The recurring images on media of lakhs of farmers protesting on the outskirts of Delhi, huddled together under the sharp sun during the day and covered in thick blankets facing biting cold at night, their stern visage weather-beaten and deeply furrowed, like their lands, are haunting. Many among them in the forefront are stout, hardy and hearty Sikh farmers with flowing majestic beards and piercing eyes that penetrate your soul, and your heart swells when you see them braving the harsh outdoors. And more farmers from across the other states are pouring into Delhi borders. They are stoic, steadfast and resolute, despite the vicissitudes of fate. They are slow as the seasons and have the patience of Nature. The farmers, well-stocked with their own provisions, parsimonious by habit, practised in the art of self-sufficiency, have pitched their tents and are determined to be in Delhi for the long haul in anticipation of the well-versed wily tactics of governments that invariably attempt to divide and wear them out with interminable negotiations and prevarications.
We have an affinity with the farmers because we see our forefathers in them. Our ancestral blood runs in their veins. We are all issued of the same stock. Even if some of us have lost our native roots, living in towns and cities, there is a primeval longing to return to the land, to the lost paradise. Many of us city dwellers, those who commute to work every day or sit cloistered within the four walls of buildings morning to evening, peddling our wares or pushing files or working on our sterile computer screens, identify ourselves instinctively with the farmers in a vicarious way because the farmer’s cause is our cause. He provides grains, meat, milk, fruits and vegetables and our clothing. He is a life-giver. All other vocations are secondary. As Emerson said, “All trade rests at last on his primitive activity. The food which was not, he causes to be. The first farmer was the first man…And the profession has in all eyes its ancient charm, as standing nearest to God, the first cause.”
The nation is on the edge now. Its heart resonates with the farmers. And everyone wants this impasse to end quickly.
The farmers’ protests are more than just about the three farm bills that were rammed through parliament and enacted in a hurry. They are distraught and in deep distress. Though it appears that their protests are about the contentious MSP (minimum support price) or fear of corporatisation of agriculture by marauding home-grown oligarchs or monstrous MNCs – fears that are well-founded and has drawn much attention during the protests – these were only a trigger for the simmering discontent pent up over many years that has erupted, drawing sympathy from all sections of the farming community. It is a matter of time before others from other far-flung states join them. The crisis of the agri sector is not one or two problems but the sum of a hundred different problems, intricate and interconnected, that have resulted in unviable livelihoods dependent solely on small landholdings, which has pushed them into poverty and destitution.
The rural economy can move farmers out of poverty by not only sound policies through reforms and good infrastructure necessary for improving agriculture productivity through roads, power, irrigation, and linkages to markets that directly impact farming but by moving more people out of agriculture to other jobs. Which in the long term means good high-quality, affordable education and healthcare, which is the only known way to lift people out of poverty. All ruling parties have failed on this front. Let us be clear. Small farmers and farm labour and their families cannot make a decent living on holdings of two to three acres. So, alleviation of poverty, both rural and urban, through sustained reforms and good governance, in cooperation with the states, is the answer.
But right now, the farmers have laid siege to Delhi. The present government cannot solve all the problems of the farmers. Many are inherited from the past. And agriculture is a state subject. It needs all hands on the deck. It is delusional to think it can redress farmers’ grievances by ramming through central laws alone.
This is not about the merits and demerits of the farm laws — numerous subject experts have used reams of paper to analyse it and many have praised it. This is about how ushering in progressive reforms using regressive methods can backfire. This is about a highhanded approach and ham-handed ways of handling profound matters instead of time-tested ways of debate and dialogue with all stakeholders to achieve the same objectives without strife. This is about the trust deficit between the farmers and the government leadership.
The conflict with farmers has been exacerbated by bumbling government emissaries who are treating this like an event management task, with each one of them shooting off his/her mouth at any platform available and alienating the farmers further. To compound matters, the mainstream media and the social media are sowing confusion and discord, sundry activists and trade bodies and opportunistic opposition leaders are jumping into the fray. The true content and intent of the three controversial farm laws, with many beneficial reforms contained in them, are lost in translation in all this din. The farmers see the farm bills as ominous portents. They feel undermined and taken for granted. They want the laws to be scrapped and are demanding to be involved in the framing of fresh laws.
By virtue of the mandate he commands both in the country and within the party and as leader of the largest democracy, it behooves Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to reach out to the farmers and unite a polarised polity. He must meet them face to face and listen to them and put forth his own views. He should end the standoff by making amends and finding a resolution. Those who till the land and sow and harvest are the true ministers of our heritage and wealth. Deferring to citizens and ceding to their demands is not defeat. It’s statesmanship. It will only enhance Modi’s stature and earn him the farmer’s and the nation’s goodwill.
(The writer is a soldier, farmer and entrepreneur)