Summary of round table discussion at G.Narendranath fellowship award meeting, held on Sep. 2 2011 at Sundarayya Vignana Kendram, Hyderabad.
The meeting started with Samyuktha welcoming the guests and giving details regarding the fellowship: the purpose of the fellowship is to give a small monetary support (of Rs. One lakh) every year to grass root activists who are not so well known and who are in need of such support; it is anchored in the Center for Equity Studies(CES); decisions regarding the fellowship will be taken by a Committee which has been formed consisting of Harsh Mander of CES, P. Chenniah, Jeevan Kumar and Samyuktha. This year’s (2011-2012) fellowship was awarded to M. Nagaraja, a journalist from Chittoor district who has been active on issues of Dalit equity, agricultural workers and farmers. The award was presented by Bojja Tharakam, a senior advocate of the High Court of Andhra Pradesh, respected Dalit leader and the state president of Republican Party of India. Harsh Mander spoke about the focus areas of CES and recalled how Naren in his various satyagrahas respected the opponents, expressed his views in a gentle but firm manner. Tharakam recalled Naren’s concern for Dalits, and his simple lifestyle, etc. Nagaraja spoke about his association with Naren. T. L. Sankar also spoke about Naren’s sacrifice of a comfortable life in favor of a life of service.
A brief on the topic: The topic of discussion is “Who will do farming? Rethinking agriculture in the context of changing agrarian relations” With the sweeping changes in the rural areas during the past decade, we evidently need to think beyond the business-as-usual frameworks to understand the present and imagine the future. The incomes from agriculture have become very meager; farmers are finding it difficult to meet their basic needs and are getting indebted. Many of the rural youth are moving away from farming, both from the farmer families and agricultural worker families. The reduced availability of labour has become visible in rural areas, and at the same time, the labour wages have also increased significantly. Many farmers are perceiving that it is better to work for wages than invest in their own land because of poor returns. In this scenario, there is a clear threat of corporates taking over agriculture, and can farmers and agricultural workers find common cause in protecting agriculture-based livelihoods? Also, how do we address the issues of inter-sectoral parity, where the primary production is being valued less and less compared to all other sectors (in 1972, bag of paddy cost the same as 5 grams of gold. Now, bag of paddy is 1/15th the price of 5 grams of gold). These are some of the questions prompting the session of rethinking, with diverse people – those who have worked directly on agriculture issues as well as others who recognize these questions as having a cross-cutting relevance to how we understand development and how we imagine the future India.
The round-table discussion was moderated by Chenniah. He said that this is a question of great relevance in the current context. It is a matter of great concern and anxiety that corporate sector is making huge inroads into farming, displacing farmers and wondered what will be the future of farmers in this country.
K. R. Chowdry:
40% of farmers immediately want to leave agriculture. Even those left in farming prefer NREGS and daily wage work, because they are better paying than farming. 48% don’t have land, because land reforms were never carried out adequately. On an average, farmers are spending Rs.12,000 and getting Rs.9000 incurring a loss of Rs.3000 on every crop. It is no wonder capital formation is not happening in agriculture. The problems of Green revolution, followed by post-1991 economic policies of liberalization and structural reforms have caused the present crisis situation in agriculture.
Kodandaram: People usually work on either land reforms or farmers’ issues. Naren saw the two as integral parts of agricultural sector and worked on both in a comprehensive manner. Land ownership is not just a legal right, a question of who owns it legally; rather it is also a question of who controls the production. Land reforms should be accompanied by agricultural reforms so that the beneficiaries can profit from the land given to them. In modern agriculture, various forces are actually dictating to the farmer – borewells, fertilizers, new ‘technologies’ – and production is no longer actually under the farmer’s control. Modern agriculture has collapsed the traditional farmer in drastic ways; the farmers feel profoundly alienated from the production process. All the political parties are on the same page with regard to the above; Chandra Babu Naidu talked about corporate farming; YS Rajasekar Reddy talked about cooperative farming; but both meant the same.
