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West’s prescription for South Asian agriculture is a recipe for disaster

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New Delhi: Relatives of farmers who are believed to have killed themselves over debt attend a protest against farm bills passed by India’s parliament. Photograph: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters

An attempt at ‘revolutionary’ farming by the enactment of commensurate laws by the Modi government in India last autumn, has triggered widespread farmer protests. Centred mostly in India's breadbasket of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, this grave problem is not India-specific. Many initiatives all over the world have aimed at making agriculture more efficient and fighting famer poverty.

Being the main job provider, agriculture is an important part of South Asian countries’ GDP. Providing food security for a growing population also offers rising opportunities for export. Nevertheless, agriculture, having been neglected for decades, has become the main reason for poverty. Farmers who make up 60% of the population in India provide 18% of the country’s GDP. 85% are marginal or poor farmers who own less than 3 acres of land. In Pakistan, agriculture provides 18.9% of the GDP with 42.3% of the workforce employed there.

Since 1947, the few and half-hearted attempts to revolutionize agriculture were influenced by different ideologies. With his socialist leanings, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru abolished the system of large feudal landholdings and introduced land reforms. With the largest feudals – including the Bhutto family -- sitting in government and parliament in Pakistan, the rulers’ empty promises included land reforms also. But still, 5% of the country’s population own almost two-thirds (64%) of its farmland and half (50.8%) of rural households are landless.

The West invented the "Green Revolution" by adopting new technologies during the 1960s, including high-yielding varieties of cereals, especially dwarf wheat and rice. Associated with chemical fertilizers, agrochemicals, and controlled water-supply (usually irrigation) and newer methods of cultivation, including mechanization, Western development aid introduced these into the subcontinent. But these had negative, albeit unintended, consequences like widening inequality, growing poverty and environmental damage.

Due to commitment to the WTO’s ideas of economic liberalization, the Indian government is seeking to increase food security by increasing food production. ‘Revolutionizing’ measures include inviting investments from foreign corporate interests into the agricultural sector, allowing them to engage in contract farming and to trade in food products at market prices. Prime Minister Modi's policy of economic liberalization has brought multinational companies into a dominating position in almost all sectors of the economy and has suffocated independent local development. A similar result is likely in the farm sector too.

Some of the rich farmers with big landholdings will profit while the mass of poor farmers will either become dependent on corporations or lose their land and be forced to sell their labour to better-off farmers and/or migrate to urban slums in search for a living. Poverty and inequality in South Asia will be aggravated, not solved by this policy.

Sustainable agricultural production is vital for food security, particularly with climate change making a growing part of agricultural land unfit for food production. Growing desertification and water scarcity endangers the livelihood of millions. With fertile arable land getting more precious today for feeding the world population, it requires a spirit of sharing and compassion instead of global maximization of profits.

The WTO promotes the new Western ideology of ‘digital agriculture’, tools that digitally collect, store, analyse, and share electronic data and/or information along the agricultural value chain impacting the entire agri-food value chain. “Agriculture 4.0” indicates its role as the fourth major agricultural revolution, following patterns of previous agricultural revolutions. Scholars forecast a further shift away from labour, a slight shift away from capital and intensified use of human capital.

A social backlash with diminishing need of a workforce in agriculture thanks to the use of artificial intelligence or robots, will arise with the fourth revolution. With digitizing, demand for qualified expert staff with appropriate skills will increase.

“Facebook” and other big global corporations are jumping into the business of providing digital tools for running agricultural production, selling and distribution. The 'Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation Act) of 2020 contains provision for alternate trading channels and allowing electronic trading, via direct online buying and selling through devices enabled by internet.

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Protesters climb on a dome at the ramparts of the Red Fort as farmers continue to demonstrate against the Indian government's recent agricultural reforms in New Delhi on January 26. — AFP

Ambani and his Reliance Group deny any involvement in the laws being passed or that they would benefit, but this is what the Modi government is trying to promote on their behalf. No wonder Ambani telecom towers were vandalized by the farmers.

Facebook will invest Rs. 43,574 crore in Jio Platforms, belonging to Reliance Industries up to about 10%, rolling out digital-based solutions for 60 million micro, small and medium businesses, 120 million farmers, 30 million small merchants and millions of small and medium enterprises in the informal sector.

WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, is expected to play a key role in the deal, with features like WhatsApp Pay, currently in pilot. However, Mukesh Ambani claims "Jio is a start-up built in India, for India, by Indians and we have a special place in our hearts for start-ups".  That “special place” is meant for beggaring farmers while making enormous profits!

The world's largest seed company Monsanto accounts for almost one-quarter (23%) of the global proprietary seed market. In Pakistan, Monsanto virtually forced the closure of local labs and seed research in favour of PT seeds. This had adverse effects on the economy and the environment.

Indian farmers are foreseeing a replay of what happened under British rule. During the British Agricultural Revolution, or Second Agricultural Revolution, there was an unprecedented increase in agricultural production in Britain and the following industrial revolution required more cotton than they could produce on the limited land in their island. But English cotton machinery produced an acute effect in India. The Company's soldiers broke up the looms of women weavers as the de-industrialization of Bengal was done explicitly for the industrialization of the United Kingdom. All cotton produced was shipped to England to feed their textile industry and indigenous cotton weaving that over centuries had produced the finest muslins in the world was exterminated. Deprived of income and food, a famine set in. The Governor-General reported in 1834-35: “The misery hardly finds a parallel in the history of commerce. The bones of the cotton-weavers are bleaching the plains of India.” (Karl Marx, Notes on Indian History")

Indian parliamentarian, former Deputy Head of the UN and author of many books, Shashi Tharoor in his book "An Era of Darkness" described how the looting of the South Asian sub-continent started with William Hawkins who started a small trading post on Indian soil in 1613-14 (during Emperor Jahangir's rule) as representative of the East India Company that had been established as a shareholder corporation in London in 1600. The EIC did not enjoy respect in the Mughal court. But 150 years later, by 1765, the Company had browbeaten the weakened Mughal Emperor Shah Alam, and replaced his imperial revenue officials with the Company's officials in Bihar, Bengal and Orissa. The Company's private army led by (later Lord) Robert Clive defeated Siraj-ud-Daula, the ruler of Bengal, at Plassey and established British hegemony in Bengal.

The 18th and 21st centuries are economically similar. When the Company became rulers, their tactics became ruthless. Their modern-day successors use local proxies to exploit and impoverish the local population.  

Favouring the multinationals against the Indian farmers, Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party will ensure famine sooner rather than later.  Hunger epidemics -- an unheard-of feature in pre-colonial India -- killed millions of people.  There is a clear danger that locals, by blindly carrying out the instructions of their masters as during the time of the "East India Company" in the 18th and 19th centuries, could easily produce similar effects.

On the contrary, consider the positive policies enunciated and implemented by men of outstanding calibre, commitment and integrity like Sartaj Aziz in Pakistan during the period 1985-1988 and Maj Gen (Retd) Nurul Islam in Bangladesh during 1979-80. Returning from FAO in 1984, Sartaj Aziz became the State Minister for Agriculture. His initiatives, which included conservation of water resources, pushed through three important changes viz (1) removing the rationing system for wheat (2) removing the support price for cotton and rice while keeping it for wheat and sugar and (3) ensuring that the sale price of agriculture products is determined by input e.g. seeds, wheat, fertilizer, electricity, water, etc so that farmers get an equitable price.

The promotion of fish and poultry farming accelerated by the Grameen Bank concept, Shishu (as Gen Islam was nicknamed) on becoming Agriculture Minister in 1979 changed the eating habits in the three districts of Rangpur, Dinajpur and Bogra, encouraging planting of wheat during the winter dry season. There was US$ 7 million in unused food aid lying with the US Embassy. The then US Ambassador was only too happy to purchase wheat seeds from four countries including Pakistan. This increased wheat tonnage from 0.12 million to more than 0.78 million. People taking to eating “Chapati” reduced the requirement of rice commensurately.  These things can be done. It requires the honesty and sincere commitment of leaders like Sartaj Aziz and Nurul Islam. 

Whatever ‘progress’ is made elsewhere should not be allowed to be dictated to South Asia. Historical, social and economic conditions in the subcontinent are different from those of the West. They need to be handled carefully so as not to damage the lives of the people on the ground and the national interests of the respective countries. Rather than a revolution, what is needed is a careful evolution of legal, economic and social conditions so that a maximum of people can partake of the gains. Fertile agricultural land together with our population is a most precious asset that should not be endangered by running after the phantom of ‘progress’.

 

The writer is a defence and security analyst.