Fury of the Farmers Scorned
Times have transformed the Indian agriculture sector and the riots in Mandsuar are manifestation of that. It is said that simmering over losses despite bumper yields was being shared by Mandsaur farmers with farmers’ organisations in Maharashtra since almost a year through Whatsapp.
On June 1, a message came from Maharashtra that protests there had been planned and would be launched soon. The Mandsaur protests followed immediately after the June 1 message. Such net-working was un-thinkable just a few years ago. The farmers who are leading protests in most parts of India are far cry from their previous generation. They are the generation that has grown-up with the IT revolution and are worldly-wise, a far cry from the Indian farmer who buffeted between vagaries of nature and apathy of the government of the day suffered silently, suicide being his only way out for salvation from indebtedness and bankruptcy. And the farmers agitating in 16 Indian states are the ones who have broken the old stereotype mould.
In Mandsaur and in other states as well, the demand is for the government to help in making small holdings financially viable. And they are demanding that a solution be worked out to pre-empt loss to them if prices crash below Market Support Price (MSP), which as recommended by the Swaminathan Commission was to be 50 per cent above the total cost of cultivating any produce.
The governments have been so apathetic that despite India being an agrarian economy till date there is no national agriculture policy nor any mechanism set up to monitor yields, market trends, weather conditions or latest advances in farming techniques.
The governments are unsure of how to deal with the younger farmers who have broken the stereotype mould of the traditional Indian farmer. Most, particularly in, MP, Tamil Nadu and Punjab are as mentioned earlier computer savvy and are aware of the latest developments in agriculture sector. These young ones have set up networks and through it exchange information, data and discuss plans path.
To deal with these angry, anguished and agitated farmers the governments would have to give up the old nonchalant attitude towards unrests in agrarian sector and perfunctory and casual patchworks in resolving their problems.
India is an agrarian country with 70 per cent of the population depending directly or indirectly upon agriculture. Any restiveness over agrarian distress in such a massive segment needs instant resolution to pre-empt an agitation. But the politicians have so far being treating farmers as vote bank and have been apathetic to their problems.
This won’t do now. The present crops of farmers are clamouring for authorities to focus on their problems and resolve them.
The procurement policies and the basis for fixing prices are still focussed on cereal crops, although a large number of farmers have switched to horticulture and cash crops like pulses.
The economic causes of riots intensifying this year include demonetisation which dried up cash, and since cash only is used by the marginal farmers in cultivation, many failed to raise any crop and thus they suffered irreparably. Those who did cultivate, and despite the yield this year being almost double, they too suffered losses for prices crashed due with the deflation phase setting in.
The government having adopted the recommendation of Swaminathan Committee to fix market support price (MSP) 50 per cent above the cost of cultivation has seemingly never bothered to follow through to find out how MSP principle was faring in the market.
The Danger: Opposition out to Politicise Farmers
It all started innocuously. Rahul Gandhi rushing to Mandsaur to meet the families of the six who had succumbed to police bullets was nothing unusual. Just a few days earlier he had gone to Sahajanpur where several clashes between Dalits and Thakurs resulted in casualties in both the communities. In fact he has been visiting all places where something untowardly had happened. Normally, during such visits he has attacked and blamed Modi for whatever happened there.
This is why when he rushed to Mandsaur, initially it was not considered anything out of the ordinary. But the hide and seek drama that ensued between the police and Rahul and 100 odd supporters received much publicity and people’s attention.
The police were under instructions not to let Rahul reach Mandsaur and talk to the families who had lost their members in the police firing. Rahul tried to dodge the police by pillion riding one of his supporter’s motorbike, which was surrounded by bikes of his other supporters. He could not dodge the officers then later he managed to talk with a few villagers.
One is not sure when he got the idea—after meeting a couple of families or after briefing from Jyotiraditya Scindia and a few other party leaders who later could go to Mandsaur –to take political mileage out of the seething anger in the farmer against the Government which meant alienation from the BJP, by driving a wider and deeper wedge between the BJP government and the enraged farmers not only in Mandsaur but Neemuch and other parts of the state where unrest had spread.
The subtle manner in which political element has been added to the purely economic reason for the protest that turned violent has failed to be noticed widely. But the leaders of all other opposition parties have taken the cue from Rahul’s Mandsaur Mission with alacrity.
These leaders distraught and frustrated having failed to win against Modi’s BJP, despite trying everything in their electoral armoury, have latched on to the idea of exploiting farmers’ anger against governments, most of which happen to be of the BJP, to convince them that the economic causes troubling them is because of the politics of the BJP. It will be easy to convince the farmers.
In the immediate aftermath of the Demonetisation there was intense scarcity of cash, and as small and marginal farmers use only cash for buying seeds, fertilizer and any other expense in cultivation, most lost one season of crop. It accentuated their misery.
In such a state of mind it is easier to convince them that the villain of the piece is the BJP. The opposition, frustrated as they are, will not care that the farmer is being politicised, a very dangerous development.
Farmers are about 47 per cent of 1.27 billion population and who have until recently contributed 50 per cent to the national income. Their politicisation will have a chaotic impact on the centuries-old settled socio-economic pattern in villages.