There is a lot of discussion about crop holiday in Godavari districts. This is an area where the government has invested a lot to provide irrigation and enable 2 or 3 crops. But what about farmers in Anantapur district, Chittoor district, Mahbubnagar district. There farmers have kept their lands fallow many seasons, unable to cultivate. In Mahbubnagar, there is a lot of distress among farmers, and we have seen a lot of migration. The issue we should look at is: how will small farmers do agriculture where there have been no major government investments? This is the question government policies should grapple with.
Malla Reddy: There is a Telugu proverb: “there are six reasons for Karna’s death” in Mahabharata, meaning we cannot pin point one particular reason; similarly there are many reasons for farmers’ distress but at the end they are being killed, though agriculture itself is flourishing. I don’t agree that agriculture is in crisis. It is the farming community that is in crisis. 95 lakhs of farmers have holdings below five acres; the farm inputs are controlled by corporates, and their agents like microfinance and self-help groups; the govt. has decreased subsidy on fertilizer from Rs.70,000 crores to Rs.50,000 crores; there is no separate agriculture minister for the state of AP ; the Deputy CM is made in charge of agriculture; he does not have any knowledge of agriculture. All these go to show how agriculture is being neglected in the state.
P.S.Ajay Kumar: It was said by some speakers that the post-1991 policies are the cause for agricultural crisis. There is an implication that the earlier period of 1960s to 80s was a positive period in Indian agriculture. But to me, that is the period when the government failed to implement land reforms. That was the period when the landless classes were promised their stake in agriculture by creating ownership of land and resources – but the promise was not delivered. Now, when you ask who should do farming, our question is how long should we remain in farming as landless labourers only?
Only when that question is addressed, we can get agricultural labourers involved in the question of how agriculture can be sustained. You talk about sustainable agriculture but you need to answer the question of what is the role of agricultural labourers in our vision of sustainable agriculture. It is only through land reforms that they can become farmers and can work on sustainable agriculture together with the existing small farmers.
So in the changed context, we need to think about new land reform agenda in which small, medium farmers and agricultural labourers can work together.
1. Redefine land ceiling and implement redistribution of land;
2. People whose primary income is from outside agriculture should give up their control of land. This land should be given to actual cultivators.
3. Then farmers and labourers together as allies should resist the large scale changes in land utilization, the taking away of agricultural land.
4. Revenue reforms should be pushed for by the two sections together.
5. Corporate takeover of agriculture should also be resisted together as allies.
Instead of addressing these root causes, it doesn’t work if you just show NREGS as a big evil influence on agriculture.
Ramanjaneyulu: Now agriculture is being seen in sectional way; rainfed vs. irrigated; laborers vs. farmers; small vs, large farmers, etc. Instead we should ask who should do farming, how to do and how to protect natural resources. He agreed with Ajay that sustainable agriculture should address concerns like how to get agricultural workers interested. He asked: why should there be a land ceiling only for agriculture, why not for industry as well?
While crop holiday is being talked about in coastal districts, there has been undeclared crop holiday in many other places. The cultivated fallows in Andhra Pradesh as per official figures is more than 10%. Unless the government brings policies that ensure income security for the farming community, and to encourage low-input sustainable agriculture, the agricultural crisis is not going to be addressed.
K.S. Gopal: We have to face the fact that going by economic trends, most of the farmers will also disappear like weavers, iron smiths and small factories. The thought I have is that we should not view their role only in economic terms; we have to look beyond economic considerations and emphasize the ecological functions of agriculture, its role in ensuring food sovereignty, etc. Then the valuation will be different. I have some ideas for how to go about it, but can discuss those details separately. We have to also understand the aspirations of rural youth; in our society manual labor has no dignity; it should be emphasized.
Rajiv: In the present day globalized world, is there some way of improving our efficiency in agricultural production so that we can be as good as other countries from whom we are importing?
