Nowhere does the phrase missing the woods for the trees apply more than to facets of Indian farming; the big picture is so often lost in a preoccupation with the minutiae as the current predicament of limited perspective that afflicts India’s farmer unions confirms. The leaderships of many unions, secure in their comfort zones, choose to remain oblivious of the larger picture.

The other insidious explanation is that in order to hold on to their leadership roles within the organizations they represent, they have simply confined themselves to issues that resonate with farmers, without actually doing sustainable good for them. Whatever the reason, the big picture around genuine transformation of rural livelihood across India is being missed.

There should be little doubt that such a paradigm shift cannot be achieved on the basis of minimum support prices, free electricity and cheap fertilizers that, in any event, cannot make for a sustainable solution. Given to advocacy on limited issues over the decades, farmer unions have ceded agriculture policy space to business-funded lobbies. The likes of CII, FICCI, PHD Chamber of Commerce, Assocham and the Fertilizer Association of India have constantly furthered the vested agenda of their members.

Further sullying the waters, a few individuals in guise of representing farmer organizations have become lobbyists for the farm input industry, just as much as have some international consulting firms. Of late, international donors, like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have shifted the narrative around nutrition policy to one of food fortification.
In order to make farmer prosperity the fulcrum of the debate, the unions have to expand their advocacy to include all issues that have a strong bearing on the future of farmer livelihoods. That should include the state of the national economy, governance issues, transparency, government revenue collections, allocation of resources and such others. Equally critical are issues like rupee exchange rate, relative inflation and improving nutrition by generating consumer demand for fruits, vegetables and proteins in India, where it happens to be the amongst the lowest in the world.

The message that farmers must receive is that one is being not a votary for reducing farm support when one urges that the farmer be made to understand that it is important change the narrative to the inevitable repurposing of subsidies towards farm eco-system services. This may well be a very painful transition for farmers but a bitter pill that will need to be swallowed.
Essentially, the policy space has to see a metamorphosis singularly devoted to sustainable enhancement of the farming space. This is best achieved with farmer leaders reaching out to farmers repeatedly to explain how the present structure of subsidies is self-defeating and only shifts the costs to the next generations. Then and only then may politicians conjure the political will and courage to initiate bold structural reforms.

Many organizations, supportive of PM Kisan or cash transfers as a solution, do not realize that that the undertone of the trending dialogue around government reach is actually paving the way for the government to slowly abdicate its constitutional responsibilities of providing primary health care, quality rural education, sanitation, farm extension, veterinary services, public transport and other public utilities.

The affiliation of farmer union leaders to political parties has been like a poisonous pill for the farmer unions and farmers. Their leaderships have often become family affairs, where affiliation is rewarded by plum positions when political mentors are in power. Adding to the morass are those guilt of simony, seeking caste concessions that lead to loss of trust, diluted leadership authority and destruction of farmer unity.

Having lost faith in the system and in farmer leaders, temporary outpouring on localized issues may well start to spiral demonstrations into faceless protests and manifest into widespread rural disobedience whether it be fuelled by ethnic, migrant or caste conflicts, as in Haryana in 2016.

Politicians have prioritized ‘food inflation mitigation measures’ that have come at a high cost of deteriorating farmer livelihoods. Farmers and those representing them need to introspect, rather than continuously berate the government, they need to change tactics, stop behaving like losers and clearly understand that they are in the soup, for no reason other than that they have developed a consistent tendency to vote on parameters other than their own stagnating economic condition.•