Why Ajay Vir Jakhar is the coolest farmer, brimming with ideas for an agricultural revolution
Farmers rarely make headlines, but 47- year-old Ajay Vir Jakhar is an exception as he tries to make agriculture more relevant in the country by lobbying for better policies and better practices. It is an uphill task for the youngest ever chairman of the Bharat Krishak Samaj (BKS, Farmer’s Forum, India), a non-political advocacy association of farmers whose aim is agricultural prosperity in a country where most are “indifferent to farmers”. As Jakhar says, the people who form policy or are influential enough to do so “have never farmed in their life.”
Jakhar is sitting in his office at Nizamuddin West in an old pink building that has been the headquarters of the Farmer’s Forum since it was set up 60 years ago. It looks like a government office of yore: a large desk in the centre, wooden chairs, a high ceiling with an angry fan and a secretary to issue instructions at. At the far end of the room is a white board, the only accessory to an otherwise bare room, with appointments scrawled all over it. Jakhar has just come back from his farm in Maujgarh, Punjab, where his family grows citrus fruits such as keenu. He is busy these days drawing up a list of farmer-friendly suggestions for India’s Finance Minister Arun Jaitley as the latter prepares the Union Budget; Jakhar looks forward to a meeting with Jaitley next week. “We received a letter from his office, so we don’t know if we are the only ones invited, but we are making our list,” says the BKS chairman.
So far, he has come up with ground-up ideas like encouraging farmers’ markets and giving out soil cards to farmers that would have information on appropriate nutrients and fertilisers based on soil tests done on specific farm areas by the Government. Also, water testing meters for farmers that would let them know what irrigation they need. “We need small investments that chip away uncertainties rather than one grand gesture that amounts to nothing, “he says.
Between sentences, he breaks into Hindi to issue instructions to his colleagues. His accent is thick and Punjabi. There is an air of authority about him, a certain irreverence in his tone and manner, and it seems hard to believe that the man sitting in front of us guzzling glasses of warm water is a farmer. He looks ready for a boardroom discussion in a black coat and trousers rather than a day in the field. It has just been five years since he took over as chairman of the BKS,and in that time he has established himself as an expert on farming and a leading voice for farmers. A columnist for many publications, he writes on farmer rights and better farm practices. As chairman of the BKS, he has also launched a bi-monthly magazine called Farmers Forum, which he edits alongside the monthly newsletter that BKS sends out. The magazine, his brainchild, is a neutral platform to express views and popularise ideas on farming. “My aim right now is to bring agriculture into the mainstream by talking about it all the time so that it eventually becomes topical. That is the reason we have subject matter specialists who write for us. We hold seminars in Delhi that talk about issues that matter to farmers. We try and effect positive policy changes. ”
The BKS, he points out, does not try and teach people how to farm per se. “It is not possible for a single organisation like ours to do that because we have no funds. We just want to affect more farmer lives in a more productive way by giving them information.”
Jakhar’s story is remarkable in its own way. Leaving his family in Punjab to champion what was almost a lost cause and then shuttling between two states, spending at least six nights a month on a train, travelling the world to give lectures on farming and better practices, holding seminars and then, at the end of the day, going all the way back to harvest those citrus fruit.
For much of his youth, he had only a familial connection with farming. “I was taking care of responsibilities, trying to make money,” he laughs. But once he took up the cause of the country’s farmers, he did it with a sudden burst of passion. What prompted this change of heart? The cathartic moment that took Anteus back to mother earth? “One thing led to another and here we are,” he says in a vague offhand manner. He would rather talk about farmers and the issues they face.
Everyone comes with some baggage, and perhaps for him it is his political family background. He is the grandson of Balram Jakhar, India’s one-time Agriculture Minister who later served as Governor of Madhya Pradesh until 2009. Both his father, Sajjan Kumar Jakhar— now retired—and his brother Sunil Jakhar are politicians. However, he has kept a distance from it all, saying that his only passion at the moment is farming. “I have no political leanings. I live an average life with my family on the farm.”
Growing up, he was mostly away at boarding school, since a quality local education was hard to get anywhere close to Maujgarh. He attended Mayo College in Ajmer, familiar because his mother’s family was from this part of Rajasthan. He graduated from Delhi University with a BA Honours in Geography, an unusual but relevant choice, though he studied it because the subject interested him. He kept to himself for the next two-and-a-half decades till he took over as chairman of the BKS.
In 2011, he lost his uncle, who took care of the farm, as is common practice in agricultural joint families, and took over the farm after that.
