On a recent discussion on NDTV about the controversial new farm laws, activist Yogendra Yadav noted that some well-meaning agricultural experts who supported the new legislations were reading them “somewhat innocently”. But farmers and their leaders could “smell the political intent of the laws”, which they fear will leave them at the mercy of corporations, he said.

Why is this happening?

For the “innocent experts” and others who share their view of development, a dominant theme is that capital investment, private-sector participation, scientific expertise, technological futurism (and saviourism) need to come together as a formulaic package to catalyse rural and agrarian development.

In this formulation, politics is viewed with suspicion. Experts consider the role of “facts” in decision-making as being superior to values related to democracy, ecology and equity.

To them, politics is messy and must be left to politicians while experts work with sincerity to bring growth, progress and prosperity to the people. This view was reflected most recently when NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant declared guilelessly during an online discussion that India was “too much of a democracy” to be able to effect “tough reforms”.

A simplistic view

This separation of facts from values leads to the role of experts being depoliticised and simultaneously allow them to take a narrow technical view of the problems at hand.

This reductionism enables them to ride roughshod over a complicated welter of issues and to narrow them down to a set of problems that could easily be fixed by employing tools from their disciplines. For instance, in this view, poverty is seen as an engineering problem that could be solved using technology and innovation.

The experts end up providing technical fixes rather than comprehensive solutions. They remain “innocent” of the dangers by failing to take the ability of science to change the material and social world seriously.

For instance, in the case of the new farm laws, do we know how the Central government concluded that bypassing mandis run by Agricultural Produce Market Committees is the best possible solution to make the agricultural markets efficient in India?

Why couldn’t the mandis itself be made competitive enough by incentivising more players to come there to participate in auctions? Bypassing the mandis seems easier (and faster) to the experts than working with multiple state governments to make the mandis competitive.

Farmers protest the new laws at Delhi's Singhu border. Credit: PTI

On their part, some experts claim that the consultations have been going on at least since 2003 when the Model Act on agriculture marketing was first discussed by the National Democratic Alliance government. However, there is no correlation between those consultations and the controversial farm laws. Those consultations are being used to provide a semblance of legitimacy to the recently passed legislation.

With this as the context, it isn’t surprising that experts are reading the texts of the three laws “innocently”. In fact, it would have been surprising if they had actually read the political signals and other values written within these laws.

Ever-changing destination

Across the divide, why are the protesting farmers, who are seemingly not experts either in law or economics, “smelling” the true intent of the three laws? That answer also lies within the dominant discours.

The futurism promised by the dominant discourse has not been fulfilled. A large section of rural, agrarian residents have found themselves hopping and fumbling towards a promised future without actually arriving at one.

This ever-changing destination has been a recurrent phenomenon. In this endeavour, several socio-economic shocks induced through centralised decision-making since demonetisation have aggravated their concerns. These various “reforms” and decisions have combined to shape their lives.

Of course, smelling the intent of the laws is one thing – it is quite another to come out and protest against them. Mobilisation and protests involve the creation of a shared identity based on a homogeneous set of demands. As is apparent from the statements of farmers sitting at Delhi’s borders under harsh winter conditions, protests require organisational efforts and coordination among a large number of people.

They require people to leave their economic and social security momentarily and willingly to participate in protests. Besides, protests are inherently fragile.

It is not as if farmers have failed to detect the signals about declining returns from agriculture. It is about under what conditions (such as caste and class, geography, social and cultural factors) that those signals at individual and community levels get consolidated and result in protests. Some of these conditions also shape the kind of demands protesters make on their rulers.

The role of the media is also important. Amidst the dearth of rural and agrarian reporting, the news media neither detect the incipient signals from rural residents nor can it reflect their grievances. This leaves farmers no option but to take to the streets to protest against unjust laws.

Farmers in Punjab had been protesting since September. But their grievances only became newsworthy when they decided to shift their protests to Delhi early in December.

Similarly, coverage of protests in states such as Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala has been almost non-existent in the national news media.

It is high time we recognise the politics of expertise and shed our elitism to consider the possibility that what the protesting farmers have identified is radical interdisciplinarity. When looked at from the perspective of protesting farmers, the “reforms” and policy decisions break down disciplinary silos as well as the implicit (and artificial) hierarchy between disciplines that is itself a creation of the dominant discourse.

For the farmers, these combine to radically to shape their lives. That’s the smell that Yogendra Yadav was talking about. And that’s what our “innocent” experts, thinking within their disciplinary silos, fail to appreciate.

Nikhit Kumar Agrawal is a PhD. student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles.