Post independence, the Indian economy has seen a significant improvement in overall performance, growing at approximately 7 percent annually over the last two decades, driven primarily by its services sector.
We have made great strides in education, health and overall standards of living as compared to the pre-1947 era but the exploitation and helplessness of a farmer shown in a six-decade-old movie still rings true in 2017.
‘Do Bigha Zameen’ Still Relevant
In 1953, Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen was one of the first movies of its kind, exploring the complex dynamics of a peasant-landlord relationship in post-colonial India, and the sufferings of marginalised landowners as they struggled to hold on to their identity amidst a wave of commercialisation. The movie opens by mentioning the two successive years of drought that had plagued the village, a scenario that would have been quite catastrophic for a small cultivator in India in that period, with heavy dependence on monsoons.
The atmosphere of rejoicing, with the advent of rain, shows its intrinsic importance in the life of the villager. The coming of the monsoons is a good omen, linked to the belief of the rural folk that it signals the turning around of fortunes. Unfortunately, the omen proves false for Shambhu, the protagonist, as he’s exploited by his landlord. Steeped in debt, he ultimately loses his land, livelihood, and most importantly, his dignity as a farmer.
Cut to 2017, where the drought-afflicted farmers of Tamil Nadu have been agitating in New Delhi for the past month, demanding that loans from nationalised banks be written off. If one replaces the amount of Rs 235 that Shambhu owed his landlord with, say, Rs 23,500, Do Bigha Zameen continues to be the harsh reality for a large proportion of Indian farmers today. In 2015, it was reported that the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data suggest the number of farmer suicides to be 8,007, with 38.7 percent of these attributed to bankruptcy and indebtedness.
While the number should be enough to cause outrage, P Sainath notes that it is even higher as many suicides are not counted in the ‘farmer’ category and shuffled into other categories such as ‘others’ and ‘agriculture labourers’.
Further, another report suggests that around 80 percent of the farmers who committed suicide were indebted to banks and micro-finance institutions, a turnaround from the typical picture of the harsh moneylender as presented by history.
Loan Waivers Not Enough for Marginalised Farmers
For farmers holding less than one acre of land (comprising nearly two-thirds of the total holdings), around 28 percent of them have outstanding loans with banks, the rest rely on informal sources. The dependence on formal institutions for loans increases to around 67 percent past a threshold landholding size of one to five acres.
While some feel that loan waivers can be a good place to begin, the plight of the farmers points to a more deep-rooted failure to address their needs, a failure that one-off remedies like the aforementioned cannot resolve. Given that farmers are a crucial link in the chain when it comes to food security, protests of this ilk indicate that we haven’t come as long as a way as we would like to believe in terms of building a viable agricultural base and protecting the interests of our marginalised peasantry.
In the movie, Thakur Harnam Singh is representative of that exploitative class of landlords that seeks to protect its own skin without really delving into the psyche and needs of the tenants and protégés. Historically, money lending, in cash and kind was a key role that was played by the Zamindars and larger landowners owing to the absence of professional baniyas.
Peasants were plagued by problems such as an arbitrarily high system of interest rates (Dera, Duna etc), irregularity in issue of receipts, high rent burden and insecurity of tenancy. There were several forms of debt-bondage, and Dhaan lending was prevalent. Repayments in the form of Begar were common, though mostly undocumented.
Formal Institutions Emerge as New Zamindars
Exploitation has taken on a faceless entity but continues to be as pervasive as it used to be, perhaps even more in the wake of sustained modernisation. The widespread network of banks and micro-finance institutions in the present day comes with its own share of problems, the foremost being a lack of flexibility.
To further augment the burden imposed by exploitative moneylenders, the formalised organisational structure is unable to adapt to the needs of the small landholding farmers and creates a host of economic and social pressures. With a series of incidents happening in the states of Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Andhra and others, year after year, where farmers are being reduced to abject poverty leading them to give up their lives, what is happening with the farmers of Tamil Nadu is not an isolated demand for redressal, but an indicator of the systemic flaw in India’s agrarian set-up.
Agriculture Needs Immediate Remedial Steps
From Do Bigha Zameen to Peepli Live, the portrayal might have evolved from tragedy to satire, but the underlying realities of the agrarian economy remain much the same. With agriculture still accounting for nearly 50 percent of the employment in India and approximately one farmer suicide per hour in 2015, is it not time we woke up?
The last still of Do Bigha Zameen, which shows the farmer’s family gazing forlornly at what was once their land before walking away from it, serves as a fair warning of what we might have to face as an economy if strong remedial steps are not initiated on a priority basis in India’s agricultural sector.
(Amrita Brahmo completed her master’s from the Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum and is a freelance writer. Karan Singhal works as a research associate at Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)