The popular notion behind any ‘revolution’ — green, yellow, white and blue — is the remarkable ability to frame the agrarian crisis in terms of production alone.
At a time when doubling farmer’s income in the next five years has become the catch phrase, the policy emphasis is on the oft-beaten approach of boosting crop productivity, reducing the cost of cultivation, expanding the area under irrigation and providing a unified national agricultural market.
This makes me wonder: if increasing crop productivity, which is what economists and policy makers have been relentlessly asking for, then why is Punjab, the food bowl of India, faced with a terrible agrarian crisis? In a State that has 98 percent assured irrigation and where the per hectare yields of wheat and rice match international levels I see no reason why farmers should be dying. Is there something that I am missing in my understanding of agriculture or is that the policy makers have still not be able to emerge out of the tragic narrative of the past, so well-crafted and hyped.
Raising crop productivity is the only paradigm within which agriculture has been understood and evaluated, says Richa Kumar in her magnificently researched book Rethinking Revolutions (Oxford University Press, 2016). Richa Kumar teaches in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. Although she examines the politics of agriculture through the prism of the Yellow Revolution, which essentially began with the introduction of soyabean cultivation in Central India, and subsequently propped up with the advent of e-Choupal, she dwells much deeper to successfully demolish the popular notion that narrow, technological solutions alone are the answer.
The popular notion behind any ‘revolution’ – green, yellow, white and blue – is the remarkable ability to frame the agrarian crisis in terms of production alone. If productivity increases, income of farmers also increases. This dominant notion, prevalent for over 100 years, has established firm roots. I must acknowledge that as a student of agriculture, I had realised early that the entire effort by way of research, education and extension is to programme (in IT parlance) the thinking of students around this dominant narrative. And let’s not forget that agricultural universities in India were initially set up by USAID bringing in educational curriculum from the Land Grant system of education from the US.
The British built this notion to increase revenue collections during the days of the Raj, but subsequently the international influence, reinforced through expanding agribusiness interests, has put a stamp on it. Those farmers who obediently follow the scientific prescriptions to achieve higher productivity are called ‘acche kisan’’ and those who carried more knowledge and wisdom were branded as unproductive, and farm scientists firmly believe they need to be pushed out of agriculture. ‘Since then, it has been the primary measure used to judge the success or failure of farmers’.
It is primarily for this reason that the technological breakthrough achieved in Punjab defies the dominant narrative. As per the Economic Survey 2016, the per hectare yield of wheat in Punjab stands at 4,500kg/hectare, which matches the wheat yield in United States. In case of paddy, the average yield is 6,000kg/hectare, quite close to the 6,700kg/hectare achieved in China. With such high yields and with so much of abundant irrigation I see no reason why should Punjab turn into a hotspot for farmer suicides. Since Punjab farmers were on the forefront of accepting every new scientific and technological input, why should then acche kisan be committing suicide and that too in droves?
Economist Willard Cochrane (1958) calls it agricultural treadmill, an idea that Richa Kumar very eloquently extends to explain the prevailing distress in agriculture: “They (farmers) are running a race against insects, but to win, they are dependent upon scientists to create pest-resistant varieties and dependent on private companies to develop ever more potent pesticides. As one fails, the next is one is ready. But there is no respite.” This is what I had always termed as chakravyuah: pushing the farmer deeper and deeper into a quagmire of financial indebtedness.
The story of the failed Yellow Revolution had little to do with technology failure. It was the result of a shift in trade policies, which reduced import tariffs, thereby bringing in a flood of cheaper edible oil imports. In the process, Richa Kumar revisits the famed saga of a technology-mediated development model, dissecting in detail the claims of prosperity and empowerment of farmers, and demonstrating clearly how detrimental it has been to understand the agrarian change by ignoring the social — caste, class and gender — as well as the environmental factors.
The book is neatly divided into 11 chapters, including conclusion, and I found each chapter gradually building on the argument that techno-fix solutions alone are a myopic way of addressing the farming crisis. Agriculture treadmill forces farmers to move to a more potent, expensive and sophisticated technology, providing at best a temporary solution. But the socio-economic and environmental dimension of the crisis only grows, waiting to explode at an appropriate stage. That’s perhaps the reason why India is faced with a terrible agrarian crisis 50 years after the Green Revolution was launched. In the past 21 years, more than 3.18 lakh farmers have committed suicide.
The ethnographic study and the scholarly analysis provide a very powerful insight into how deceptive the entire debate on what constitutes agriculture growth is. More relevant in the present debate/discussions, surrounding the promise of doubling farm income, is the story of e-Choupal, using information technology as an autonomous agent of change, and hailed as the lone success story to bridge the information divide. As Richa Kumar says the e-Choupal very appropriately fitted into the post-liberalisation phase where the role of the state was to be replaced by private corporations in the name of market efficiency.
E-Choupal was launched in the year 2000 with much fanfare. I remember some popular magazines had even done cover stories projecting how e-Choupal had ‘empowered’ farmers by providing information and removing ‘corrupt’ intermediaries. What was not told was that ITC-IBD, which operated e-Choupal, was also an intermediary. Its underlying objective was to procure soyabean for the international value chain. Subsequently, it was also established that the price ITC-IBD paid to soyabean farmers over the years was almost equal to what the traditional mandis were offering. The soyabean price paid to farmers was driven by the Chicago Board of Trade and the Kuala Lumpur Commodities Exchange.
Nevertheless, by 2005, the e-Choupal had converted into a rural retail network of malls, known as Choupal Saagars, to sell FMCG products to villagers. That is why e-Choupal is not even remotely mentioned in the ambitious electronic National Agricultural Market (eNAM) initiative that the government is now promoting. The e-Choupal debacle, therefore, has lessons galore that simply cannot be brushed aside. Dismantling the APMC regulated markets and bringing in instead the eNAM network suffers from the same ideological thinking. Let us also not forget that to up the ante even e-Choupal had received numerous awards and recognition. That’s the way dominant narrative is conveniently changed.
Richa Kumar has conclusively established that increasing crop productivity alone is a misleading yardstick in measuring agricultural growth and prosperity. Rethinking Revolutions is the outcome of painstaking research and analysis, and ignoring the powerful message it conveys will be to the detriment of not only the farming community but to the country’s overall growth and development. The entire discourse on the political economy of development needs a radical overhaul. This is a book I will recommend for all policy planners, economists, scientists and should be a mandatory reading in agricultural curriculum.Discover More