Why India’s Response to Farmers’ Movement Is ‘Ageist’ & ‘Elitist’

The average Indian farmer is not just older, but also more likely to be a woman—rural, underprivileged & in debt.

Updated
Opinion
6 min read
Farmers’ protest. Image used for representational purposes.
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It is now nearly five months, since the President of India signed three farm bills on 28 September 2020, converting them into acts. This has set off an unprecedented wave of farmer protests in India, which have endured even the long, harsh winter and longer, harsher pandemic.

The protests have grown to become a massive human rights movement, the likes of which India has a long and rich tradition of. It is from movements such as these that our independence from colonial occupation came, after all. We would like to, as certain people may say, keep “ghar ki baatein, ghar mein”, and preserve the sanctity and dignity of the massive, syncretic, bicker-some joint family that is the body demographic in India.

Protesting Farmers Are Mostly Older People

However, the truth is this — millions of farmers have been on the roads, braving adversity (both environmental and social) since the end of 2020, moving the government for the right to self-determination in the production and sale of their produce. It would perhaps be naïve to expect that this would escape scrutiny by other countries and international humanitarian organisations. The world is a village, after all. We may resent Canada, or the UN, or Rihanna or Greta Thunberg wading into what is perceived to be a ‘regional’ issue. Yet, the longer the movement simmers, the bigger the narrative becomes, and the less in control India, as a nation, becomes, of what is perceived and said of us, inside us and outside us.

An integral part of this narrative is that the protesting groups of farmers are composed mostly of large numbers of older persons. This is unsurprising.

The world is ageing. Farmers are ageing too. It does not help that the farming professions, being precariously dependent upon the environment and government largesse, are unfavourable for the fulfilment of aspirations or upward social mobility. People are opting out of farming all over the world. India is no exception.

Why Farmers Don’t Raise Their Children & Grand-Children To Be Farmers

The average age of the Indian farmer in 2016 was 50.1 years. In an All India Report on Input survey, the average age of an operational holder was estimated at 50 years. The maximum number of operational holders (33.7 percent) belonged to the age group 41-50 years followed by 51-60 years (33.2 percent) and 31- 40 years (12.6 percent). The lowest was in the age group of upto 30 years (3.5 percent). If we see older people protesting the new farm laws, it is because the average Indian farmer is an older person.

This is not, of course, the only way in which this demographic is vulnerable. Though women own only a small percentage of farming land, they contribute over 80 percent of agricultural labour.

Most farmers own small parcels of land, less than one hectare, as per the same survey. So, the average Indian farmer — affected by the new laws — is not just older, but also more likely to be a woman — rural, under-privileged and in debt.

Access to health and other social services is, naturally, likely to be compromised. They are also much more likely to raise their children and grandchildren to be non-farmers. In a country which was home to the world’s fourth largest agricultural sector and the world’s second largest population, these were ominous statistics even before the protests took off.

The authors of this article, are no exception. We were born to multi-generation farming households who raised us to be physicians. Noble sentimentality about serving the nation aside, medicine was simply a much more financially viable profession than farming.

For The People, Of The People, By The People — Best Way For A Democracy To Function

While the Supreme Court of India has laudably taken the decision to stay the farm laws until a consensus is reached, this has come regrettably late in the movement and is certainly not a definitive solution to faming economics. The decision to involve farmers in laws that administer their profession might have come much before this, when the bills were on the table. Again, we are mere physicians! We do not dare to comment about ‘legal rightfulness’ of policies.

The best people to tell the government what kind of laws work for a profession, and what do not, are the people who work in the profession — obviously not us. The best way for a democracy to function is for the people, of the people and by the people — after all. Some laws, administered in a certain manner, however well meant, can affect public perceptions and rights.

Which brings us to this core tenet. In a delayed and less than complete engagement with large groups of predominantly older protestors engaged in an occupation that is the backbone of the country — we run the risk of being ageist and elitist.

We run the risk of being seen as dismissive of decades of life and work experience in farming, for which education and bureaucracy are meagre substitutes.

At best, we are patting vast swathes of older persons on the head and saying — there, there, we know you’re upset, but we know what’s best for you. You don’t know what you want, so we’ll wrap you up in sentimentality while we decide the best way for you to grow your crops and sell them and sustain your family. (Never mind that most of us don’t know the first thing about farming outside fiction and news coverage.)

This is ageist.

Mostly Older Farmers Bear The Brunt Of Arduous Protests & Backlash

At worst, and ye Gods, there has been a worst — we are shrugging and turning aside while these older persons expose themselves to the cold and the rain and to homelessness and food insecurity while we decide best how to engage and convince them of the rationality of the new farm laws. And when violence and aggression are used to curb protests, and violence naturally then comes back as a response to these curbs — this violence is being inflicted on (mostly) older persons.

When deaths occur — of suicide, of cold exposure, of disease, of injuries sustained in clashes — these occur primarily in older persons.

The longer the time to resolve the complex socio-economic problems that lie at the heart of the protests — the more likely death and disease will occur. This too, will naturally be disproportionately large in older persons. When we call farmer protests ‘anti-national’ and ‘separatist’, we are implying that large groups of ‘older persons’ are conspiring against the nation. This is also ageist.

It is then, of little surprise, that talks and negotiation have been slow and painful and characterised by standoffs. It does not take a college degree or urban living to recognise and reject an ageist and infantilising discourse. It does not take elitist privilege to recognise, articulate and demand the need for dignity, discourse and dialogue in a profession. The government is trying a lot and we need to respect that. However, somewhere the differences are in-between and not on either side.

Why We Must Learn From Our Elders

There may be better ways in which protests and engagement could have happened, from both sides. No side is at fault in this Catch-22 situation. India is a complex idea, and a complex country. Simple solutions based on market economics may not, however attractive on paper, be the best fit for our diversity.

Certainly our states and their agriculture are diverse and require nuanced rather than a once-size-fits-all omnibus of laws.

What we do have is millennia of experience in agriculture. We also have older persons willing to impart to us their perspective and their opinions, in a profession they operate, by and large. Learning from elders never hurts. What we then need to do, as a country, is listen, value and incorporate this expertise into our administration. In learning and growing from governance lies the strength and beauty of a democracy.

(AuthorsDisclaimer: The authors are psychiatrists who work with older persons and thus, concerned with their well-being and vocal advocates for the same. The article is meant as a social viewpoint and by no means intends to support or refute any political party. The authors have no political affiliations beyond a staunch belief in the principles of democracy. We apologise in advance if we have unintentionally hurt any ideas/beliefs/sentiments.)

(Dr Migita D’Cruz and Dr Debanjan Banerjee are psychiatrists at NIMHANS, Bangalore. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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