I read Mihir Shah, agriculturist, in The Best of Times The Worst of Times in the Hindu newspaper (13 June 2017) on the agrarian unrest in parts of India earlier this year; and listened to P. Sainath, the face of investigative rural journalism in India, in Nero’s Friends (2011) and in a 11 June 2017 video Why Are Our Farmers Angry. These two catalysed the consolidation of the many bits and pieces of thoughts and data whirling with an increasing intensity through my head these past few years. Some resurfaced from my personal experience of a very political youth opposing urban domination and caste, participation in peasant movements, and a rural life in a Western Uttar Pradesh village in the 1970s and 1980s, some came to me from of my contemporary 5 years experience as an organic farmer of 6 acres in Mangar village in Haryana since 2012, others from my becoming vegan (‘no milk products’) from a lifelong vegetarian in 2015 and the huge benefits to my health, some from experiencing the dramatic destruction of traditional livelihoods and ecology in the parts of India that I travel to once very few months. The state of civilisation across the globe consolidated my confusion and sense of despair, and validated my worst fears for the future. This desperation, perhaps not so paradoxically, provides me determination to make a difference in the ways I can.
It is indeed emotionally overwhelming to navigate the complex and inter-linked contemporary markers of inequality: the global landscape of markets, industrialisation, impact of modernity and technology, the status of agriculture and peasant life, rural and urban contradictions, and then the differences of caste, religion and region in India. As it came together, very slowly, my understanding grew and my anger rose. I realised that none of these markers of inequality are purely domestic issues, which they are, but to comprehend them fully requires one to possess a global perspective. Like minded people in the Rich post-industrial and Poor agrarian nations alike must come together in solidarity and resistance to make a difference at whatever level we aspire to.
Farming in India is enmeshed in multiple existentialist crises, though it is but one fly in the spider’s global web of the ‘market’. The problems of Indian farming are a proximate result of the long-standing extraction of surplus from agriculture and starving rural India of capital investment by the ruling urban elites since 1947. While the colonial British extracted wealth for the mother country, the post-independence leadership (with noble exceptions) extracted it for their interest. Till today, the higher castes in India overwhelmingly constitute the urban, educated elites running the bureaucracy, corporations and all private and public institutions; with a minority of aspiring middling rural castes co-opted into this closed club. However, the crisis today – since the 1991 victory of the markets, of consumption, of technology and private public capital that supports global markets – is more than the domestic causes of inequality in India, it is global superimposed on local. Humans have mastered the deepening and widening of an unsustainable and exploitative civilisation that treats people, all other living species, and planet Earth as comprising ‘resources’ to be made productive for consumption no matter the impact on human civilisation itself.
A Civilisational Crisis
This crisis has been building for over two hundred years in the now Rich post-industrial nations, and it has rippled across the world in the past 50 years to engulf the Poor agrarian nations. What is development, how does a nation measure the wealth, prosperity of its people, and progress of its civilisation? How much of it is material, and what else is there? What will remain if there is enormous paper wealth, but no Earth as we know it? The dominance of our species over all others is causing irreversible harm to the environment, and while we can claim with confidence that we dominate all other species this dominance has not increased the ability of humans to live in peace with each other. There is, in fact, is no change for the better in Psychological Man despite this visible progress.
Development has established a fossil-fuel dependant, energy-intensive and inorganic waste-producing system that burns unsustainable amounts of raw materials torn and sucked out from the bowels of the earth. While mostly true of most urban settlements worldwide, Indian cities are specially unlivable and amongst the most polluted on this planet with dangerous levels of air and water pollution, overflowing and untreated sewage, terribly polluted rivers, inadequate and expensive public transport, and waste on the clogged streets. And this acute crisis of urbanisation when only 33% of India’s population is urban or peri-urban, what will happen in the next 100 years when this percentage reaches Rich country levels of 90% + urbanisation? Does anyone who advocates a model based solely on urban living as a higher method, divorced from nature in every possible way, think of the implications to Earth?
