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Where is the new crop of Indian farmer leaders?

Throughout Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s term in office, agrarian distress has been an evergreen theme. The collapse of prices of most crops, particularly pulses, fruits, vegetables and milk, forced farmers to come on to the streets of Delhi and Mumbai. There have been violent protests in various other parts of the country. Loans, drought, input prices: the list of farmer grievances is a long one.

 Where is the new crop of Indian farmer leaders?

Tamil Nadu farmers' protest in Delhi. PTI/file

However, the country is yet to see the emergence of a credible, pan-India farmer leadership. The tallest kisan leader, Charan Singh, espoused farmers’ cause from the 1960s to 1980s. He is still remembered in Uttar Pradesh for his action to dismiss 28,000 agitating patwaris who were seen as colluding with zamindars. Sharad Joshi’s Shetkari Sanghatana and MD Nanjundaswamy’s Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha were also active in the 1980s. Joshi was intellectually the ablest among farm leaders. He coined the term ‘Bharat vs India’ and focussed on remunerative prices for farmers for sugarcane, cotton and onion. His heart, however, was not in politics.

Coming from the same region in western Uttar Pradesh as Charan Singh, Mahendra Singh Tikait enjoyed huge support in the farming community. In 1988, he organised an agitation of about five lakh farmers at the boat club in New Delhi. Raju Shetti of Swabhimani Paksha was an MP in the outgoing Lok Sabha from Hatkanangle, Kolhapur. He has been a strong voice of farmers but he also does not have a nationwide following.

The social significance of farmer leadership cannot be overstated. Charan Singh and Tikait were pioneers of Hindu-Muslim unity in western UP. In 1989, Tikait led a movement for safe return of a Muslim girl who had been abducted. Continuing this tradition, Charan Singh’s son Ajit Singh has been working hard to heal the wounds of communal poison, which reached a climax in Muzaffarnagar in 2013-14.

Farm leaders play a critical role in unifying farmers on the basis of common programme rather than on communal or caste agenda. Part of the reason for the lack of a strong leadership is that farmers in different parts of India face very different challenges—some of which involve contradictions between different sections. Scarcity of water is a perennial issue for farmers in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Telangana. Falling water table bothers farmers of Punjab, Haryana and western UP. In Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and the Northeast, procurement at minimum support price (MSP) is virtually absent. Sugarcane farmers in Uttar Pradesh face enormous delay in payment by sugar mills. Building a common thread for all farmers is no easy task.

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A recent development is the formation of the All India Kisan Coordination Committee (AIKCC), an umbrella body of 191 farmer organisations from different parts of the political spectrum. Its collective leadership has the potential to represent interests of farmers from various regions of India.

Yogendra Yadav, Avjit Saha and VM Singh have been at the forefront of AIKCC. Yadav has effectively used his academic credentials coupled with social media to continuously highlight farmers’ issues ranging from MSP to loan waiver. AIKCC has also been supporting the private members bills moved by Shetti for one-time debt write-off and making MSP a legal right.

AIKCC has the potential to provide a platform on which farmer organisations can strive to reach a consensus on issues like genetically modified seeds, India’s subsidy-reduction commitments to the World Trade Organization and so on. But this kind of a system also has limitations when it comes to electoral politics. The cost of contesting polls has been rising. The Election Commission’s limit of `70 lakh for expenditure in a parliamentary constituency is hardly taken seriously by anyone. It must be difficult for farm leaders to raise money. Industry captains would not oblige them and anonymous electoral bonds are of no use to them.

So, we should not expect emergence of farm leaders having all-India appeal. The crisis in Indian agriculture is unlikely to subside a day too soon. Farm leaders have to realise that Indian MSPs cannot continue to be much above the global prices for a long time. They have to embrace scientific and technological advancement. They have to prepare farmers for climate change. They need to embrace the idea of fewer people depending on agriculture. Agitation alone cannot be the basis for a durable farmer politics.

(Siraj Hussain retired as Union Agriculure Secretary. Currently, he is Visiting Senior Fellow with ICRIER)

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Updated Date: Apr 08, 2019 15:08:45 IST

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