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What’s our perspective on farming?

What’s our perspective on farming?

Published in the October issue of Raibar, a periodic magazine brought out by SIDH, Mussoorie.

A search for ‘farmer crisis in India’ fetches, 1,82,00,000 results in 0.87 seconds. A search for ‘solutions for farmer crisis in India’ fetches, 2,11,00,000 results in 0.70 seconds. So, what is there to write on farming situation today which has not been already written? This is a question that anyone today having to put a pen on a paper (or more like opening a file in a computer) needs to ask of himself / herself.

So, at the cost of repeating someone else, I need to write something that I feel like worthy of repeating.  I seek to share some thoughts on the one area of farming that bothers me as a society and as a nation, our perspective on farming.

As a nation or society with one of the longest continuing histories in the world, we have always had farming as an activity in this land in some form or another all through a thousand years and more. What did people do farming for? What was their perspective with farming? What do we do differently? What has been the farming perspective in this land since independence and the new State formation?

Our ancient scriptures talk of farming with much reverence as it does every other human vocation. The act of farming and generating food in plentitude and sharing it with all species has been highly praised in several scriptures of this land. “annam bahu kurvita tat vritam” says the Taitreya Upanisad defining producing and making available food in plentitude to all as a sacred act, and the Tamil scripture Thirukkural goes a step further on this stating, “paguththundu palluyir ombudal melor vaguthavatrul ellaam thalai”, meaning, that to produce and share in plentitude and thereby conserve diversity is the supreme value practiced by our ancestors. This is one perspective that has prevailed in India since centuries. Food has always been produced in plentitude and diverse and has been shared with benevolence with all. Sharing of food has been codified in every ritual in this land, all celebration has been a sharing of food. Indeed as an agrarian society every form of ritual and celebration has been centered on the act of food production and consumption. So, many our celebrations even today are centered on the act of farming, the beginning of the farming cycle, the arrival of the first water in the canal, the seeds germination testing festival, the festival for harvest of course culminating the entire season. There are also festivals to thank the cattle, the sun god, the earth goddess, etc., coded into every community and their rituals and celebrations. All resources related to farming too were seen as sacred and revered. Water of course was seen as an integral component of the food production (“unavenappaduvadhu nilothudu neerae” says Tholkappiyam, a 5000 year old Tamil scripture which should rank among the oldest scriptures around) and seeds were seen as divine incorporations (Lord Naryana was celebrated as, “muzhu mudhal vitheyo” or the first grand seed to the world).

The perspective through several millennia seems to have been to produce, share, express gratitude and celebrate. A value not uncommon to all the indigenous communities across the world, perhaps with regional variations.

What did it imply in terms of the daily practices and life?

The resources such as water, seeds, etc., were never considered as commercial and were seen as commons.  We would be stupid to assume that in a civilization of several millennia we must be the first one to consider the taxing and pricing on seeds and water, the thought must have occurred earlier and discarded as it did not fit the perspective towards food and farming overall.  Special institutions were designed to conserve these and principles of their usage were recorded as governing ones for such institutions.  Poets and Seers were encouraged to codify these into literature and scripture in their own ways respectively.

The farmer was considered someone special in society to be respected and supported in all possible manner by the rulers and the rest of the society.  This particularly made a difference in difficult times such as drought or famine, we learn from early British archival records, for instance, that when the British enquired regarding how was tax levied during the pre-British times, farmers confessed that the earlier Raja’s would never tax the farmers during drought years and instead would share the food from their granaries with the farmers instead. This also defined the way roles of the farmer and the ruler were sustained based on the changing situations in the Indian context, it was not something that was structural and rigid, but, dynamic and changing, with each adopting and supporting the other as and when the need arose.

Farmers sustained many public service institutions through their sharing – farmers shared the produce first with all the service providers and labourers before they took their share of the produce. The number of service providers with whom the farmer shared his produce is still prevalent in some parts of the country and it had people such as the traditional irrigation manager, the crematorium worker, the priest, the ironsmith, the story teller, etc., these were services by certain communities, but, more importantly, these were codified into community roles by a custom that saw the relevance of sustaining these as a role and the farmers role in supporting them. These were the institutions considered important for the village habitat system.

Celebrations were centered on farming calendar and whenever there was a need to gather and share / exchange goods and commodities. Farmers got together to plan and look at the prediction for the year when the family calendar starts, they again met with each other to celebrate and exchange seeds during the beginning of the farming cycle, the observed the auspicious month in the last month before harvest as that was the time to protect the crop from invading animals and stay in the farm mostly, they celebrated the harvest festival and gathered, because that was the time to say thanks to all those who contributed to their vocation. Rituals - according the noted tribal historian and custodian of several tribal cultures today, Guruji Ravindra Sharma – were a medium invented by the priest class to ensure that the local economy functioned smoothly and every vocation was supported. So, farmers supported the potters during the harvest season, they supported the weaver in other times and vice versa. In fact, the eco-system for such farming to be practiced includes a role of other vocations dependent on land to be strongly supported and sustained in the vicinity. Perhaps, this is why Vinobha, when talking of need for India to think about some farmers quitting farming in the post Independence situation, opined that such re-organization has to create other vocations dependent on land in the vicinity and not wean them away into cities.

