Interview: A.R. Vasavi

The way forward for agriculture according to a new report from the Network of Rural and Agrarian Studies (NRAS)

Print edition : February 12, 2021

A.R. Vasavi. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Interview with A.R. Vasavi, social anthropologist and trustee at the Punarchith collective.

A NEW report published by scholars associated with the Network of Rural and Agrarian Studies (NRAS) provides a comprehensive and critical overview of the state of contemporary rural India. Titled “State of Rural and Agrarian India Report 2020: Rethinking Productivity and Populism Through Alternative Approaches”, the report focusses on the key structural factors that have marked rural India’s economic and ecological conditions and also suggests alternative ideas, paradigms and methodologies to address the entrenched problems.

The authors of the report, who have been thinking about these issues for the past decade, are the sociologist Richa Kumar (an associate professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi), Nikhit Kumar Agrawal (a PhD student in anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles), P.S. Vijayshankar (founding member of the Samaj Pragati Sahayog, Madhya Pradesh) and the social anthropologist A.R. Vasavi (a trustee at the Punarchith collective, Karnataka).

At the heart of it, the report was provoked by the increasing distress faced by the rural economy and the dissonance of advisory voices that provide no clarity on future direction. The report is divided into two main parts. The first part looks at current (and historical) policies and paradigms guiding agricultural policy and their implications for rural residents, livelihoods, ecologies and geographies. While these problems have been recognised in the past, the report’s strength lies in its second part, which presents alternative ideas, methodologies and approaches to facilitate the implementation of policies that are socially just, economically stable, ecologically sustainable and politically democratic for rural India.

Also read: On the endemic contradictions in India’s path to modernisation of agriculture

A.R. Vasavi has been studying and writing about agrarian distress and the complex challenges of rural India for almost three decades. She was formerly a professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bengaluru. Her academic interests are in the field of sociology of India, agrarian studies and sociology of education. Her published books include Harbingers of Rain: Land and Life in South India, In an Outpost of the Global Economy: Work and Workers in India’s Information Technology Industry (co-edited) and The Inner Mirror: Translations of Kannada Writings on Society and Culture (edited). In a conversation with Frontline, she discussed the salience of the NRAS report, especially in the context of the farmers’ protests at the borders of Delhi over the past two months.

In your report, you argue against the corporatisation of agriculture. What will be the consequence of this increasing turn towards involving large corporations in agriculture?

Corporatisation of agriculture implies the dominant and exploitative role that agribusiness and allied organisations can gain. In a context where the ground realities are of limited land and resources, large populations, and a tremendous diversity of agricultural practices, it is important not to implement a model that was designed for conditions of limited population and labour availability, vast capital and natural resources and a supporting financial and administrative structure.

Also, a largely disadvantaged rural population such as ours will not have the leverage to assert fair and transparent deals and contracts or be assured of a level playing ground. The agribusiness-industrial model of agriculture has failed all over the world. For India, the corporatisation of agriculture implies the Latin Americanisation of rural India where extant despoliation of natural resources and intense violence have been the results. It must be rejected totally and alternatives must be articulated.

India is witnessing consistent opposition by farmers from Punjab and Haryana to the three new farm laws that the Central government enacted. With the Central government remaining stubbornly in support of these laws, what is the way forward?

We endorse the agitating farmers’ demand for a full and immediate recall of the three agricultural Acts. Since agriculture is a State subject, it is the States that must formulate policies and Acts. Wide and representative consultations have to be made [before these are] finalised. Parliament must convene a special session on agricultural issues and constitute a farmers’ commission that can engage with these issues.

Also read: Why are farmers in Punjab and Haryana angry?

The various unions and organisations of farmers must also recognise the importance of social justice and ecological sustainability and argue for agricultural models that can enhance the wealth of India’s agricultural knowledge systems and agro-biodiversity while also including the well-being of the landless and the small and marginal farmers. The linkages between laws that regulate land use and access, production models and practices, marketing structures and distribution of grains have to be carefully thought out and articulated. Finally, none of these alternative models can be implemented in a single stroke. Careful consideration has to be placed on phasing out the problematic structures and terms and in instituting new agricultural imaginaries and practices.

In your report, you argue that industrialisation, urbanisation and modernisation have been the key pillars of the mainstream approach to development, which upholds the idea that the transition from rural-agrarian economies to urban-industrial economies is inevitable. In what alternative way can development be reimagined?

I am wary of the very term and idea of “development”. What is required are new imaginaries that can assert the realisation of social justice, economic stability and ecological sustainability through politically democratic processes. Much of our derived and received ideas about economics and its association primarily with capital growth and the divides between the urban and industrial versus the rural and agriculture need to be challenged.

For example, the idea of degrowth has already gained some recognition in economics. In sociological terms, assessments of poverty have gone beyond standards of living and now include better understanding of social disadvantage and exclusion. Generating inclusive policies that address generational disadvantages and which also facilitate a plurality of livelihoods and life-worlds is imperative. In a context where the dominant capital model is now exhausted and a climate emergency is upon us, we need to assert new models that ensure equity, well-being and flourishing of all as key indices.

In your report, you discuss the looming problem of climate change and implications for rural and agrarian India. Why do you think there has been wilful ignorance of this subject when its impact could be severe in the future?

