Everybody loves a farmer

Print edition : April 12, 2019

The second kisan long march by farmers from across Maharashtra demanding farm loan waivers, minimum support price, irrigation facilities and provision of pension. Starting February 21, the farmers covered over 165 kilometres on foot from Nashik to Mumbai. Photo: Veeru Kadam

Vegetable farming in Vellayani, Thiruvananthapuram district. Photo: S. GOPAKUMAR

The cash transfer schemes the Narendra Modi government and several State governments have announced to woo the peasantry ahead of the election, like the loan waivers, short-change farmers because they avoid the vital issue of remunerative prices for farm produce.

In a sudden flurry of new-found concern for the long-suffering Indian peasant, parties across the political spectrum are desperately trying to woo this section of society. In fact, ever since the Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram, sops appear to be raining upon the peasantry. The spate of protests against the crushing and mounting burden on the peasantry was the primary reason for the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP)defeat in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. Ahead of the general election and as protests by peasants escalated across the country, it became clear to political parties that they needed to appear to be doing something about the deepening agrarian crisis. The promises of loan waivers came in a flurry, but to the beaten peasant, they appeared to be too little, too late. Soon, sops started raining . Every political party with the reins of power in its hands suddenly fell in love with the battered peasant.

Sops galore

In Rajasthan, where the Congress capitalised politically from the struggles by peasant organisations such as the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) simply because of its ability to commandeer a wider electoral presence, it did exactly this after coming to power. The victory of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi was also seen as an endorsement of its Rythu Bandhu scheme, which was termed a farmers’ investment support scheme, wherein Rs.4,000 an acre each season was given twice a year for the rabi and kharif seasons. Desperately seeking to woo the peasantry, whose incomes have plummeted, particularly since demonetisation, the BJP joined the bandwagon. Peasant organisations have held such sops to be palliatives, at best; at worst, they add insult to grievous injury. The Narendra Modi government, desperately seeking to appear to be doing something, launched the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi (PMKSN), promising that farmers with landholdings of up to two hectares would be given Rs.6,000 a year. Immediately after the election results, the three newly elected Congress governments also announced loan waivers for farmers. The BJP government in Jharkhand announced the Mukhya Mantri Krishi Ashirwaad Yojana, promising to pay every farmer a sum of Rs.5,000 an acre (0.4 ha) a year. The Trinamool Congress government in West Bengal led by Mamata Banerjee announced Rs.5,000 an acre every year and a crop insurance scheme for which the premium would be paid by the State government. A compensation of Rs.2 lakh was also promised in the event of the death of any farmer aged between 18 and 60, to his/her family. In Odisha, the government headed by the Biju Janata Dal’s Naveen Patnaik came up with the Krushak Assistance for Livelihood and Income Augmentation (KALIA). This scheme aims to reach 92 per cent of the farmers, including 10 lakh landless farmers who will be supported for goat rearing, beekeeping, mushroom cultivation, poultry farming and fisheries.

The N. Chandrababu Naidu-led Telugu Desam Party government announced the Annadata Sukhibhava Scheme, in which farmers with less than five acres are being promised Rs.9,000 a year in addition to the Rs.6,000 a year under the PMKSN, totalling Rs.15,000 a year. The claim is that 54 lakh families will benefit from this, and an additional 15 lakh families who hold more than two hectares will be given Rs.10,000 a year. Crucially, except in Odisha, these cash transfer schemes do not include landless and tenant farmers. Even in Odisha, reports suggest that nothing concrete has happened on the ground.

Meanwhile, coordinated protests conducted by organisations such as the AIKS have succeeded in building an issue-based platform of more than 200 peasant organisations across the country. The primary issue raised by them, that of remunerative prices, forced the Modi-led BJP government at the Centre to make conciliatory noises towards the peasantry in its last full-fledged Budget for 2018-19. After consistently refusing to fix the minimum support price (MSP) for farm produce at C2+50 per cent level (that is, at least 50 per cent above the total cost of production) as recommended by the National Commission of Farmers headed by the agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan, the Finance Minister made the preposterous claim that farmers were already receiving 50 per cent more than the cost of production. Soon it was exposed that this was actually a shifting of goalposts, and unlike what had been promised in 2014 by Modi and in the BJP manifesto, the government was talking about A2+FL+50 per cent instead of C2+50 per cent. In most crops, A2+FL+50 per cent price would be 40 per cent below the C2+50 per cent level. While A2+FL cost is the actual paid-out cost plus imputed value of family labour, C2 cost is defined as the sum of paid-out costs, imputed value of family labour, interest on the value of owned capital assets, rent paid for leased-in land and the rental value of owned land. C2 is thus a more realistic estimate of actual costs incurred by the farmer.

