No matter your feelings are regarding the farmer protests, one thing is certain, the tractor is the symbol and icon of the protests. Farmers marching from all over Punjab and other neighboring states first used their tractors to barge through the barricades erected by the police. Once camped at the borders of Delhi, farmers marched inside Delhi along with their tractors to assert their demands. This is the first time that tractors have been used in farmer protests. So, why did tractors become symbolic of the protests?
The answer might lie in India’s modernization of agriculture, especially in the Punjab and Haryana, starting from the 1960s. A newly-independent India faced a crisis of grain shortage and hunger. The Nehruvian vision of modern India, led to a policy wherein chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and mechanization was promoted in these traditionally agrarian spaces. The American agroscientist Norman Borlaug was roped in to implement the new vision. The resulting ‘Green Revolution’ not only created a grain surplus, especially of wheat from the granaries of Punjab and Haryana, but, over time, a situation where much of this grain would rot in poorly managed and ill-equipped storage facilities.
It is obvious, then, that the ‘Green Revolution’ agriculture was not possible without mechanization. Machines like tractors were necessary to plough the thousands of acres that a farmer would own. The use of draught animals was no longer economically viable, not that it was earlier if the deficit of agrarian production is given due consideration. While farmers needed to invest in more and more tractors, the use of draught animals was perhaps confined to smaller farms and on a much-reduced scale.
The Green Revolution, as one knows, had a catastrophic fall out, especially in the Punjab. The use of large quantities of pesticides and chemical fertilizers has led to an increased number of cancer cases. The high yield varieties of crops need greater amounts of water and this has led to a decrease of the ground water table level. The increased investment has only led the farmers into greater debts. Add to this, and the trigger of protest of decades of hardships, was the government’s plan to increase privatization of grain distribution. The farmers could lose their last option of earning a fair and minimum price for their produce.
For some time now, especially after the present government came to power, the ban on cow, and now in some areas buffalo, slaughter has been promoted as a way out of the Green Revolution mess. In fact, persons and NGOs associated with the ruling party, the BJP, or its parent the RSS, have been at the forefront in promoting ‘traditional’ agriculture. Of course, the laws banning cow slaughter predates the BJP: Goa’s Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party was one of the earliest regional outfits to legislate on the matter, in addition to the Congress. While it is only now that the rhetoric has shifted to banning the consumption of beef, earlier these laws were enacted ostensibly to protect the cattle for agrarian purposes.
The argument for promoting ‘traditional’ agriculture seems to promote a caste order in rural India. In 2015 when Maharashtra imposed a stringent ban on the consumption of beef, the Viniyog Parivar Trust, a Jain NGO instrumental in promoting the law, claimed that agriculture would be the main beneficiary of the beef ban. One of its leaders then claimed that more cattle will be available to farmers and consequently there will be more work for ‘untouchable’ communities traditionally forced to clear dead cattle and leather workers.
It then appears that farmers in North India have two options: continue with the mechanized agriculture (and ensure that the government fixes prices and makes proper policies) or go back to an older traditional form of agriculture—the bucolic idyll of Gandhi—and make a greater use of cattle and other such animals. The farmers have chosen neither and the choice is significant. After all the choice between Scylla and Charybdis is not choice at all!
By focusing on the need for a fair price, the farmers are not supporting either of the agricultural visions. Rather than choose between a modern, future-oriented Green Revolution or rooting for village-based traditionalism, the farmers are shifting the debate to fairness and just economic practices. It is unlikely that big farms would be economically viable through village-based traditionalism. The farmers know that mechanization is still necessary to earn their livelihood, or even profit from farming. Thus, the appeal of tractors as symbols of the protests.
As much as the tractors help to plough, they also are useful to push through police barricades. With a segment of the protests going out of control on Republic Day this year, and following the propaganda of news channels, the tractor as a symbol of the protests had a quiet exit from the scene. But not the protests: the farmers continue to ask for a fair minimum price that would save them from ruin and immiseration.
Following the farmer’s protest, many commentators believed the protests were crucial for the future of the Indian Republic. How exactly do the farmer protests stop the downward trend of India’s democratic institutions is something that, as the cliché goes, only time will tell. But one thing is for certain: the visions of both, traditionalism and modernization have utterly failed the small and large farmers in the country.
(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 3 March, 2021)