Strike at the Root

Let the farmers stand in parliament and address the nation: P Sainath

Bharat Tiwari
27 November, 2018

On 29 and 30 November, farmers from across India will gather in Delhi and march towards the parliament to demand a special three-week joint session on India’s agrarian crisis. The march—named the Kisan Mukti March, or Farmers’ Freedom March—has been called by the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, an umbrella group of at least 130 farmer organisations, formed in June 2018. Along with one lakh farmers and agricultural labourers, the two-day protest is also expected to see participation from middle class citizens, walking in solidarity with farming communities.

Mounting debts, annual droughts and farmer suicides have marked the story of Indian farmers for decades. In November 2004, the government constituted the National Commission on Farmers, under the chairmanship of professor MS Swaminathan, to examine the causes of farmers’ distress and recommend ways to resolve it. Between 2004 and 2006, the commission submitted five reports. None have been implemented.

In recent years, farmers have begun to collectively assert their rights through public protest. In March this year, at least 35,000 farmers walked 182 kilometres from Nashik to Azad Maidan in Mumbai, demanding land rights, loan waivers and support for crop losses. Taking this forward, the Kisan Mukti March in Delhi aims to engage the people’s representatives in a long-overdue conversation about what concerns India’s farmers.

In an interview with Aathira Konikkara, a reporting fellow at The Caravan, P Sainath, the founder-editor of People’s Archive of Rural India, discusses this new assertion, what middle class support means, and why farmers need to be heard on the floor of the parliament. “When you hold a special session, you are telling your farmers that you care,” Sainath said. “And you are focusing the attention of the entire nation on a crisis that has devastated the Indian countryside.”

Aathira Konikkara: Do you think the farmer’s march to the parliament is inspired by the huge turnout at the Kisan Long March in Maharashtra?
P Sainath: The Kisan Long March in Maharashtra inspired people all over the country. I spent three weeks in Punjab in April, very shortly after the Mumbai march. In really small villages—parts of Muktsar, Bathinda, Sangrur—farmers were asking me, “Tell us about the Nashik-Mumbai march.” They have all heard of it. They were inspired by it.

Also, what was very inspiring about the Nashik-Mumbai march was that for the first time in 36 years of being based out of Mumbai, I saw the middle classes show up in large numbers, in several thousands. Doctors from JJ Hospital came up and started treating all those with injuries from walking 182 kilometres [with] bleeding, blistered feet. Businessmen came out of Crawford market and left 1,000 pairs of footwear, very quietly, without saying anything, because they had been moved by pictures and photographs of women with bleeding feet walking that distance. Lawyers came out and started asking if they could file any PILs on behalf of the farmers. These were not legal sharks; these were young lawyers who were moved by the plight of the farmers and wanted to do something. I think that was a turning point; that the middle classes were finally responding to the struggles of their fellow citizens and for the first time, connecting with farmers and labourers.

The march [in Delhi] is called and organised by the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee. The AIKSCC is a forum of a large number of farmers’ groups and organisations. I was very moved by what I saw in Mumbai and by the spontaneity and the interest, particularly how interested the young students, middle classes were and there was serious concern in them about their fellow human beings. I had written a piece saying we probably need something like this in Delhi where the power resides. A lot of farm organisations endorsed it.

When it comes to the interest of the corporate class, in one week, you call a special joint session of parliament at midnight to pass the GST bill. In the 14 years that the Swaminathan reports have existed, you could not find one hour to discuss the reports in parliament.

AK: What explains this apathy, this cavalier attitude of the political class towards the farming communities?
PS: I don’t think you should say political class as a whole. The Mumbai-Nashik march was organised by the All India Kisan Sabha which does not claim to be non-political. The dominant sections of the political class are not apathetic. They are hostile. Look at the fraudulent promises made again and again before elections.

