Categories: Opinion

The lament of the Kulaks

Farmer agitation or kulak revolt?

The positioning of the ongoing agitation, mostly in Punjab and Haryana, has been brilliant. Full marks for marketing, because we are programmed to be sentimental towards annadaatas. Food, after all, is pretty elemental. Farmers everywhere are a dour lot, prone to being glum — often with justification — about bad weather, subsidies and the antics of politicians.

But the sad fact of the matter is that this particular agitation is not a farmer agitation. It is a kulak revolt. Those who remember their Soviet history will recall how kulaks, landed farmers with a few acres, zamindars or janmi, were ruthless exploiters of the landless peasantry[1]. They were liquidated remorselessly by Joseph Stalin and company. Vladimir Lenin called them “bloodsuckers, vampires, plunderers of the people and profiteers, who fatten on famine[2].”

The alleged reason for the ‘farmer’ protests is that the small farmer will lose out to big, bad corporates. There is a grain of truth to this, but only if you extrapolate wildly.

If you see this as a kulak revolt, a lot of things fall into place, for example, the deluxe arrangements for the protesters encamped in Delhi; electric leg-massagers, pizza delivery, stylish tents. A far cry from our image of the lone, skinny, hard-scrabble farmer, eking out a perilous, hand-to-mouth existence.

Professional agitators, andolanjeevi, have infiltrated the protests; so have separatists, and, fishing in troubled waters, nearby foes. There is a pattern of keeping India on the boil with internal agitations, while there is a state of war on the Tibetan border. Koodankulam, Sterlite, Pegatron, anti-CAA riots, Bangalore riots, now ‘farmer’ riots. You can connect the dots.

Worryingly, the agitation has metamorphosed into, first, a religious revolt, with overseas Sikhs in Canada leading the charge; and then into a caste cleavage, with the protesters being largely upper-caste Jats, with almost no representation by the landless peasants, mostly SC. Fault lines, very Chanakyan; create bhedam, exploit the animosities, introduce anarchy.

Bittman talks about how you cannot even find earthworms in factory-farm land, a clear indication of dead top-soil.

The alleged reason for the ‘farmer’ protests is that the small farmer will lose out to big, bad corporates. There is a grain of truth to this, but only if you extrapolate wildly. That has happened, for example, with the giant factory farms in the US, with thousands of acres under cultivation; just 2% of the population produces food-like substances for the entire country. (There is also $20 billion in annual subsidies for cotton, wheat, rice, corn and soy, but let’s ignore that for the moment.)

The downside is that industrial agriculture has devastated the land, plundered groundwater, introduced poisonous chemicals, and generally wrought havoc, including with CO2 emissions and water pollution from animal husbandry. There have been horror stories such as the cultivation of water-loving rice in arid California, leading, for example, to selenium poisoning.

In a new book, “Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal”, the New York Times food writer Mark Bittman lays out how factory farming has led to low-nutrition, high-calorie junk food being the norm in the US[3]. The result is an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Moreover, the land is degraded; Bittman talks about how you cannot even find earthworms in factory-farm land, a clear indication of dead top-soil.

So excessive corporatization is not healthy either. The key is moderation. Today, small farms are under-productive: records show that in ancient Tamil Nadu, it was possible to produce more than 15 tons of paddy per hectare, but today, our productivity is in the low single digits, and it is among the lowest in the world. So consolidation, larger farms, mechanization, and investment in technology can improve agricultural output and outcomes.

So can the opportunity for farmers to sell to anybody, without being constrained to sell to the monopoly mandis or APMCs (Agricultural Produce Market Committee) and thus the arhatiyas or commission agents. Part of the solution is to shorten the supply chain; today, there are five or six go-betweens separating farm and consumer. A single vertically integrated buyer (such as ITC with its e-choupals and factories making value-added products, or a Reliance which also has retail outlets) will be much more efficient, and both the actual farmer and the consumer will benefit from disintermediation.

Such producers will have an incentive to add silos, cold chains and value-added processing plants (eg. ketchup instead of tomatoes), all of which the government failed to do because it ignored agriculture in the go-go “temples of modern India are dams and factories” Nehruvian era. Not that agribusiness is benign, but they know where there is profit to be made. In an era of uncertainty among the big producers (US, Canada, Australia) due to global warming, India’s heat-tolerant crop varieties may well be a precious asset in the medium term.

In the long run, India can and should become one of the world’s agricultural superpowers.

But obviously, the intermediaries will lose out in the short term. A good number of the kulaks are also commission agents. The Farm Acts will require non-farmers in the supply chain to register their PAN numbers, thus becoming subject to Income Tax (instead of masquerading as farmers and gaining the benefits of free water, free electricity, and tax-free incomes while enjoying above-market guaranteed procurement prices) and this surely will hurt the kulaks.

It has been a gigantic subsidy, estimated by Balbir Punj in “Protest of the Privileged” to be at Rs.2 lakh crores in unnecessary, excess inventory held in FCI warehouses, not to mention farm loan waivers of Rs.2.34 lakh crores over several years[4]. And this is not going to the poverty-stricken marginal tenant farmer or landless laborer, but to the kulaks. The Farm Acts 2020 will reduce the transfer of taxpayer money to wealthy kulaks in Punjab and Haryana.

This is the real reason behind the protests if you strip away all the rhetoric.

1. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of PGurus.


[1] Kulak – Wikipedia

[2] The White Rose of Stalingrad – Google Books

[3] Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal – Good Reads

[4] Agitation against farm laws only serves interest of rich, elite farmersFeb 9, 2021, Indian Express

Rajeev Srinivasan

Rajeev Srinivasan focuses on strategy and innovation, which he worked on at Bell Labs and in Silicon Valley. He has taught innovation at several IIMs. An IIT Madras and Stanford Business School grad, he has also been a conservative columnist for twenty years.

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