As it is the children of farmers who are migrating to urban areas and trying to take up some jobs or trade. According to one study, the steady migration has reduced the farming community to 24 per cent of the population. But the economy unable to create enough jobs, many of the farmers’ sons have to return to their villages. They add to the number of angry farmers’ community.
But such considerations will bother the opposition least; they have planned to unitedly call a Bandh by farmers. Let us not forget these are the same politicos who politicised the criminals by using them for booth-capturing and instilling fear in voters.
These law-breakers realising that it will be far lucrative to capture a legislature seat for themselves
rather for someone else, started to contest themselves. This led to the criminalisation of politics, the shameful effect on Indian polity of which is still being felt.
An expert was incisive when he said that ‘it is politics that best explains the phenomenon of farmers’ riots…’. True, possibly the riots in Mandsau would not have turned viciously violent if a Congress Party member, Shakuntala Khatik, MLA, had not allegedly incited the rioters, reportedly to burn a police station. An FIR has been filed against her for inciting rioters to indulge in arson and violence.
The opposition is fishing in troubled waters and adding fuel to fire. All parties must look beyond narrow political gains and unitedly try and resolve farmers’ difficulties. They toil in blazing heat, pouring rain and biting cold to feed the country and contribute to the national exchequer, it is our responsibility to make their labour financially viable rather than push them into the dust and grime of politics.
The market reality is that prices fell so low that farmers, particularly those raising cash crops or dealing in horticulture had to sell at prices much below MSP. In Mandsaur, the agitation was for the government to help raise the price of onions fetching Re 1.
But more than the economic cause, it is the political apathy towards farming sector that has fuelled riots. The economic causes could have been resolved if politicians paid attention to what ails the farmers. Nonchalance has exacerbated the riotous mood of the present generation of farmers. Their attitude has hardened.
Instead of crowding corridors of power or frustrated commit suicide, they ‘demonstrate’ their defiance. Punjab farmers littered tonnes of tomatoes on national highways, farmers from Tamil Nadu travelled all the way from deep South for sit-in protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, while Maharashtra farmers poured milk on streets and farmers in Rajasthan launched an indefinite protest demanding a special Assembly session to discuss their problems.
A quick fix solution to soothe the agitating farmers, the governments have discovered is loan-waiver. Uttar Pradesh started the trend by writing off Rs 35000 crore, and now like a contagious disease, almost all states where agitations have taken a serious turn have announced loan-waiver. This will in long-term hurt the farming sector. At best the writing off of loans is akin to first aid, a temporary relief until the treatment for curing the ailment can start. And so far all treatments have not had satisfactory success.
“It’s a dark satire to tell a farmer that the Minimum Support Price (MSP), CPI and WPI changes reflect farmer incomes are doubling and farmer suicides are declining. The trigger for the recent farm agitation remains the depressed farm gate price. The government declaring higher MSP is not enough. For some crops, an MSP is declared, but over two-thirds of all such crops are selling below MSP or far lower than previous years — that’s what matters on the ground” said Ajay Vir Jhakar, Chairman of the Bharat Krishak Samaj.
His statement makes significant points, which if studied properly could possibly lead to a permanent solution to what all ails our farms. “Over 80 per cent of farm produce isn’t purchased under MSP. Even vegetable prices are about half. Additionally, the BJP’s election manifesto promised the crop production cost plus 50 per cent pricing formula from the M.S. Swaminathan report, but the government quietly filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court, stating it can’t be implemented. Farmers are losing hope and faith in this government, just as they did with earlier governments which consistently broke promises.”
He mentioned that last year in Maharashtra, farmers were compelled to sell milk for as low as Rs 16/litre, compared to the average purchase price of Rs 35/litre in many other states. Most farmers keep cattle and were reeling from lower milk prices, impacted by policy-induced imports of butter oil (ghee). They now have to contend with the ban on cow slaughter and buffalo sale restrictions.
He warned that after a decade of bad policies, the farmer agitation in Maharashtra was waiting to happen. But the agitation in Madhya Pradesh, a state where farming was supposedly progressing at an unbelievable double-digit growth rate, rattled almost all academics. “Economists with ‘no skin in the game’ who trumpeted farmer prosperity through agriculture GDP and agriculture production numbers, now try to escape the blame by branding the agitation “political”. Production increases don’t translate into income increases. Inversely, when production peaks, farmers suffer.”
Analysing the causes of the farmer agitation, he said it was not just about demonetisation-induced farm deflation and poverty, it was also about frustrations arising from unfulfilled aspirations and farmers’ understanding that other communities have progressed at their expense.
By wilfully disregarding how farmers remain the primary tool for controlling inflation, academics evade the heart of the farmer distress issue.The larger question is not why farmers are agitating, but why agitations don’t yield long-term tangible changes to their livelihoods. The demand for a higher MSP or loan waiver does not represent all sections dependent on agriculture. The demands of agricultural labour are never raised and subsequently, farmer agitations lose steam.
For the first time, educated youth participated in the farmer agitation and will eventually bring their families into the movement. Agitations not driven by politicians are a harbinger of tumultuous times. Disorganised farmers have managed to do what the combined opposition couldn’t — bring governments to their knees. More importantly, they have shown, it can be done. This is a warning, based on argued facts can hardly be ignored. Particularly, when potential rebels are almost 48 per cent of the 1.3 billion populations, and who feed the nation and are the backbone of the national economy.
by Vijay Dutt