Cover story

Rallying point

Print edition : July 07, 2017

Members of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) protesting against the policies of the Central government and in solidarity with the farmers’ agitation in Madhya Pradesh, in New Delhi on June 15. Photo: AFP/PRAKASH SINGH

Fruits and vegetables lying unsold at a wholesale market in Mumbai as a result of the demonetisation drive, on December 8, 2016. Photo: YOGESH MHATRE

The farmers’ protests have provided the basis to build a broad consensus for a struggle against the policies that have caused agrarian distress and the loot of forests, land and resources.

IT has been a long summer of discontent for farmers. Across the country, they have erupted in anger at the manner in which they have been short-changed. In fact, the seeds of discontentment were sown last winter, on November 8, when the Prime Minister embarked on his demonetisation adventure. The collapse of agricultural commodity prices has been unprecedented in the annals of independent India. Never before have prices of all commodities collapsed simultaneously in such a spectacular fashion. And, while all this has been happening, the emperors in New Delhi watched the tragedy unfold. They have now been woken from their reverie by the victims of this great tragedy across the country. What is truly striking is the fact that the protests have rocked the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled States, which were to be the main deliverers of the “achhe din” promise that Modi invoked on his way to power three years ago.

Though the epicentre of the recent protests were Rajasthan (against a power tariff hike), Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, events in recent weeks have shown that they have spread far and wide across the country. The governments of Haryana, Jharkhand and Gujarat are already bracing themselves for protests by farmers as they broaden the range of issues that agitate them. For example, struggles on issues such as land acquisition and infringement of land as well as forest rights, and restrictions on cattle trade are also gathering momentum. Rural discontent is now being channelised into tangible forms of protest as an audacious pan-Indian movement develops.

The Narendra Modi government’s response is on predictable lines. The manner in which protests by drought-hit farmers from Tamil Nadu were treated in Delhi was a pointer to what farmers could expect from this government. The gunning down of six persons in Mandsaur district (Madhya Pradesh) recently has only strengthened the perception that this regime is anti-farmer.

Deadly demonetisation

Demonetisation happened just before the rabi sowing season, giving a serious jolt to farmers, for whom cash is the primary mode of transaction. The All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), which organised a kisan sangharsh jatha at the time, was witness to the misery caused by the move. Peasants were losing incomes on a massive scale because of the price crash and loss of perishable crops, especially fruits and vegetables. Agricultural workers lost employment and wages owing to reduced agricultural activity and non-payment of wages for work done. The collapse in demand resulted in the destruction of vegetables, fruits and perishables. Farmers were unable to buy essential commodities and agricultural inputs. The AIKS had warned then that the rural economy would be thrown into disarray and normal trade relations would be irreparably damaged.

What started with demonetisation did not end even after a semblance of “normalcy” returned. Prices continued to be in free fall, resulting in more misery being piled on the hapless peasantry. Never before have prices of all commodities fallen so drastically and without any signs of recovery in the near future. The Reserve Bank of India acknowledged this in its recent Monetary Policy Statement by conceding that the prices of vegetables fell markedly and bottomed out with “fire sales” during the demonetisation period. The November misadventure of Modi, clearly, provides the backdrop for the present wave of protests, even if it is not the exclusive reason.

It is true that rainfall has been better this year. But rains alone do not make or break agriculture. For instance, more acreage was devoted to pulses, but the import of pulses from Africa (notably Mozambique) killed the farmers’ hope of getting a better price. Meanwhile, the reduction of import duty on wheat, ostensibly to check inflation, has hurt the peasantry. Prices of most agricultural commodities are now at levels far below the government-announced minimum support price (MSP), even as production and input costs have soared.

The very notion of the MSP as a support mechanism has been rendered a farce because it is not backed by physical intervention by the government and its agencies. The MSP remains purely notional because the state has not intervened actively in the mandis, purchasing agricultural commodities at the price it had committed itself to supporting. Betrayal of farmers’ interests may have taken many forms in recent times, but this is the most direct and brutal let-down of the peasantry.

