Amid agrarian crisis, a bit of advice for government and urban elites: Ignore farmers at your own peril

History is still in the air on the streets of Delhi. Days after the Kisan Mukti Morcha, its citizenry continues to discuss the historic protest. Taxi drivers and security guards grow grave when you ask them about it. "Bahut zaroori tha (It was very necessary)," says one. "They all claim to be the saviors of farmers, but not a single motherf***er does a single thing to solve their problems," says another.

When I ask them about the conditions in the villages they have come from, they tell me the situation is bad. To a man, the respondents of my brief informal survey all voted for the BJP in 2014. "Everyone had such high hopes from Narendra Modi, that this guy will do something for the country." Now, their disappointment has soured into anger. They heap torrents of abuse on the dispensation, saying it is no better than those in the past. One says, "What happened when Modi went after kaala dhan? Did the rich stand in long queues to withdraw money? No, only the poor suffered." Another says, "The small businessmen who provided us with employment found themselves unable to pay us wages, so we had to go hungry."

The BJP is in power, so it is the target of this anger, but the roots of our agrarian crisis and the apathy of the elites — both those in power and us, the English-speaking urban elite — run far deeper than the shifting tides of political fortunes. If they are angry now, one can imagine how deeply and desperately they had hoped for deliverance, how ardently they had pinned their hopes for a different kind of leader upon Modi. According to estimates, 49 percent of land-owning farmers voted for the BJP in 2014.

File image of farmer protests in Delhi. Firstpost/Hema Vaishnavi

File image of farmer protests in Delhi. Firstpost/Hema Vaishnavi

The Opposition to the present government may have rallied to the march, but there is a distinct sense that it is the farmers who have achieved Opposition unity in this case, rather than the march itself being an achievement of the Opposition. Indeed, farmers are sceptical about the Opposition’s participation, seeing it as opportunistic rather than sincere. Instead, they hope the current government will act. Is this because they are Modi bhakts? Or because they buy into his Congress-mukt rhetoric? No.

Sella Purumar, who has gained attention for standing with skulls of friends who have allegedly committed suicide, says, "It is not because the prime minister will get an emotional jolt from the protest. If our demands are considered in the Winter Session of the Parliament, it will be because they cannot ruin their national political standing before the 2019 General Election."

This lack of partisanship is visible across states and territories. This report on the Chhattisgarh elections is instructive in that regard: Apart from scepticism regarding both the BJP and the Congress, it also speaks of how farmers took steps to resolve their drought crisis themselves.

When it comes to on-ground results, farmers are in a precarious enough situation that policy declarations, or even budgetary allocations, are not going to cut it. Mathurabai, an Adivasi farmer, first marched 200 kilometres to Mumbai in the month of March, demanding the title to the land her family had worked on for generations. The State and Central governments both made promises to solve the issue of land rights within six months. When they failed to do so, Mathurabai marched again, this time all the way to Delhi.

The two biggest upsets in Indian electoral history have come at the hands of rural voters. The urban elite was convinced of a Congress victory in 1977, seeing no future beyond Indira Gandhi, and even voted for her; it was the rural vote that cost Gandhi the election. Again, in 2004, it was the rural vote that defeated the narrative of "India Shining". The rural vote has repeatedly shown that it cannot be fooled or appeased by tall promises and cults of personality. The reason we missed the clear signs of distress, and its electoral consequences in those two elections, is in part because of our inattention to news from rural India. Indeed, as P Sainath reminds us, only 0.67 percent of front page news was on rural subjects over the past five years.

This failure to track rural journalists also allows governments to get away with any number of false promises, mis-allocated budgets and wastes of taxpayer money. Luckily, we have a cohort of courageous and committed journalists who are getting the news out online. They deserve both our attention and our support. If you read them, you’ll see how far removed they are from the asinine bourgeois debates. In their work, we are reminded of an older brand of Indian politics: Deep scepticism of those in power, along with sharp critique and wry sarcasm.

When did we switch from this healthy wariness to ruinous fandom? These rural journalists write in a pragmatic vein because their readers are no less so. One security guard in Delhi told me, "We weren't born yesterday. You're the ruling party, you're in power, we know you need to make your money to fight elections for the next twenty years. But at least get something done while you're looting. If you don't, we will kick you out. It's as simple as that."

In the age of the Internet, we are no longer tied down to getting our news from daily newspapers. If they are failing to cover rural stories, we have resources like the People’s Archive or Rural India (PARI), run by Sainath, as well as the rural journalism portal Khabar Lahariya. On its part, Firstpost too published a series of articles titled 'The Marathwada Diaries' that captures the woes faced by farmers in the region.

Farmers have muscled their way into our consciousness with their march. Let us make sure they stay there.

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Updated Date: Dec 05, 2018 15:16:58 IST

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