They may have dispersed for now but the farmers who laid siege to Delhi made their point
There are two distinct aspects of the farmers’ agitation or Kisan Kranti Yatra that culminated on Tuesday at the Capital’s doorstep which should not be conflated. The first, is the genuine issues in India’s agricultural sector which is in clear and present distress. The second is the politics of the agitation. On the first issue, anyone travelling through rural India cannot but see that there is genuine rural distress caused by the prolonged slump in the agricultural sector despite some good policy initiatives by the current ruling dispensation over the past four years which followed up on the measures taken by successive governments at the Centre post-1991 initiation of the economic reforms process. As has been pointed out by many commentators, official figures from the last agriculture census conducted in 2015-16 showed that more than 86 per cent of farmers own less than two acres of land giving credence to the assertion that an overwhelming majority of Indian farmers are engaged in subsistence or marginal-profit agriculture. The average size of an operational holding is estimated to be just around one acre and non-agriculture employment has not kept pace to absorb the younger people coming into the market given the sub-division, with each generation, of already quite small plots of farmland which has made agriculture an unsustainable occupation for most. Now, it is argued by most political parties that the 86 per cent, as it were, need state intervention and there can really be no argument with that. But its natural corollary, that the 14 per cent of middle and large farmers, the kulaks of Marxist lore, should be brought into the personal income-tax net is a political hot potato nobody is willing to touch. Then there is the trend of providing ad hoc relief such as loan waivers which all political parties have indulged instead of focussing on structural reform including but not limited to taxing the rural middle and upper classes, ensuring a social security safety net for the rest, setting up robust and specifically targeted price-control mechanisms to ensure input costs thanks to skyrocketing diesel prices or the relentless rise in per unit cost of electricity don’t become debilitating, encouraging land-pooling for farm sizes become viable for commercial agriculture and aligning the agricultural sector to prevailing market realities. In relation to the last mentioned, for example, it is important to note that there is a glut of sugar in the domestic market due to a dip in exports because of international factors and an enhanced yield of the sugarcane crop which has led to non-payment of thousands of crores of rupees to farmers by sugar mills. But the solution cannot be for the government to bail out using public funds the mill owners and comparatively affluent western Uttar Pradesh sugarcane farmers, neither of whom are in the 86 per cent tiny, landholding subsistence farming or petty rural business category.
It is here that the politics of the Bharatiya Kisan Union led farmers’ agitation is pertinent to keep in mind. Not only were the protesting farmers drawn substantially from the western UP sugarcane belt and Haryana with a token presence from other North Indian States, they were predominantly from the Jat community; which is to say, their demands were specific to the region they represent and cannot be uniformly expostulated to a national level. Naresh Tikait, the BKU leader, knows that no Government and certainly not the Narendra Modi regime can ignore them with elections around the corner.