Peasants Apathy

Mandsaur

Overconfident BJP failed to assess farmers disconnect that led to mass agitation. To avoid such incident in future government must coin a long-term pan India agriculture policy

By Asit Manohar

Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Chouhan calls himself ‘Kisan Putr’ (farmer’s son). In rallies after rallies, he repeats it and says that farmers’ pain is his pain. But for days, when farmers were protesting across the state, his government remained in denial. The farmers were agitating, throwing agricultural produce on the roads and confronting the police.

And yet Chouhan, the astute politician, who is believed to have his hand on the pulse of the people, couldn’t fathom the extent of farmers’ anger. In fact, the state government took it casually from day one. Senior BJP leaders and ministers were dismissive of the protests in the beginning. When protests continued and its impact was felt — prices of vegetables started rising and milk began disappearing in cities, leaders took notice.

But the scale of protests didn’t stir government. In town after town, protesters threw vegetables and emptied milk tankers on the ground — moves that were criticized. Apparently, the farmers felt that they had no other way to shake the government. It was only after taking measures that the local media took note of the farmers’ anger. When the protests took a violent turn, BJP leaders said that they were anti-social elements who passed off as farmers. The spontaneous protests (that began after similar protests in Maharashtra), were not led by a single union, whose office-bearers could have been called and made to say good things like ‘after assurances we are ending stir’.

On 18 May, at around noon, 30-year-old Prashant Lande waited under a harsh summer sun to sell 800 quintals of tur at the Amravati agricultural produce market committee (APMC), 664 km east of India’s financial capital, Mumbai.

From Kinhala village in Amravati district’s Ashti taluka, in Maharashtra’s eastern region of Vidharbha, Lande said he refuses to sell his 800 quintals of tur to the government procurement centre, although the state buys tur at a higher rate.

At the market, Lande could sell his tur at Rs 3,800 to Rs 4,000 per quintal, while the government buying centre offered Rs 5,050 per quintal.

“We don’t sell to the government centre because the process of selling takes one month — from standing in line for the token to the sale to finally when the payment reaches the account,” said Lande. “Our fellow farmers, who have sold their produce at the procurement centre on March 22, are yet to receive their payments and it is nearly June!”

It does not help that the effects of demonetization continue to be felt across the rural economy.

Right after demonetization, tomato farmers in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, and onion farmers in Maharashtra and Gujarat, were the worst hit as prices fell by 60-85 percent, IndiaSpend reported on January 18, 2017.

With little respite more than six months later, the experiment has aggravated the circumstances leading to the current farmers’ strike.

“By now we should have begun preparing our fields for the monsoons, but because of demonetization and the unavailability of cash, we are still struggling to find money for sowing,” said Lande.

At such a time, farmers like Lande turn to credit.

Up to 57 percent of farm families in Maharashtra are indebted; the figure for India is 52 percent, according to the National Sample Survey Organization’s 2013 situation assessment survey of farm households, the latest available data.

This indebtedness has widespread consequences. More farmers committed suicide in Maharashtra (4,291) in 2015 than any other state, rising 7 percent from 4,004 in 2014, followed by Karnataka (1,569) and Telangana (1,400), as IndiaSpend previously reported in January 2017.

Now, after Uttar Pradesh’s new government waived Rs 30,792 crore of farm loans, pressure is building on the governments of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka to do the same. Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has been reluctant to do so, but with his government’s coalition partner, the Shiv Sena, and other parties preparing for a political agitation, he may find it hard to exercise fiscal prudence.

The farmers who are agitating for fair prices for the produce have gotten the impression that the state government was not serious. In fact, party leaders openly advocated strong police action against the agitators. Tempers had been soaring and on 6 June, there was firing which resulted in death of six farmers. Even after the incident, the party leadership in Madhya Pradesh tried to divert the entire issue. Local officials said that the firing was done to control the protesters who were turning violent. Amid the presence of hundreds of people, the farmers were shot, but Home Minister Bhupendra Singh said that people were not killed in police firing. So, how were they killed then? Of course, state government ordered a customary probe that would ‘reveal’ it.

In both Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, the farmers’ demands are almost similar: they want complete farm loan waiver as a short-term palliative and secondly, institutionalized mechanism for getting better prices for agricultural produce.

Incidentally, both the states are ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); in Maharashtra, it is an alliance government with Shiv Sena, the latter, however, is a junior partner. It is therefore alarming for the BJP, which also rules at the Centre, to face the farmers’ wrath as the ruling party has made the ambitious plan to double the farmers’ income in the next five years.

It is all the more disturbing for the BJP as Madhya Pradesh under Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s stewardship has been hailed as the biggest success story for agriculture in the recent decades.

