How Indian middle class's desire for 'cheap' food is harming farmers
Indian farmers protesting, Gwalior, MP (Source: Wikimedia Commons) Photograph: (Others)
As the media runs endless reports on the looming agrarian crisis, the intended consumers of these pieces, the English-speaking middle-class in India, remain largely unperturbed. Farmers killed in police firing in Madhya Pradesh, farmers spilling milk and blocking highways in Maharashtra, farmers agitating in Jantar Mantar - these are news we have become used to. It does not perturb us anymore.
It remains a fact that most urban Indians above a certain economic threshold are not really concerned about the intensifying distress of the Indian farmers as long there is enough food on their table. Given the increase in real income of this class in recent years and the decreasing proportion of that income being spent on food, only a sharp increase in food prices would seriously disturb this complacency. And as we know from a cursory reading of the news, the crux of the present crisis is exactly the reverse- low price of food crops, especially at the farmers' end. Notwithstanding this apparent mismatch in their concerns, there are actually critical links between the farmers and the middle class. It needs to be urgently recognised that the relation between the two classes is mediated by agriculture as a vocation. The Indian middle class can't remain oblivious of the plight of the farmers.
Most urban Indians above a certain economic threshold are not really concerned about the intensifying distress of the Indian farmers as long there is enough food on their table
The first rather obvious linkage is about food. A stable supply of relatively cheap food is a precondition for continuous accumulation in the economy. Inexpensive food is necessary to realise the growth numbers that the middle class take quite seriously for their own sake. This is not lost on analysts and economic forecasters who justifiably make a big deal every year about monsoon predictions and consequent projections of agricultural growth and how that eventually feeds into overall economic growth.
For a number of reasons, reasonably good rainfall being an important one, the farm sector has managed to do pretty well in the last few years, and food inflation has consequently been on check. This has satisfied the precondition of providing cheap food for economic growth. The problem, however, is not with the quantum of food (and non-food crops) produced but the abysmal conditions under which the overwhelming majority of Indian farmers produce their output and keep the economy moving. Even if we keep aside the alarming farmer suicide numbers, which the state tries to explain away variously by factors unrelated to agrarian distress, official NSSO data reveal that the average earnings of farming families are only marginally above the national poverty line. What is worse, for several major agricultural states, the average income is actually less than the poverty line.
A plausible question at this point is why do people continue in agriculture and keep contributing to the national supply-pool of primary commodities if the returns are so low and inadequate? The answer, unsurprisingly, is compulsion. Non-farm avenues of employment, though extremely important as a supplementary livelihood strategy, are not in themselves remunerative or secure enough to altogether abandon agriculture. This explains why almost half of the workforce is still employed?primarily?in agriculture and related activities in India despite farming being economically unviable.
In some perverse sense, for those of us in the middle-class who do not live off agriculture directly, this state of affairs seems to serve us well. So, the thought process of the middle-class, at the risk of caricaturing it, is somewhat like this: the business pages tell us that retail inflation is at an ‘all-time low’, our vegetable seller is not quoting alarmingly high prices anymore, and mangoes are actually plenty and very affordable! The middle-class is, therefore, happy.
As the agrarian crisis deepens, there is a threat that consumption levels of farmers will fall below a lower threshold, and sustaining social reproduction will become impossible for them
The farmers don’t have anywhere else to go and continue to produce for their own survival and in the process, allow us to reap the benefits of the high-growth economy that we are part of. Of course, this growth is not inclusive in any sense even for the non-agricultural population. The large pool of informal workers continues to live precariously with subsistence earnings but their survival is also made possible by the relatively cheap supply of food from agriculture.
Apart from this direct economic function, a less appreciated political function deserves mention as well. Given the continuing deficit of employment generation that plagues India, agriculture provides a livelihood of last resort- an option for millions to socially reproduce themselves under conditions slightly better than absolute destitution. If it were not for agriculture, the social disgruntlement with the country’s path of accumulation and development would have been much more palpable, possibly to an extent of actually destabilising that very process. In simple terms, agriculture acts as a safety valve against the large-scale social conflict that could derail the growth trajectory that most in the middle-class has taken for granted in the last ten to fifteen years and are dependent on for their ever-increasing consumption.
How much longer can Indian farmers be squeezed before they give in? As the agrarian crisis deepens, there is a threat that consumption levels of farmers will fall below a lower threshold, and sustaining social reproduction will become impossible for them. This will endanger the accumulation process both economically and politically as both the food and the livelihood linkages will be severed.
This doomsday scenario, however, is not inevitable. Rising consciousness and mobilisation among farmers, which has already started, can generate a national movement that is more confident in demanding their entitlement in the form of remunerative conditions of production, rather than begging for charity.? The government on its part can be more cognizant of the larger utility of a healthy agricultural sector for economic growth. It can pre-empt the potential conflict with farmers by shelving their current ‘disaster relief’ stance and coming up with a longer-term plan of rejuvenating agriculture which combines production gains with income gains for farmers as essential?twin goals.?