What Jakhar combines today is real farming experience with practical modern knowledge—exactly the credentials an effective lobbyist must have. “If you are on your farm, you have no time for lobbying,” he says, “Increasingly, farmers are being represented by agricultural economists who haven’t farmed a day in their lives. Sadly enough, those we are opposed to are stronger than us.”
It is his awareness and realism on the ground issues of farmers and their plight that makes Jakhar different from the various communist party leaders trying to champion the cause. Does the BKS have ground level plans as well? “We don’t have any five-year plans. Our work is a continuous process that unfortunately depends on the Government, and we try to adjust to each one by understanding their priorities and pitching accordingly. Right now, we want to focus on the idea of self-sustainability and the individual farmer.”
“Moreover, the Government needs to figure out what it aims to do and then act accordingly.” The Centre’s Land Acquisition policy—proposed by the UPA and tweaked further in favour of land acquirers by the NDA—may go against the interests of farmers, but Jakhar is hopeful that it will work out alright, saying that he does not blame the BJP alone for it. “I think the UPA Government was very wrong in giving the ordinance of the bill in the first place. According to a recent survey conducted by us, 70 per cent of farmers had never heard of it. Even now, what the Government has done is wrong. But then again, all governments are indifferent to the needs of farmers.” He is quick to clarify that by ‘indifferent’ he means that they don’t know any better. “Maybe what they do they don’t realise, because they have no background in the field.”
Asked what changes the BKS has effected as a lobby group, he says that policy is hard to quantify so one can’t really put a finger to it. There is a slight lull in the conversation and he calls for tea and tells a few village jokes. His sense of humour about farming seems cathartic, perhaps the only way out of the frustrations of farming in India today. “Back in the village, they were saying that we should get Baba Ramdev to endorse citrus [fruit], maybe we’d finally make profits,” he quips.
Many farmers in Punjab shifted from sugarcane to horticulture because of bullying by sugarcane factories, a scene Uttar Pradesh might witness soon. “I was there (in UP) to meet a few sugarcane farmers and their state is dismal. There are backlog payments of at least two years. And they have more crop they have to do away with, plus their [Commission for Agricultural Cost and Prices] meetings are a farce,” he scoffs, “In fact, even I’ve been invited to one; I won’t even bother to go.”
One begins to wonder whether farmers are happy at all anywhere in the country. And if they are not, why don’t they speak up for change? Jakhar is of the opinion that because of a multi-party system, there is no farmer unity. “They are too busy fighting each other to fight anybody else,” he says, elaborating, “Till about two decades ago, before Panchayati Raj became important, people were more social, at least in Punjab. Now it has become a profitable business. Sure, the Panchayati Raj [system] might have given autonomy, but that came at a price. There is so much political activity throughout the year that people have little time for anything else. Farmers aren’t divided on the lines of income. We aren’t salaried, and we can’t be. But we are divided on politics.”
Jakhar also says that no mass movement can start without a political orientation. He cites the example of Arvind Kejriwal. “But every political party too has a farmers’ wing that most farmers are dying to get into, [even though it] remains inactive when the particular party is in power,” he says with a laugh, “Hence the animosity.” A couple of times during the conversation, he makes oblique references to ‘enemies’ and ‘detractors’. He later explains that he is referring to an international fertiliser cartel that the BKS opposes.
Still, it is obvious that he does not have all farmers rallying behind him and the BKS. He has had controversial opinions too, like his take on GM foods, the potential of which he believes needs to be explored properly and not dismissed without discussion. “GM is just one spoke in the wheel,” he says, “The subject takes a lot of media space. There are other far more important issues that need to be addressed.”
Ever the pragmatist, these days Jakhar is busy pushing the self- sustenance of farmers and extension services—where he can help bridge the gap between knowledge and its ground deployment by farmers. The BKS newsletter is available both in Hindi and English. But why is the magazine in English? “Those who know how to write don’t know how to do agriculture,” he replies, “And those who know agriculture don’t know how to write. Also, most who make policy only read and write in English, so the policy magazine is in English”
It helps that the BKS is based in Delhi, where policy is framed. Jakhar starts his day as early as 5:30 am, and is almost always busy with the BKS programme. “We are constantly meeting people to give advice, suggestions and opinions to better the life of farmers… We hold seminars regularly where we call specialists to discuss farmer issues.” These seminars are usually held in the capital to save funds. “We have to generate our own revenues, and with such limited resources, this is how I can effect change.”
Since he has no set timings for his BKS work, his schedule flexibility allows him enough time for research and reading. An avid reader, he says he can lap up any book given to him and reads both fiction and non-fiction. The most satisfying aspect of the job so far, he says, is the good work he believes he is doing for millions of citizens who live off the land. “My conscience feels good,” he says, “I feel I am giving back to society from which I’ve got a lot.”