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Devinder Sharma: ‘Agriculture can be our second powerhouse of economic growth’

‘Stupid to take people off farms for cheap labour’

Civil Society News, New Delhi

Published: Jun. 29, 2023
Updated: Jul. 29, 2023

When farmers blockaded Delhi for more than a year in 2020-21, right through the pandemic, it seemed that they had compelled the government to think afresh on agriculture. Three pro-free market laws that had been rushed through Parliament were scrapped, but many of the long-pending issues that bedevil the farm sector were brushed under the carpet and remain unattended.

Farmers had come together out of fear of losing their lands to corporations. Their protests  warded off this danger, but achieved little else. Once the new laws were scrapped and the agitation called off, disparate unions that had united under pressure from ordinary farmers soon fell apart.

It has been two years now, but demands such as legally guaranteed minimum support prices, mandis in easy reach and investments in rural infrastructure remain to be addressed. The more complex goals of preparing farmers for the effects of global warming, reducing chemicals in farming and widening the basket of crops so as to promote sustainability and nutrition have also not got the attention they deserve.

For a better understanding, Civil Society spoke to Devinder Sharma, senior journalist and researcher based in Punjab, who works at field level and is an insightful voice on Indian agriculture.


Q: The historic farmers’ agitation against the Central government’s farm laws seems to have been forgotten. Are there any outcomes from it at all?

The iconic farmers’ protest was historic, but the outcome that people were expecting, by way of fundamental changes in farming laws so that agriculture becomes economically viable, has not been addressed.

The agitation, however, did result in the withdrawal of the three contentious farm laws (which opened up agriculture to corporations and a free market). The withdrawal of the three laws is very, very significant for the future of India. When it comes to farmers’ incomes, bringing agriculture under the control of corporations has not worked anywhere in the world. So, if Indian farmers were also forced to come under a corporate yoke, I’m sure agriculture would have been further devastated in India. And, as the farmers feared, their lands would have been taken away.

You know, we have this cut-and-paste policy tradition. The three laws were based on what American or European agriculture is talking about. And, as usual, our lazy economists in India thought that they were suitable for India. But if you go around the world you will see distress in agriculture all over. Corporatization has not worked.

Secondly, in the name of climate change, there is now a war against farmers. And it has begun from Europe. Holland has already asked 3,000 farmers to get out of agriculture. They are saying that no farmer can keep more than two cows. Three thousand farmers quitting from Holland’s 11,000 farms is quite a blow to agriculture.

The UK is also telling  5,000 farmers to plan to get out of agriculture. New Zealand is a dairy country. Because of increased emissions from cows, they are going to impose a tax on the cattle wealth of New Zealand.

So everywhere there is a clear message — more corporate control is coming up in agriculture. And this is where all eyes are fixed. Indian agriculture is also under attack unless our farmers are able to stand up and demonstrate that agriculture can be viable without the help of corporations.


Q: Wouldn’t the role of the state be crucial at such a time?

Let’s say there have been efforts to marginalize the role of the state for quite some time. From 2003 onwards, there has been an increasing understanding among Indian policymakers that we must move towards a market economy. Whether it is this government or previous governments, they have always been telling us that markets are the best judge, they can provide a better price, they can also tackle the supply chain or logistical questions that agriculture is going to be confronted with. So, in their understanding, farm incomes will go up substantially if this process is adhered to.

But look at what has happened in America. One of their agriculture secretaries, during the Nixon years, said ‘grow big or get out’. At that time about 15 percent of the American population was involved in agriculture. Today, it is just 1.5 percent. According to Indian economists the smaller the number of people in agriculture, the more their income. By that logic, if the population of American farmers has come down, their income levels should have gone up.

But that didn’t happen. Which tells us that Indian economists are still far behind what is happening globally. I’m saying this because in America, the rate of suicides on farms is 3.5 times the national average. And if American agriculture was economical, or viable and markets were paying the right  price, there is no reason for the US government to be providing Rs 79 lakh per year per farmer as domestic support just to keep them on the farm. The American government is providing so much subsidy. That cannot be a model for India, let’s be very clear.

