The Samudra Manthan (Oceanic Churning) of Indian Agriculture

Final Take on #Farmbills to sum things up. Plus! Bijak's Horizontal Play

I’ve decided to make this issue of Agribusiness Matters Free. Having spent the last few weeks writing close to 10K+ words on #Farmbills, I felt it deserved one final take to sum it up and ensure that we don’t miss the forest for the trees.

You would perhaps enjoy reading this better if you let this play along.

Hindu Mythologies have suffered the brunt of poor English translations during the 18th century and so, whatever little we read during our childhood days often sounded like simplistic moral science lessons of good devas winning over bad asuras.

Take the case of Samudra Manthan, one of the basic motifs of Indian thought, which appears in the Bhagavata Puran and the Vishnu Puran of the Hindu Mythology.

Although the imagery may make it seem so, it is extremely misleading to view the Samudra Manthan as a tug-of-war between Devas and Asuras to obtain the divine nectar of immortality.

While tug-of-war requires both parties to apply force in the same direction, manthan, churning, requires force and counter-force applied at the same time.

Churning happens only when there is a rhythmic balance between two opposing forces. The children of Kashyapa, Asura and Devas, albeit born to different wives, Diti and Aditi, understand this. When Asuras pull Vasuki, the serpent, to churn the Kshirsagara, the ocean of milk, the Devas have to loosen their hold. 

You will get the essence of this Manthan if you pay deep attention to your breath and observe what it does.

Every in-breath moves towards integration. Every out-breath moves towards differentiation. When we discover rhythm and balance in this movement, the churning takes place inside us.

Ever since the #Farmbills controversy broke out, I have written more than 10K words so far in my valiant attempt to untangle the various knotty issues involved.

You can read Part-1 here(for subscribers), where I spelt out the fundamental aspects of Indian Agriculture inorder to make sense of the ordinances.   

You can read Part-2 here where I analyzed why farmers are protesting in favour of middlemen who are purportedly profiting at the expense of farmers.

You can read Part-3 here(for subscribers), where I defended the government for its ambitious attempt to delink prices from growth in agriculture.

Today, when I look at the flurry of developments happening across different states, ever since the Farm bills became Acts through presidential assent, it seems appropriate to state that what we are witnessing is the grand Samudra Manthan of Indian agriculture.

This Samudra Manthan is happening between the Center and the State.

While the former wants to centralize agriculture, vastly supported by the centralizing technology of the Internet, the latter is working in the opposite direction to resist centralization of an essential state subject.

It is important to note here that, as Mekhala Krishnamurthy and Shoumitro Chatterjee write in this symposium on farm bills, in the legislative history of India, it is the first time we are witnessing a central law being brought to regulate “the critical ‘first transaction’ between the farmer and the primary buyer of their produce.”

This has far-reaching consequences.

Given that both the Center and the State are using digital platforms for agricultural marketing and have started building their own digital platform ecosystems, today there is a far pressing need than ever before to bring rhythm and balance in Centre-state and inter-state coordination.

This Samudra Manthan is also happening between Socialists and Capitalists.

While the former is deeply concerned about the bargaining power of the most vulnerable stakeholder in this entire equation, the small landholding farmer, the latter is doing what he or she can to open up markets for farmers and increase the market density which can duly improve the price discovery process that happens inside the mandis.

This last point is extremely important. Whether you are a private corporate buyer or an agtech startup working in the agri-produce marketing space, essentially, both rely on local mandi prices to set prices for procurement outside mandis.

In other words, as much as Devas need Asuras to churn the Kshirasagara, the ocean of milk, those who are operating in “trade areas” (under the new central law) require coordination and collaboration with those players operating in ‘market areas’ (under state APMC laws).

It is this gameplay which is seen in startups like Bijak, which are coming to fore with Horizontal business models unlike the earlier the vertical business models that were championed by players like Agribazaar or Ninjacart.

