Sharad Joshi – Four Decades of Farmer Agitation and Politics
Sharad Joshi, the thinker economist, who led historic farmers’ agitations in the eighties turned eighty this year. An ardent votary of globalization and free market economy, it is interesting to read his unsparing and candid commentary on the farmers’ issue, the state of affairs, the current crop of farmer leaders, Modi and Sharad Pawar.
Translated (abridged) from original Marathi interview in Loksatta, Sunday, August 30, 2015. Interviewer Satish Kamat Email: pemsatish.kamat AT gmail DOT com.
Four decades ago, an urbane 40 something left a plum job at the United Nations and settled in a village near Pune (Maharashtra) to experiment with farming. His foray in agriculture confirmed his belief that farming could never be profitable in India, as the market prices of farm produce are not linked to the production costs. He spearheaded two major agitations – one of the onion growers in 1978, and the other of sugar cane and onion producers together in 1980. The politicians who used to pay lip service to farmers’ plight woke up from their slumber. They realized that farmers could no more be taken for granted. Some of them did manage to build bridges with him to weather the storm. Following are the excerpts from his interview by Mr. Satish Kamat.
On the current leadership of farmers.
While it is good to find many farmers’ organizations taking up the cause – I find them bereft of vision. They are mostly copying what I propounded decades ago without checking it’s relevance in today’s times. It was the market price then, but now it is about water management and crop control. These leaders may appear successful in pockets, but in reality they are extremely ordinary people without any solid understanding of the issues.
You agitated only for the well-to-do farmers – the onion and sugar cane growers.
Onion is linked to the political sensitivity and sugar cane is about economic elasticity. Maharashtra’s share in national onion production is 40%. I knew that if I took up these crops we could choke the nation. One has to also think about one’s ability to sustain the agitation. How could I do that with the marginal farmers and landless laborers? It was a part of our war plan.
You were apolitical in the beginning, then went as far as sharing stage with politicians of all hues who had barely any interest in farmers’ issues. In 1985 Sharad Pawar in opposition supported you, and then in 1988 VP Singh, Chandrashekhar and Vajpayee attended your rallies. Even the extreme right wing Patit Pawan was your ally in some agitations. What gives?
At various stages of our movement I was looking for allies to work with me. But unfortunately Sharad Pawar’s casteist position proved to be more powerful than our economic agenda. For better market prices people were with us, but they voted for Pawar during elections. We couldn’t shake off influence of caste among our followers. One more thing, Pawar’s allegiance to the co-operative movement has always been stronger than his affinity to farmers. That was the legacy of his mentor Yashwantrao Chavan anyway. Their primary interest was ensuring uninterrupted flow of money from the center for the co-operative movement. As for agriculture, for example, today he is endorsing what we said about GM crops 25 years ago. I often joke – Pawar gets it drip by drip! As for elections, we had no choice but to resort to electoral politics as we needed to create a pressure group inside the assembly and not just outside. Unfortunately we failed.
Your agitation was known for the way it focused on women participation. Have women really become empowered?
Our 1985 Chandwad women’s convention was historic. Women account for eighty percent of farm work – but hardly get their due share. The bonus for us was that these women, once convinced, got their men folk into the movement. We were the first one to raise the issue of reservations for women. But I am against political reservations. It has made women as corrupt as men and they have lost their faith in their own strength and abilities.
In 1980 you toured Vidarbha and that region has participated in the movement in a big way. But it’s also where farmer suicides are prevalent. What should be done about it?
That’s a fact. I believe I taught them to fight but never managed to prepare them for calamities such as what they face today – that’s my failure. When one is on the verge of suicide, there needs to be someone or something that could give them strength and persuade them away from that decision. We could not create such a system. It’s also about the cultural heritage of the region. Had it been some other society, they would have indulged in thievery and plunder – but Vidarbha farmer chooses to embrace death in desperation. Fact is, farming that is solely dependent on the water from the skies is not sustainable. Water management is the key.
You have always stood for globalization and the free market economy. Debt-free farming, and not waiver for debts, was your mantra. Do you believe the current Government can change the face of farming?
Even today I remain a strong votary of globalization. Freedom is the most important value and I believe I could convince farmers about that. But now the situation has turned far more complicated. I see a lot of parallels between the socialism of the first Prime Minister Nehru and the so-called “development-politics” of PM Narendra Modi. It is clear that both are anti farmer. For Modi Industrialization means development. Period. This is the Government that brands onion as an “essential commodity” – how to confront such a regime is the key problem before farmers. Dishonest Government and weak leadership are the bane of today’s farmers.