Indian peasants cry for justice

With very small parcels of land families are finding difficult to make farming a viable, sustainable and subsistence business.

India is now the world’s fastest-growing major economy, but years of drought and a failure to create jobs for a burgeoning young population has left millions of rural Indians struggling. India’s 120 million farmers are considered backbone of the country’s food security but disillusionment runs through almost entire rural India. Farming remains the country’s dark spot and a woeful symbol of its abiding distress.

More than half the country’s labour force still depends on agriculture, though agriculture accounts for just 15 per cent of gross domestic product. With farmlands shrinking on account of urbanisation and the pressure of a growing population, which still remains tethered to agriculture, there is fragmentation of holdings and the average landholding has dropped from 2.2 hectares nearly 35 years ago to just over a single hectare today.

With very small parcels of land families are finding difficult to make farming a viable, sustainable and subsistence business. A wave of despair is blowing through India’s hinterland which is forcing farmers to take their own lives.

The farm crisis generally attributed to a toxic blend of slashed subsidies, tougher global competition, drought, predatory moneylenders and expensive genetically modified seeds. With soil fertility devastated, underground water table plummeting as a result of relentless water mining, contamination of soil from excessive use and abuse of chemical pesticides there is increased salinity, the farmlands are becoming even more unsuitable for agriculture.

In India, agricultural investment is a big gamble. With dreams of a good harvest, most small- and medium-scale farmers borrow money, often at exorbitant interest rates of up to 10 per cent per month to buy seeds and fertilisers or get irrigation equipment. Yet the success of their crop — and their ability to repay their loans — relies on environmental conditions increasingly made unstable by climate change. For the average farmer, who lives and earns from season to season, a poor monsoon means food must be carefully rationed because he has little money to spend. Consecutive droughts are enough to wipe out most small farmers’ meagre savings and push them into destitution.

Peasants borrow loans from moneylenders at insane rates of interest for all their needs — from buying expensive transgender seeds, high-cost fertilisers to food for themselves and cattle. The peasants hope for a better yield in times to come, but this never happens, and they find themselves in a debt trap as they keep pursuing a vain chimerical mirage of a high wattage golden crop bonanza. They often mortgage their lands and as borrowings mount, many farmers are driven to suicide. Owing more than they earn, these steadiest of workers have become gamblers of the highest stakes, betting their land — and their lives — on one better crop. Unable to pay the interest, let alone the principal, they borrow more and get onto a treadmill recklessly driven by the cruel moneylenders, who are no better than sharks. Shylocks demand only a pound of flesh. But these indigenous money-lending vampires bay for blood. Crushing debts are pushing the farmers into the darkest of pits.

Several decades of lofty promises and grandiose schemes later, the agricultural landscape still looks as arid as ever. It has been a collective failure of governments that Indian farmers remain distressed forever. The farmers have been taking their lives out of desperation and inability to cope with bloating debts, falling yields and unremunerative prices. Until the government can offer something more concrete, the land will continue to claim its debts with human lives.

Subsidies, once a linchpin for farmers, have dried up. Only a tenth of the money the government spends in rural areas goes on investments that might boost yields. Much more is squandered on subsidies for cash crops. Two of India’s leading economists — Jagdish Bhagwati and Amartya Sen — agree on eliminating regressive input subsidies such as those on fertilisers, which according to them benefit rich farmers more than smaller ones.

Recent years have brought a procession of shocks: diminishing groundwater, climatic disasters. expensive new seed varieties, industrial encroachment and falling prices of cotton and other key crops which sometimes renders farmers unable to recoup even the input costs leave alone their own time and labour that goes into it.

A survey by India’s apex agriculture bank, the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) and Punjab Agriculture University has confirmed that 94 per cent of the government subsidies are being availed by big and medium farmers, leaving the smaller farmers for whom subsidies are actually meant sidelined. The survey has also indicated that the subsidies are not being given based on needs, but on political considerations. The survey has brought out startling facts that nearly 88 per cent of farmers in the state are under debt and among the smaller farmers the percentage is far higher at 90 per cent. The marginalised and smaller farmers have six times higher debt than big farmers in Punjab.

Seeds are the building blocks of every meal we eat: our grains and pulses, our fruits and vegetables, plus the meat that’s raised on grass and grain. The loss of diversity of what we eat is a result of multiple factors, including the increased industrialisation and globalisation of agriculture that has seen farmers worldwide pushed to abandon multiple local plant varieties for genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties.

Experts fear that, at its current pace of consumption, the world is running out of useable topsoil. A rough calculation of current rates of soil degradation suggests we have about 60 years of topsoil left. Some 40 per cent of soil used for agriculture around the world is classed as either degraded or seriously degraded. Because of various farming methods that strip the soil of carbon and make it less robust as well as weaker in nutrients, soil is being lost at between 10 and 40 times the rate at which it can be naturally replenished.

There is need for comprehensive reforms to make farming viable so that the migration of unskilled labour to the cities is checked. This is necessary to protect both villages and cities. Survival is hard in cities with meagre wages. For cities, it is difficult to sustain the pressure on civic services of groaning populations.

Despite a glut of seemingly pro-agriculture subsidies, policies and sops given to the agricultural community by successive governments, the outlook on India’s farm economy remains anything but healthy. Thousands of tonnes of grains are wasted because of lack of storage and transport facilities, even as farming remains a gritty battle.

The key architect of India’s Milk Revolution, Verghese Kurien, had a very candid advice for India’s farm reforms: “The way to improve productivity is not to bring in experts to talk about inputs — seeds, equipments and materials, pesticides or water supply. The way to start is to provide an assured market, a fair price, and a system through which rural producers can market their produce which is reasonably efficient and can transfer to them the maximum share of the consumers’ money.”

The writer is a well-known banker, author and Islamic researcher. He can be reached at

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