Diminishing returns

Farmers’ organisations in Punjab and Haryana are determined to continue their agitation.

Published : Jun 21, 2017 12:30 IST

Farmers block the national highway in Ambala, Haryana, on June 16, during a protest against the police firing on agitating farmers at Mandsaur.

Farmers block the national highway in Ambala, Haryana, on June 16, during a protest against the police firing on agitating farmers at Mandsaur.

THE anger over the killing of six farmers in Mandsaur by the Madhya Pradesh Police had its resonance in Punjab and Haryana. Various farmer and peasant organisations held peaceful protests to express their solidarity with the farmers of Madhya Pradesh and also highlight their long-pending demands. Apprehensive of a Mandsaur-like situation, intelligence agencies in Haryana circulated a communique among their personnel to keep an eye on “solidarity protests” in the State. The communique dated June 9, which is available with Frontline, contained names and numbers of farmers’ leaders and their organisations, who as per the Intelligence Department had the “potential to create violence” in the State.

The All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) in both Haryana and Punjab and other farmers’ organisations such as the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), perceived sometimes as representing big landed interests, organised and led protests in both the States and submitted memoranda with a list of demands. The issues ranged from loan waiver to timely procurement and purchase by state agencies of food and cash crops at minimum support price (MSP) rates or wherever applicable, market intervention scheme rates, implementation of the recommendations of the M.S. Swaminathan Commission on crop pricing, the consequences of the ban on cattle trade imposed by the recent Central government notification and harassment of farmers by self-styled cow vigilantes. Farmer representatives Frontline spoke to in Haryana and Punjab said the protests against the ban on cattle trade would pick up in the coming months as farmers were agitated with the government notification.

“The issues faced by farmers across the country are the same. For the past three years, farmers have had a tough time. It is the commonality and gravity of the issues that has compelled opposition parties to take them up,” Inderjit Singh, vice president of the Haryana unit of the AIKS, told Frontline.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Haryana was particularly unresponsive to farmers’ issues, it was felt. The agitation for reservation by a section of the Jat community in 2016-17 was a reflection of the agrarian and unemployment crisis in the State. On March 8, farmer and peasant organisations with broad Left affiliation organised a rally in Chandigarh and requested an appointment with Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar. Inderjit Singh said a representative of the Chief Minister announced at the rally that an appointment would be arranged. But it never happened.

Although an MSP was fixed for several crops, farmers were forced to sell their produce at lower rates. For instance, while the MSP for mustard was Rs.3,700 a quintal, farmers sold it at Rs.3,300-Rs.3,400. The MSP for bajra, a coarse grain, was fixed at Rs.1,260 a quintal, but it was purchased by agencies at Rs.1,100. Delays in purchase and the multiple conditions placed by the purchasing agencies were some of the reasons for farmers selling below the MSP. From the farmers’ point of view, it amounted to distress sale as they could not keep the crop for long. The lack of storage facilities and the absence of procurement by state agencies compelled farmers to accept whatever rate private commission agents offered; the rates invariably failed to cover the production cost. On the other hand, the consumer was charged three or four times the rate offered to the farmer.

High costs of fertilizer, diesel and pesticides had pushed farmers across the two States into high indebtedness. At a macro level, the conversion of agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes rendered several families landless and reduced farm productivity. “The government has been encouraging distress sale of land and it is solely responsible for farmers losing interest in agriculture,” said Inderjit Singh.

Non-remunerative prices for crops are among the major reasons for the growing lack of interest in agriculture. Cotton prices, for instance, used to be Rs.7,000 a quintal 15 years ago. The rates have remained unchanged. For some varieties of paddy, no MSP has been declared. The rates are decided by grain trader cartels. For a certain variety of Basmati rice, for which the consumer pays Rs.100 a kilogram (Rs.10,000 a quintal), the farmer receives Rs.1,500-Rs.2,000 a quintal.

There are other issues, too. With the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre unable to get the amendments to the Land Acquisition Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, passed in Parliament, the BJP government in Haryana created “e-Bhoomi portals” to encourage voluntary sale of land by farmers for government projects developed by the Haryana State Industrial Development Corporation. The ostensible objective of the portal was to prevent distress sale of land and also to enable hassle-free sale of land by landowners.

The biggest scam was the much-touted Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY), the crop insurance scheme launched by the NDA government. “It should be called the Pradhan Mantri Farmer Barbadi Yojana,” said Inderjit Singh. There was a huge gap between the money collected as premium and the amounts disbursed towards claims. Figures tabled in Parliament revealed that while the premium collected by insurance companies in 2016-17 was Rs.21,500 crore, what was disbursed was only Rs.714.14 crore, which was 3.31 per cent of the total premium collected. In Haryana, three private insurance companies were given the responsibility of collecting premium. One of the demands of the AIKS is that premium be collected by State insurance agencies and that it be voluntary. It has been left to the States to implement the PMFBY. Interestingly, the scheme is not applicable in Punjab.

In September last year, officials of the Haryana Agricultural and Farmers’ Welfare Department, who had been instructed to undertake a crop damage assessment or crop cutting experiment as part of the PMFBY, went on a strike saying that it was not their responsibility but that of private agencies. They also cited manpower shortage and lack of resource as reasons for refusing to undertake the task. The government responded by imposing the Essential Services Maintenance Act to ensure delivery of services.

In Punjab, the spate of farmer suicides, which began in 2010, has continued unabated. Indebtedness has been one of the primary reasons for farmer suicides. Suicides and indebtedness were the main issues in the recent Assembly elections. During the campaign for the February/March Assembly elections, the Congress promised to waive farm loans. After coming to power, the party constituted a committee of experts headed by D.T. Haque, former Chairperson of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP), to assess the total debt and to suggest mechanisms for loan waiver, as promised in its election manifesto. The committee, which was constituted on April 16, was to have submitted its report in two months. Farmers’ organisations have been reminding Chief Minister Amarinder Singh of his electoral promise. However, it is well known that State governments do not have the resources to waive loans. Yet, what is more important than loan waiver is that farmers get their due for their crops.

Sukhwinder Sekhon, general secretary of the Punjab unit of the AIKS, told Frontline that 70 farmers had committed suicide in the first half of this year. Most of these deaths occurred in the Malwa belt comprising the districts south of the Sutlej and constituting 69 Assembly constituencies. A condolence resolution for the deceased farmers was moved in the Assembly, which was an official acknowledgement of the crisis.

Despite the grim situation, the purchase price quoted for the crops was much below the MSP. For instance, the MSP for sunflower seeds (for the production of sunflower oil) was fixed at Rs.3,950 a quintal but the farmers received Rs.2,700 a quintal from the traders. Likewise, the MSP for maize, which was Rs.1,240 a quintal, was procured by traders in the range of Rs.800-900 a quintal. Punjab farmers are demanding a hike in the current limit on crop loans by government agencies. The Amarinder Singh government had promised that agricultural lands of farmers who did not repay their loans would not be auctioned, but Sekhon said the government should ensure that these farmers were not denied loans in the future.

He expressed concern over a concerted campaign by some sections that the groundwater was depleted owing to its overexploitation for agriculture. He said it was industrial units that had depleted and polluted groundwater to dangerous levels. None of the dyeing units and other industries that used water has installed water treatment plants. The units release the effluents to the ground thereby contaminating the groundwater. “We have been told to undertake crop diversification. But the MSP has not been fixed for the diversified crops,” Sekhon said.

As in Haryana and Rajasthan, farmer organisations of various hues in Punjab are determined to raise their concerns in the coming months. The police firing on farmers at Mandsaur has provided the impetus for a renewed agitation.

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