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“Farmers have understood that the only way of getting media attention is to do something sensational”: An interview with P Sainath (I)5 min read

August 27, 2017 4 min read

“Farmers have understood that the only way of getting media attention is to do something sensational”: An interview with P Sainath (I)5 min read

Reading Time: 4 minutes

It has been a season of discontent for India’s farmers.

It began when farmers in Tamil Nadu staged a 23-day protest in front of the Prime Minister’s office in New Delhi demanding debt relief as their crops were ruined by a drought last year. To draw attention to their plight, they wore human skulls and conducted mock funerals.

Since then the neighbouring states of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra witnessed a wave of protests, where farmers emptied milk containers and dumped vegetables on the road. Things escalated even further in June this year when at least six people were killed as police fired at the protesters in Mandasur.

Ramon Magsaysay awardee, journalist, and Founder Editor of PARI (People’s Archives of Rural India) P Sainath has played a prominent role in bringing out issues pertaining to inequalities existing in the agricultural sector for years now.

The Manipal Journal had the chance to interact with Sainath for an exclusive interview with relevance to his video, “Why are our farmers angry?”, and his views on the agrarian crisis. In the first part of a two part interview series, we bring to you the veteran journalist’s views:

Protests in Delhi by the Tamil Nadu farmers and many more of similar nature have been taking place for some time now. After a point of time, these protests lost media coverage, primarily because of the allegations about the protests being politically inclined. Do you believe the protests are not being taken seriously anymore because of these taglines?

Firstly, what is wrong if the protests are linked to political parties? If there is a basis in reality for protests, it should not cease to be genuine due to these allegations. Secondly, the recent protests at Jantar Mantar got coverage because farmers resorted to superlative tactics to attract the attention of the media. According to me, it is today’s media and its failure that is more accountable for these methods than politicians.

Farmers have understood that the only way of getting their attention is to do something sensational and dramatic. In fact, farmers protesting using these kinds of gimmicks was a comment on you and me. The media is not interested in the content of these protests. Every farmer protests has been stereotyped to make it look like a demand for loan waivers, which is false. There are other serious demands.

When big companies are ripping off people with 700 percent profits, it is perfectly legitimate for our farmer to ask for cheaper inputs. The media is linked to corporate forces that have an interest in acquiring the farmland and taking over Indian agriculture. That’s a huge market to annex. The whole is the question of livelihood versus corporate profits. Even though I have been shouting about this issue from the rooftops, I haven’t seen any support for this cause anywhere in the media. We, as media organisations, can do things to make it happen, to then force the issue on authorities.

Are loan waivers a solution to the crisis?

A loan waiver is never a solution, and nor are the farmers telling you so. They are asking for loan waivers because they are unable to bear the debt burden. Loan waivers were frequently resorted to in Colonial British India, and in those days unlike now, it was much more serious because there wasn’t a nationalised banking system. It was all private loans. The media, which attacks loan waivers, do they ever mention to you in the same breath that 75 percent of the non-performing assets of those nationalised banks are bad debts of top corporations of this country?

In one case, one particular lead banker of this country has said that he cannot say how much the biggest industrial house owns as the revelation would undermine and destroy the banking sector if they gave the figure. The media fails to point to that. They are not bothered about the seven and a half lakh crores out of which 70-80 percent is from big business but are about the 30,000 crores, which is across millions of farmers. The sheer hypocrisy and selfishness are baffling.

Do you think the unequal distribution of the land is what that is causing the variations of reward among the agrarian community?

That’s a more complex question. The agrarian crisis which we are now seeing has one set of temporary factors and then there are also long term unresolved issues. There is a long pending need for land reforms. Only 3 or 4 states in this country like Kerala and West Bengal previously had any kind of land reforms and small farmers got to assert their land rights. There are millions of acres in this country lying declared surplus but have never been distributed to our people. Nowadays, in the media ‘land reform’ means, allowing corporations to acquire agricultural lands. The word reform itself has been so bastardised.

When we used to speak of labour reform, in the 60s or 70s, we meant the betterment of work conditions. Now when we say labour reforms we mean the right to hire and fire. All these terms have been completely cannibalised and bastardised. The media has to address these issues. My understanding of the term ‘land reforms’ does not just mean land to the tiller, it means land for those who work on it.

Women do more than 60 percent of all agricultural work in this country but own less than 8 percent of the land. The work of women in agriculture is increasing as men migrate out of the profession, as a result of urbanisation and industrialisation. Earlier they used to look after dairy, livestock and other such things but now they look after crop agriculture as well. The role of women in agriculture is back breaking.

One of the most important things we have to do in this country is to assert the property rights of women in agriculture. There are quite a few extremely positive things that are happening in our neighbouring state of Kerala. Look at the movement called Kudumbashree which is one of the largest movements of this country with 4.2 million members, all women. Their form of organisation is far advanced and consists of cooperatives and collective farming groups. They have the least land resources and they are doing great things. Imagine if these women could own the land, what they could do.