Why do Farmers Protest?

Why do Farmers Protest?


The historical memory of society is short, and today we know nothing or very little about the struggles and movements of the peasantry over the past century, especially before independence when farmers were exploited both by feudal landlords and their British masters. The impoverishment of the peasant and the village was symbolic of extractive, foreign rule; and Gandhi burnt this into the collective conscience of India from Champaran. Redemption for the village, and the nation, was to come after Independence.

The Nehruvian consensus, in which the urban elite were not only complicit but were instigators and beneficiaries, saw agriculture as the source of wealth extraction to build an industrial India copying Socialist models, like collectivisation, that have been proven to be singularly unsuited to our society – and did nothing to reduce inequality. We trashed Gandhi thoughtlessly, in a hurry to ‘catch up’ with the rich nations, and have created little other than islands of prosperity for the urban elite.

There was a brief period in the Seventies when city dwellers looked on in bemusement, exasperation and then in anger when Charan Singh, the rural ideologue of independent India, became prominent in national politics with his agriculture-first and agriculture-led worldview (the urban ideologues called him ‘backward’ and ‘kulak’); and rough-hewn peasants flooded the capital city to protest urban bias in resource allocation and demand that their existence be acknowledged.

“There has always been lack of equilibrium, rather a sort of antagonism between cities and the countryside. This is particularly so in our land where the gulf of inequality between the capitalist class and the working class pales into insignificance before that which exists between the peasant farmer in our village and the middle-class town dweller. India is really two worlds-rural and urban. The relationship between the countryside and the cities is, therefore, a vital problem to us.” (Singh, Charan. India’s Economic Nightmare. 1984, pg. 212)

This peasant solidarity was short-lived, and Mandal broke this up in the Nineties into quarrelling castes looking for a leg-up for their clansmen as the jobs-grab in the public sector became underway. The fragmented nature of Indian society militates against solidarity on any other fracture line other than caste or religion, and the BJP has consolidated the thread of Hindu solidarity. The BJP today doesn’t really care about peasants or farming, comprised as they are of urban leaders or rural leadership co-opted into the urban elite, they just want power to shape a ‘rising India’ – quite like the Congress co-opted hopes, interests and factions into the umbrella coalition of patronage. The baby who cries the loudest gets a pacifier thrust into the mouth, while the parent finds enlightenment in ideology.

BJP notwithstanding, caste remains the daily and proximate reality for all Indians – recently, dominant rural castes such as the Jats, Marathas, Patels struck for reservations as farming is non-remunerative and no new livelihoods are being created; thus the fight for well-paying and little-work jobs in the public sector. In the past few months, we have seen a ‘farmer’ identity re-emerge and widespread protests in Maharashtra (where the BJP government quickly caved in) and Madhya Pradesh (where police firing to quell violent mobs has taken lives of protesting peasants, and the alarm bells are ringing in BJP offices). They will pander, but nothing will really change as power lies in resource allocation by the government and the public sector banking system that is captured by the Tatas, Ambanis, Adanis and their ilk.

Michael Lipton’s 1976 book on urban bias as the cause of the poverty of poor nations can help urban citizens understand how our very own ‘Black Skin White Masks’ thinking keeps our country behind.

“The most important class conflict in the poor countries of the world today is not between labour and capital. Not is it between foreign and national interests. It is between the rural classes and the urban classes. The rural sector contains most of the poverty, and most of the low-cost sources of potential advance; but the urban sector contains most of the articulateness, organisation and power. […..] Scarce land, which might grow millets and beansprouts for hungry villagers, instead produces a trickle of costly calories from meat and milk, which few except the urban rich […] can afford. Scarce investment, instead of going into water pumps to grow rice, is wasted on urban waterways. Scarce human skills design and administer, not clean village wells and agricultural extension services but world boxing championships in showpiece stadia. […] The damage has been increased by misguided ideological imports, liberal and Marxism, and by the towns success in buying off part of the rural elite, thus transferring most of the costs of the process to the rural poor.” Page 13. Lipton, Michael. Why Poor People Stay Poor, 1976


