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Unquiet Fields

Farmers in India are angry over betrayed poll promises of doubling farm incomes.

In the run-up to the 2014 elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made extravagant promises of doubling farm incomes, generating large-scale employment and bringing back black money. The fate of poll promises is no secret in this country. However, the difference with this government is that it also promised a leader who actually delivers. Thus, the otherwise forgiving and forgetting citizenry, pumped up on the projection of a hyper-masculine, hyper-efficient leader, has assumed the burden of reminding the leader of his self-proclaimed agenda. This explains the quandary in which the BJP finds itself as it confronts the countrywide agrarian and livelihoods crises, even as its demonetisation histrionic appears to be unravelling at the seams.

The ten-day historic strike by farmers in Maharashtra and adjacent Madhya Pradesh (MP) caught the country in general and the BJP in particular by surprise. The hitherto unassertive, unorganised mass of farmers across the rural expanse transformed into a veritable political force overnight. The striking farmers have reaffirmed the need to implement the structural reforms proposed by the Swaminathan Commission, and to offset the immediate setback of reduced prices for farm produce following demonetisation and a bumper crop. The problem of a surplus crop in the affected region has come after two years of intense drought. Thus, this agitation has emerged from the relatively well-irrigated and prosperous Pune and Nashik divisions of Maharashtra, and Ujjain division of MP, and not the drought-prone and highly impoverished Marathwada and Vidarbha or Chambal and Bundelkhand respectively. Apart from the vagaries of nature, agriculture in India overall has been in deep crisis. Rising input costs and falling output prices, dwindling government support and increasing market instability, decreasing size of landholdings and falling productivity, have led to reduced farm incomes, making agriculture altogether unviable. Small and marginal farmers, tillers, landless agricultural labour and those living on the margins of the agrarian economy are the worst affected.

The BJP-led dispensation in both states has blundered in effectively quelling or addressing the protests. They first suggested that this was the handiwork of the opposition parties, giving the latter undue credit. Then they went on to delegitimise the protestors as not “genuine” farmers, which backfired instantaneously. In Maharashtra, the government played divide and rule with members of the core committee representing the farmers, resulting in a new and more exacting committee to replace them, with leaders from the left taking charge. Finally, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis buckled and relented to a ₹30,000 crore loan waiver for small and marginal farmers, immediate disbursement of new loans for the next cropping cycle, substantial increase in the price of milk with 70% of the realised price assured to the farmer. He also promised to lobby with the centre for fixing a minimum support price (MSP) at the cost of production plus 50% profit. These promises, while highly ambitious, are logistically challenging (in terms of identifying genuinely needy farmers for loan waiver or calculating precise cost of production), fiscally overwhelming and financially foreboding. Notably, it is a policy reversal back to government intervention in agriculture, precisely the opposite of what the BJP supports. In MP, despite the death toll rising to seven, Chief Minister Shivraj Chouhan is still holding out with limited relief measures, including waiver of loan interests and invitation to dialogue. Far from placating protestors, this move has actually empowered the opposition.

The bottom line is that the BJP needs to pay attention to rural India and the agrarian economy. Primarily, a trader-friendly and urban-based party, the BJP secured rural votes on the back of intricate caste calculations and a promise to revamp the economy in general and agriculture in particular. This promise has come back to haunt it. The current agrarian crisis is the result of accumulated policy disregard and incoherence vis-à-vis agriculture across political parties and governments. While the BJP is not, and cannot be held, exclusively responsible for this crisis, it has to bear the consequences of a desperate and desolate mass demanding justice as never before. In the past, the BJP had resolutely opposed rural development schemes promoted by the Congress party such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. On the other hand, its own policy moves, including the proposed amendments to the Land Acquisition Act and demonetisation, betray ignorance and indifference to the rural economy and its modes of functioning. This is evident from the Reserve Bank of India’s monetary policy review statement on 7 June 2017 asserting the remarkable fall in prices across agricultural commodities resulting in “fire (distress) sales” on account of demonetisation. The cash crunch induced by demonetisation that persists to the day across villages, small towns and bazaars, has triggered a deflation in the farm sector by robbing produce markets of the all-important liquid capital. This is plainly visible as farmers in Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka ready to take up the baton of protest, next.

A poignant detail missed by most is that the farmers’ strike in Maharashtra emanated from the same district where the Maratha morchas began—Ahmednagar in Pune division. Both the public agitations, although different in demands and methods of protest, have witnessed spontaneous mobilisation on a scale, scope and intensity that should be worrying to any government. In the absence of a strong opposition, it is the intensifying wrath of people that has proved to be the real check on this government in securing accountability and the changes promised.

Updated On : 16th Jun, 2017

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