Samineni Rama Rao: The issue of concern is that village-level contradictions are being enhanced. Tenant farmers being pitched against agricultural labourers, and so on. All this plays in favour of big landlords again. We need to think about the interests of the working class as a whole. Let’s think about addressing the agricultural crisis taking small and marginal farmers and landless labourers together.
Prasada Rao: Many of the problems are a result of the economic policies followed by various governments, especially since 1991. The AIKS has prepared a detailed document on how to address the farmers’ distress and rejuvenate the agriculture sector. But the challenge is to mobilize the farmers around these agendas and demands, and build a movement. Otherwise these will only remain ideas and discussions.
Saraswati: Land has some limited production capacity; socio-cultural factors like higher standard of living, marriages are also causing agricultural crisis; but before we ask the farmers to resort to simple lifestyles, can we, from other sectors who are well off, also practice such life styles? Why should farmers not aspire for a higher standard of living?
Harindranath: Living agriculture means living with nature; if we leave agriculture we will be distanced from nature; therefore in fact farming should be actually done by majority; everyone should have land and should do cooperative farming and aim at village self-sufficiency; so that there is no need to look for labor; so that production by masses rather than mass production will happen.
Uma Shankari: In the pricing of primary sector products and services, not only in agriculture , but also forests and minerals, food, water and air, etc., there is an inherent contradiction: they have to be priced low so that they are accessible, available and affordable to all, including the poor; they have also to be priced low so that in the process of value addition to them, the end –price does not become too high; but this results in under-valuing and under-pricing them. Especially in a growing economy this results in tremendous inequality; while other sectors are growing in leaps and bounds, agriculture sector is losing its share of the national economy all the time; this inequality has a suctioning effect ; it is like a vacuum pump pulling all the resources, material, financial and human resources, and putting them in other sectors. This inequality must be reduced and corrections have to come from sectors other than primary sector. Why should a company like Reliance be allowed to grow and amass wealth as it has been doing? They can “buy” up huge tracts of agricultural lands; they have the money power supported by political power and muscle power.
Mohan: According to RBI Governor Subbarao, service sector is not capable of absorbing 40% of people who want to move out of agriculture. He exhorted that manufacturing sector should absorb them. But experts in manufacturing sector are saying, due to advanced technologies and labor problems, we can not absorb them; so where should these people go?
All the products from cities are coming to rural areas whereas very few goods are going from rural to urban; if this continues, drain of rural economy will also continue. To address this primary sector and rural economy should be strengthened; rural enterprises should be promoted. And integrated farming with allied enterprises like poultry ,dairy, milling , etc, should be encouraged.
Economic development should be based not on growth alone but on std. of living for every citizen.
Kurmanath: As a journalist I was assigned to go to a meeting in FICCI titled food 360degrees, to promote food processing industry; out of my own interest I came here; we should reach out to the media so that public debate can happen on all these issues, and common people will start thinking about them.
Dinesh: Widespread malnutrition among farmers is a matter of concern; Farmers are not eating what they are producing; they are not producing what they are eating. Anantapur farmers economics has become so unviable, why should they do farming? Should they do farming for food or for money? If they are asked to grow only for money, then it is financially unviable in many places. Also, even in villages, the fact is that many young people are not ready to do hard work, physical work. We need to think as a society what will happen if everyone moves away from physical work.
Babji: Crop holiday in Godavari districts of Andhra Pradesh is because big farmers are absentee landlords, they are in the grip of companies, they see agriculture as a commercial profit oriented enterprise, not as a source of food; however, for small farmers like tribal farmers, agriculture is a source of livelihood and food and this should be protected. It is ridiculous that in ABN Andhrajyothy debate, NREGS was shown as a major culprit leading to the crop holiday. Noone was asked to present the point of view of NREGS workers. Agricultural workers getting higher wages cannot be considered as cause for farmers’ distress, and this is a gross manipulation and unfair conclusion.
Ramachandriah: Aspirations of middle class have changed; the perception is that life is better in cities; there is more financial security and less risk; in such a scenario small towns should be developed which are closer to the villages so that agriculture and related occupations can thrive.