We are now in a state of climate emergency, and the periodic floods, droughts and natural calamities are all manifestations of this. Yet, the excessive emphasis on parameters of economic growth and flawed assertions of India emerging as a leading economy account for the wilful neglect of these pressing issues. Subsequently, the lack of regulations in usage of natural resources and the overall neoliberal economy account for this neglect of climate-related and natural resource depletion issues.

Also read: Agricultural reform or battering ram?

The vested interests who stand to gain by the dominance of speculative investments, extractive industries, (such as mining) construction and other unsustainable practices only compound the extent to which climate change and [the climate] emergency are non-issues in our policy circles. Unplanned urban growth and sprawl, which is built on a speculative economy, also accounts for the sharp decline in agricultural land and the destruction of common property resources such as lakes, forests and rivers.

The NRAS report demonstrates that agriculturists are in dire straits today. Cultivators have become migrant workers, and agricultural landholdings and incomes have declined, while rural unemployment and farmer suicides have remained high. What can be done structurally to alleviate the plight of agriculturists?

First, there has to be much, much more attention paid to the conditions of landless workers and the small and marginal farmers. Formulating policies that scaffold the interests of these two classes of agriculturists will be key. For example, promoting group farming with recognition not only of land but also labour as a contribution would be key. New agricultural models that emphasise sustainable production models, efficient regulation of markets by the state, and a linkage to distribution of produce need to be considered. More especially, the urban-industrial vs rural-agricultural divides [must be questioned]; there must be new value-addition and production units in the rural areas itself.

The rural cannot be envisaged as being synonymous with agriculture. Reviving a range of rural cottage industries such as those in handlooms, crafts and artisanship must be given serious consideration. Supporting public institutions such as [for] health and education will ensure that the incomes of agriculturists are not drained out for these two purposes (as is happening now) and will also create better opportunities and quality of life for rural citizens.

Your report is against the “loan waivers” given to agriculturists and refers to them as “populist policy”. Can you explain the rationale behind your objection when loan waivers help farmers overcome short-term distress?

Until now, loan waivers or moratoriums on loans have not been made by understanding and identifying the key sources of indebtedness or the most vulnerable. Instead, most loan waivers have been made at the time of elections (in States and at the Centre) and are ways to appease rural voters.

Also read: Punjab’s small farmers need access to institutional finance in order to end their dependence on arhatiyas

As some studies have indicated, these loans have created not only a moral hazard but have also led to distortions in agricultural practices. For example, agriculturists who are in the competitive treadmill of unsustainable practices continue to be so. Secondly, the inability of many disadvantaged families to have proper legal documents has meant that they have not been able to avail themselves of these loan waivers.

Third, a significant proportion of the debts of the small and marginal agriculturists is with non-formal lending agencies, and they have not been eligible for such moratoriums. Loan waivers may tide farmers over for one or two seasons, but the dominant model of external input intensive agriculture that is being promoted by the government and being followed by farmers requires an increasing infusion of capital, while degrading the natural resource base. With uncertainty of incomes due to fluctuating prices, farmers are back to being indebted very quickly.

Hence, a serious rethought must be made. Instead of loan waivers, the state must provide support to individuals and groups in terms of payment for conservation activities and eco-services and for larger parity payments to rural and agricultural sectors in terms of better infrastructure and regulatory and supportive institutions.

One could argue that some of the recommendations that you cite as alternatives to overcome rural distress are quite radical. For example, the report states that “urban residents will have to change their own consumption patterns… else rural spaces will continue to get integrated adversely into exploitative systems”. Can you explain this?

Much of agricultural produce, especially food (grains, vegetables and fruits), is sold at rates that do not reflect the real value of its production. There is tremendous self-exploitation by farmers (of themselves and their family labour), and the real value of natural resources (of soil, water and biodiversity) are underestimated. What urban consumers access is really undervalued and underpriced produce. In order to realise this, urban consumers must be prepared to pay higher prices and to pay for the real and hidden costs of producing these products. This would include consuming food produced locally (reducing the carbon footprint through reduced food miles) and according to agroecological and seasonal availability.

Also read: The Kerala government’s policy interventions present an alternative course for agricultural policies in India

Urban consumers must also insist on organic and nutritious produce and their safe production so that the production conditions also change. For example, the recent demand for millets has had a positive impact in as much as it has increased the area of cultivation under millets and hence promoted dry agriculture, which is more sustainable.

What other alternatives does the NRAS report suggest to overcome rural distress and to make the rural relevant?

We suggest several alternatives. One, the need to recognise the diversity of our agricultural complexes that were built on recognising agro-climatic zones and were associated with a rich corpus of sophisticated agricultural knowledge and practices. Instead of high technology that is damaging of ecologies, alternative and appropriate technologies must be promoted.

At the level of assessments and planning, new parameters that take into consideration several factors (conservation, energy efficiency, local viability, labour integration, climate resilience, etc.) and not just productivity will have to be factored in. And, as noted earlier, farmer producer organisations, group farming, cooperative farming and new rural enterprises have to be supported via legislation, incentives and a range of new administrative linkages. Finally, the state must continue to play a major facilitative role, and the alternatives have to be based on four Ds: Democracy (of policy and planning), Decentralisation (of implementation and monitoring), Diversity (of agricultural complexes and models) and Dignity (of all agriculturists as citizens).

State of Rural and Agrarian India Report 2020: Rethinking Productivity and Populism Through Alternative Approaches is available to read and download at the website of the Network of Rural and Agrarian Studies (http://www. ruralagrarianstudies.org/).

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