15 September 2011

The farmer’s plight

The Indian farmer’s life is in danger. Not just now, but it has been so for a couple of hundred years.

Though we would like to believe that the widespread use of industrial fertilisers and pesticides, the introduction of genetically-modified (GM) seeds, the inefficient public distribution system of farm produce, the land-grabbing by the rich and the industrialised, the corrupt government officials, etc are all responsible for ruining the Indian farmer’s life – and, believe me, they all are – there is, perhaps, something of greater concern.

You see, there’s a history – a legacy you could say – to the farmer’s plight. It has been, and still is, a sort of built-in or inherent risk to the farmer’s profession and life... and future.

This risk has everything to do with human progress and our civilisation, and therefore difficult to resist or reverse. The reality, and the tragedy of it, is that the farmer is caught in a time trap. Neither can the farmer stop the accelerating force of industrial and post-industrial life that is squeezing the life-force out of him; nor can he go back to tribal living where life for the hunter-gatherer was, and still is, poor, brutal, dangerous and (ah yes) downright uncivilised.

There was a time when farming was a noble profession. Farmers grew the food we ate, hired workers for their fields and generated employment for many, were primarily responsible for our sustenance for generations to come, and helped build our modern societies. They were the creators of wealth of our nations. They shaped our social values. They were esteemed members of our communities, along with skilled artisans, builders and teachers, while merchants where actually viewed with doubt. After all, what did the merchant do but make money for himself!

Two forces changed all that for the Indian farmer. First, the invasion and colonisation of our country by the Europeans. Second, the advent of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and America, and then, rather slowly, in India.

As a result, the control of forests and farm land were taken over by those in power (the government and the rich) and deployed for building towns, roads, railroads and factories. And, the mass production of goods – along with the extraction of ores and their conversion to metals which enabled the mass production of goods – took precedence over agriculture. Progress became the buzzword; building great societies became a noble profession. Those who built industries became the new leaders. Merchants and businessmen began wielding power and became the new esteemed members of our communities.

For us, in the industrial and post-industrial era, there has been no looking back since then. For the Indian farmer, however, life has taken a sad turn. Now, with his much-devalued-and-redistributed land, his continuing dependence on mass-produced seeds, fertilisers and pesticides from large industrial companies, and his price-controlled produce marketed through a corrupt and inefficient public distribution system, he is no longer considered a creator of wealth of our nation. On the contrary, he is lucky if he can create any wealth at all for himself and his family.

Once a noble ‘professional’ and an esteemed member of our community, the Indian farmer is now left stranded in his fields. And, if he doesn’t watch out, soon, that too may not be his.