Agri expert Ashok Gulati wrote in The Indian Express, “Several of these steps (like farm loan waiver, government purchase of wheat and potatoes and notice to sugar meals for clearing farmer dues, etc) highlight the Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s concern for farmers who have been getting a raw deal for years. Should he intend to be in for the long haul, Adityanath would be better off taking a leaf from what we call the Shiv mantra. The mantra derives its name from Shivraj Singh Chauhan, who is in his third term as the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh.”

Gulati then goes on to state the achievements of the Shivraj government that created the golden era for agriculture in Madhya Pradesh. He gives the statistics for it, “Madhya Pradesh’s agri – gross state domestic product (agri-GSDP) grew at 9.7 percent per annum – the highest ever achieved by any state – between 2005-06 and 2014-15. All-India agri-GDP growth during this period was 3.5 percent.”

Why then have things gone so horribly wrong in Madhya Pradesh where farmers are out on the streets in thousands demanding justice? Chouhan has also tried to do what his Maharashtra counterpart attempted a couple of days ago – to break the unity of the farmers by inviting one farmer union group for talks to the exclusion of the other.

Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis conceded the farm loan waiver for the small and marginal farmers in his meeting with a farmers’ union which in turn announced the withdrawal of the strike. But other farmers’ unions were enraged at their exclusion from negotiations and vowed to continue the protest.

The same scenario was repeated in Madhya Pradesh when Chouhan called the leaders of one organisation for negotiations, which ended with those leaders calling off the strike, but other union leaders have refused to toe the line until Madhya Pradesh government declares a complete farm loan waiver.

Why has Gulati’s ‘golden state of agriculture’ turned into a farmers’ graveyard? It is not as if agricultural pot started boiling last week. The official data presents a dismal picture over a longer period. The Madhya Pradesh government also admitted on the floor of the legislature that between 1 July, 2016 and 15 November, 2016, 531 farmers had committed suicide in the state.

The home minister of the Madhya Pradesh government had to also put on record that between 16 November, 2016 and 27 February, 2017, 106 farmers and 181 farm labourers have committed suicide.

The official data for farmer suicide in Maharashtra is starker. The data compiled by the relief and rehabilitation department of the Maharashtra government has admitted that 639 farmers committed suicide in just three months, between 1 January and 31 March of this year. In 2016, on official count confirmed that at least 3,052 farmers committed suicide in the state.

This is a cause for worry for the BJP as Madhya Pradesh goes for election next year and Maharashtra is due for its next election the year after. No party can hope to win an election in a state by incurring the wrath of the rural community, especially the farmers. By a conservative estimate, more than 50 percent of Indian population are employed – or if you like, underemployed – in agricultural activity. A ruling party cannot afford to ignore their concerns.

What then ails Indian agriculture? And what can the government do to alleviate the conditions?

For quite some time, the common idea that was held was that agriculture in India faced a crisis because farmers were over-dependent on monsoons in the absence of adequate irrigation facilities. When the monsoon failed or was below normal, the drought condition prevailed and agricultural production took a hit.

So the states which wanted to take care of its farmers, prioritised irrigation facilities. Madhya Pradesh took the lead in this regard. “Between 2009 and 2014, over 1,400 minor irrigation projects were completed in MP, increasing the state’s irrigated area by 4.8 lakh hectares… The irrigated area in MP, thus, increased from 30 percent of the cropped area in 2005-06 to 41.2 percent of such area in 2014-15.”

The relatively good monsoon last year added to the bountiful production of food crops. Why is it then that the farmers in Madhya Pradesh are distressed?

The agricultural distress has turned on its head there. Food scarcity is no more the issue in the state. What plagues the farmer there is over-production. The Madhya Pradesh government, in its over enthusiasm, had implemented a policy of 10 percent bonus over and above the Centre’s minimum support price (MSP) during 2007-08 and 2014-15. It resulted in a glut – Madhya pradesh’s share of wheat production rose from 8.6 per cent in 2005-06 to almost 20 per cent in 2014-15.

The state has had to deal with the consequent problem of over-production. The state did not have the wherewithal to store the food grains in the warehouses. It did not make economic sense for the state to create additional warehouses to preserve the food grains only to rot.

When the state government tried to give away the food grains free to the people below the poverty line, the central government raised a red flag saying it would distort the market economy.

The rural distress today is largely on account of the falling prices. Madhya Pradesh today faces a glut in onion production. The MP government has announced the decision to buy onion from farmers at Rs 8 and sell at Rs 2 through the public distribution system. The Shivraj Singh government has also created Rs 1000 crore stabilization fund to ride over the immediate crisis.