Capital to finance a consumption-driven model is firmly in the hands of a few faceless oligopolic (if not monopolistic cartels) mega-corporations, and they pretty much do as they like across national boundaries in their quest for maximising financial returns. It is a massive global enterprise. The lives of people across the globe are ruled by consumption of what they don’t need and didn’t know they wanted, and the globalised production machine we live in spews out uniform goods (food, clothes, shelter, luxury et al) without regard to either traditions or to the cost to the environment. Borders have hardened for people movement due to strident nationalism that excludes all the people-not-like-us, while consumption goods flow across effortlessly. A globalised consumption world is at hand, the local no longer holds sway. The livelihood of the hand weaver in Assam or Kutch is devastated by products from power-looms in Ichalkaranji, and global industrialism works hand in glove with a globalised domestic business class. Witness the ‘jobless growth’ in the formal sector during the past two decades in India, as capital intensive industrial machinery at from the Rich nations is deployed to meet the consumption needs of the well-off in India; and in turn the services sector ‘de-industrialises’ India. The distance between the displaced weaver / landless laborer and the urban middle class is an insurmountable chasm that grows deeper and wider every day. A recent study by Chancel & Piketty, in July 2017, states inequality in India is at its worst level since the government started collecting income tax data in 1922.
The visible result of development is inequality within Rich and Poor countries, and between Rich and Poor nations. Only 0.2% of India’s households earn more than Rupees 100,000 a month – 2.4 million households, in a nation of over 1.2 billion people. One can overlook the economic forces of post-industrialisation only if one is ideologically committed, but can even one such disregard such massive and growing inequality? There simply aren’t enough jobs around in the traditional industry and service sectors, and the ones in the hinterland are being destroyed at a fast rate. In addition, the learning – language, technology, educational institutions – to master the modern levers of production is increasingly held with a handful of elite disproportionately living in Rich nations and in the cities of the Poor nations; this establishes systemic and unsurmountable barriers for the poor. The microscopic number of the brightest from the urban and rural poor who graduate to the urban elite don’t – cannot – look back.
An irreversible crisis envelops rural India, home today to 67% of India’s population. 58.5% of India’s households (5 people each) are agriculturists who live on only 14% of the nation’s GDP; 92.9% of rural households live on less than Rs. 20,000 a month; 85% of landholding households own less than 5 acres; farming input costs have trebled and more since liberalisation in 1991 while farmer produce prices remain dependent on the vagaries of increasingly erratic weather, the ‘free’ market and exploitative middlemen; cash crops have taken over our 160 million hectares, and traditional food crops like millets and lentils have been crowded out with a terrible cost on nutrition security for the farmer families and on the environment. The intensive farming techniques of the green revolution of the 1960s have led to a sickness of the soil that has created this unfolding ecological crisis.
Thus, millions of family-farmers with small and marginal land holdings, millions of landless laborers dependant on the farm economy, and millions of rural artisans whose traditional livelihoods have been destroyed by modernity are in an existentialist crisis. Notwithstanding the visibility of large agricultural corporations, 70% of the food eaten in the world is yet produced on the farms of these very smallholders.
The current agrarian crisis – we have been in almost continuous crisis in agriculture, so each time the crisis levels reach a peak it is almost as if it were a new crisis – has deep roots in the attitude of India’s urban elites of politicians, bureaucracy and middle class towards agriculture and their rural brethren. Villagers were lesser children of India in British times, and also in the post-Independence decades when Nehruvian thought was enamoured of the politically sexy Soviet-style Socialism without regard to the geological, geographic, social and economic conditions of our vastly diverse subcontinent. The post-independence ‘brown sahibs’ were even more dismissive, if it were possible, of the villagers than the British. This attitude led to ‘priority’ being given to villages and agriculture, while resources were overwhelming extracted from the rural areas and allocated to cities and to industrialisation. This attitude dominates today, even as the contemporary ‘brown sahibs’ coat themselves in the saffron of a non-existent, monolithic Hindu religion.