Now, the BJP government got huge number of votes promising implementation of the Swaminathan Commission recommendations on MSP [minimum support price]. In 2014, that was the promise they made. In 2015, [after] less than one year in power, they filed affidavits in courts and gave an RTI reply saying, this cannot be done, [that Swaminathan recommendations cannot be implemented]. MSP of cost of production, C2 + 50 percent cannot be done; it’s not feasible. [The commission recommended that farmers be paid 50 percent over the comprehensive cost of production, referred to as C2.] They even wrote in the RTI reply that it would distort the markets. The fact that it is distorting the lives of millions of Indians is not an issue.

In 2016, [the agriculture minister,] Radha Mohan Singh, declared that they have never made such a promise. In 2017, they said that we have gone far ahead of the Swaminathan Commission—please look at the model that [the chief minister] Shivraj Chouhan has created in Madhya Pradesh. They got two big economists to talk about the Madhya Pradesh model of agricultural growth.

In 2018, [the finance minister,] Mr Jaitley, in his budget speech, said, “Yes, we did make a promise and we have implemented it.” In 2018, Mr Nitin Gadkari, [the minister of road, transport, and highways] said, “We made all sorts of promises [during the 2014 election]. Humko koi ummeed nahi tha ki hum jeetenge chunaav.” [We did not think we would win the elections].

So in 2014, ’15, ’16, ’17 and ’18, [the BJP government took] five different positions. He says that we have already implemented it, which is a total lie because MSP cost of production can be calculated in several different ways. They are calculating it in a way that makes it 40 percent less than what would happen if you actually applied the Swaminathan Commission reports’ recommendations.

We have sat by and watched, while in 20 years, between 1995 and 2015, 3,10,000 farmers committed suicide according to the NCRB [National Crime Records Bureau]. That is a gross underestimate, but it is a hideous figure. The thing is so bad, that for two years now, the Modi government is not publishing the NCRB figures. They leak little pieces called provisional data in the parliament. Provisional and final can be very different numbers, right? So they have suppressed and censored the publication of NCRB farmer suicide data for two years, so that all kinds of bogus figures can be supplied by state government revenue departments. There are giant questions of not just economics but also moral questions involved in how we have remained silent through this period.

You are asking about the apathy. Also ask about all our apathy. Not just under the Modi government but even previously, the media celebrates what they think are great reforms which actually end up taking agriculture out of the hands of the communities and placing it into the hands of corporations. The farmer doesn’t control the cost, neither of production, nor the price realised on the market because he works under regulation of fixed prices.

The apathy has come from a vision that wants to hand over, which says that [there are] too many people in agriculture, let’s take them out of agriculture and we should be like the US where only two percent of people are in agriculture and farming. And corporate agriculture will do everything that we require in India. When you throw 40 or 50 percent people out of agriculture, where do you take them?

Have you created a single job that I know of in the last 20 years? You have got a serious employment crisis. You are throwing people out of livelihoods that, however miserable, have kept them going and sending them to towns and villages and other places in search of jobs that are not there.

AK: What is the plan over the two days of the march?
PS: On 29 [November] morning, farmers will enter the city from four directions—north, west, east, south. They will march between 12 and 24 kilometres to Ramlila. On 29 evening, there will be a cultural programme. Many theatre groups will be performing—for and of the farmers. On 30th morning, there will be a march towards parliament, which I expect will be stopped, by the Parliament Street or any [other] road. Then in the afternoon, political leaders have been invited by the AIKSCC to come and declare their support. You have seen the petition online on, supporting the call for a special session? We will ask every MP and parliamentarian to also sign it. They all claim to be pro-farmer. Let them sign [and] put their signatures where their mouths are.

In a meeting in Delhi, a very amorphous body, a forum called Nation for Farmers was born [in August 2018]. Interestingly, in city after city, town after town, Nation for Farmers chapters have sprung up. These are not the farmers’ organisations. These include groups called Techies for Farmers in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra. They include Doctors for Farmers in three–four different states. Those of them who will manage to come to Delhi will be behind the banner, Nation for Farmers. Doctors, teachers, students, lawyers, scientists, when all of them get together with farmers and labourers, I think that counts as a nation for farmers, no? We are not the organisers of this march. We are a solidarity group.

