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The politics behind the farm protests

Author: Abhinav Prakash Singh
Publication: Hindustan Times
Date: December 6, 2020
URL:   https://www.hindustantimes.com/columns/the-politics-behind-the-farm-protests/story-52oB5K9KHcoKk09OYcq3YO.html?s=03

Rural India enjoys disproportionate political power. It’s time for a change

The question of representation in India is usually seen through the prism of caste, religion and region. But the question of sharing political power between rural and urban areas has attracted scanty scrutiny.

For too long India has been romanticised as a rural civilisation. This has roots in colonial rule, when nationalists uncritically accepted European characterisation of India as an unchanging, timeless, rural society. Instead of questioning its very basis, most of the anti-imperialist responses sought to prove the superiority of this “spiritual and rural India” over the industrial, materialistic West.

While Mahatma Gandhi exemplified the extreme end of this reaction, even socialists and Hindu nationalists were not immune from this delusion. They failed to see that decline of urban centres and industry was itself the by-product of colonial rule, and historically, India had one of the highest rates of urbanisation.

Most things we know of and take pride in Indian history comes from the cities and urban milieu and not some “timeless village”. This is also not surprising because it is the rise of cities that heralds the rise of civilisation — for it is when a society has reached a certain threshold of social and economic sophistication, driven by technical advances, that it becomes distinct from subsistence existence.

However, the post-Independence Indian polity remained attached to agrarianism and ruralism with ceaseless eulogies to the Kisan as Annadata. Instead of recognising that farming is just another source of livelihood, the polity has converted it into the essence of India with excessive sentimentality nurtured over decades. It is reflected in a policy that privileges the farmers not just over urban dwellers but also the other sections of rural society, most notably agrarian labourers. The demands at the centre of the current farmer protests demonstrate this distortion in the Indian polity.

Those spearheading the protests belong to the class of capitalist farmers that rose during the Green Revolution in north-western India. Government support in the form of subsidies, Minimum Support Prices (MSPs), free water, electricity, credit, among other measures, was critical to the formation of this class — apart from the expansion of landholding either through forced purchase or outright land-grab from the Dalit castes and small farmers.

This segment of farmers also acquired interests in moneylending and trade and commerce, which they think is under threat from the entry of the agri-business companies. But since no one wants to be seen as “anti-farmer” and to question complex politics within an agrarian society, the “cause” has gained wide traction in the public, intelligentsia, and political parties.

However, do note that 86% of farmers in the country are small and marginal farmers who are net-buyers of the food grains. Forcing the State to sustain artificially high prices feeds into inflation and hurts these farmers, apart from the large population of landless labourers.

In Punjab alone, Dalits are around 32% of the population, but hardly own 3% of the agricultural land. The higher MSP and perverse incentives it creates has distorted cropping patterns, destroyed biodiversity and caused environmental and ecological havoc with depletion of water tables, degradation of soil and smog engulfing the entire north India as arid Punjab is now cultivating rice.

We refuse to accept that agriculture is the private sector and farmers are private producers. There is no obligation on the part of the State to ensure desired prices and profits to one class of private producers over others. Why only farmers then? Why not carpenters, potters or traders?

But to understand why the political system is hesitant to call out the problems that lie at the heart of these protests — including the fact that meeting the demands are harmful for the rest of the country — turn to the disproportionate political power vested in the rural areas where these affluent farmers hold the levers of power.

The majority of Indians already lives in urban areas, but the distribution of seats in Parliament and legislatures favours the rural areas. It creates an incentive for political parties to pander to the dominant section of the rural society — farmers.

Moreover, no party has sought to reshape the political landscape by focusing on cities as the centre of political power despite them being the engines of economic growth.

And it here is that Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) contesting the Hyderabad municipal elections as a mini national election and succeeding signifies a turning point in India’s political trajectory. It has signalled the emergence of urban governance as the new focal point of political power. The impact is potentially far-reaching — as urban centres gain in political importance, a new powerful political leadership emerges, and there is delimitation of constituencies based on current demographic realities, it will automatically force politicians to accord urban centres their due importance, leading to a decline in the political power of the rural areas.

It will also resolve a major contradiction in the Indian polity where a minority population has disproportionate political power and help enable India re-embrace its historical trajectory of an urban-centric civilisation.

- Abhinav Prakash Singh is an assistant professor, economics, Sri Ram College of Commerce
The views expressed are personal


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