Lokareddappa: Land redistribution in AP was done in five installments; it was carried out often in such a way that the well off farmers got rid of degraded lands by selling them to SC Corporation which in turn was redistributed; so the beneficiaries have to work harder to profit from them.
Sivaramakrishna: 1 tula (10gm) of Gold and a bag of rice cost the same in the sixties; now gold is 15 times more than the price of rice; this is because the surplus from the rural /agriculture sector is being enjoyed by the urban classes. Instead of addressing these underlying imbalances, instead of giving land to landless poor in rural areas, we are talking food rights, NREGS, etc. We are not addressing the causes of poverty; instead we are asking them to be poor but we will help them survive by giving them “right to food”, NREGS and so on. How come we progressives who used to believe in true economic equality and so on are settling for things like so many kg of rice at Rs.2? We seem to be stuck fighting our own specific battles while the larger war is being lost. We need to see sustainable agriculture, land rights and labour issues together as interconnected issues and not see them separately.
Kishan Rao: Delta farmers’ issue is not nation’s problem; 78% of farmers in AP delta area are absentee landlords; their lands are cultivated by tenants; with rise of cost of cultivation, and tenants facing chronic losses, tenants are reluctant to pay the same tenancy charges as before; with margins decreasing the absentee landowners together with tenants have declared crop holiday; The solution is: for every piece of land, the government should guarantee provision of water for one crop season; In return, no land should be left fallow; If any owner leaves land fallow, force them to sell the land to the landless in the village.
In response to the question raised by a young participant about increasing efficiencies in production, we should keep in mind that land has limited capacity to produce; if we squeeze it to produce more, it will have adverse effects in some other aspects like soil fertility, etc.
Saraswati asked why can’t we have a situation where we can farm without subsidies; to which, an Anatapur dt. farmer recounted his experiences as to how at every step he faced obstacles, completely out of his control; he said that is why we need subsidies; without which farming can not be done.
Ravindra: For so many decades, it seems that the land-owning class is not ready to loosen their control of agriculture. Even now, absentee landlords are not ready to let go. If it is finally happening that because of increasing labour costs and so on, farming is viable only for those who actually work on the land, and not for those who depend on getting others to do the work, then we can welcome it. But I don’t know whether they will move away so easily. So far, all the government subsidies and programs are also geared towards keeping the land under their control, not passing it on to the real cultivators. When we talk about retaining farmers in agriculture, we need to think about who should be retained.
Kiran: It is difficult to summarize such a discussion. While the topic of discussion itself was framed as a question, the discussion raised even more questions which are very pertinent. It was not expected that the discussion will result in very concrete answers, but the very process of brainstorming itself has been very useful. Some challenging questions were put forth, for example, Ajay Kumar asked how can we create a stake for agricultural workers in the future of agriculture. I hope we will continue the discussion on the issues raised.
A couple of comments: In some of the discussions on the crop holiday, NREGS is being pointed as a major cause for the farmers’ distress; this needs to be definitely opposed, as has been pointed out by many speakers. What has clearly emerged from this discussion is that we have to move towards a joint struggle by farmers and agricultural workers. Since many agri. workers and Dalits also have acquired some land and are facing the problems as small and marginal farmers too, our focus should be small/medium farmers, tenant farmers and agricultural workers – basically those who are actually living in the villages and directly involved in cultivation. We also need to think about better organizing among agricultural workers and farmers whether jointly or separately so that the agricultural operations can be done more efficiently in a planned manner. Otherwise the “corporate efficiency” will start taking over.
Chenniah (closing remarks): The discussion has been very good and many people expressed their thoughts. These issues are very crucial, and it is clear that we all need to engage with the problems of agriculture – especially the small, marginal and medium farmers, and agricultural workers. It is also important to prevent the corporate takeover of agriculture. I hope we continue these discussions and take up necessary action.
Jeevan Kumar (HRF) gave the vote of thanks and appreciated the active participation of everyone in the discussion on the very pertinent topic.