The catch in the grand promise of higher MSPs lies in the fact that they are not accompanied by state intervention that assures actual procurement at the assured price. Thus, in reality, in most States, the MSP is only notional, as government agencies do not actually procure farm produce from farmers. Indeed, most farmers sell their produce at prices below the MSP. The latest estimates of growth of farm incomes show that they increased by an inflation-adjusted annual rate of 2.67 per cent (in constant terms) in the October-December 2018 quarter. The fact that the agrarian crisis is a farm income crisis is evident from the fact that this rate of growth is the lowest in 14 years. The irony lies in the fact that this is happening even as Modi has been talking about doubling farmers’ incomes by 2022. This is the reason why peasant agitations have continued unabated.

On August 9, 2018, the anniversary of the Quit India Movement, the AIKS organised a jail bharo (court arrest) agitation in which more than half a million people, including the working class and retired soldiers, participated. This was followed by the Mazdoor Kisan Sangharsh Rally in Delhi on September 5, 2018 by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, the AIKS and the All India Agricultural Workers’ Union, in which over two lakh persons participated. The rally was against the Centre’s anti-worker, anti-peasant policies.

Within a week, the BJP government came up with the Pradhan Mantri Annadata Aay Sanrakshan Abhiyan (PM-AASHA), with the claim that it would ensure remunerative prices and protect farmers’ incomes through a combination of a price support scheme (PSS), a price deficiency payment scheme (PDPS) and a pilot of private procurement and stockist scheme (PPPS). Peasant organisations immediately pointed out the hollowness of the schemes, highlighting that these were nothing but a sinister attempt at privatising procurement. The announcement of a new scheme, the (PMKSN, barely five months after the announcement of PM-AASHA, amounts to an admission that there was no hope of success with the PM-AASHA scheme. If the income of the Annadata (literally, the provider of food) was protected, as claimed when PM-AASHA was announced, then the need for the PMKSN would not have arisen. It thus became clear that the alphabet soup of schemes was heading nowhere. However, in the intervening period, the protests by peasants across the country demanding remunerative prices and freedom from debt culminated in a massive Kisan Mukti March and rally in Delhi on November 29 and 30, 2018. These struggles played a significant role in the defeat of the BJP in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. It is obvious that the BJP’s new-found love for the peasantry reflects its fear of facing the wrath of the peasantry in the coming election.

Short-changing the peasantry

The PMKSN promises farmers holding land up to two hectares Rs.6,000 a year. As per the last Agricultural Census, there are about 12 crore households having landholdings below two hectares. It is, however, worth noting that the Agricultural Census is fraught with many problems. Also the definition of households used in various Agricultural Censuses has not been consistent in defining the family as a unit, as is the case with the PMKSN. In reality, the number of families operating less than two hectares is likely to be considerably more than 12 crore.

Further, since land records are being used to identify families with less than two hectares, this scheme excludes a vast majority of cultivators who are tenant farmers and are not registered in land records. Moreover, the vast majority of Adivasi cultivators do not have land pattas (documents establishing rights) and will be excluded from the scheme. This is over and above the fact that the amount promised to each farmer family is laughably meagre, at Rs.500 a month, or less than Rs.17 a day. The government issued an order stipulating that the application for the first instalment must be made by February 20, 2019. But the order was received in most States only on February 16 (the intervening period included a weekend). The obvious lack of preparation clearly establishes that the farce was intentional, not accidental.

Recent reports indicate that the first instalment of Rs.2,000 has been deposited in the accounts of about 2.74 crore farmer families. Thus, more than three-fourths of the 12 crore eligible farmer families operating less than two hectares have not received the amount. Shockingly, there have been reports that many farmers complained that the money deposited under the scheme had been deducted from their accounts even though they had not made any borrowings.

A comparison of the various versions of the cash support schemes with the benefits that a farmer would get from an MSP-led programme that is based on the actual procurement of farm produce at the assured price provides an estimate of the extent to which the Indian peasant is being short-changed by the mainstream political parties. For example, an average farmer cultivating paddy on two hectares of land in Bardhaman district of West Bengal produces up to nine tonnes at the rate of 4.5 tonnes a hectare. If an MSP of Rs.1,750 a quintal was assured and paddy actually procured at that price, the farmer would have received Rs.1,57,500 for the produce. In reality, in most parts of India, including West Bengal, farmers are forced to sell their produce for prices as low as Rs.1,000 a quintal because of lack of procurement by the government. In reality, therefore, the farmer earns only about Rs.90,000 for the produce, which implies a loss of Rs.67,500 for every crop. Given that West Bengal has three crops in a year, the losses at this rate will be over Rs.2 lakh a hectare every year.

The loss incurred by farmers is even greater if one compares their revenue with the C2+50 per cent price that they ought have got. What this example demonstrates is the extent to which the peasant is being short-changed in the absence of public procurement at the MSP. Just as important is the fact that farm input prices have risen sharply in recent years. The argument that a higher MSP necessarily translates to higher inflation is based on no empirical evidence. It is interesting that those who tout this line of reasoning have no issues with input price inflation which, in the first place, is responsible for higher production costs. The deregulation of inputs such as phosphatic fertilizers and plant protection chemicals has allowed agribusiness companies to use their monopoly power to maximise profits. In fact, on the same day that the PMKSN was announced, the government also announced a cut in the subsidies for fertilizers. The cash transfers to farmers are thus nothing but an attempt to hoodwink farmers by paying them a fraction of what they would legitimately get if farm produce was actually procured from them at the assured price.

The Kerala example

The efforts of the Left Democratic Front government in Kerala have been receiving some attention, particularly because its intervention is in marked contrast to that in other States. The State paid higher than the centrally fixed MSP, procuring paddy at Rs.2,350 a quintal, which is Rs.600 more than the MSP. If farmers in Bardhaman cultivating two hectares had received this price, it would have fetched them a sum of Rs.2,11,500 for the produce compared with the Rs.90,000 that they are getting in the absence of state intervention. Moreover, even if paddy was actually procured at the MSP set by the Centre, the farmer would still earn only Rs.1,57,500. In other words, the farmer operating two hectares is better off to the extent of Rs.54,000 even if the Centre’s MSP actually worked. A farmer in Kerala with a lower productivity of 3.5 tonnes a hectare on two hectares of land would still get Rs.1,64,500, which is Rs.74,500 higher than what a West Bengal farmer gets for higher produce. If the fact that West Bengal has three seasons—aus, aman and boro—is taken into account, the losses accumulated willd be even higher. In addition to the output prices, it must also be noted that in Kerala, the State government and the panchayats provide various other subsidies. For example, the Karivellur Peralam Panchayat in Kannur district provides Rs.17,000 a hectare as an incentive to promote paddy cultivation on fallow land.

The newly elected Congress-led governments in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh announced farm loan waivers soon after taking over. The Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh governments announced a waiver of loans up to Rs.2 lakh; Chhattisgarh announced a waiver of short-term loans of farmers and also a hike in the MSP of paddy to Rs.2,500 a quintal. However, within a few days, all three States witnessed protests by peasants, with the AIKS leading them in Rajasthan. The terms of the waivers, it was soon apparent, would only apply to loans from nationalised banks, which is a small percentage of the outstanding debt burden. Such a waiver is also unfair to farmers who have been repaying their loans regularly. For example, the Baroda Rajasthan Kshetriya Gramin Bank has branches in 21 districts and their defaulter ratio is only 6.7 per cent. In other banks such as State Bank of India, Punjab National Bank and others, defaulters form less than 5 per cent of the total. These riders in the government orders exclude a vast majority of farmers from the benefit of loan waivers. A farmer who has been repaying loans on time with interest but still has outstanding debt will not benefit from waivers. Many sections of people who often overlap with the agrarian population are also excluded from the loan waiver scheme. Village heads, government servants, pensioners, nagarpalika chairpersons and panchayat pramukhs would also be ineligible. It is in this context that there is a growing demand for the Kerala model of a debt relief commission. Kerala’s moves to encourage cooperatives in processing, value addition and marketing are also being perceived as offering long-term growth and stability to farm incomes.

As long as there is no reversal of the neoliberal policies that have led to the withdrawal of the state from public investment in agriculture and rural development and in providing affordable health, education and food security, the flurry of sops will not help peasants overcome the agrarian crisis. To a restive peasantry, the announcement of a litany of schemes such as the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (crop insurance) means little. To add to these woes, the specific problem associated with Hindutva’s cow politics has aggravated matters for the peasantry. The restrictions on cattle trade and the attacks by so-called gau rakshaks (cow vigilantes) have resulted in the stray-cattle menace assuming life-threatening proportions. This is apart from the fact that large-scale destruction of crops by stray cattle has been reported from many parts of the country. These have farm income consequences.

Protests intensify

On January 8, farmers in Sikar under the banner of the AIKS burned copies of the loan waiver order in protest against the farcical implementation of the loan waiver in Rajasthan. The next day, they staged an agitation at the district headquarters and handed out a charter of their demands. Campaigns are on to expose the betrayal by the Congress government in the State. In Maharashtra on February 20, farmers marched again, reminiscent of the Kisan Long March last year, but manifold more in number this time despite extreme repression by the BJP government, which was forced to come to an agreement. In West Bengal, too, the peasantry has joined in, as it has in Bihar, where a massive protest was organised in Patna by peasants and agricultural workers on February 18 under the banner of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee. Similar protests were organised at all district headquarters of Andhra Pradesh and in Uttarakhand. It is significant that these massive protests have happened despite the explosion of jingoism after the Pulwama incident.

The agrarian crisis that has been festering for more than three decades has thus far been accompanied by a deep sense of despair, one that is reflected poignantly in the number of lives that have been lost owing to suicides. The wave of struggles by farmers—particularly since demonetisation, which triggered a collapse in crop prices—while signalling a will to fight, also gives cause for hope. There is hope that the despairing peasant, now angry, has the will to fight for a fairer deal. Whether that will be enough to tilt the scales at the upcoming election may remain an open question for now, but the peasant has signalled that the battle has been well and truly joined.

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