The recent farmers’ agitations in north Indian states of Punjab and Haryana need to be seen as a continuum of the protests that have occurred in the last one decade. These protests are a manifestation of a deeper socio-economic change that is taking place in the rural areas or in the small towns of northern India. Along with an economic reasoning, the social and cultural changes are also major determinants of the anger and agitation amongst the farmers. These changes have pushed farmers, traders and laborers involved in agriculture to look for newer alliances cutting across caste and class boundaries and assert themselves. The aarhtiyas (grain merchants) supporting farmers demands is an indicator of this shift.
Changing Land relations, emerging aspirations
First major change can be seen in relation to the changing land relations in these regions. According to the Agricultural census 2015, Punjab had seen a decrease in the number of small, medium and semi-medium landholdings. Punjab has even seen a trend of reverse tenancy where small and marginal farmers are leasing out their lands and becoming landless labourers. This indicates a decline in the interest in continuing with farming. Consequently, small and marginal farmers are leaving agriculture and either going jobless or joining the agricultural labour market.
Punjab and Haryana, along with three other states of India, have a cash rent tenancy system in place. This puts small and medium farmers under tremendous economic pressure. In addition, increasing rents of the agricultural land also puts farmers under duress.
Besides, rising social and economic aspirations have forced farmers to rethink their traditional ways of living. Both these changes have further increased farmers’ dependence on informal credit systems.
Though there has been a massive expansion in the formal credit across the country, role of money lenders and grain merchants (aarhtiyas) have also witnessed a change. The money lenders (the traditional sahukars and new aarhtiyas) have hanged their attitude towards farmers due to an increasing competition and business becoming difficult.
In order to expand their market, the aarhtiyas have become farmers’ (especially small and medium farmers) time tested allies in case of economic urgency. The aarhtiyas have also been traditional farmers and continue to have vested economic interests in farming as well. This puts them in a position of benefit as they are seen as money lenders and also part of farmers community. As money lenders they not only offer financial support but also personally join farmers during marriages, on occasions of death or in other community affairs.
Unlike banks and other formal institutions, aarhtiyas also belong to the same rural areas and have social ties with farmers. They are considered rich, powerful elites belonging to the same rural social networks of farmers. It is this network that also works for the laborers also. Laborers also get support only if the aarhtiyas extend support to the farmers.
With the increasing demands for consumerist goods and rise in expenditure in social ceremonies, aarhtiyas have become indispensable financial supporters for the farmers. In this relationship, farmers are willing to let go some part of their benefit while selling their products to the aarhtiyas in the mandi. In other words, the contradictory class relations between the local traders and farmers is not the only reality of relationship between aarhtiyas and farmers. This relationship is much more complex and nuanced.
Consequently, the traditional boundaries of large, medium farmers or small farmers are gradually blurring. This has paved the way for the emergence of newer socio-economic ties and political alliance in the rural areas and small towns. The new alliance is between the initial beneficiaries of the green revolution i.e. the traders and grain merchants (or also known as aarhtiyas), and the small, medium, semi-medium farmers and laborers. Youth have played a major role in forming such alliances.
Ruralities and Anxieties of Identity
Second distinct feature of this process of rural change that is behind the protests is the growing anxieties related to the rural identity. Although there is no distinct rural any more as the rural has become urbanized and urban has been ruralized, the common feature that connects both is of prevailing ruralities. The regions of Punjab, Haryana, Western Uttar Pradesh and parts of northern Rajasthan has witnessed emergence of a rurban culture in the past few decades. The new mandis (since the mandi’s have also expanded as small townships in these regions) are epicentres of an amalgamated culture of rural as well as urban lifestyles.
In this new culture, the lifestyle is very much like urban centers (automobiles, electronic gadgets, branded clothes etc) but the socio-cultural relations continue to be traditional like any traditional rural setup (protection of family identity, caste prestige, family values etc). There has been emergence of a new middle class-caste group that believes in upward economic mobility and yet protection of traditional cultural values. This traditionalist form of modernization has given birth to quest for a new political articulation.
This is especially true about the ‘rurban’ male youth who are still graduating or have graduated but do not have jobs. The youth unemployment rate in Haryana is three times higher than the national average. Similarly, Punjab’s unemployment rate is higher than the national average. According to a recent report of the government of Punjab the unemployment rate amongst the age group of 15 and 29 years is 21,6 % whereas the national average is 17.8 %.. Similarly, in case of Haryana, according to a report of Center for Monitoring Indian Economy, the overall unemployment rate was 28.9 % in 2019 against the national average of 8.4 %.
Shrinking economic opportunities and a futureless agriculture has badly affected the youth population of both the states. Apart from the decline in economic status, it has serious implications for the social prestige as getting married and having a settled social life has eventually become a challenging task for these young boys. The boys of all social segments (upper castes, intermediary castes or the backward castes), are facing this existential crisis.
Mandis as the last hope
Socio-economic life around mandis is their only hope as a common space. Their future lies in success and stability within the mandi in local small business sector (a mobile shop, readymade garment shop or other consumables) or for relatively better offs it’s the traditional form of grain merchant business. All these conditions demand existence of a vibrant mandi as a site of economic and socio-cultural activity. Disappearance of mandi’s or any threat to the very idea of mandi poses a challenge to their social identity.
This anxious youth still feels close to local leadership and hopes from the political patronage system that has existed for so long. The youth of these regions still believe that the local political formations have their own independent voice and can assert their political demands irrespective of who forms the government either in the state or in the centre. This in turn also puts pressure on the regional political formations to assert localized political demands in place of debating wider national issues. This is not only true in the assembly elections but also in the Lok-Sabha elections.
The increasing support for BJP in these regions was based upon an expectation that it would take care of the localized economic interests. Being a national party probably it’s not feasible for BJP anymore. Consequently, people have again started looking upto the local leaders or new youth leaders. It is this phenomenon that has compelled Akali Dal to withdraw its support from BJP. We may also witness revival of the Indian National Lok Dal in the near future. Success of Dushyant Chautala in Haryana indicates this phenomenon.
The ongoing farmers protests are an expression of increasing possibilities of newer ties and alliances in the rurban centers in the regions which were initial beneficiaries of the green revolution. These protests also indicate growing anger against entry of newer economic actors in the form of corporates in the local agro-business market amongst almost all segments of these regions including the traditional agriculture traders and small and medium farmers.
Dr. Sudhir Kumar Suthar
The author teaches in the Centre for Political Studies, JNU, New Delhi. He works on rural and agrarian issues in India. He can be reached at email@example.com