Indian Agriculture – Not just an Economy, But a Culture


Image – Kannan via Flickr

‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ – The slogan by Lal Bahadur Shastri is as much a relevant cry as it was years ago when it stirred the ‘jawans’ at the border to fight off the Pakistani attack and the ‘kisan’ at home to increase the production of food grains. Today of course, our sovereignty is not under attack from any other country, but our farmers are fighting for their rights. Where on one hand, the government insists that the new agriculture laws are for the overall benefit of the sector, the farmers themselves are not convinced. And for days, the nation, especially the capital, has been witness to farmers who have taken to the streets in a peaceful way to protest against these agricultural laws. I am no agriculturist or economists and the facts and details of the bills may seem a bit overwhelming for those who don’t understand how the economy and marketing of the agricultural produces work. But what most of us do understand is that if laws do not make happy or sense to those for whom they are made, then they need to be reviewed and revised. And when farmers themselves are strongly opposing the bills, is another point of view really required?

The Happenings of Today – Now

Indian farmers Protest
Image – Randeep Maddoke via Wikimedia

The proposed new agricultural reforms, are namely the Farmer’s Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act. These acts address a number of points but without getting into too many technical explanations the basic and few points of contention are the increased role of the corporates and the concern around MSP or the minimum support price. The government believes that the acts are in fact, means of empowerment and upliftment for the farmer. The farmers obviously think otherwise. The experts are divided, though some agree that the outline and idea of the laws are sensible, however, there are several loopholes and revisions that need to be considered. This debate has been raging for several days, with the country experiencing a stiff protest from its very grass root brethren. The farmers are refusing to comply and the emotions across the country are flying high. And though this essentially is an issue of the farmer, the lines are blurred between rural and urban India. 

The History of Agriculture

Image – A.Davey via Flickr

India has always been regarded as an agricultural nation. The agrarian society has made its place in our economy, culture and traditional values as well. Looking back, agriculture was a way of life even before the Indus Valley Civilization. Wheat and barley were grown during the Neolithic revolution and irrigation came about in full swing during the Indus Valley Civilization. Agriculture flourished along all ages through the Iron Age and Early and Middle Ages. A variety of crops were grown and India became to be best known for its spices. Trade grew with spices taking center stage and continued through the Mughal Era. The techniques and skill of Indian farmers was advanced and probably one of the best in the world. The peasants adapted to newer crops, such as mulberry, coffee, tobacco, tea over the years and grew new species of different fruits ranging from papaya, pineapple and mangoes. India before British colonization had one of the highest per capita agricultural output and food prices were low. 

Under the British cash crops such cotton, opium, indigo, rice and wheat were regularly exported. The global market was open for Indian agricultural produces but the glitches in the armor became more and more visible. Agriculture trade happened even before the British came but after colonization the shift in commercializing agriculture was exceedingly prominent. The divide between the rich and poor peasants increased drastically with zamindars and landlords taking a lot of control. Overall, the state of agriculture affairs deteriorated and became messy, complicated and complex.

Image – Kannan via Flickr

Post-independence a lot of changes were implemented to better the state and economy of agriculture. Of course, the zamindari system was abolished and various other reforms were drafted. The Green Revolution brought about considerable changes in the industry however, the agriculture sector never again seemed to find its glory of the distant past. Problems continued in spite of the many reforms, which looked sensible on paper but never were fully executed or returned results as thought. The workforce employed in agriculture began to fall, with poor and landless farmers migrating or finding alternate employment opportunities. Those households that remained were recorded to have the ‘highest incident of poverty’ in the country from 1993-2000. Farmer suicides grabbed headlines and largely remained so. And hence the Indian farmer who has long been the pillar and support of this nation, unfortunately found his social status never exalted to a stage that merited respect and dignity. For years the farmer has suffered and the urban classes have read and re-read stories of their miseries, whether it be farmer suicides, droughts, floods, hording or debts. 

Yet, India continues to be a leading producer in various agricultural outputs, such as coconut, ginger, banana, turmeric, wheat, groundnut, fruits, vegetable etc. This paradox of production vis-a-vis true empowerment of all farmers remains to be a case of complexity, intertwined with years of subjugation, policies, reforms, industrialization etc. The solutions are not simple, simply because the problems are so varied and spread right across all boards. But the Indian farmer and the spirit of agriculture or farming refuse to fade away from the collective imagination of a nation whose traditions and culture is deeply rooted in its villages and farms.

Cultural Influences of Farming

Image – USAID U.S. Agency via Flickr

Agriculture has been the strongest and the foundational culture of India. Yes, once upon a time more than eighty percent of the population was involved in agriculture and that number has fallen to just about 50% today. However, farming and agriculture has always moved beyond being mere means to livelihood. It has became the essence of cultural existence. From the ‘khet’ and ‘khalyans’ rose the true spirit of a nation that found in it, its most simple and basic ways of living. From festivals being celebrated according to the farming calendar and the monsoon cycle to weddings and marriages in families, agriculture has played a huge role on it all. It has lent its influence in shaping the traditional arts, including those that were drawn on walls and floors of homes. Artistic expressions in its various forms be in painting, dances or also movie making have found a sound stronghold in lush green fields. It has played its part in story-telling, in keeping joint families together, in sharing workload or in animal and wildlife care. The role and empowerment of women in villages largely revolves around agriculture and so do various religious and spiritual impacts. Agriculture and farming has never been only about the finances or the economy. It has its looming presence in social and cultural aspects of villages. In short, it forms the very structure of the nation. 

The Science and Economics of Farming

Image – sudiptorana via Flickr

In spite of its very strong social and culture impact, the economics of agriculture cannot be ignored. Neither can its study and scientific tenor. Fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides, artificial seeds or the introduction of new species etc. are all scientific studies. There is reason and understanding and a process and method in agriculture. And hence, though it is often relegated a position lower than industrialization, it ideally isn’t. The farmer, if educated and guided in the right way, can with the acumen of his craft create a system that is beneficial for all, including the environment, his finances and the overall development of the economy. But the economics of the agricultural sector have been heavily intertwined with the social stratification as well. Class and caste have played a role in the financial dynamics of the sector too and hence the gap between rich and poor peasants has been stark since long. Even today, as the debate around the three new agricultural reforms or acts brews up intent and emotions, the underlining crux remains the same. These policies yet again will marginalize the already marginalized farmer further. The feasibility or impact of these might be making sense on paper, but the realities on ground hardly match those. And this perhaps, is a fact that is well known and understood by all. Furthered by the multitudes of other elements, such as the mandi system, middle men, corporates, hoarding, MSP the matters have only become a complicated conundrum. Yes, it can all be explained, yet, with the farmers protesting over them, it’s hard to look at it any other way.

Image – Kannan via Flickr

Finally, all I can say is that agriculture is the heart of this country. Its farmers and their toil is the reason why we not only are able to feed such a huge population but also export food and products. Commercialization or industrialization if implemented with a will to genuinely improve the lives of all, usually bears fruit. But when the stakes are too high, where the emotional and cultural integration so deep seated, then an equal opportunity of dialogue first, implementation later must be employed. Yes, we need reforms, but not at the cost of not listening to those for whom the reforms are supposedly beneficial and made in the first place. The farmer knows better, for once let’s not decide for him.

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