About 50 percent of our population or 600 million people are involved with agriculture, directly or indirectly. To push them out of agriculture is a stupid idea. I think economists all over the world must admit that this stupidity has to now stop. I remember one of the former governors of the Reserve Bank of India saying that the best reform or the ‘big ticket’ reform for India would be to move people out of agriculture into urban areas because cheap labour is needed there. That thinking has to go.

We are now witnessing increased ruralization. That is the way forward. Agriculture can sustain more people. Make agriculture viable and profitable.

In fact, agriculture should have been and can be the second powerhouse of economic growth in India. Why do we have to follow cut-and-paste policies from America and Europe? And then you brand these economists as great. There is a question we need to ask: how relevant are these economists today?


Q: The viewpoint that agriculture can be the next big powerhouse is gaining resonance. A sustainable lifestyle, all biodegradable materials will come from agriculture…?

I think what you are saying implies that agriculture has tremendous potential to resurge.  The world realizes that 34 percent or one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture globally. That means agriculture has a significant role in climate aberrations.

That also means that we need to transform agriculture. You don’t do more of the same. You get out of that trap. Look at countries like Brazil, Argentina, America, the European Union. These countries are actually devastated by the kind of farming that was prevalent all these years — intensive farming, exhaustive farming which has led to climate change. So we  need to first reframe or redesign agriculture by providing farmers with a living income and by moving to agroecological farming. The world is talking about it.

I’m glad that in India  there is increased understanding that we must move from chemical to non-chemical agriculture. There are some positive signs.

More importantly, we need to have a guaranteed income prescribed for farmers. They too have similar aspirations as people in cities. We have all these years deliberately kept agriculture impoverished by denying farmers their rightful prices. This has to change. Farmers need to get their rightful income. And I look forward to a kind of reverse migration taking place in India in the years to come, if we really make agriculture economically viable and profitable.


Q: What has happened to farmers’ demands like minimum support price (MSP), more mandis in rural areas, better road connectivity? Have the states acted on these demands?

The simple answer is no. The government has set up a committee but its terms of reference do not include talking about MSP in a manner that farmers have been demanding, which is to make it a legal obligation. But let me illustrate why MSP is a very significant tool to bring back pride to agriculture.

If you buy a pen, it has a price tag. If you buy a computer, it comes with a price tag. So does a motorcycle or a car. Why is it that only agricultural produce does not have a price tag? That is what we need to understand. Because our country’s economic design was woven such that to keep economic reforms viable, you had to sacrifice agriculture.

This is what America and Europe did. Now the push is that India should do it too. That is why those contentious laws were brought in. The only way to fix a price tag for agricultural produce is by MSP. India has a built-up debt system. We are a role model. Everywhere I have travelled in the world, people have been talking about guaranteed prices.

Even in America. In 1979, a massive tractor protest was held in Washington, DC, by farmers who came from across the country. They were demanding income parity, or guaranteed price. Jimmy Carter, who claimed to be a farmer, was the president. But he couldn’t do it because he came under pressure. The result is that the movement failed in America.

The same movement began in 2020 in India. It has ‘succeeded’. We need to make MSP a legal right which means nothing can be purchased below the MSP. Nobody, whether it is the government or companies or private traders, can buy below that price. That should be the reform we should be aiming at to make agriculture viable and productive.


Q: Isn’t that the idea of a competitive economy?

Well, I think industry’s idea of a competitive economy is how to source the cheapest raw material. During the farmers’ protest, when I first made a statement that what agriculture needs is a fourth law which makes MSP a legal right for farmers, industry responded. Some of the BJP spokespersons wrote articles that if we were to bring in a fourth law then the  entire purpose of bringing in the three farm laws would be gone.

They were saying that the three laws would bring higher incomes to farmers. Well, if you are in any way willing to give a higher price to farmers then you should have no objection to a minimum benchmark price. But they don’t want a legal MSP because then they can’t ruthlessly exploit agriculture. This is what’s been going on all these years. Agriculture has been deliberately kept impoverished.

