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The Impossible Burden

For those of us living in cities who only encounter food related crisis in the form of exorbitant prices at our neighbourhood mandis from time to time, the crisis faced by our farmers across the length and breadth of this vast country seems like an bewildering knot of complications and contradictions.

On one hand, we have access to a variety and quantum of food that is unprecedented, as is our ability to shell out prices that would have certainly encouraged our parent’s generation to turn ‘breatharian’. On the other hand, we have the spiralling instances of farmer suicides, which appear periodically like a stubborn smudge on our device screens, activating our instinct for rapid scrolling, almost like a car driving away in a big rush, turning everything around it into an unremarkable blur. If the human disaster of farmer suicides had us feeling our way through a sadness that we could not fully comprehend, the recent police shooting on a farmer protest which left many dead and several others injured in its aftermath, left us feeling astounded. Today, the story of their plight is emerging from state after state, like some kind of a morbid procession that we are all forced to watch. We are also forced to witness repeated attempts by administration, both state and central, to spin the tragedy away from anything that suggests state apathy, inaction or lack of coherent policy on their part. However, in a situation such as this to simply step aside and redirect all accountability to the government is fraught with ethical dilemmas as it takes the form of collective capitulation in the face of a genuine crisis.

Yet ever since Independence, the story of India’s progress, her ability to surmount great odds and the dream of a sustainable future were all located in the story of Indian agriculture and the desire in the heart of India’s farmers to carry the nation closer to its destiny. Whether it was Nehru’s famous proclamation immediately after independence where he sais “everything else can wait, but not agriculture” or Lal Bahadur Shastri’s rallying cry of “jai jawan, jai kisan” seemed to signal an intent that came from the very core of our nationalist heartland. India after independence was staring down the barrel of an impending food crisis. Our food-grain production was still a fraction what was needed to feed a population that was at 500 million and exploding. These were not empty slogans designed to appease, but attempts to motivate a stricken people, who during the course of our struggle for freedom had demonstrated their ability to organise and oppose the oppression of the British.

The story of the Bardoli satyagraha surprisingly finds barely any mention today, at a time when we seem to be rediscovering our ‘martyrs’ and showering ourselves with lost glory. Yet it was in this rural heartland of Gujarat where hope that ordinary people would stand united against the British regime, bore fruit. It was through the success of this satyagraha that Vallabhbahi Patel earned his title, the Sardar of Bardoli. The people of Bardoli showed an immense capacity for co-operation and restraint while they were subjected to land confiscations, loss of livelihood, cattle and property. Their faith in the leadership stayed true despite efforts by the local administration, who tried to discredit the leaders by way of labelling them as ‘outsiders’ fomenting trouble. In the words of Mahadev Desai who chronicled this movement, “if the victory dealt a severe moral blow to the British government, it added to the moral stature of the peasant throughout the length and breadth of India”. Through the early decades after independence it was this ‘moral stature’ that India’s national leadership invoked when a food crisis seemed to be at its doorstep and it is the same moral courage that seemed to steady the farmers’ hand as they ushered in the ‘green revolution’. This time the path to food Swaraj was led by the farmers of Punjab, who embraced new technologies, seeds, irrigation systems that would shape the future of agriculture in the decades to come and in doing so proved wrong doomsday theorists of the West that were widely acclaimed, abounding in titles such as ‘Famine 75’ and ‘The Population Bomb’.

It is not easy to comprehend how this sense of gradual affluence ushered in by the hands of our farmers gave way to this casual apathy that we have for them today. One could make a lazy argument, that by delivering the nation from a doomsday scenario and ensuring a future for our growing population, the farmers condemned themselves to apathy of the very masses that they kept alive. Even if this were to be true, at least to an extent (people do have short memories, history proves this often enough) it is important to understand how this unfolded in India. A look at some of the films produced by the state documentary arm, Films Division paints an interesting picture. These films document the transition from food scarcity to a new era of abundance, congratulating the Indian farmers and their efforts to secure the nation’s future. The films division documentaries were consumed in their black and white, grainy purdah, that showed untold devastation and destitution brought on by droughts, floods, crop failures in pre-independence India. I could only imagine us in the 70’s and 80’s sitting in our velvety movie theatre seats with small packets of popcorn in hand, cringing at the sight of malnourished farmers and animal carcasses. In these heroic stories set to Indian classical music, India fought back to rescue itself from the doorstep of destruction, to mark the dawn of hope and prosperity,. However, the dawn of hope seemed to coincide with the dawn of technology rather than a dramatically new imagination of the farmer. In the second half of the documentary Revolution Indian Agriculture, the imposing baritone of the narrator’s voice extolled the virtues of new technology, seeds, pesticides and more. Large farm machines filled the screen and the classical music temporarily receded, making way for the heavy metal of tractors and harvesters. While seemingly celebrating the story of the farmer, and by extension the nation, what these films actually did create two universes of imagination. One of the farmer, identified with scarcity and untold misery, the other of machines and industry, that equipped people and delivered them to a life of prosperity, one with greater guarantees of survival.