But clearly, these short-term measures have not assuaged the sentiment of the farmers. They are demanding complete bank loan waiver to get back on their feet. Even if the MP government concedes this demand – just as the Maharashtra government has partially done – it would be another short-term palliative.

The writing on the wall is clear: what the agriculture sector today needs are the long term policy measures to shield the farmer from the consequences of both over-production and under-production of agricultural goods. Otherwise, rural distress and farmer suicide would remain the recurring feature of Indian reality.

The matter is far from over. The deal with the Maharashtra CM was rejected by most farmers’ organizations, saying it was a sellout. Even the BJP’s partner organization, Swabhimani Shetkari Paksha, was forced to reject this deal.

The spontaneous nature of this farmer protests and its rapid spread reminds us of peasant rebellions during colonial times. The Fadnavis government has alleged that the strike is the handiwork of its political opponents, mainly, the Shiv Sena and the NCP. Facts deny this claim. While the opposition parties have certainly extended covert support, the organizations and leaders involved in bringing the farmers together are not affiliate to any of the major parties. In fact, the Congress and the NCP are yet to recover from the shock in the recent municipal elections across the state. The farmers are unlikely to heed to the largely discredited Opposition. It seems that a new generation of farmers’ leadership is emerging in Maharashtra.

What makes this protest even more unusual is that it is not happening in a year of natural calamity and crop loss. Maharashtra has seen normal rainfall and bumper crop in the last agricultural season following two successive droughts in 2014-15 and 2015-16. Usually farmers’ protests are triggered by crop loss. This year the farmers of Maharashtra had normal, if not bountiful, harvest.

What, then, explains this sudden burst of farmers’ movement? Two developments seemed to have triggered the current protest. On the one hand, bumper crops have led to crashing down of crop prices for the farmer. On the other hand, the crop loan waiver announced by the newly elected BJP government in UP has reminded the famers of their long unfulfilled demand.

Crash in prices is most evident in the case of pulses. Following a shortage of pulses in the country, the Central government had enhanced the MSP for tur from Rs 4,500 to a little over Rs 5,000 per quintal. This was presented as a major step to promote higher production of pulses. The farmers obliged, cultivation and production of pulses went up, but the government failed to keep its part of the promise. State agencies failed to procure much of the production at the assured price. Instead of getting Rs 5,000 a quintal, the farmers were forced to sell tur at Rs 3,000. Similar tragedy has befallen the soybean farmers of Madhya Pradesh and chilli farmers in Telangana. There were reports that tomato and potato growers from different parts of the country preferred to throw their produce than sell it for a ridiculous price in the mandi. Thus the farmers suffer not merely when there is a crop failure, but also when there is a good monsoon and a bumper crop. This angst seems to be driving the current protest.

This is the real significance of the farmers’ strike in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. It is not a localised, seasonal, crop-specific or calamity-driven distress. This protest is linked directly to the crisis of Indian agriculture. This crisis, in today’s India, takes three forms. First, there is an ecological crisis of Indian agriculture. Modern agricultural practices associated with Green Revolution are unsustainable. Resource and water-intensive, fertilizers and pesticide-heavy farming has now reached a dead-end. Second, there is an economic crisis of Indian farming. The agrarian productivity is not in keeping with the country’s requirement and the availability of land and resources. And linked with that, the third is the existential crisis of the farmer. Farming is an unviable proposition, and is mostly a loss-making activity. Price of agricultural commodities has not kept pace with input costs and consumption expenditure of the farmer. The farmers barely manage to survive in a good year and find themselves in a debt-trap in any adversity. The phenomenon of farmers’ suicide is directly related to this crisis.

What is remarkable about the farmers’ strike in Maharashtra is that it has sought to address this basic crisis. The farmers’ demands are not for any immediate, localised relief. Instead,  they have raised the fundamental issue of determination of crop prices. They have reminded the ruling party of its electoral promise of fixing the MSP so as to yield 50 per cent over and above the cost of the farmers. They have demanded implementation of many structural reforms suggested by the Swaminathan Commission. And, of course, they have demanded a loan waiver for all farmers. These are some of the long-standing demands of the movement that no party is willing to address.

The Fadnavis government has agreed to a partial and conditional loan waiver. But that is not going to satisfy the farmers. The CM has assured that procurement shall take place as per the MSP. But that does not address the basic issue of how the MSP is fixed in the first place. Fadnavis is much unlikely to get any support from the Centre. The NDA government is arguably the most farmer unfriendly Central government in the history of Independent India. We do not know how long the strike will last, but we do know that its real demands are unlikely to be met.

Farmers in Maharashtra have shown the path. Farmers in the rest of the country shall have to hold the baton now and take this struggle to its logical conclusion.