This prioritisation of the city – where industrialisation and services predominate as livelihoods – dramatically accelerated since 1991 when economic liberalisation provided a lesser role for the government in production as well as marked a withdrawal of oversight of the private sector and the ‘market’ – exactly when it was needed the most. This liberalisation was itself was a product of the Urban Bias in Indian, and global, re-structuring of society where post-industrialisation and consumerism was seen as the panacea to all ills. For those impatient with the number of people dependant on agriculture and who want these villagers to either disappear and die, or move to ‘modern’ occupations, I am sorry to say even in 2050 AD rural India will be home to over 800 million Indians. The village will not die.
Peasant Agitations & Suicides are the most heart-rendering manifestations of the Agrarian Crisis; these are the ones city dwellers hear about the most and hence feel is the Agrarian Crisis itself. More indebted, desperate farmers will join the 300,000 farmers who have taken their own lives over the last two decades before any solution – even if sincere and immediate – can have an impact. More likely, the terrible conditions in Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra (where 65% of all suicides take place) will continue to claim lives. These deaths, as terrible as they are, are just a manifestation of the two core issues that are at the root of the agrarian crisis: the capital and social starvation of agriculture and a turning away from creating rural non-farm livelihoods.
The interactions of humans with animal and plant life and the environment is one of dominance, violence and extermination. In the same vein, human civilisations across the globe work to ‘master’ nature with extreme exploitation of the soil, air and water without a thought to sustainability. The establishment of the extensive market economy has forever changed the human-nature relationship from growing food to growing for the market. The state we are in today is a natural progression for humans, and there is little to look back with nostalgia as our ancestors too pushed for Man’s dominance of the natural world and conflict with fellow humans. Man, in this analysis, remains unchanged – exploitative and totalitarian.
For thousands of years before the advent of water and steam power in the 18th century, humans lived in a kind of forced harmony with nature and other species because Man had not yet discovered the means or built the hubris to ‘conquer’ nature – they did not have an alternative, as they did not possess the modern tools we hold today that can extract ‘resources’ to mould into ‘products’ that people can ‘consume’ in an ‘efficient market economy’. The acceleration of urban settlements and industrial civilisation in the Rich nations from the 1600s is well documented; we have by now reached in fact exceeded the limits of growth, but we carry on nonetheless.
We continue to poison the soil, the environment and ourselves with chemicals manufactured with high-energy intensity using fossil fuels. Since the 1880s, when fertilisers first made their debut, we have dramatically increased the use of chemical fertilisers specially after the First World War. Today we apply 200 million tonnes a year of chemical urea, phosphorous, potassium to the soil worth $130 billion annually. Pesticides first started being manufactured in 1946 by the suddenly silent factories of the Second World War, and we will apply 4 million tonnes of pesticides in 2017 worth a $81 billion. Not surprisingly, 98.9% of all agricultural land on Earth uses these chemicals and only 1.1% of all agricultural land on earth is farmed without chemicals. (Ironically, 65% of this ‘organic farming’ is in Australian pastures that feed industrial beef farms.) South Asia is the biggest growth market for the global chemicals industries, with India applying 30 million tonnes of fertilisers a year in 2017 from 141 fertiliser plants i.e. over 100 kg a year on every hectare of arable land; a far cry from 50,000 tonnes in the entire country in 1950.
Large corporations in Rich nations apply these chemicals and other unsustainable, industrial farming methods on large (thousands of hectares) corporate owned farms – hybrid and genetically modified seeds, monoculture crops, fossil fuel based large sowing and reaping machines. In Poor countries like India, tractors have replaced bullocks, and expensive machines continue to replace abundant labour which is good for Mahindra but not for the landless peasant whose livelihood is eliminated. Traditional, sustainable methods that should have been updated using contemporary technology and tools have instead been long forgotten. Input-heavy farming of cash crops for the market (cotton, sugarcane, oilseeds), food crops for the market (wheat, rice), instead of food crops for consumption (millets, lentils) now are the cause of farmers to fail on repayments of risky loans taken for applying expensive chemical-heavy and hybrid and GMO seed inputs.