Science and Technology research and practice, were activity pursued alongside the farming activity in the field and is dependent on local resources. Pawan Gupta and myself have written on this at different times (and other perhaps earlier), that there are perhaps 20 recorded ways in which the amount of rainfall is predicted accurately by the farming community using traditional scientific methods even today and perhaps there are several thousand more that we are not aware of. Similarly technological innovations were (and are) regularly refreshed through a process of trial and error that is very local and the same are adopted and practiced by the farmers in the region. There is no copy right claimed by any farmer for such an innovation, nor any scientific practice known by the name of its first practitioner.

Most farmers didn’t see farming as a vocation or livelihood alone, but, as a sacred responsibility towards the society at large. A farmer was (and even today evokes an emotional response because of) considered the primary bread winner to the society.  This role gave him much dignity and respect and also a sense of responsibility towards the rest of society. He never had to look at his practice of farming only on the economic prism because economy was an aspect of life and didn’t define life and roles of people altogether in this perspective and world view.

If you have read this far, you might wonder what happened to this perspective to farming and farm work in a society? This looks so well and sophisticatedly organized, this was a system rooted in a ethical behavior and Dharmic in its roots. So, why should this not be seen today? If it was strong, why didn’t it survive the onslaught of the colonials? etc., these questions are of academic nature at some level today if only we still don’t see farmers and farming practice in many parts adhere to this perspective and ethos. Over the last 2 decades of travelling and working with rural communities never have I visited a farmers house in any part of the country and not be sent empty handed. The farmer, even the poorest one, has always something to offer, because sharing is his creed. Never have I encountered a proud farmer who does not think despite all the troubles of farming, he has to do farming because that is his responsibility.  There are villages and communities in which the service providers are still supported the way they were supported in an earlier era.  The residue of the perspective on farming remains in several practices, principles and shared ethos even today.

Do we have a perspective on farming today? What does the Indian State Policy on Farming convey? Does it provide a world view? Often it is reduced to number game and accounting practices. We have had generations of political leaders who talk of ‘green revolution’ and ‘ever green revolution’, etc., Why would a country that has had ‘plentitude of producing and sharing food’ as a vision reduce it merely a colour coding and an act of revolution? Perhaps it helped to sell urea that brought in more green colour to the farming activity and the word ‘revolution’ also could be introduced as some kind of a persistent mirage for Indian farmers. Revolutions are such counter idea to sharing of plentitude. Revolutions have occurred in societies that had enormous inequalities and revolutions were a way of breaking free of these. So, the genealogy of such terms brought in values of inequality into the food production and distribution and society theories that suited the same had to be academically constructed and facts and figures that were selectively chosen to fit this narrative.

No State relates to the farmer dynamically today, the structures of the State are constructed through the department of agriculture, revenue and development into meaningless silos of dead social science narratives produced, promoted and guarded by institutions propped during colonial rule.

All resources have been reduced to a global dictated commercial value and a farmer has to wake up one day to see his ancestral bequeath of a water body being given a new title, name and commercial value. Seeds are usurped, commercially priced, resold at higher costs to farmers with impunity. Scientists and technocrats have been given a higher pedestal in society and the farmer often has to adhere to their whims and fancy flights of ideas.

Many of the compensations for the farmers are actually to the scientific and technological products rather than the farmers themselves. 

And finally, the farmers festivals are been unified into celebration of spending and greed like all other festivals across the world to suit a global commercial market that can only survive with uncontained greed.

When a civilization, society or community inherits such a grand perspective in food production and consumption as we have done, then human intelligence is left with a challenge. What ‘improvement’ can one do? While in other societies, people have embarked on long journeys to conquer farther lands, relatively peace loving people of this land had set for themselves generation of more and more sophisticated and complex structures, works of art and literature, etc., as a way of expressing while not losing out on the primary task of conserving and further enhancing the eternal values and the perspectives handed down. 

The globalized world destroys all local perspectives and instead replaces it with homogenized values such as ‘food safety’, ‘food security’, etc., All these formulations reduce the act of food production to be a source of the final act of consumption and consumption and consumer is the primary object of both control and choice. This is primarily driven by the globalized market and commerce. The conflict in perspectives today is between the eternal dharmic one of the Indian civilization and the modernized and globalized one that suits the commercial interest of a few. In recent times, even after achieving Independence, we had a choice to adopt the grand old perspective in a newer conceptualization that fitted very much within the older framework but also submitted to the economic challenge of those times, these were formulated as Swaraj and Swadeshi by Bapu for the new country about to be born. These would have achieved the economic needs of communities while also reviving the older perspective of growing in plentitude and sharing as fundamentally, Swedeshi insisted on utilizing local resources optimally and Swaraj spoke of ways and means of taking care of oneself and ones one, these were and are conceptual tools available for us for our times.

Time and again, in the post-Independent India, a meet political establishment has  tried to articulate the older perspective through several enactments as a feeble attempt to articulate Swadeshi and Swarajya. Swarjya is enshrined through the Panchayat Raj system in the constitution and policies such as ‘Make in India’ have come about. However, the political will bereft of conviction and courage of the older perspective cannot survive in the modern commercial system of global kind that has as its strong arms the bureaucracy and the markets.

Ven. Samdhong Rinpoche once said that modernity has had its origin and expanse to the current level of domination happen over a 500 year period and perhaps the rooting out of the same will take an equal amount of time. Perhaps so, one only hopes that in the meanwhile, India does not lose the memory and the capacity to bring back to play, its ancient wisdom and practice of producing food in plentitude and sharing for the benefit of all living species.


14th Oct 2017