Last week, while addressing visiting MBA students of UCLA, I explained that the biggest problem Indian farmers face is non-representation on the high table of policy making. The students immediately posed a question: Why is it that in a nation predominantly rural and with 40 per cent of the population directly dependent on agriculture there are no leaders representing the farming community?

It is a good question to contemplate on ‘Kisan Diwas’ (birth anniversary of late Prime Minister Chaudhary Charan Singh), though difficult to answer convincingly.

A farmer holds a sickle and paraffin lantern while walking through the field on his way home near Chandigarh. (File photo: Reuters)

A farmer holds a sickle and paraffin lantern while walking through the field on his way home near Chandigarh. (File photo: Reuters)

There were many kisan stalwarts like Sir Chotu Ram in undivided Punjab, Panjabrao Deshmukh in Maharashtra, Baldev Ram Mirdha in Rajasthan and M D Nanjundaswamy in Andhra Pradesh with whom the rural masses could identify. Similarly, Charan Singh, born a Jat in the erstwhile United Provinces, in what is today Hapur district in UP, never projected his caste identity.

Charan Singh’s Limited Leadership

He initiated land reforms to stop the exploitation of tenant farmers. He is said to have stitched a loose alliance MAJGAR – Muslims, Ahirs, Jats, Gurjars and Rajputs. The rural masses, beyond these few caste groups, found in Charan Singh their voice and leader. But he was used and outwitted by the well-entrenched politically savvy establishment.

Farmers attend a rally in Bhopal on July 30, 2002. They were part of a group protesting the government’s lack of water supply and electricity, which made cultivating their land difficult. (Photo: Reuters)

Farmers attend a rally in Bhopal on July 30, 2002. They were part of a group protesting the government’s lack of water supply and electricity, which made cultivating their land difficult. (Photo: Reuters)

Mandal and Panchayati Raj

The late 80s was the beginning of the end of farmers’ solidarity and leaders on the Indian political landscape. Two significant things happened to cause the demise of farmers’ movements: the Mandal commission and Panchayati Raj. Politics changed thereafter. The political turmoil that followed the Mandal commission agitation divided the rural communities on caste lines.

Leaders who tried to steer clear of the caste divide or did not project themselves as representatives of their own caste simply lost support of their communities while other groups did not identify with them. The likes of Hardik Patel in Gujarat are a manifestation of the same change. The demand for caste reservations divide farmers and hinder unionisation.

Splintering of Village Polity

The Constitution prescribes a multi-party system which allows multiple contestants vying for the same position. Therefore, in any village there are invariably over 20-25 contestants jostling for a few panchayat seats every few years. Thus every village policy splintered on multiple political lines. This destroyed any semblance of village or farmer-level unity that was already weakening in the wake of the Mandal agitation.

A New Generation

In the 90s’ era of liberalisation a new kind of rural leadership with strong caste leanings emerged. Even though they belonged to rural areas they were not solely dependent on farming as a source of livelihood. This generation was educated, savvy and urbane and focused on attaining power as a means to amassing wealth. Flushed with money, they became a major factor in determining winners and losers. The old farmers’ leadership or genuine farmers did not stand a chance.

Today, farmers don’t hold senior position in any of the major national political parties. This absence is so pronounced that the parties don’t even bother to hide the fact or pretend to show otherwise.

Octogenarian Ratten Singh shouts anti-government slogans in Chandigarh, as farmers protested over the government’s silence on announcing the price of their crops. (File photo: Reuters)

Octogenarian Ratten Singh shouts anti-government slogans in Chandigarh, as farmers protested over the government’s silence on announcing the price of their crops. (File photo: Reuters)

This even as land holdings fragmented and farming became unprofitable as the government’s focus shifted. Larger-than-life aspirations and disdain for farming has now made jobs off the farm more coveted. Not many are interested in farming as a choice anymore.

A silent migration from the rural areas that began in the first decade of the 21st century has swelled to be the largest in human history. Population projections show that 75 per cent of the people will reside in urban areas by 2050. As farmers we will have to reshape the values of these urban dwellers to secure favourable policy.

MNREGA’s Disrupting Influence

MNREGA further sealed political divisions in villages. The payment of money under MNREGA is subject to influence of the village sarpanch. It gave an impetus for people to contest panchayat elections which became an investment to be recouped by siphoning off MNREGA funds.

This is borne by the fact that money spent in a village election is ten times more than what is spent in the same village during assembly elections. The fierce contest for the few village posts has further eroded any hope of unity in the farmer community.

Greener Pastures Elsewhere

Today, nearly all farmer families have at least one member earning from work off the farm and they are not solely dependent on agriculture for their livelihood. This has led the community members to identify themselves more as consumers rather than producers, engendering an identity crisis and destroying and prospect of solidarity.

A farmer inspects his sunflower crop in Punjab, near Chandigarh. (File photo: Reuters)

A farmer inspects his sunflower crop in Punjab, near Chandigarh. (File photo: Reuters)

Farmers across India grow different crops. Most years, farmers growing one or the other crop are distressed. All crops naturally have different peaks and troughs in terms of profitability, differing even geographically for the same crop within the same time span.

Simmering Discontent

Selective government incentives or compensation for crop loss keeps the discontent simmering. At any one time all farmers are neither distressed nor happy to have a common cause to unionise. But for the first time in decades that may be about to change.

On Kisan Diwas, we realise that farmers are fighting a losing battle against a government and urban society more concerned about consumer needs rather than that of producers. What is ominous is that this government, having inherited a farm mess, may actually aggravate the rural distress to such an extent that farmers may ultimately unite to rebel. All that is needed is a leader like Charan Singh. None are in sight though.