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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 10, New Delhi, February 20, 2021

Romance and reality of farming over the years | B S Chauhan

Saturday 20 February 2021, by B. S. Chauhan


The ongoing farmers’ agitation in India is generating more heat than light. Suicides by farmers failed to get public attention. Protesting farmers are keeping the TV anchors, politicians, activists and official agencies on their toes. Everyone has an opinion, even those who have never seen a rice field in their life. Some got introduced to farming by films such as Mother India and Do Bigha Zameen. All tend to view this complex issue through the prism of political leanings or beliefs.

Farming is now a topic of drawing room conversations. The social media is rife with messages and videos on this subject which are either an oversimplification of the matter or plain dishonest in propagating the viewpoint of a political dispensation. The fact remains that conventional farming (as opposed to exotic farming) is not a paying proposition almost anywhere in the world.

Prices of agricultural produce have remained static for decades while the cost of inputs has gone up. This led to, in effect, transfer of large amounts of funds from the farm sector to other sectors of the economy. In the past, depressed agricultural prices benefited Britishers as they could maintain native armies at reduced costs. And these benefited the successive governments and private industry in independent India as workforce costs could be kept low and middle class happy.

Developed countries provide a safety net for their farmers by way of cash subsidies. But it is not to say that there is no farm distress in America or developed world. India provides subsidies on inputs like fertilisers, pesticides, power, seeds, water etc. and loans on low-interest rates but how much of it actually reach the needy is questionable. Cash subsidies have been introduced into the system only recently but it is too little to make a substantial difference to the lives of the poor farmers.

life in villages, as it evolved over decades, and the concerns of the farmers is based on my observations from the periphery of the rural India. What follows is not a well-researched, factual account but an anecdotal, personal story. The current agitation makes me recollect and present these for urbanites like myself.

I and my siblings are first generation city dwellers. Our parents hailed from villages in district Saharanpur of western UP. I did not like going to village as the visits were mostly during summer vacations and, having been brought up in Dehradun with its relatively cooler climate, I found the summer heat there unbearable. The visits to attend marriages in the extended family were shorter and not necessarily in summers. These visits gave me occasional glimpses into the village life.

But the village was never far away from our lives. We used to have guests from villages visit us and sometime, some cousin or other would come to stay for extended periods to study in the city or to look for a job. Such guests would bring the news from the village. I remember listening to extended, after dinner talks between my father and the guest, if he happened to be from the paternal side. If from maternal side, my mother would sometimes join the talks if she happened to find time from her household work.

Needless to say, all the relatives were farmers. Some with small land holdings and some slightly better off. They would talk about the farming, about other relatives and whose son or daughter got married into which family and which village. The talks were full of anecdotes and I loved to hear them lying on my cot. I was 10 years old in 1965 and was no stranger to shortages. I had stood in queues for hours to buy wheat, rice, sugar and kerosene from Government fair price shops. I could read the newspaper and knew about PL-480 wheat imports from America. It used to be reddish and would not make good chapatis. Sometimes, we would get ragi and bajra instead of wheat. As the rice was mostly coarse and inferior in quality, we would not buy our share. But once our Bengali neighbours learnt of that, they insisted that we take our share of rice for them.

There were stories, true I think, that special ration cards were required to be made for guests in Bombay. Our village connections did not help us much in those times as the shortages were everywhere. But it did help us in getting jaggery (gur) to tide over scanty availability of white sugar. I used to despise tea sweetened with gur. But by a strange quirk of fate, I have almost fully switched over to gur as a sweetener now after learning of the ill effects of white sugar.

It was against such bleak background of food scarcity that I heard stories of introduction of high yield varieties of wheat from our guests. The wheat plants were short in height and would require chemical fertilizers and probably more water but gave manifold yield. New words like Urea, Phosphate etc. entered the rural vocabulary. It was the beginning of the green revolution. A guest remarked that perhaps they did not know farming after all and were learning it anew.

There was a euphoric time of sudden spurt in rural incomes due to high sugar cane prices. My paternal and maternal villages both were sugar cane growing areas. The cane windfall was perhaps due to Chaudhary Charan Singh of BKD who became Chief Minister of UP. I remember someone from my paternal village rode all the way to Dehradun, some 70-80 km, on his brand new Rajdoot motorcycle bought with sugar cane money. There was widespread optimism among our relatives working in cities and some were talking of going back to villages and doing cane farming.

I do not have data on how much the cane prices rose, but the euphoria did not last long. As more and more area came under cane farming, there was a glut in the market and prices fell. The sugar mills were not taking cane. Chaudhary Charan Singh was a minister then in Morarji Desai’s cabinet. Farmers, who used to look up to him as their leader, approached him with complaints of sugar cane farming losses. One morning in his meeting room on the Tughlaq Road in New Delhi, Charan Singh understood the problem and took off his Gandhi cap. Pointing to his bare head, he said, this is the only area you left without planting sugar cane. Prices fell because you covered all your lands with sugar cane just because the cane prices were high the last season. What can I do now, he said, chiding them for over production.

Uttar Pradesh had another problem, at least for my relatives. The implementation of Zamindari Abolition and Land Reforms Act of 1950 drastically reduced their land holdings. My relatives were land owning Rajput zamindars and must have been, in all probability, employing farm labour to till their land. With reduced holdings, incomes must have plummeted. I had seen my elder maternal uncle (mamaji) ploughing the land himself with his pair of bullocks. Division of land among subsequent generations meant that the land holdings got smaller and smaller, to the point of making agriculture totally unviable as a profession. The family my elder sister was married into, owned fertile land, fed by Upper Ganga canal, in a village of district Saharanpur.

