“Show me any farmer in any of the major national parties, who holds a senior position…” None; which explains the farm sector mess in India.
“I live two lives,” Ajay Jakhar tells me towards the end of the meal. At La Bodega, a Mexican restaurant in New Delhi’s Khan Market, it is easy to mistake him for an investment banker or consultant. Neatly turned out in button-down shirt and dark trousers and speaking in the fluent accent of an Indian public school education, that is the avatar I am familiar with. But, as he is at pains to point out, his advocacy for farmers and farm policy as chairman of Bharat Krishak Samaj (BKS) stems from his experience as a hands-on farmer.
At La Bodega — his choice — he is in advocacy mode. Two nights later, this Mayo College alumnus will be taking the overnight train from New Delhi’s Sarai Rohilla station to Abohar, his village near the Pakistan border, where he will change into kurta-pyjama and mix with people a world away from policy-makers, wonks, activists or journalists. This schizophrenic life-choice is the essence of who he is: a farmer who can speak for the community he represents.
BKS is a 60-year-old farmers’ advocacy group but it has asserted itself in the public ken only recently, a result of Jakhar’s energetic efforts. He took charge of it five years ago, bringing agriculture and agricultural issues more squarely into the mainstream public discourse.
We have chosen to share a starter of chicken quesadilla — a tortilla (a thinner version of the humble chapati) with a spicy chicken filling. For the main dish, Jakhar chooses chicken burrito and I tenderloin steak. Hopeful enquiry: er, beef? No, buffalo, comes the instant reply and I opt to have it done medium rare. Big mistake.
Jakhar, 48, comes with a formidable political lineage. He is the grandson of Balram Jakhar, who was agriculture minister in P V Narasimha Rao’s cabinet. His father, now retired, was in politics and his uncle was, till Thursday, leader of the Opposition in the Punjab Assembly. Why did he not follow them, given that agriculture is such a powerful lobby that governments hesitate to cut subsidies, would never dream of taxing it and so on?
That is a misconception, he retorts. A large section of India’s population depends on agriculture, but “show me any farmer in any of the major national parties, who holds a senior position”, he challenges. Sharad Pawar, I point out promptly. His reply to that is off the record but his broad point is that none of the mainstream parties have leaders representing farmers who actually farm.
The hue and cry over subsidies, he says, is the result of policy-makers trying to mitigate farmer distress instead of finding lasting solutions. In any case, he warms to his theme as the starter is served, fertiliser is used in irrigated areas — and only 40 per cent of India is irrigated. So the fertiliser subsidy that is so hugely criticised is not available to the majority of farmers. Then take the minimum support price; only 10 to 15 per cent of Indian farmers avail of it. It is the way subsidies are being delivered that’s absolutely wrong. The majority of farmers do not benefit from them. And because the political leadership does not have farmers at senior levels, it does not understand this.”
So why did he not he get into the political system, I repeat as I mop up spicy tomato gravy squirting from the plump quesadillas that prove finger-lickin’ good. It is a considered position of neutrality, he explains. “If we associate with one political party — which happens to me half the time because of my family background — we will be shutting the doors on the rest of India. And that goes down the ladder — to policy-makers, IAS officers, academics. So whenever I write, I try to criticise the Opposition as well as the government.”
It was, however, another political connection that led him to BKS — his grandfather on his mother’s side, Ram Niwas Mirdha, best known for heading the joint parliamentary committee on Harshad Mehta. “He told me, ‘Society has given you a lot, now you should give something back.’ It was at his persistence that I joined and now it has become a passion.”
The organisation has a sizeable membership in 15 or 20 states but, Jakhar admits, there is little connect with the central office. It took him a couple of years to figure out how to transform this soporific institution. Being resource-poor, he decided it did not make sense for BKS to work in the villages. “But I understand how policy-makers think, so I decided to capitalise on our meagre assets by trying to change the lives of farmers through advocacy.”
BKS is largely funded by advertising revenue from a black-and-white journal it produces called Krishi Samachar and donations from farmers’ co-operatives like Iffco. Jakhar says he is careful not to take money from government organisations, the private sector or foreign contributors, to better maintain BKS’ independence.
The advocacy mainly takes the form of bi-monthly meetings on specific topics: he is proud to be from possibly the only farmers’ organisation to have had a meeting with Reserve Bank of India Governor, Raghuram Rajan, at which stakeholders — from artiyas (middlemen) to CEOs of warehousing companies — provided perspectives on agricultural credit. A bigger conference on a range of issues is being planned with the Niti Aayog. He explains the strategy thus: “Have you seen the film, Inception? That is exactly what we are trying to do — ‘incept’ ideas into policy-makers’ minds.”
The main course arrives as I ask Jakhar about his support for foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail (an article by him in Business Standard generated strong criticism from certain quarters). “Misinterpretation! What I actually said — and no one caught — was that FDI in retail is good if it comes with the pre-condition that 75 per cent of the fresh produce sold in outlets is sourced from farmers’ fields — it should not be imported or sourced through an artiya. Nobody liked us for that. The people in Bharti-Walmart, for instance, were absolutely against it.”
Which brings me to the topic of farmers’ access to markets. The Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) system has created a kind of monopsony that does not benefit farmers, so why is it not being dismantled? Agriculture is a state subject, he explains and states collect taxes from the APMC system, so they have no incentive to dismantle it. BKS has suggested that the centre compensate states for this revenue loss for, say, for five years just as it will do for the goods and services tax. He estimates the bill will be Rs 5,000-6,000 crore.
What about the services artiyas provide as aggregators, I ask as I start on the steak served on a bed of sautéed spinach. “The way to kill the artiya system is to build direct connections between farmer and consumer,” he replies, digging into a burrito that looks like a variation of the starter. “To do this, the government has to incentivise aggregators through collectives. What BKS suggests is removal of fresh fruit and vegetable from the APMC. Then, make it mandatory to have farmers’ markets like you have in the west. It can be done if you get the residents’ welfare associations involved and local farmers form their own collectives.”
He also explains why competition within the artiya system is important. “If, say, five traders want to come to my hometown to buy the kinnows that I grow, they need permission from the marketing committee to get a licence to purchase. And every mandi has a different licence that needs to be renewed each year!”
As our conversation progresses, I discover the problem of asking for a medium-rare steak. Unlike beef, even good buffalo meat is stringy and chewy and needs to be cooked through. For the first time ever, I jettison meat in favour of vegetables, which are surprisingly good. The proprietor solicitously asks whether I would like it redone but seeing my guest has almost finished, I decline.
The conversation shifts to his “other” life in the village. He tells me how Abohar narrowly missed going to Pakistan thanks to the intervention of Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner. The issue was the Gang Canal, which extends as far as Ganganagar. Ganga Singh told the British he needed the head-works from where the canal started in the same country as his state; so the Radcliffe Line was duly changed to accommodate his wishes.
Over coffee, I point out that he is one of those large farmers, who benefits from all the government largesse. He does not rise to the bait. “I am certainly a very large farmer,” he gravely concedes. “I live in a joint family — there are four generations living in the village — and I farm on behalf of all of them.” Also, he uses drip irrigation and points out that soluble fertilisers do not get subsidies. He admits to feeling none of the pressures of his small and marginal counterparts. For instance, unlike the latter, for whom the younger generations move off the land, his son, now 21, will follow in his father’s footsteps (or so Jakhar says).
Then he thinks and adds robustly: “Yes, I am amongst India’s privileged farmers — and that is exactly why I have the opportunity to do what I do. I feel good about it!”