Hard at Work

Changing Structure of the Indian Workforce

  • 46.1% of India’s workforce (adults, male and female, above 15 years of age) is employed in Agriculture: economists call this the Primary sector.
  • 21.8% in Manufacturing and Construction, the ’Secondary Sector’; and
  • 32% in Services Tertiary sector (government, telecom, hospitality, entertainment, IT, retain, education, FMCG, accounting, legal);

Data can be neutral as it hides behind precise decimal percentages, not conveying the reality of grinding poverty for a majority of our fellow citizens. This table is from the Government’s 5th Annual Employment Survey 2015-16, and we start to see the contours of urban bias. Overwhelmingly, 63% of urban dwellers are employed in Services of all kinds moving them towards prosperity, and equally large 58% of our villagers are engaged in Agriculture, mired in poverty. The Bharat versus India divide couldn’t be clearer.

Indian Workforce (above the age of 15) 2016

  Primary Secondary Tertiary
Rural 58.5% 19.5% 22%
Urban 7.8% 28.9% 63.1%
All India 46.1% 21.8% 32%

Fewer Indians live in the cities; the majority is yet in the villages. The Census of India 2011 states 68.84% of us live in rural areas. Of the ones enumerated ‘urban’, many live in sprawling villages called ‘census towns’ which have no commonality with the facilities a city is expected to provide to its citizens. These are indeed yet villages, but we are splitting hairs, as it doesn’t matter if our population is 68 or 75% rural. The point remains India is yet an overwhelmingly rural society, though no longer as agrarian. And poor to boot – but I am getting ahead of myself.

So – more than two thirds of our citizens live in resource-starved villages, where electricity either is not there at all (300 million Indians live without electricity) or arrives with crazy voltage fluctuations for not more than 12 hours a day. Where schools are abysmal, health services are non-existent, banks don’t provide loans and the local moneylender is the only source in times of need, cooking gas is not delivered to villages, people work in the heat, rain and cold to grow food for all of us, and they get the short end of the stick by un-remunerative prices and bias in resource allocation as city dwellers want their food cheap and want all the capital extracted from the village to be invested in their roads, schools, colleges, clinics, hospitals, and now their malls.

“So long as the elite’s interest, backgrounds and sympathies remain predominantly urban, the countryside will get the ‘priority’ but the city will get the resources.” Pg. 18. Lipton, Michael. Why Poor People Stay Poor, 1976

Why, please ask yourself, does the city get 24 hour electricity, schools, colleges, dispensaries, hospitals, roads, public transport, even cooking gas and the village either not at all or services that are a pale shadow of their urban selves? Why this inequality in allocation of resources?

“Leaders of labour, and of public and private capital and management, in construction, railways, and government services; prominent academics and other intellectuals; influential editors and radio producers – these, and not just leaders of industry are the threateners, promisers, lobbyists, dinner companions, flatterers, financiers and friends to senior administrators and politicians in all countries, rich or poor. They are almost always ‘urban’, but seldom just ‘industrial’, in their interests, preferences, friends, place of residence, and above all perceptions.” Pg. 62. Lipton, Michael. Why Poor People Stay Poor, 1976

The urban middle classes remain deeply unhappy and grumpy, though, specially the wealthy who travel the world; their measure of a good quality of life is cities in the Rich world, not just living much better than rural India. But are urban folk like you and I just ‘bad’? Or are we just pawns? Lipton coined the term ‘ dispositional bias’

“The analytic mistakes made by honest and intelligent people, in the course of justifying heavily urban resource allocations, suggest a prevailing disposition to make and justify such allocations.” Page 63. Lipton, Michael. Why Poor People Stay Poor, 1976


32% of the rural workforce was engaged in some form of Manufacturing in 1994: including village, small scale and handcrafted livelihoods – this dropped to 17% in 2015. A young economist, Amit Basole, calls this ‘rural de-industrialisation’ and points to the creation of rural non-farm manufacturing jobs as the priority for society for generating income in rural India. (“What Does the Rural Economy Need”. EPW, 4 March 2017.)