When I first visited them in sixties, the joint family, headed by the eldest brother, was doing well. The village was prosperous and had electricity. A few houses I visited were as good as any in the city. But the family’s fortune had changed when I visited them again in late eighties. The joint family had broken up and the division of land among next generation left each with unviable parcels of land. Only those branches of family were relatively better off who had some members working in the cities. Yet there was a class of villagers who thrived as they got into village politics and milked the largesse of many government schemes, meant for the upliftment of rural poor, to fill their own coffers.

Despite all the disincentives, most of the relatives clung on to farming as that was the only way of life they knew. There was an element of pride too as farming was considered a noble profession in folk wisdom. Perhaps it had something to do with tending to the legacy handed over to them by the ancestors and keeping it safe to hand over to the future generations.

The families who had members working in the cities did better. It meant lesser people who depended on the land. Also, the family member working outside could contribute to the rising costs of the inputs. The unviability of the agriculture is not a new phenomenon. As long back as early seventies, I heard a relative complain of little or no income from the agriculture.

He was well educated and had considerable land. He, one of two brothers, could have easily got a decent job in the city. His elder brother was an officer in the army. The family pride in holding on to the ancestral land held sway and he was persuaded by his father to stay in the village and look after the family property. He was also teaching in a nearby Inter College (a 10+2 school, pompously called college in UP). He did not till the land himself and depended on farm labour but it was an uphill task to make the farms break even. I heard him lament to his army brother once that the agriculture was all about making losses. “Why do you do it then?” elder brother asked. I think there was a shrug in reply and unsaid words like carrying on the tradition.

My own father-in-law was a gentleman farmer in Dehradun alongside being a teacher in a Dehradun Inter college. He did not till the land himself but even then, the farming was not an easy job. My wife tells of how he would go to watch over his ready to harvest fields at night in the cold winters of Dehradun. Dressed in long coat and armed with a gun and a torch, he would leave home late at night to sit vigil on a makeshift wooden platform till early morning. After the harvest, it used to be the deafening noise of threshers (to de-husk wheat) and dust all around in the courtyard of the house. And vast amounts of cooking to be done by her mother for the labour.

Despite all the hardships, he used to take pride in saying that he was a farmer first and then a teacher. In early eighties, some half wit town planners of Dehradun decided to change the land use of fertile, arable fields in the south of the city, on way to Hardwar, to residential. My in-laws’ fields came under that. It is where sugar cane, wheat and famed basmati rice used to grow. And there were many litchi and mango orchards too. Vested interests must have been at play. Some influential people must have had land there.

My father-in-law was worried that his agricultural land would come under urban land ceiling act and get acquired by the state government of the day for peanuts as compensation. He made many visits to Delhi to meet Chaudhary Charan Singh, who was out of power but was still regarded highly as a Kisan leader.

The matter was in the court but he, along with some other relatives, continued his efforts to influence the political opinion in parallel. His appeal to the powers that be was not to change the land use of the villages and let them remain farmers. It seems that the precedent of a high court verdict in a similar case worked in their favour and saved their land from urban land ceiling act. The land use was changed but the farmers could sell their land at market price. The land prices shot up in a growing city and even poor farmers became rich overnight. The farming became a thing of the past. Now there are fancy houses and SUVs in the villages and more houses in what used to be sugar cane and rice fields.

The story repeats in almost every village. Relatives in my maternal village pin their hopes on acquisition of their agricultural land for lakhs and crores of rupees to make way for some new expressway or other project. Some of them had their wish fulfilled recently when an expressway was announced while the rest were left lamenting their ill luck.


I recently visited my maternal village after a gap of nearly fifty years to attend a family function. My maternal uncle is no more but his son, my cousin, retired from a job in Dehradun, lives there. Out of his three sons, two are into farming while the eldest is working in NCR.

The village was nothing like the village of my memories. There used to be kuchha roads and kuchha mud houses, painted with a slurry of dung. The ‘gher’ (an open space where animals would be tethered) was some distance away where my maternal uncle would sit on his cot under a ber tree. One baithak, a place where males of the family would be lounging and meeting others over hukka, facing the village well, was gone, replaced by houses. The gher too had pucca houses. There was a tractor in the shed and a shed for cows and buffaloes. The village was well connected to the nearby town by pucca road. I had memories of watching in fascination a potter working at his wheel. But there were houses there and I doubt if the potter’s family was into their traditional craft anymore.

We reached the village a little early to take part in a family function. There were cars after cars arriving with guests from other villages in Saharanpur, Roorkee and Haryana. There must have been 30 cars and 500 guests. I was a bit apprehensive as nobody was wearing a mask and when I tried to put on mine, they would say “There is no corona here”. The traditional community meal was an elaborate buffet in a large tent. The way the family spent on the function, it was clear that they were doing well. The mud house had given way to a pucca house with tiled floors and electric appliances. The family’s good fortune had much to do with cousin’s income from pension, the hard work put in by the sons in the field and diversification to non-traditional vegetable crops.

There were toilets in the baithak and in the house. The outflow from these toilets contaminated the ground water. The toilets were either ill-designed or badly constructed. Was there a standard design made available for the rural toilets which relied on septic tanks in the absence of sewer lines? I would not know. The result was that the handpump water was undrinkable. Those who had means, had installed ROs or were drawing underground water with submersible pumps from 200 feet deep sources. Some were buying drinking water. But the poor were either making do with the contaminated water or getting water from the tube-wells in the fields which were still pumping out good water.

Another relation’s village, which was on a highway, had ground water contaminated by the industrial units which came up around the village. Thus even prosperity has not provided a basic necessity to these villagers.

(The Author: B. S. Chauhan is a retired technocrat).

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