Why, when there are tens of thousands (FAO says 7,000) of crops that are known to be cultivated by man, are only 30 odd grown widely? Of these, why do only 3 – wheat, rice and maize – constitute 50% of all food crops grown on the planet? Farmers across India too have reduced cultivation of ‘coarse cereals’ from 28% of total cropped area in 1970 to 15% in 2009, wheat moved from 10% to 15%; oilseeds increased from 10% to 14%, sugarcane doubled from 1.6% to 2.5%, fruits and vegetables also doubled from 2.5% to 5% in the same period. Fruits and vegetables (cash crops, for the urban population) were in fact 25% in terms of value of all crops, second only to Cereals. These significant changes in cropping patterns have changed eating habits that are democratically impacting the health of all classes of the Indian population. The Indian medical fraternity and policy makers are running scared with the epidemics of heart disease, diabetes and cancer that are already upon us, and they say the worst is yet to come in the next 30 years.
Seed Sovereignty Three massive corporations with a collective market capitalisation of over $250 billion – ChemChina+Syngenta (China), Bayer+Monsanto (Germany), and Dow-Dupont (USA) – own over 75% of the world seed market. These same 3 corporations are also the largest pesticide corporations in the world, with global revenues of over $30 billion a year. And these same corporations are the ones most heavily invested in genetically modified (GM) seed research, the next frontier that they hope will give them absolute control over the production of food in the coming century.
Water Crisis. We are pumping out more water from the earth’s underground rivers than we are able and willing to replenish and, in our mindlessness, we are poisoning the overground rivers, ponds and lakes with industrial and urban waste. Two thirds of the pumped-out aquifer water is used by agriculture in India, 28% by industry an only 10% by households. Tens of millions of farmers use submersible pumps to feed their post-Green Revolution water-inappropriate crops of sugarcane and rice in North-West India. Wheat, the high yielding Green Revolution variety, needs twice as much water as traditional tall wheat varieties like the MP306 that I grow at Aman Bagh. In Maharashtra, 3% farmers on 6-8% of the agricultural land use 65% of the water to grow sugarcane; encouraged by political leadership who looks away from this race to the bottom. Punjab has no ecological reason to grow rice in a water deficient area, but it remains the largest producer of rice in India – our Malayali brethren in Kerala (rice growers once and rice eaters all) all eat rice grown in Punjab (wheat eaters all), if you can believe it. Basmati exporters export the rice, along with it they export our precious water: in the name of prosperity of the farmer and agriculture the companies that make tractors, pumps, fertilisers, pesticides all make money hand over fist; th trader, the middleman, the politician and the consumer all gain. The farmer gets impoverished in direct proportion to the growth of wealth of the rest of society.
Combine this voracious farmland appetite for water in India with climate change and erratic rain, and cities that wastefully use water as well as poison the water bodies with sewage and industrial waste – we have a massive crisis building. Cities are unique as their concretised roads and buildings stop water acquirer recharge from rains. Society has to revive old methods of water availability and establish new systems to stop the agricultural, industrial and urban poisoning of water, instead we have hugely expensive, grandiose and environmentally disastrous plans approved by politicians to link rivers.
1 kg of potatoes takes 100 liters of water, wheat 1,000 liters, rice 1,400 liters, and 1 kg of beef takes 8,000 to 13,000 liters of water to produce. The world eats more and more rice and beef every year, each person in some Rich nations eats 150 kilograms of beef each year: thereby drinking 1.5 million liters of water a year.
A case in point is an urbanised village of Saligao in Goa: a resident (also the Sarpanch, or the democratically elected village head) extracts many tankers of water every day from land he owns and sells them all over the state to the many tourist hotels and homes. Business is good as he buys new tankers every year to add to his fleet as the demand in water stressed Goa explodes every tourist-overrun summer. There is no legal definition of the rights he enjoys to the underground water aquifers which flow to his land from the surrounding hills, there is no method to control how much water he can withdraw, and for what purpose. The state is unable to provide water for the uncontrolled and environmentally disastrous growth of the tourist and construction industry, and closes its eyes when a private entrepreneur fills that gap for personal gain. This story of water stress and underground water extraction is repeated across millions of locations across rural and urban areas.