Autorickshaw drivers of Dombivli, [in Maharashtra,] through their union, have declared themselves to be autorickshaw drivers for farmers. They will give everyone who sits in their auto [on 25 November], petitions to sign to the president, calling for a special session. The All India Bank Employees’ Association in Maharashtra has sent copies of the petition to every rural branch, not only for the union activists to sign but to get every farmer who visits the rural branches to also sign. Several of these people are known to me. Several are unknown to us. It means that there is a sense that something has gone badly wrong and we have to stand with the farmer.

AK: If a session of parliament is convened, what are the key issues you hope would be discussed?
PS: I wrote in June that we need a three-week special session of parliament, to discuss exclusively, the agrarian crisis and related issues. The Swaminathan Commission reports have not been discussed in all these years. So discuss that for three or four days. One of the first things we have to do is to pass the two bills drafted by the AIKSCC. One is on MSP and one is on loans [and freedom from indebtedness]. Those two bills are already drafted and 21 political parties have promised that they will support when it comes up in parliament.

So for three days, you discuss the mega water crisis in this country, which is much larger than a drought. For three days, you discuss what kind of agriculture do we want 20 years from now—corporate-driven or community-driven, chemical-driven or agro-ecological in nature? And three days, let the victims of the agrarian crisis—from Wayanad [in Kerala] to Mahabubnagar [in Telangana], from Vidarbha [in Maharashtra] to Chattisgarh—stand on the floor of the central hall of parliament and address the nation on what that crisis has done to them. I believe that this one time, the nation will really want to know. For once, it will be true.

AK: Besides discussing the two bills, do you expect any other outcomes in terms of legislative action, if such a session is held?
PS: You have to have a bill on water. You have to say that water cannot be privatised which is what we are doing. And that inequalities in water [access]—caste, class and gender—must be addressed. And you must have one on the larger credit frameworks. For instance, you have to raise public investment in agriculture. It’s been declining now for two decades.

The most important point is, when you hold a special session, you are telling your farmers that you care. And you are focusing the attention of the entire nation on a crisis that has devastated the Indian countryside. We don’t think that two bills or one slogan or one meet in Delhi is a culmination or an achievement. We think of the march in Delhi as a historic beginning, not a culmination. Because the way those groups have sprung up means that farmers and labourers will now appear in public discourse in the middle class. There should be local chapters of citizens for farmers.

AK: You have said that there was a private member’s bill on women farmers’ rights that was introduced in 2011 but it lapsed.
PS: This was the Women Farmers Rights and Entitlements Bill introduced in parliament by no less than professor Swaminathan himself, as a private member’s bill. Nobody touched it. It lapsed. By custom, we don’t allow women the recognition as farmer. She is the farmer’s wife, right?

Women farmers are denied property rights, they are denied ownership of land. Barely eight percent of the women in this country hold land in their own deeds. You cannot solve the agrarian crisis if you do not engage with the rights and entitlements of women farmers. Women farmers and women farm labourers do a bulk of work in agriculture in this country. You cannot evade the issues of the section that is working the most in agriculture and hope to solve your crisis.

Likewise, you must equally affirm the rights to land of Dalit and Adivasi farmers—Dalit farmers who are never given a patta even when they are given land and Adivasi farmers who don’t know what the hell your patta means to them. They have been living here for 1000 years before your state came into existence. So all their rights must be legislated, formalised and made irreversible.

AK: The protests are being more assertive than before.
PS: Yes. For two years, farmers have been coming out for protests very strongly. For me, that is wonderful because it signals, I hope, a move from the acute demoralisation, which leads people to suicides. They have moved from that abyss of demoralisation to active protest and assertion of their rights. So don’t look at [the marches on] 29 and 30 November in isolation.

There have been three major marches in Delhi already this year. But this one, the middle classes will be present. It’s a question of what it’s about, why it’s happening. I ask the middle classes every time, when did you last talk to a farmer, when did you last sit down with a labourer? When did you ask them for their opinion on what’s happening? You might be surprised at what you learn.

This interview has been edited and condensed.