Farmer Unrest: An Environmental View
- PT Editorial
Farmer Unrest: An Environmental View

With the farmers' unrest in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh grabbing headlines and prime time television's attention, it is easy to forget that we are talking of a serious environmental crisis on our hands. The townsquare, as adjudged from newspaper headlines and op-ed pages or 8pm to 10 pm TV debates, sees it as a crisis of agriculture, an issue of management of huge debt owed by farmers (like bad debts or NPAs of banks), or lack of political consensus on whether to waive off loans and who should fund it -- the state governments or the Centre?
Rare is the voice that presents it for what it is: a serious environmental crisis!
If our agriculture policies were designed to push for ecologically sustainable farming, then pricing mechanisms would also have been different, and farm income figures would not have pushed farmers into committing suicides.
It is a pity that when governments from Punjab to Uttar Pradesh to Maharashtra to Madhya Pradesh to Odisha, Telangana and Tamilnadu are grappling with a full blown crisis in their villages, worried that it is coming knocking at the doors of the cities, they are still not calling it by its real name: an environmental disaster.
Saner political analysis worldwide clearly defines the mass movements of migrants from Syria and other war-torn countries as a crisis resulting from environmental mismanagement, even when it seemingly feels like something triggered by wars and hardcore real politics between superpowers.
It is clear that not many in the decision making chain are interested in saving our planet - though they must have sworn to do so in their school essays - but surely they are interested in ensuring that mobs of desperate farmers do not spill out on the streets. They key to that is to view what is happening in our fields through the prism of environment.
Rare is the voice that presents it for what it is: a serious environmental crisis!
A better approach towards environment would have ensured a different approach towards notions of development. Also, it would have ensured that farm incomes do not nosedive to a level of Rs 1,600 per month median level, as enunciated this month by the Government of India's Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian. It would have ensured that local decision making, and a robust process of Gram Sabha meetings in India's villages where local people are always better informed and more skilled in aligning their needs and priorities with environmental concerns.
Loan waivers are required, but are not a panacea. Re-imagining agriculture, re-orienting farm policies, changing the mandate of research in India’s agricultural universities and institutes, and giving primacy to devolution of power and funds to the villages have to be part of any multi-pronged strategy to ensure crowds of angry farmers do not come converging on cities like Mumbai or Delhi, or that forces like Bhim Army do not send a calling card to the regime.
As farmers in Punjab plan to launch what they will inevitably term as "massive struggle” next month, and sundry factions of Bharti Kisan Union issue press releases to show solidarity with farmers in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, they need to use a mirror, too. How much effort have these farmer leaders made to ensure regular holding of Gram Sabhas in Punjab villages?
Farmer leaders’ silence makes them, alongside politicians of all hue, a party to the systematic disempowerment of villagers even when a steelframe structure for empowerment is offered by the Constitution’s 73rd and 74th amendment.
Maharashtra exploded this month, but only after the people of one village, Puntamba, located along the banks of the Godavari in Ahmednagar district’s Rahata taluka, decided they will not supply milk to the local contractors who were not paying the right price. Soon, other villages joined in. Before you can say Devendra Fadnavis, western Maharashtra was in the throes of ryots’ agitation. Announcements of loan waivers came thick and fast.
Other things apart, it proves the power of the gram sabha. It is time Punjab’s farm leadership realises that. The key to empowering the rural economy and pressurising governments into re-imagining rural development lies in the institution of Gram Sabha, a debate that is still not making it to prime time television.  


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