Waris Shah’s verse “Tiller’s field is on fire / let’s see when does he come to extinguish it” seems to portray the current scene literally and metaphorically. It means tillers’ lot has been the same since the eighteenth century. Last week, Punjab’s farmers came to Lahore in the manner of protest to seek help from the government to extinguish the fire that consumes their fields. The Punjab Police, notorious for its brutality, took the voice of protest as fire and extinguished it with ‘chemical mixed water’, tear gas shells and batons. A prominent farmer lost his life.
“It was shameful for anyone to see these true providers of life, these true representatives of nature, having to travel to the wasteful city with a request in hand,” writes Asha’ar Rehman in his column. The wasteful city indeed! It has, in its ignorance, a somewhat similar image of the tillers as painted by poet Brecht: ‘The figures in the fields, brown chested monsters, wicked looking, work with slow movements for the pale-faces in the petrifacts, as laid down in the documents. For God created the earth that it might bring bread, and gave us those with brown chests that might enter our stomachs, mixed with the milk from the cows which he created’.
The city the tillers tried to enter has a big mouth and a bigger stomach. It devours anything and everything without knowing whether it’s needed or not. It digests what’s thrown into its stomach without bothering to detect whether it’s wholesome or not. And it produces loads and loads of waste miasma and stink which can stifle you.
What essentially sustains the city is the toil done by the tillers. No city, ancient or modern, has lived without food and cloth and shelter. Tillers produce grain so that tables in the city could be laid with all the delicacies. No delicacy can delight the palate without the stuff that is grown in the fields and reared on the farms. The city would starve without the fields. If farmers stop raising the crops that provide natural fibers, the city would roam naked. Fashion without strips of cloth means little. Clothes, especially the fancy ones, at one level hint at efforts to hide what’s not very presentable. And the construction, the present-day gold mine! All the buildings, modern high rises and skyscrapers, would come down tumbling if farmers take out of them the material they have provided such as timber, wood, soil and other miscellaneous items. So is the case with many other prized urban creations which the city people living in their comfort zone take for granted. The world of haute cuisine, haute couture and architecture would vanish into thin air that hovers over the city carrying its stench. No city can exist without appropriating the surplus produced by agriculture. Can you imagine subsistence farming and a city existing together? Surplus agricultural produce regardless of how it is produced is the base on which the city stands tall. ‘Village idiots’ create the source that nourishes the urban mind.
The phenomenon of agriculture, in our present context, has two manifest aspects; material and sociocultural. The material aspect is mostly concerned with the state and market forces. Sociocultural aspect is directly linked with the urban population and its cultural attitude. How obnoxious urban hauteur vis-à-vis peasants can be is well-known. The farmers are left at the mercy of market forces, which don’t have a modicum of fairness. Multinationals and local sharks called Arhti [middle man], in collusion with officials, control supply and prices of farm inputs and devise market policies, which are absolutely detrimental to the economic interests of farming community. They determine the prices of agricultural inputs such as seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides, herbicide, sprays, machinery and tools needed for modern farming. The prices are arbitrarily fixed to the benefit of market forces, which are free to manipulate and exploit the vulnerable farmers groaning under the traditional weight of debt.
The growers find the other inputs such as diesel/petrol and electricity controlled by the government hardly affordable. Ironically, when the farmers, after back-breaking toil, reap the harvest and have some produce to sell, the state steps in to determine the prices of some important crops such as wheat, sugarcane and rice. Panjandrums sipping their freshly brewed coffee in their plush offices force the impoverished farmers to sell their produce below the actual market price. And they do it with good intentions as the professed reason offered is the national interest, which is best served if the politically influential urban population gets food at subsidized rates.
This is done at the expense of ‘Dhotiwala [the man in loincloth / the farmer]’ who bears the brunt of scorching heat and singeing sun. The farmer has a simple question: if the state doesn’t or can’t regulate the prices of inputs or regulates them to the advantage of big fish in the business, what justification does it have to deny the farmers subsidy?
The situation is exacerbated by the nexus that exists between the free market sharks and agricultural department of the government. This department is supposed to protect the farmers’ rights but it instead blatantly promotes the interests of multinationals and their local allies through its corrupt practices. It openly allows the sale of substandard seeds, spurious pesticides and sprays, causing loss of billions to the growers and serious impact on the country’s economy. To right the wrong, the first step would be to dismantle the agricultural department and bring in an agriculture friendly performance-based service agency in consultation with farmers’ representatives. Service delivery should be its raison detre.
Pause and think for a moment why East Punjab has much higher yield per acre? Does It exist on Mars? It’s just across the border with the same soil and climate. Human factor makes the difference. Subsidy is no anathema for agriculture. Even advanced economies provide subsidies to their growers who help the population to have, in the words of poet and mystic Bulleh Shah, ‘gulli [bread] and julli [clothes] and kulli [shelter]’.
Chemical mixed toxic water thrown at protesting farmers would neither put out the flame that consumes their fields nor would douse the fire they have in their belly. We have no other industrial or postindustrial product which could be sold in the international market to create resources. So respect ‘Dhotiwala’. We in our city towers would starve in the nakedness of our apathy without him. — email@example.com
Published in Dawn, November 9th, 2020