Farmers’ Agitation: What About ‘Agriculture as an Ecosystem’?

Changes in agrarian & socio-economic structure have created health, water & land crises. What is the way forward?

4 min read

Changes in Agrarian & Socio-Economic Structure: Accompanying Problems

The momentum of the farmers' protest and the concerns of the people agitating against the farm laws compel us to look beyond their immediate development and consequences. Land degradation due to mono-cropping, destruction of genetic diversity of plants, decreasing water levels, mounting debt due to overuse of pesticides, capital intensive cultivation, water-logged deserts, privatisation of healthcare, and discontented farmers — have all been part of the legacy of the Green Revolution of the 1970s.

The ensuing change in the agrarian and socio-economic structure has created health, water, and land crisis, leading to farmer suicides. A Committee appointed in 1985 under the Chairmanship of SS Johl reported as early as 1986, the stagnant productivity of crops, dominance of monoculture, and the deteriorating environment in Punjab.

The Committee also recommended, among many improvements, to reduce the land under rice cultivation.

A subsequent report by Johl in 2002 strongly advocated the diversification of crops in Punjab. Later, in 2009, NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite data warned of the dangerously low levels of water in the Northern Indian aquifers.


How Overuse of Pesticides & Polluted Water Leads to Cancer & Debt

While presenting the annual budget in 2019, the Finance Minister of Punjab, Manpreet Badal, officially acknowledged the catastrophic future scenario that will push Punjab towards desertification and ecological disaster. He said: “76 percent of the assessed blocks are over-exploited and the estimated groundwater availability for future irrigation use is negative.”

According to the Central Ground Water Board, 110 out of the 138 blocks in Punjab are overexploited and many of them have been categorised as ‘dark zones’. The report says: “At the current rate of extraction, all available groundwater resources till the depth of 300 metres in the state will end in 20-25 years.”

The Bhatinda Express takes many patients from the Malwa region to the Acharya Tulsi Regional Cancer Treatment and Research Centre in Bikaner, Rajasthan. Known as the ‘cancer train’, it has been in the news for two decades with farmers and organic farming activists relating the overuse of pesticides and polluted water with the overwhelming health crisis.

Umendra Dutt is the founder of the Kheti Virasat Mission, an organisation that aims for sustainable farming, food sovereignty and seed sovereignty. He found in 2007, through his interaction and awareness tour in the villages of Punjab, that cancer did not only bring death to the families but also a burden of debt.

What About the Bigger Question — Of Agriculture As An Ecosystem?

Farmers have been forced to sell their land for the treatment of family members with children suffering from grey hair, joint pains, ageing abnormalities and childhood arthritis. Ranjana Padhi, in her work Those Who Did Not Die: Impact of the Agrarian Crisis on Women in Punjab (2012), has also written about the havoc brought into the lives of agricultural families due to the privatisation of healthcare, throwing entire families into poverty.

Economic distress, dispossession, despair, an irreversible extraction from nature, and psychosomatic disorders of anxiety, sleeplessness, and palpitations are all factors that have come hand-in-hand with the ecological crisis.

An increasing number of women have come forward in the agitation voicing their hardships, distress, loss of hope, and profound grief while forming fellowships across social boundaries. However, the larger question of agriculture as an ecosystem has not become part of the agitation. While the farm laws address the market component of agriculture arguably giving the large corporations a clean slate to enter the farming sector, they do not take into account the continued denuding of the landscape from the existing practices of agriculture.


Need to Integrate Land, Water, Agrarian Sector, Healthcare & PDS

This crisis comes entangled in social networks of relationships, institutions, and shadows of the policy decisions made in the past. The policy-level reforms need to incentivise farmers to diversify crops beyond wheat and rice.

The farmer organisations must also understand the importance of equity, ecological sustainability, and agro-biodiversity and argue for a model that can see beyond the present status quo.

It is very important to understand that the rural cannot be envisaged as only being synonymous with agriculture. It is the need of the hour to revive small-scale industries related to the rural economy.

The public sectors, like health and education, need to be supported so that better opportunities and quality of life can be ensured and the resources of agriculturists are not drained out.

Despite the severity of the lockdown and the uncertainty presented by the COVID-19 epidemic, we were able to avoid a severe food crisis. This became possible because of the public distribution system that’s dependent on the current agricultural system, particularly in the North Western region that is most affected by the farm laws.

We will have to integrate land, water, the agrarian sector, healthcare, and public distribution of food as one related sphere, else we will continue to despair, get displaced, and be forced into mobilities that we can no longer control.

(Dr Sumandeep Kaur, is a Fellow, Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla. Her work includes Ecological Concerns in Select Punjabi Fiction. She has a doctorate in English Literature from Punjabi University, Patiala. She tweets @su_thewild.

Eveleen Sidana, is a PhD Candidate, Sociocultural Anthropology, University of California, Davis. She works on how the smaller cities in India are getting urbanised with a focus on urban design, technologies and culture.

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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