be paid in cash, not often related to production, leading to chronic indebtedness. Institutional lending was unknown during the colonial period, farmers having to depend wholly on private moneylenders for raising money. Money lender became hated figure in fact and fiction.

This was sought to be remedied in post- Independence era through nationalization of banks, starting rural bank branches, and several short and long term credit schemes, including schemes for self-help groups of women. And yet institutional credit to farmers have fallen much short of the expected and reliance on private lenders continues to be very high. Meanwhile year on year losses due to natural disasters, crop failures and price crashes, have provoked the farmers to demand loan waivers often and governments have been forced to concede the demand. The most forceful justification of such a demand in the more  recent years have been that while loans are regularly written off for the industry and justified as incentives, loan waivers to farmers are seen as a dysfunctional amounting to collapsing the credit system itself.

In a global scenario where every country offers high levels of subsidies to agriculture, India’s subsidies have been relatively small, although in absolute terms they have been high. Subsidies for agri. Have been ….crores,… % of GDP. In the post-WTO period subsidies have become a contentious subject in global trade discussions, with both developing countries and developed countries accusing each other and demanding  reduction of the same.

Agriculture, unlike industrial production, cannot be predicted or controlled precisely, being subject to climatic factors beyond human control. Therefore a system of support in times of natural disasters through insurance and disaster relief schemes have been  another  major demand in the recent years.

Meanwhile an issue which has come up as a response to all these demands  is that of ‘Basic Income for All’, covering people not only in agriculture sector but in in all other sectors as well. Many states are now providing a minimum level of old age pensions. And basic income for all would be an extension of a minimum level of income for the young poor as well.

Poverty, lack of nutrition security,  lack of income security, ills of chemical farming, reduction in agri-bio-diversity


Who is a Farmer