On Tuesday, as the Bharatiya Kisan Union sought to lead a farmer’s protest march from Uttar Pradesh into Delhi, they were stopped by the Delhi and Uttar Pradesh police. Barricades were set up and tear gas and water cannons used to prevent the marchers from entering Delhi in order to protest the economic distress that farmers are now facing in India. The blockading soon led to violence with reports coming in of both farmers as well as policemen being injured.
The financial distress faced by cultivators is the Indian economy’s elephant in the room. The steadily worsening productivity of the agricultural sector is not getting the attention it deserves. Farms in India are tiny and getting smaller. As per the 2015 agricultural census, the average landholding size has been estimated at 1.15 hectare and is in decline since 1970-’71.
To add to that, farming in India has fallen severely behind in adopting of modern techniques. Only 46% of Indian farmland can access modern irrigation. When it comes to India’s largest crop, rice, Chinese farmers manage a productivity nearly three times that of their Indian counterpart. Vietnamese, Indonesian and Bangladeshi rice farming is almost twice as productive as India – the figures are 233%, 216% and 183% respectively.
Farming in India is often not viable, and what makes it worse is that the country has been unable to set up industries to absorb people who want to leave agriculture, and as a result there are no alternative employment opportunities.
Much of this distress has to do with governmental neglect. On the one hand, the Union government often prioritises consumer welfare over farmers’ commercial interests by fixing import-export rules in order to keep food prices low. On the other hand, the government has made no investments in technology or educating the farmers with an aim to increase productivity.
This neglect of the farmer reaches an apogee when even their right to protest is sought to be denied. Peaceful assembly and free speech are natural rights in any democracy and it is unclear how the Union government could stop farmers from assembling in Delhi in order to draw attention to their plight.
Farmers in India were once the bedrock of the country’s democratic politics. Their concerns remained the focal point for Mohandas Gandhi, whose birth anniversary India celebrated on Tuesday. It was also the birth anniversary of Lal Bahadur Shastri, the country’s second prime minister, who famously saluted the farmers with the slogan Jai Kisan. Leave alone working to fix their problems, the government now seems unwilling to even simply listen to them.