Despite my attempts, If you are still reductively reading what I wrote above as, Asuras = Bad, and therefore APMC = Bad, please understand that Asuras were considered divine beings in the Vedas, and, as per the Hindu Mythology, they were the first beings to descend on Earth.

Despite their ideological differences, what unites socialists and capitalists is their quixotic dream of a brave new country which practises agriculture without middlemen.

While the capitalists want to disintermediate the agriculture value chain and replace the hyper-local infrastructure support services provided by middle-men with agritech startups, the Socialists wants to setup decentralized farmer markets and implement Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) across each and every nook and corner of the country.

CSA models and Farmers’ Markets have worked well in few socially conscious urban pockets in cities of Bangalore, Chennai and Gurgaon. It has worked well in various parts of the world wherever farmers trusted socially conscious urban consumers to pay upfront to cover the production risk involved in farming.

While such initiatives are laudable in their attempt to ensure that farmers reclaim their sovereignty to not just decide how they want to practise farming, but also how they want to sell their produce, the hard truth is that these models don’t scale well. These models require forward-looking trust engagement equations between THE farmer and the consumer and work well, at best in smaller, local-scale market conditions.

These models also require deep paradigm transformation in the mindset of urban consumers who are habituated to demand more food for less price.

Where the capitalist and socialists stand apart today, taking starkly different stances, is their implicit understanding of who gets to own the principal risk involved in farming.

As much as the former believes that “Contract farming bill” will help in transferring the principal risk involved in farming from farmers to agritech firms who are better equipped to handle market risks, the latter believes that urban consumers will grow up to be more than just consumers and own the production risk involved in farming.

Read this excellent analysis from Sukhpal Singh on the challenges involved in the way the contract farming bills have been framed. 

As I had mentioned in my Part-3 of my analysis, if you pay close attention to the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020 (FPTC), you would notice that, at times, it sounds like an RFP that has been released by the Government.

Pay attention to Chapter II in FPTC Bill and you will understand what I am talking about.

The operating word here is “may”. 

Few years down the line, when e-NAM undergoes its complete overhaul, in the light of the current developments, I can bet that it would exactly attempt to address the key requirement that I have screenshotted above through partnerships with agritech startups.

As the operating word “may” suggests, setting this price information and market intelligence system is going to be a complex challenge of Centre-state and inter-state coordination. It is going to be extremely tough to build such a system at a national scale in the first place, leaving aside the wriggling question of whether it can be implemented in a fair and transparent manner.

And so, when I voice out on behalf of the farmer, what you see is an essential dilemma

Do I trust the new agtech kid in the market who is dilly-dallying about owning the principal risk involved in farming or do I trust my local middle-man, who has been extractive during opportune moments while remaining a loyal trustworthy partner in good and bad times?

Let us not forget that churning is not always going to be a rosy adventure. During the first attempt to churn the ocean of milk, devas and asuras had found that their actions had inadvertently released a lethal poison (hala-hala) into the waters, powerful enough to destroy all of creation. 

It is only when they continued to churn the ocean of milk did they discover the treasures that awaited them.

The Astika Parva of the Mahabharata goes on to describe the treasures that came out from the churning.

“Re-established thus in strength, the gods recommenced churning. After a while, the mild Moon of a thousand rays emerged from the Ocean. Thereafter sprung forth Lakshmi dressed in white, then Soma, then the White Steed, and then the celestial gem Kaustubha which graces the breast of Narayana. Then Lakshmi, Soma and the Steed, fleet as the mind, all came before the gods on high. Then arose the divine Dhanwantari himself with the white vessel of nectar in his hand. And seeing him, the Asuras set up a loud cry, saying, 'It be ours.'“ - Mahabharata, Astika Parva

Amrita cannot be shared with the forces of division. It can only be shared with forces of life and integration.

And so, what this mythological tale tells us is deeply important.

This churning between force and counter-force will continue as long as the last drop of amrita gets shared.