Why Are Our Farmers Angry?

EPW Engage contextualises the agrarian crisis and farmer protests in India with this reading list.



The last few years have seen farmers taking to the streets to protest the continued state of agrarian distress in the country. The latest among these is the Kisan Kranti Yatra led by the Bharatiya Kisan Union, which began at Haridwar on 23 September. The protest was met with violence as the farmers neared the Delhi border on 2 October with a set of eleven demands, including farm loan waivers and lower diesel prices. The Delhi Police put up barricades and used water cannons and tear gas shells on the farmers. The police also imposed Section 144 of the CrPC which prevents the assembly of more than four people till 8 October, citing a law and order problem. Farm loan waivers have been a consistent demand in recent farmer protests as well. Only last month, over one lakh farmers, agricultural labourers and industrial workers gathered in Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan with a set of demands, and last year the Kisan Long March took place in Mumbai in March, also with similar demands.

With this reading list, we attempt to situate the recent farmer protests within the context of a larger economic crisis.

1) Quest for a rural-agrarian identity?

Socio-economic transformations post-liberalisation have created a dual-identity crisis among farmers which has manifested in large-scale protests. In his 2018 article, Sudhir Kumar Suthar uses narratives collected from various parts of India to argue that protests are also an attempt to recover and consolidate dignity. As such, these movements can be seen as an articulation of sociocultural grievances.

The present protests are a political manifestation of the increasing quest for a new identity. This identity is a mix of an individual (being and dignity) as well as a collective sense of belonging. This also emerges from a sense of disillusionment from the urbanisation process but also a desire to reimagine the rural in newer ways with more space for individual freedom. It is also based upon newer aspirations in the rural where city-like facilities are demanded. It is this complex interplay between the rural and the urban with agrarian in the middle that makes the new process of politicisation over the agenda of rural–agrarian possible.

Both the processes of agrarian crises and anti-urban sentiments have produced an identity crisis, not only in an individual but also in a collective sense. As an individual, this quest is driven by one’s sense of loss of self-dignity and respect resulting from economic as well as social reasons.

2) Multiple dimension of the crisis

Five articles in our Review of Rural Affairs 2018, attempt to go beyond the dominant narrative of crisis in Indian agriculture. “The crisis is indeed real” but instead of approaching everything from a singular narrative, the review issue explores the multiple ways in which it is experienced by those living and working in Indian agriculture. The introduction to the series argues that even though the recent protests appear to be very similar to the farmers’ movements of the 1980s, they can be conceptualised very differently if we locate them in history, political economy, and social dynamics of rural life.

Perhaps the most obvious and critical indicator of this shift over the past two decades or so is the significant decline in the weight of agriculture in the national economy. Its contribution to the national income has come down to around 15% from more than half during the early decades after independence. The urban and non-farm sector of the economy has not only seen a corresponding expansion but has also been growing at a much faster pace than the agrarian economy. Though the experience of change is very diverse across regions of the country, the share of non-farm sources of income and employment has been growing almost everywhere in rural India. Even those who own agricultural land and cultivate it themselves often also have other occupation, a process that has come to be known as pluri-activity. A much smaller proportion of rural households today depends exclusively on agriculture (Datta 2016). Incomes from non-farm sources exceed those from agriculture even for the rural economy of India.

3) Structural changes in Indian agriculture

Several researchers have, over the decades, tried to study the structural shifts or inadequacies that have caused India’s prolonged agrarian crisis. For instance, in his book Populism and Power: Farmers’ Movement in Western India, 1980–2014, D N Dhanagare maps the history of farmers’ protests from several parts of the country for the last two decades. Through a study of these movements, Dhanagare tried to suggest that the agrarian crisis in post-Green Revolution India was symptomatic of a structural turning point for the agrarian economy.

Dhanagare’s premise is the transformation, in the 1980s, of the peasant into the farmer. The marked feature of this transformation, he explains, was that the producer ceased to be dependent on the landlord and instead was now dependent on the market. Although a majority of the producers in this new regime were subsistence farmers, they nevertheless found themselves in league with the minority, who controlled large tracts of land and cultivated predominantly for the market.

4) Indebtedness and farmer suicides

In 2006, Srijit Mishra wrote an article detailing the problem of farmer suicides in Maharashtra. A decade later, farmer suicides continue unabated and farm loan debts are thought to be the primary reason behind them. In the last couple of years, it has been suspected that the number of farmer suicides has increased greatly. However, in the absence of sufficient data, this hypothesis cannot be verified.

A suicide is the complex interplay of multiple factors. A number of risk factors can coexist and one particular individual can come across all or none of the risk factors identified by us. In our sample, the minimum number of risk factors is two and the maximum is nine. The most common was indebtedness (86 per cent). From all those indebted, 44 per cent were harassed for repayment of loans and in 33 per cent of cases the creditor insisted on immediate repayment (Table 4). Next in importance is the fall in economic position (74 per cent). Indebtedness per se will not lead to a fall in economic position, but if it reaches a stage that will lead to a sale of assets then it can be associated with a fall in economic position. Similarly, a fall in economic position can also lead to greater reliance on credit and thereby increasing the debt burden.

5) The state as a venture capitalist

When land acquisitions are made with vested interests, the government is far more likely to face resistance. In an article published this year, Manjit Sharma showed how in 2005-06, land acquisition in Punjab sparked violent protests, because the farmers felt that the state was acting against their interests, and in favour of industrialists.

Due to a paradigm shift of policies from land reform to land acquisition, the welfare state emerged as a “venture capitalist.” On the one hand, the state grabbed fertile land forcefully and, on the other, remained insensitive in handling issues and grievances of affected farmers. Even after a decade, the acquired land is lying unused. The voice of affected people is not heard by the establishment. The chief minister organises Sangat Darshan programmes in villages, but no one listens to the voices of the affected peasantry. This exposes the political rhetoric of the state. Lack of rehabilitation and absence of alternate livelihood leaves people in an economically inefficient and socially suboptimal situation.

6) Are support prices adequate?

In Maharashtra, especially, minimum support price for farmers and other forms of state assistance have been alarmingly short, though this rift is hidden by the state’s high per capita income. Amit Narkar has pointed out that part of the reason that the state of agriculture in Maharashtra is so dire is because the state government shows a clear preference for cash crops.

Sugar cane has been favoured over any other crop by successive state governments and the classes that control state polity. The fate of cereals and pulses, and of the farmers growing these crops, are left to the market forces, with very little state support in the form of MSP, procurement and risk covers. The fact that the state’s majority landowners are small and marginal (having operational holding size of up to 2 hectares [ha]), protective irrigation and state support for food crops become essential for their survival. However, this is completely neglected in the state’s agriculture policy.

One of the primary demands that have been raised by farmers is farm loan waivers. A more detailed discussion on farm loan waivers can be found in our previous reading list, Agrarian Distress in India: A Short Reading List

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