1994 2010 2015
Rural Manufacturing 32% 22% 17%

So, not only do most Indian live in the villages, their livelihoods moved away from the little local manufacturing that were engaged in. What did these villagers, displaced from rural manufacturing, do? They moved to Construction (up from 11% in 1994 to 28% in 2015), not exactly a well paying, health enhancing, secure profession; they earned from MNREGA; or they joined the army of beggars and itinerant labor on city streets.

The Rural-Urban Income Inequality

There is significant inequality within the rural areas, and our villages are cesspools of casteism, communalism, patriarchy and feudalism. However, all this pales in front of the inequality between rural and urban India.

 Household Average Monthly Earning

< Rs 5,000 5001-10,000 10,001-20,000 > 20,000
Rural 27.3% 49.6% 16% 7.1%
Urban 9.3% 24.6% 28.5% 26.7%
All India 22.1% 45.5% 19.6% 12.8%

A miniscule 0.2% of Indian households (on average, a household has 4 people) earn more than Rs. 100,000 a month.

2% of households earn more than Rs 50,000 a month. (That covers all the people, men and women, reading this post). An overwhelming 86.3% of these lucky people live in the city.

Only 12.8% of all Indian households earn more than Rs 20,000 a month. 75% of households earning between Rs 20,000 to Rs 50,000 a month (Rs. 5,000 a month per head), live in the city. Even at this level of subsistence, the city wins hands down.

But hang on, the numbers now start to go in favor of the villager as we move along the spectrum of earning. An overwhelming majority, 92.9%, of all rural households (4 people in this house) earns less than Rs 20,000 a month. That is Rs 5,000 a month per person on food, clothes, shelter health, education, marriages, old age, death, and entertainment.

Now, onto grinding poverty – a HOUSEHOLD of 4 earning less than Rs 5,000 a month; Rs. 1,250 a month per person on food, clothes, shelter health, education, marriages, old age, death, and entertainment. 75% of these citizens live in the villages.

The poverty line is even below this. Less than Rs 30 a day on food, clothes, shelter health, education, marriages, old age, death, and entertainment. Get it?

To convert these percentages to a number reality: we have a population of 472 million older than 15 years, 308 million in the villages and 164 in the cities. Or 833 million people in the villages and 377 million in the cities. Which means 262.5 million people who have Rs 1,250 a month to live on. Yes, rupees 1,250 a month. An overwhelming 85% of these, or 227 million, live in the villages.

GDP of India 2015 (2004-05 Prices)

  Primary % Agriculture Secondary %Manufacturing Tertiary %Services
1950-51 51.81 14.16 33.25
1960-61 42.56 19.30 38.25
1970-71 41.95 20.48 37.22
1980-81 35.39 24.29 39.92
1990-91 29.53 27.63 42.55
2000-01 22.26 27.25 50.49
2013-14 (p) 13.94 26.13 59.93

The urban elite looks on approvingly, pointing out how our economy is (correctly) headed in the direction of the Rich economies where less than 2% people are in agriculture and most of the GDP is generated from a range of Services – the employment of the future.

“Civil services […] want to modernise fast; they rightly observe rich nations are non-agricultural and that their own agriculture is poor; and they wrongly conclude that rapid industrialisation at the expense of agriculture can produce rapid development. […] When confronted with its own inconsistencies – notably the inability of a poor and resource-starved rural sector to generate surpluses, especially at unattractive prices – urban-biased planners talk of ‘top priority for agriculture’, pass another paper on land reform, or speak of green revolutions, Only in the last resort do they allocate scarce resources to the rural sector, and specially to the deficit farmer, who has least to offer their urban constituency’ Page 65-66. Lipton, Michael. Why Poor People Stay Poor, 1976

But ….. 46% of our labor force engaged in agriculture generates only 13.94 paisa of every rupee; while 54% of the labor force (in manufacturing and services) get 86.06 paisa of every rupee generated.

In 1950-51, life was very tough in the villages – 81.6 % of the population generated only 51.81 paisa of every rupee of GDP. But life then was yet less unequal than today when 58.5% of our citizens in the villages produce only 13.94 paisa of every rupee of GDP.

