Farmers' power

Print edition : June 18, 2004

Gujarat's farmers, victims of the power sector reforms initiated by the Narendra Modi government under the guidance of the Asian Development Bank, give a shock treatment to the Chief Minister through electronic voting machines.

in Sabarkantha

THEY may not have power in their fields. But they have power in the electronic voting machines. In the Lok Sabha elections, farmers' anger with the Gujarat government cost the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dearly. "Any government that does injustice to farmers will go," says Jayesh Patel, a farmer from Modasa, Sabarkantha district in north Gujarat. "See how the BJP lost most of the rural areas in this election." The BJP was routed in seven constituencies, one-third of the seats it occupied in the last Lok Sabha. The party barely kept its lead over the Congress, winning 14 of the 26 seats. The dominance that it has enjoyed for 10 years seems to be waning.

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi with party leader L.K. Advani in Ahmedabad, during the latter's Bharat Uday Yatra at the height of the campaign for the general elections.-DIVYAKANT SOLANKI/AP

The most vociferous expression of the farmers' discontent with Chief Minister Narendra Modi has come from within the Sangh Parivar itself. For almost a year, the Bharatiya Janata Party's farmers' wing, the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), has been protesting against the steep power tariff hikes for agriculture. A compromise was reached in February this year (Frontline, February 27, 2004). But the BKS feels it got a raw deal.

"How can we cultivate anything without water or electricity? If we don't grow grain, what will people eat? Can they produce it in their factories?" asks Jayesh. Over the last five years, his losses have piled up to over Rs.1.5 lakh. On the day this correspondent met him, Jayesh had drilled a well 270-feet deep. But there was no water. He sunk Rs.20,000 in a matter of hours. In the water-starved areas of north Gujarat, electricity supply is essential for pumpsets. The lack of irrigation facilities has forced farmers to drill deep into the water table. It is a race to the bottom. In some areas, tubewells are as deep as 1,800 feet. The aquifers are close to depletion. In some places, farmers are tapping fossil water that is thousands of years old. Many people here suffer from fluorosis, a disease in which bones become brittle owing to excess fluoride in the water. Around 57 tehsils in north Gujarat have been termed "dark zones" by the Gujarat government. Their water tables are dry. Yet, farmers continue to invest lakhs of rupees in tubewells. Those who own wells sell water at Rs.40 per hour.

Already an expensive proposition, agriculture became even less profitable last year when the government announced an almost three-fold hike in power tariffs - from Rs.350 per horsepower (hp) to Rs.1,050 per hp. Cultivators were furious. The BKS launched an eight-month long agitation against the Modi administration. After months of animosity, the government agreed to reduce the rate to Rs.750. Still more than double the original rate.

Lalji Patel, a senior Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) leader and BKS founder, went on a hunger-strike against Modi's adamant stand. Finally, a settlement was reached and the Chief Minister budged by reducing the rate by a further Rs.50 per hp. BKS members were livid not only with Modi but also with their leaders for caving in so easily.

The BKS is dominated by Patels, a powerful farming community that comprises around 16 to 20 per cent of the population. They have traditionally played an influential role in the State's politics. Former Chief Minister and BJP leader Keshubhai Patel supported the BKS struggle from the sidelines.

The Gujarat government says power tariff hikes for farmers are imperative under the power sector reforms it has initiated. In the past five years, the Gujarat Electricity Board (GEB) has accumulated a loss of Rs.6,000 crores. The State took a $200 million loan from the Asian Development Bank for reforms in the power sector. Reducing subsidies was one of the conditionalities. "The subsidy to agriculture is Rs.1,700 crores every year," said Saurabh Patel, Minister for Energy. "As part of our power sector reforms, we have passed an act promising that subsidies will not be more than 67 per cent of the cost of power production. At present, we charge 42 paise a unit when the actual cost is Rs.2.50 a unit - a mere 17 per cent of the production cost."

Like other parts of the country, agriculture in Gujarat is facing a crisis. "Over the last 30 years, input costs have increased by 1,000 to 4,000 per cent. But the market prices of agricultural produce have gone up by only 400 per cent. Farming is no longer profitable," says Maganbhai Patel, general secretary of the BKS. For example, he points out, the cost of producing 20 quintals of foodgrain like wheat or maize is Rs.250, but the market rate is Rs.120-150 for wheat and Rs.90-100 for maize.

Farmers like Jayesh are being bled dry. "In the last five years, the rains have been bad. Last monsoon, I invested around Rs.30,000 on my five-acre plot. The yield was poor. I kept most of it for consumption at home. I sold a little and got just Rs.5,000," he says. In the rabi season, Jayesh spent Rs.18,000 on a wheat crop. He got only 1,000 kg, of which he gave 300 kg for water charges. And kept the rest at home. In effect, Jayesh's cost was Rs.18 per kg of wheat. The retail price is Rs.8 per kg.

Losses are mounting for most farmers, pushing them deeper into debt. "Small cultivators are selling off their land and becoming casual workers," says Ismail Bandi, director of the Modasa Agricultural Produce Market Committee. "The divide between rich and small farmers is growing. Large farmers are buying small plots. Peasants are deeply in debt, paying interest of 60 per cent to 120 per cent to moneylenders." Many feel that policies are skewed against agriculture. "You city people buy a bottle of mineral water for Rs.12 when we have to sell our milk for Rs.6 or 7. Is our milk less valuable than water," asks Narsibhai Patel from Jitpur village, Sabarkantha. "A small car costs less than a tractor, which is Rs. 3 to 4 lakhs. And, the interest rates for car loans are much less - 4 per cent as compared to 12 to 14 per cent for tractors. Can I plough my farm with a car?"

"We don't want power subsidies if the government gives us proper irrigation facilities and regular power supply. Right now, we are investing lakhs in tubewells that run dry in a few years," says Maganbhai.

Many voters are also annoyed with Modi's publicity blitz, sponsored by corporates, promising several new irrigation and other schemes, but delivering very little. "Modi has announced that he will provide water from the Mahi river, knowing fully well it is not possible. Gujarat has no legal right to water from the Mahi; it is meant only for Rajasthan. He keeps harping on his pet project - the Rs.6,800 crore Sujhlam Sublam - when the Central government has not even spent a penny for the project. The only thing he has done is celebrate every festival with great fanfare," said a BJP leader.

Soon after the people's verdict, BJP MLAs have turned against Modi and are demanding his removal. Many are fed up with his autocratic style of functioning. The only thing holding back the rebellion, backed by the Keshubhai camp, is the BJP's central leadership. The BJP's allies like the Shiv Sena, and the Telugu Desam Party also feel that Modi's complicity in the Gujarat communal violence contributed to their defeat. But many in the BJP high command feel it would be embarrassing to replace Modi now.

It is rare to find party members happy with their own defeat. But in Gujarat, several BJP workers deliberately stayed away from campaigning. They did not mind sitting back and letting the Congress win. As the MLAs and Modi battle it out, whichever faction prevails will have to address the problems that got the BJP into this crisis. Or, they may face the same fate in the next Assembly elections as well.

They will have to focus on rural problems, which have been ignored for too long. As one farmer put it, "If they can build so many highways, then why can't they also start constructing canals?"

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