Every day, a gold miner in Russia leaves a mine with a wheelbarrow full of sand. Every day, the guard thoroughly checks the sand. On his retirement day, the guard asks the worker, “I know you have been stealing something, but can’t figure out what it is”. The worker whispers back, “I wasn’t hiding anything in the sand, I stole the wheelbarrows”. A similar predicament of limited perspective afflicts India’s farmer unions. The leadership of many unions, secure in their certainties, are oblivious to the larger picture. More likely, in order to hold on to their leadership role within the organisations they represent, they have simply confined themselves to issues that resonate with farmers.

The transformation of rural livelihoods across India based on minimum support prices, free electricity and cheap fertilisers is not sustainable. Advocating on limited issues for decades, farmer unions have been conceding the agriculture policy space to business-funded lobby groups. The likes of CII, FICCI, PHD Chamber of Commerce, ASSOCHAM, and the Fertiliser Association of India are always furthering the vested agenda of their members. A few individuals in the guise of representing farmer organisations have muddied the waters by becoming lobbyists for the farm-input industry, just like the international consulting firms. Of late, international donors like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have shifted the nutrition policy to one of food fortification.

In order to make farmers’ prosperity the fulcrum of the debate, the unions have to expand their advocacy to include all the issues that have a strong bearing on the future of farmers’ livelihoods. That should include the state of the national economy, governance issues, transparency, government revenue collections and allocation of resources. Equally critical are issues like the rupee exchange rate, relative inflation and improving nutrition by generating consumer demand for fruits, vegetables and proteins in India, which happens to be the amongst the lowest in the world.

I’m not a votary for reducing farm support, but for the inevitable repurposing of subsidies towards the farm eco-system services. This is going to be a very painful transition for farmers and a metamorphosis may be possible if farmer leaders reach out to them repeatedly to explain how the present structure of subsidies is not only self-defeating, but also shifts the costs to future generations. Only, and only then, will politicians conjure the political will and courage to initiate bold structural reforms.

Many organisations supportive of PM-Kisan or cash transfers as a solution don’t realise that the changing narrative is paving the way for the government to slowly abdicate on its constitutional responsibilities of providing primary healthcare, quality rural education, sanitation, farm extension, veterinary services, and public transport.

In the recently concluded Food Systems Dialogues, the former head of RAW, Alok Joshi, observed that the protesting farmer unions are unprepared to negotiate settlements, and are thus unable to bridge the lacuna between demand and delivery. Karl Marx compared farmers to a “sack of potatoes”, as they only organise in response to specific issues and then drift back to work on the farms. Farmers are incapable of forming a consistent common identity, and the identity, rather than being a source of profound change, more often falters as a reaction to circumstances.

Affiliation to political parties has been a poisonous pill for the unions. Their leaderships have often become family affairs, where affiliation is rewarded by plum positions when their political mentors are in power. Adding to the morass are those who commit the sin of simony by seeking caste concessions, which has led to a loss of trust, diluted leadership authority and destroyed the unity of farmers. Having lost faith in the system and in farmer leaders, the momentary outpouring on localised issues will start to spiral into faceless protests and will manifest into widespread rural disobedience, whether fuelled by ethnic, migrant or caste conflicts, as in Haryana in 2016.

The BJP has gained politically by prioritising “food inflation mitigation measures”, which have come at a high cost of deteriorating farmer livelihoods. Farmers and those representing them need to introspect. Rather than continuously berate the government, they need to change tactics, stop behaving as losers and clearly understand that they are in a soup for no reason other than that they have developed a consistent tendency to vote on parameters other than their own stagnating economic condition.