It was very clear that they would oppose the MSP. Industry’s idea of competitiveness is not based on creating efficiencies in their own production systems. It is based on where they source cheaper raw material, and get water and what better way than to exploit agriculture.


Q: But why has the farmers’ movement gone silent?

It was basically pressure from their constituencies that kept the leaders of the agitation together at that time. The average farmer was convinced that once companies came in, their land would be taken away. So that  fear brought them together.

The leaders, due to pressure from farming populations, had to give a semblance of solidarity.

But it wasn’t really there. We all know soon after the laws were withdrawn, they split. Some wanted to fight the upcoming elections, some wanted to oppose it. Even if they make an effort now, I don’t think they can come together and be a strong visible opposition or an alternative voice in this country for the 2024 election.

But nevertheless, I think that particular year itself gave a tremendous boost to farming populations. They now realize that they can, if they get together, form a political powerhouse in India, which is required. If a man who was a chaiwallah can become the prime minister I see no reason why a tractorwallah can’t become the prime minister.


Q: What was also brought into focus during the agitation was the mandi system and the need to strengthen it. Also rural infrastructure that would be more distributed so that farmers would have access to more mandis. Have any states done this?

You know, if you look at infrastructure development, the unwritten rule that we follow is to sacrifice agriculture for the sake of industry. The first rule is to deny farmers an income so that they have no option but to quit on their own.

The second rule is to reduce public sector investments in agriculture. Over the years, public sector investment in agriculture has come down drastically. A study by the Reserve Bank of India tells us that between 2001-02 and 2011, public sector investment came down to 0.4 percent. That’s 0.4 percent of GDP for 50 percent of the population. If  you look at the corporate sector, their share of tax concessions in the GDP is 6 percent. That kind of tax concession is also an investment for companies.

The government announced that real azadi for farmers is when they can sell their produce anywhere in the country. No. Real azadi for farmers will be when there are mandis closer to their farms spread throughout the country. Roughly, we have 7,000 mandis, the Agricultural Produce and Livestock Market Committee (APMC)- regulated mandis. What we need are 42,000 mandis if you have to ensure there is a mandi in every five-km radius. For this you have to invest in roads and not just highways.

We should have made adequate public sector investments in agriculture and the mandi is one classic arena. Second, of course, are storages. Recently, the government announced that they are going to use primary agricultural societies to build 700 storages. This is what the Grow More Food campaign had demanded in 1979 — build godowns across the country so that the burden is taken away from Punjab and Haryana, and it becomes easier to distribute food stocks locally.

It didn’t happen because priorities were different. The focus is on corporations, corporations and corporations. I’m happy about godowns being built, but I think efforts should be made to build 42,000 mandis. That would bring farmers closer to mandis and there would be less distress sales. That is the kind of infrastructure we need.

Just to give you an idea of how important this model is, some years ago Dr M.S. Swaminathan and I attended a summit on European Union agriculture.

Before we spoke we received a message from President Lula, this was during his first term. He had set up a ministry for food security to achieve zero hunger. Their food security minister had flown in to have a discussion with us and understand what they could learn from India. We put up a number of recommendations. But the most important one was that Brazil should set up a network of mandis. And Brazil did it.

Interestingly, Brazil has a mandi system now. In a 20-km radius they have a mandi. Anyone who has anything to sell can bring his produce to the mandi and the government is bound to purchase it.

They also set up a conditionality, which I think was positive, that those who bring their produce to the mandi must also put their children in school. So enrolment in schools went up. Officially, Brazil is hunger-free. They learnt from us. They prioritized what we told them. And look at us. Our policymakers are more concerned about four-lane highways and six-lane highways.

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  • kamal

    kamal - July 2, 2023, 5:16 p.m.

    Great article. Which Govt is being talked about ? The only one I know, is snug in the endlessly greedy pockets of the Corporates.