Readers Write In #338: Understanding Indian agriculture through Indian cinema

Posted on February 8, 2021

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(by Macaulay Perapulla)

Ever since I fell in love with Mahabharata, I began to discover the power of a beautiful, a rather deceptive phrase: “Puranas”. Puranas means Pura Api Navam: That which is ancient AND nascent.

And as someone who works on the wicked challenge of digitizing agriculture, I became obsessed with one question: How do you narrate the Purana of Indian Agriculture, a tale that is timeless and timely, ancient AND nascent, especially now in February 2021, as Indian Agriculture enters this long road of uncertainty, standing at cross roads to the future, in the wake of farmer protests?

I am a movie buff, and I’ve always loved Indian movies ever since I was a child.

If you grew up watching Bollywood movies of the seventies and eighties, there was a particular style of masala film making which Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Salim Javed perfected. You could see its imprints in not just Hindi movies, but also in tamil and other regional language movies. 

These movies start with a dramatic action scene in which two brothers get separated at birth due to fate. You remember these stories right?

Two brothers, born from the same womb; one lands up in a rich family, the other grows up in a poor family. The rich sibling gets into a conflict with the poor, and during the climax, the mother intervenes and tells the truth to save their lives. The brothers are united and finally, all is well in the universe. You remember this story right?

If I were to stretch my imagination, and mind you this is a stretch, and dramatize the story of Indian Agriculture and Indian Agritech, I feel tempted to tell one such story of two siblings who were born from the same womb, but in different eras of this vast subcontinent called India. 

The elder one grew up in Socialist Bharat. He discovered his youthful exuberance during that period, when Lal Bahadur Shastri galvanized the country with his unwavering focus on agriculture. Those were the days when a Prime Minister would go off to spend a night with an Indian farmer to deeply understand the challenges faced by them. “Green Revolution” was born from those energies.

The younger sibling grew up in Capitalist India of the 2000s, after Manmohan Singh bravely announced economic reforms during 1991. It was the time when Chandrababu Naidu started calling Hyderabad, “Cyberadad”, which eventually became the seed capital of India. This younger sibling, naturally was born with access to unlimited capital and exponential technologies.

Even though both the siblings were born from the same womb, they never spoke the same language. The poorer elder sibling spoke in Hindi and various regional languages, while the younger one spoke comfortably in English.

The younger one talks about precision agriculture, flying drones and gushes excitedly about software feeding the world, while the elder one talks about subsidies, MSP price regime, crop prices, unable to decide which of the options is better: Keeping grains in the warehouse? Or keeping money in one’s pocket?

The younger one celebrates the farm laws as a watershed 1991 moment in Indian Agriculture. While the elder one is deeply sceptical, worrying if he would be even prepared to face the fury of the market. And he has all the reasons to be sceptical. If you look at data, starting from the 90s, the non-agricultural sector climbed northward on a growth path, whereas the agricultural sector stagnated with an average growth rate of 3%.

And so naturally, when the younger sibling talks about technology transforming the world of agriculture, the elder one looks at the younger one with scepticism, dismissing them as yet another incarnation of middle-man, but with an app who is out to make profits at the expense of farmers.

Technological Innovation is not new to agriculture. It goes back a long long time. The elder sibling has already seen three waves of agricultural innovation.

1) The Age of Mechanisation starting from the 1700, which birthed the cotton gin and tractor.

2) The age of Ag Chemistry, starting from the 1940s, when chemicals that were used for the war were repurposed for input-intensive agriculture

3) The Age of Precision Agriculture, starting from the 1980s, when the question of how to produce more with fewer inputs began to be entertained seriously.

And today, when the elder sibling looks at the VC sponsored Fourth Age of Technological Innovation talking about UAV, he has his doubts. “I am talking about life-and-death issues and you are here excitedly talking about apps and technological innovations. Do you even hear what I am going through?”

When the younger sibling makes a perfectly scripted pitch about technology transforming agriculture, the elder one gets annoyed with the ignorance of the younger one: “Do you think agriculture is an optimization problem?”

I was born in Chennai in a lower middle-class family. My father, who grew up in West Bengal during the 1940s struggled during the famine, and it was the Public Distribution System that became a lifeline for his family and several others like him. Even in Chennai, I remember standing in queues in Fair Price Shops near my home to get rice and wheat, which most often came from Punjab. This system had a lot of corruption, and it was in the 90s, when it was reformed to further benefit those who are below the Poverty Line. And like most of those who studied in the 90s, I went through Engineering and MBA to eventually figure out what I wanted to do in my life.

In 2017, after six years of consulting life making fancy presentations, living the life of a deck in a desk, I decided to join an Agtech startup. My reasons were simple. I wanted to get my hands dirty, both literally and metaphorically. I was driven by my “baptism of fire” purpose: What does it take to transform Indian farmers’ lives?

Sooner, as I started immersing in Agtech, I found this mission statement cringe worthy. Even though I was damn serious about my purpose, I couldn’t reconcile what I was apparently doing – building Agtech software products – with my purpose.

Now this might sound strange.

Let me explain.

This isn’t about suspecting the intentions of Agtech founders, who, let’s not forget, often talk about empowering farmers, helping farmers win and doubling their incomes. They have no choice but to dance to the tunes of what the investors and what the larger audience wanted to hear in the first place.

When I started travelling to the fields, meeting bania agri-input traders in rural markets, Ag Executives of large Agri-Input firms, studying various dimensions of the agrarian crisis, as my understanding of Indian Agriculture deepened, it became clearer, if we are serious about transforming farmers’ lives, it became obvious that it took more than a piece of software to address the gravity of the agrarian crisis.

And so in 2019, I decided to quit my agritech startup to become an independent consultant, trying to figure one question: If technology is not the solution, then what is the solution to the agrarian crisis?

Today, from whatever little I have understand about the gravity of the agrarian crisis, I see this problem to be addressed at various levels.

From the level of policies and incentives which unfortunately have privileged the welfare of consumers of farmers.

From the level of productivity, which is shaped by the cropping patterns and the policies we have in place.

From the level of creating national agricultural markets, which goes far beyond plugging into e-NAM via a piece of software.

And From the level of deeper understanding we can’t equate rural with agriculture alone. Agriculture is one part of the rural economy, albeit vital to create the required multiplier effect in the rural economy.

And to address the agrarian crisis in all these levels, Indian Agriculture needs to talk with Indian Agtech.

Despite their differences in world-view, both need to talk. The elder needs to have an open mind to entertain the experiments that are being done by the younger ones, and the younger one needs to listen to the wisdom gleaned by the elder one from the previous agricultural innovations.

Beyond two different world-views, two different ontologies, can Indian Agriculture dialogue with Indian Agtech?

It’s only when Indian Agriculture dialogues with Indian Agtech, there is a glimmer of hope for us, facing a double whammy challenge: Dealing with climate crisis and making markets work for Indian farmers.

Can Indian Agriculture Dialogue with Indian Agtech?

I can only hope.