Even if the unequal rural-urban GDP ratio of 1950 was maintained today, I calculate that the peasant citizen engaged in agriculture in 2017 should have produced 37.13% of the GDP – but he produces only 13.94%. Clearly, the terms of trade have gone terribly against the farmer. And that is why he protests.

What We Can Do

The motivated and educated townsman spend time educating the rural poor, the dalits, on his exploitation by the rural rich, but they neglect to lay bare the realities of the much worse exploitation by the coalition of the urban interests. Society needs cross class and caste solidarity in the rural areas to pull resources from the city, but I see no political force moving us in that direction.

To those who clamor for ‘land reform’ without understanding the implications of distributing scarce land in a land-poor (2.5% of the worlds land) and population-rich sub-continent (with 17.5% of the people); those who would favor handkerchief size plots to all men and women and distribute poverty equally, Lipton has this to say.

“The constant snuffling after the odd capitalist farmer […] is even self-defeating: low ceilings on rural landholding are much harder to render acceptable when nothing is done about (much greater) concentrations of intra-urban property or about rural-urban inequality. Big farmers win sympathy if in opposing land-reform, they can plausibly claim that it denies the countryman the chance to climb a short ladder to modest wealth and influence, while the long ladders remain open to the townsman. Equalisation, to win friends even among the fair-minded well-to-do, should itself be distributed equally.“ Page 111. Lipton, Michael. Why Poor People Stay Poor, 1976

We need a mind-shift in the urban power elite, a re-orientation of priorities from the city and industry – to the village and to agriculture. We need to stop rural migration to the cities, if only in the self-interest of the existing urban dwellers as these horrific places called cities are drowning in waves of immigrants adding to the a world of chaos, sewage, garbage and violence.

We need to build the villages in their own unique image; first, we need to make agriculture more remunerative. We need to improve the terms of trade for agriculture so family farms – marginal, small, medium and large – can earn more from agriculture; we need to create non-farm manufacturing jobs in the rural areas in handicrafts, handlooms, and village industry; we need investment in agricultural extension for better cattle rearing & health, better seeds, organic farming practices; we need investment in irrigation and traditional forms of water security; we need better administrators and more of them in rural districts, better extension workers; better scientists knowing real agriculture than how to retain their jobs in urban ‘Agricultural Universities’; along with price increases we need to stop producing tractors that make Mahindra rich and instead popularise labor. We need to reallocate resources where they generate more return for society, rather than in capital intensive projects that provide private returns to those already with capital.

[…] small farms and mass rural development with labour-intensive investments first, a switch to capital-intensive rural development later, urban-based industrialisation later still. […] Almost every successful industrialisation has required prior agricultural transformation. It is courting disillusionment, not hope, to put the car before the horse. Pg. 215. Lipton, Michael. Why Poor People Stay Poor, 1976

And we, the urbanites, need to spend time in the villages understanding agriculture and the challenges facing village society.

“Perhaps, in a few poor countries, a really efficient, egalitarian mass agriculture can offer a long-run alternative to global industrialisation.” Page 22. Lipton, Michael. Why Poor People Stay Poor, 1976

Come visit Aman Bagh, teach us and learn with us. www.amanbagh.org


Data sources:

http://labourbureaunew.gov.in/UserContent/EUS_5th_1.pdf (5th Annual Employment Survey 2015-16.)

http://censusindia.gov.in/2011-prov-results/paper2/data_files/india/Rural_Urban_2011.pdf (Census 2011)




About Harsh Singh Lohit

Farming at Aman Bagh is about everything that matters: it keeps me connected to the real, village India, and provides a haven of tranquility and permanence.
This entry was posted in Books i'm Reading, Policy & Politics, Rural Village Life. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Why do Farmers Protest?

  1. Nita Chowdhury says:

    Excellent. But pl use / rely less on Lipton and more on EPw etc.
    Recently even Bibek Debroy and Ashok Gulati have pointed us in the right direction.


  2. Sudhir says:

    Thanks for wonderful write up. Undoubtedly the urban bias has created a complex society in rural spaces. It will be more interesting to read this in view of varieties of rural protests in India in the last five years.


  3. Pingback: Harsh Singh Lohit: Why do farmers protest? - Ecologise

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