While the Green Revolution was meant to be the rebirth of the Indian farmer, its imagery seeded an alternate narrative, the miracle of industrialisation. What was meant to be a farmer’s movement, scripting a new India story, instead segued neatly into the other flagship project of the state — the promotion and popularising of new technology. What it inadvertently established was the unimaginable plight of being a farmer and the pitiful conditions under which rural India lived and worked. The arrival of industrial equipment and technology altered the productivity of their fields without altering their life in visible, material ways. In the film mentioned earlier, the narrator says’ “as if the smell and character of their soil had permeated the very being of the Indian farmers, who could not imagine new alternatives to their way of farming and living.’ Implied in this statement was the assertion that new imagination could only come from an external source, like technology. Through these stories urban India developed its own emotional vocabulary of pity and fear through which farmers were to be viewed in times to come. Through these instances of powerful superimpositions of technology over peasantry, the highway of national imagination was split into two alternate timelines.

In every era, difficult situations and challenges are dealt with in a manner that to the best of our knowledge at that time, address them most effectively only to be torn apart at a later point in history as flawed ideas that cause greater distress in the long run. Today, five decades after India heralded its agricultural miracle, the consequences have come home to roost. The effects of industrial farming have taken their toll on land and water resources in different ways. The same Punjab, that had served as the laboratory of our agro-miracle today has one of the highest suicide rates among farmers in the country. There are several other states where farmers are being driven to desperation, recently farmers from Tamil Nadu have been gathering in the national capital, to draw attention of the central government to their plight. We as a nation overcame a threat of great severity to our future, but that did not translate into a meaningful transformation of the farmer’s life or prospects. In our minds, they had become pitiable beings, bound to a harsh life, ill-equipped for any kind of heroic endeavour.

The last time any concerted effort was made to understand the state of Indian farmers was when the Indian government constituted up NCF and initiated a study under the Swaminathan Commission. The report is detailed and the number of measures suggested are quite staggering. It is difficult to assess how much or what aspect of these recommendations were actually initiated. Interventions have instead been driven by a ‘politics of pity’ where the collective conscience of the nation heaves a sigh of relief every time there is a governmental sign-off on loan waivers for distressed farmers. We have in the meantime internalised our imagination of the pitiable farmer, the Achilles heel of an otherwise triumphant nation, victims of inscrutable forces, who we at best feel sorry for. What is incredible is how over time we’ve taken a community that has shown courage, resolve and the ability to fight unthinkable odds and chosen to see them as weak and dispirited. Our eyes have been drawn to absence of a material progress and mistaken it for an absence of strength. We have seen them in terms that suit our purposes the best, people trapped in a cycle of eternal hardship with basic needs and demands, content to merely survive. Recently, at a seminar P Sainath, who has extensively documented the life and struggles of rural India spoke of how little we get to know about farmers through mainstream media. Its either the delirious optimism that accompanies a good monsoon or the unbridled pessimism that accompanies every farmer suicide. In between all we hear are the voices of government announcing ‘never before’ schemes to transform rural India. Sainath’s work demonstrates the possibility of operating somewhere in between these extremes, in a large open space that he calls ‘hope.’

Some people have chosen the path of hope rather than pity. They are in rural areas, training farmers in new sustainable techniques, documenting and working towards conservation of agricultural heritage, educating people on the harmful effects of pesticides, chemical fertilisers and GM seeds, introducing solar technology and more. The new connected age has made it easier than ever before to reach out and join hands with these individuals, organisations and partner them materially, physically and be becoming a media channel so that each one of these people and initiatives are amplified and reach more people in turn. If we acted out of a weakness yesterday, that led us to shrink away in pity, today we have the means to overcome those past weaknesses. It is simply unacceptable that today our schools lack a compulsory ‘field study’ of rural India. Parents pay school fees at a scale that would have been unthinkable even ten years ago. Every other day there are news reports on how education is being made more impactful through the use of technology and an updated curriculum. While we rediscover forgotten martyrs and saints, can we not erase from our awareness, how the majority of India still lives and makes a livelihood? The truth is, our years of pushing the farmer’s troubling reality away from our line of vision has been nothing but a bad loan that sits and accrues interest. The perceived burden of rural India, multiplied by the plight of farmers has only grown heavier with time, while we have become a little weaker. The only path to easing this burden is sharing it.

While there will always be the occasional motivated individual who sets out to make change happen, we must accept that we need them as much as they need us and our support. We need to think of each one of them as valuable intermediaries who bring us and our farmers closer to each other, help us understand what we can do and in the process let hope leak in and unburden one another.

Anirban Mukherjee
01 Nov 2017
Anirban Mukherjee Before moving to Futurebrands, Anirban spent 14 years in the advertising industry. Previously he was at McCann Erickson India and from 2002 onwards he led the Strategic Planning function of its Mumbai operation. His experience spans across an array of MNC's such as J&J, Coca-Cola, Motorola, Bacardi, Nestle, Lever's, Western Union, Citibank and several other Indian organizations and brands. He has addressed the Intel Global Marketing & Insights team at their DIAL 2010 seminar (Changing India / role of technology), Unbox Festival 2012 (Branding nations) and speaks at forums on fashion, changing India and design. His passion and versatility also finds a natural expression in music, which he explores as a part of his own experimental rock band.

Anirban Mukherjee
01 Nov 2017
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