In July, Yogendra Yadav, the national president of the Swaraj India party, embarked on a nationwide movement accompanied by activists and hundreds of farmers. Under the banner of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Co-ordination Committee, a coalition of more than 150 farmer unions across the country, the yatra was planned to raise the twin demands of a complete waiver of agriculture loans as well as fair and remunerative prices for farm produce.

The journey began in Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh on July 6, a month after five protesting farmers had been killed in police firing. On September 23, it concluded its South India leg and over the next two months, plans to cover northern and eastern states.

Speaking to Scroll.in on the road from Mysore, where a protest was held on September 22, to Pandavpura in Karnataka, Yadav explained why this could be the beginning of a historic struggle by peasants. He also said he was sceptical about the stimulus package that the Centre is expected to announce to revive the economy after India’s Gross Domestic Product hit a three-year a low of 5.7% in the April-June quarter.

What were your objectives when you started the yatra in Mandsaur?
Let me first begin by placing this in the larger overall context. We are passing through a historic phase for Indian farmers’ movement. Historic because the farmers face a triple crisis today: economic – of not being able to obtain income; ecological – where a certain form of agriculture which was advocated to them as progressive agriculture has reached a dead end; and existential – a crisis to life itself, manifested in farmer suicides.

In situations of this kind, either there used to be an exodus of farmers or a farmer rebellion. Today we are witnessing both in our country: large scale migration, but now it has reached a point of suicides. If not suicide, then a farmer struggle – beginning with the Maharashtra farmers call for a strike in June which very soon snowballed into [protests at] Madhya Pradesh, leading to the infamous incident of firings on farmers in Mandsaur, which ignited farmer struggles in different parts of the country. So far, at least five or six states have seen very serious, organised protests. So what we are witnessing is the beginning of something that can only be described as a peasant rebellion. The only question is: Will this rebellion take the form of one unified struggle or will it remain scattered and be suppressed in different parts of the country?

Despite scattered protests, during election time, we see farmers time and again voting on religious or caste lines. Why do you hope this time will be different?
What gives me hope this time are two things. First, all five or six big protests I spoke about are very close together in time, which creates simultaneity. Second, they are being run by different organisations, but the demands are actually common. Every single protest boils down to two demands: fair and remunerative price and complete loan waiver or freedom from debt. This de-facto common agenda has emerged in the formation of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Co-ordination Committee, bringing together more than 150 farmer organisations. So, there is a possibility. A lot of work needs to be done but if there was one opportunity for creating a nation-wide farmers’ struggle, today is that moment.

Speaking of the commonalities, was the one central demand of loan waivers more a strategic choice? Because loan waivers are not a solution to the larger agricultural crisis, as you have said yourself.
Absolutely, and I have no hesitation in saying that even today. Loan waiver, by itself, is not a solution to someone who has no income. That person would again fall in debt. For us the loan waiver is critical because it is the completion of our primary demand: a minimum, guaranteed income for the farmer. Now, the problem is, suppose you give the farmer a certain income which meets the basics, it is of no use to him because much of that income will go towards servicing of debt. And this cycle will continue. So you have to break this cycle once. Unless a loan waiver takes place, income alone has no meaning and unless income is assured, loan waiver is of no use. So these are twin demands, not two different demands.

You’ve called the Modi administration the most anti-farmer government in India’s history. But wasn’t retail price inflation – which was cited as the reason for not raising Minimum Support Prices of food crops – the stick used to beat the previous UPA regime as well? What is an economic solution for balancing farmers’ incomes with the need for affordable food?
This is not the first anti-farmer government of this country. In fact, the post-Independence Indian state has been anti-farmer, which has been inherited by all governments.

What would happen if the farmer gets his basic income? Of course, the prices of many food grains will go up. What would happen to the urban poor? What would happen to farmers who are also net buyers? This is where the State comes in. This is a part of the responsibility of the welfare state – to shoulder that burden. But that burden of serving the poor cannot be passed on to the farmer. This is what we’ve been doing for the past 50 years.

I’ve never heard someone arguing that because schools and hospitals need bricks, let us ensure that the entire brick industry keeps its prices are low. The solution is the government goes and buys bricks and gives it to the schools and hospitals

It is the farmer’s responsibility to supply food but not the farmer’s responsibility to supply free food. It is the government’s prerogative to decide which sections get cheap or free food. So I think there is something very mischievous about this equation: farmer versus the poor. And the result of this equation has been that over the years the terms of trade have systematically been loaded against agriculture. There is an expropriation from Indian agriculture, a net transfer of resources from the rural agrarian sector to the urban industrial centres, all in the name of serving the poor.

Swaraj India/via Facebook
Swaraj India/via Facebook

What do you make of Modi’s promise of doubling farmers’ incomes? It started as a promise to raise minimum support prices, but goalposts have been shifted.
As I keep saying, this doubling of income is a joke. On [minimum support] prices, the government makes a promise – not just in the election speeches but formally in their manifesto. Then in an immediate reversal, they submit an affidavit in the Supreme Court [saying that doubling prices is not possible].

Then comes this promise of doubling farmers’ income. For the first 10 months or so, the government did not even respond to this elementary question from economists: are we speaking of the nominal income? Inflation alone will double this income. Or are we speaking about real income? This would of course be a great thing. So, after a year the government grudgingly says real income.

Having made such a big promise, they don’t know what to do with it. It’s complete non-seriousness. They say they have appointed committees to explore what needs to be done. Those committees discuss everything under the sun except prices, which is crucial to raising income. Then the minister of agriculture says the states should form a policy for doubling incomes, passing the responsibility to those who surely hadn’t been consulted when the prime minister made this promise. Yesterday [on September 21] the prime minister said that actually, the farmers themselves should do it. The farmers should form cooperatives and so on.

Even outside of agriculture, we’re seeing a slowdown in the Indian economy. Some economists say the need of the hour is a stimulus package from the government by increasing spending on rural infrastructure. What should the government focus on in the rural economy?
I’m always a little suspicious when I hear that the economy needs a boost. Of course, it does. The trouble is, who is this animal called the economy? I fear that in the name of “The Economy”, once again those who have done pretty well for themselves will get a boost. So it will be a boost to some road builders and the construction business in the name of employment. It could mean some doles to manufacturers. We’ve had a long history of the poor being used as a shield to pass on benefits to the wealthy. And I fear some such game is going to take place again. I honestly do not know, given the nature of the challenge, what the formula to improve it all in 18 months is. The honest answer would be none. There is no such formula.

To begin with, what could the government do? I would say, one, a complete farm loan waiver. Second, instituting some mechanism for deficit payment to the farmers so that they at least recover the minimum support price declared by the government. This should be a major boost because more income in the rural areas means more consumption. Third, it must keep the statutory requirement of the NREGA [National Rural Employment Guarantee Act] which the government has been running away from. This would mean spending at least another Rs 30,000 crore in NREGA. Last, I think there needs to be a very major boost to small scale manufacturers. Lots of concessions to small scale manufacturers should be in order. To my mind, these steps would boost the economy. But I doubt any of them will be done.