Cropping patterns in Indian agriculture changed from more coarse millets and lentils in the 1970s to favour wheat and rice since the 1990s. India has witnessed an exponential increase in food processing and packaging technology – with artificial colouring, preservatives and added hydrogenated fatty acids to enhance product shelf life – for the increasingly numbers of urban consumers with little time to cook fresh food in their busy lives.
Cooking oil use increased exponentially as India prospered and trade in agricultural commodities increased with the onset of the WTO in 1995, and palm oil is now the largest commercially used cooking medium in India; imported from Malaysia and Indonesia where tropical forests have been cleared to make room for this profitable cash crop. This toxic oil, considered terrible for the heart, now runs through the arteries of a majority of Indians; in addition to vegetable oils that are being overused in our predominantly vegetarian nation. Land under Sugarcane and its output has multiplied, and consumption of sugar has gone through the roof especially in newly urbanised India – we are today the largest consumer of sugar in the world though per capita only in the median at 20 kilograms. The corporations salivate, there is so much more sugar to be sold to the hundreds of millions.
We have witnessed an exponential increase since the Seventies in the use of food preservation chemicals; a change from hand processed multiplicity of cereals to machine processed and de-nutrified wheat and white rice; increase in the usage of oil by more and more people; massive increases in sugar consumption and equally huge increases in consumption of animal fats in the form of meat, milk, ghee, cream, paneer and yogurt. To top all these dietary changes, the urbanising populace is increasingly employed in sedentary service jobs, and they have no culture of physical exercise as they age.
Is it any surprise that the Indian population is at the cusp of the worst multiple health epidemics of diabetes, heart disease and cancer that we have ever seen?
The civilizational break where food is grown in the village and consumption takes place in the rapidly expanding cities is one of the causes of the terrible state of urban life. The organic cycle of growth and decay has been rent asunder and the city has no knowledge of how to absorb the organic and inorganic waste it generates. This waste simply piles up in tens of thousands of waste dumps spread around our cities, and poisons the environment.
In India, home to many of the most-polluted and chaotic cities on Earth, the urbanisation project has either already collapsed or is constantly on the verge of collapse. The speed of consumerism and the inorganic waste it generates, rural poverty that attracts vast numbers of the dispossessed to the cities, and the widespread corruption and sloth in our urban administration makes for a perfect urban storm. Indian cities are simply unliveable, not only for some time in the year as they once were, but all the time.
Cities built without the human at heart. Cities without effective and affordable public transport, cities with scores of vast malls but without public libraries, good public schools and universities, roads without rain water drainage, concrete and glass buildings without sensitivity for the local weather, cities with condominiums but without water or sewage systems, administration without service. Imitative cities, exploitative cities, cities that leave us empty.
This isn’t what we expected when we set out to replace the casteist, patriarchal, exploitative village society while retaining its precious proximity to nature, the life of freedom of the self-cultivating peasant, its quiet solitude and its sense of shared agrarian community.
I see these multiple crises of human civilisation clearly today, bringing acceptance, anger, and a renewed desire for action. The ideal solution – if there is one – is for regular people like me to influence public policy actions required to address each of the crises, actions that influences the courts, governments, and corporations. Influencing consumers is useful, but that diffused path to systemic change is slow and time, as always, is short. However, not all of us can be a Sunita Narain – most of us walk our own lonely paths.
I write to share perspectives so these may take me further along the path to collaboration with others. I farm naturally, without inflicting pain on the earth. Aman Bagh provides employment to 5 marginal peasant and landless households. I support handloom and handicraft communities, and I increasingly consume mindfully and consume less. I can and will resist, it is never to late for that.