Inside India #44: Drought, suicide and Artificial Intelligence – the plight of India’s farmers 

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

The Indian farmer is as much a figure of mythology as any of the subcontinent’s pantheon of heroes.

From the earliest beginnings of civilisation, farming – in a largely fertile land, irrigated by multiple rivers and inundated by the annual monsoon – has formed the bedrock of Indian society. Even today some sixty percent of the country’s 1.5 billion inhabitants derive their livelihood directly from agriculture.

And yet, Indian farming is at a crossroads, at war with forces both old and new.

Image credit: FlickrNP India burning3 CC 2.0

The subcontinent has always relied on farming, agriculture serving as the economic backbone of every major Indian civilisation and the means by which local populations were sustained. This state of affairs, one that had lasted millennia, underwent a dramatic and, for the most part, debilitating, transformation with the arrival of Europeans.

The British enterprise on the subcontinent began in a spirit of mutual trade, but, within a century, became a venture of rapacious and one-sided income generation – a large proportion of that income was derived by pushing the local agricultural ecosystem towards growing crops that could be exported for cash. Thus began a stagnation of Indian farming, and a downward slide in the welfare of farmers.

The issue was exacerbated by the country’s longstanding feudalist architecture, known as the zamindari system. Wealthy landowners – and noble houses – owned large tracts of the most fertile land and employed farm workers on terms that left them little better than bonded labour. Under the British, this rigid hierarchy was used as a means for ever-increasing taxation, including the infamous ‘Land Tax’, which, in places such as Bengal, rose as high as 90% of the rental rate of the land.

Of course, those at the top of the food chain were protected from the consequences of these draconian tithes.

In essence, the East India Company – and later, the British Crown – treated India as a vast profit centre where almost all of the profits were made on the subcontinent and then transferred overseas.

This was particularly true of crops such as cotton.

Following the American Civil War, a world shortage of American cotton saw elevated prices around the globe. Once Britain realised that cotton could be grown more cheaply in India, vast swathes of the subcontinent were turned to this enterprise. This cheap cotton was exported to British mills, to manufacture fabrics. These expensive fabrics were then imported back into India and sold to the garment industry, all but forcing Indians to buy clothes they couldn’t afford.

Little wonder then that Gandhi, attuned to the increasing dissatisfaction of the masses, led a boycott of British cloth and began making his own khadi – a rough, hand-spun fabric – on a spinning wheel. (As a piece of revolutionary propaganda it was a masterstroke, so much so that till today the enduring image of the Mahatma is of him sat in front of his wheel.) In so doing, he gave new life to the swadeshi movement – the principle of boycotting British goods, a tactic that went on to become a cornerstone of India’s campaign of non-violent resistance.

Following Indian Independence, the new Nehru government – in line with Gandhian ideals – embarked upon a programme of forcible acquisition of land from noble houses and feudal landowners in order to make a more equitable distribution among those who actually worked the land.

The strategy was only partially successful and farming remained as one of the poorest sectors of the economy in the decades to follow.

In modern times, new challenges have risen to impact the livelihoods of those in the sector.

A 2017 study by the University of California, Berkeley suggested that climate change may have contributed to the suicides of nearly 60,000 Indian farmers over the past three decades. Other statistics suggest a figure closer to 300,000 when including for those who have killed themselves due to crippling debt and other stresses associated with the sector. In 2015 alone 12000 farmers killed themselves across India; farmers immolating or poisoning themselves outside banks that held their loans have made headlines in recent years.

In response, the Indian government has enacted an insurance scheme to protect against crop failures. The scheme has met with limited success due, in part, to the old subcontinental bugbears of bureaucracy and corruption.

Some have turned to technology for a solution. For instance, farms are using sensors and connected IoT (Internet of Things) technologies to monitor crop and soil health. Artificial Intelligence-based algorithms are being used to predict the optimal time to sow seeds, or to alert farmers to risks from pest attacks.

The future is by no means secure for the Indian farmer.

But in a country where the burden of overpopulation is increasingly crippling, it is imperative that the agricultural sector innovate in order to remain productive and healthy. What can never be forgotten is that at the heart of India’s agricultural enterprise is the humble farmer, so often a hostage to fortune and to the vicissitudes of climate, economics, and political whim.

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This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

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