Make in Mozambique

Arhar dal farmers in Gulbarga told this writer early this year that there was a ceiling on procurement and only Grade A was provided the MSP of Rs.5,050 a quintal. Farmers are forced to sell other grades to private traders at a price as low as Rs.4,000 a quintal. It is notable that the cost of production calculations for the 2016-17 kharif marketing season by the State Agricultural Departments in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka are Rs.5,722, Rs.6,841 and Rs.5,100 a quintal respectively. The MSP, calculated on the basis of weighted average cost of production and other factors, falls far below even the cost of production in these States. The MSP suggested by these States were Andhra Pradesh–Rs.8,583; Telangana–Rs.10,261; and Karnataka–Rs.6,500 a quintal. Ironically, a government which talks of “Make in India” is actually furthering “Make in Mozambique”!

Meanwhile, the government is urging Indian companies to shop for land in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere in order to expand contract farming of pulses. India has entered into a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Mozambique to import one lakh tonnes in 2016-17 and double it to two lakh tonnes by 2020-21; it is obvious that Indian buccaneers stand to take a fairly large slice of this opportunity. The government has decided to import arhar dal from Mozambique, while assuring farmers there provision of quality seeds, equipment and technology and procurement at an MSP level of Rs.5,050 a quintal. The entire cost of carriage, transportation and storage would also be borne by India. Contrast this largesse with the utter neglect of procurement from Indian farmers at a committed price.

The import duty on wheat, which was 25 per cent until September 2016, was initially reduced to 10 per cent and exactly a month after demonetisation, on December 8, totally done away with. The wheat contracted from Ukraine is currently priced at Rs.1,329-1,431 a quintal, far below the Indian MSP of Rs.1,625 a quintal. The policy-induced dumping from other countries, even as India experiences a good harvest, has brought down prices even further. The case of paddy is no different; while the MSP announced is Rs.1,470 a quintal, the absence of procurement centres forces farmers to sell at Rs.800-1,100 a quintal in large parts of north and eastern India. The cost of production of both wheat and paddy is also much higher than the official MSP. In the age of information technology, when news spreads fast and across distances in no time, the fact that Kerala procures paddy at Rs.2,200 a quintal makes farmers elsewhere ask the natural question as to why their States do not come forward to do so too.

Crashing prices

The AIKS team that visited Mandsaur recently found a situation of acute distress as prices of most crops had crashed and were about 60 per cent below last year’s prices. Soya bean, which fetched Rs.5,000-6,000 a quintal last year, got only Rs.2,200-2,400 a quintal. Chana dal, which fetched up to Rs.9,000-10,000 a quintal was now going for only Rs.4,000 a quintal. Similarly, the best quality wheat was fetching only Rs.1,200 a quintal, which was way below the MSP of Rs.1,625 a quintal; last year, it ranged between Rs.1,900-2,000 a quintal in the open market. Farmers complained that the government purchased at the MSP only for a little over a month and not throughout the season. Garlic prices fell from Rs.13,000 a quintal to Rs.1,000 a quintal and methi from Rs.9,000-10,000 a quintal to Rs.3,000-2,200 a quintal. Moreover, after demonetisation, traders are paying 2 per cent less for cash transactions. The team found bags of the best quality of garlic with a farmer unsold because it was not fetching even Rs.10 for a kilogram while the cost of cultivation was around Rs.30 a kg.

The AIKS teams found farmers in a pathetic situation in different parts of the country. Flowers like marigold were dumped as they did not fetch even Rs.2 a kg, tomatoes were dumped on the streets and vegetables were left on the field as the prices were not enough even to meet picking costs. A recent media report in a financial daily noted the plight of a farmer in Haryana selling 43 quintals of potatoes at the local wholesale mandi for Rs.900. After paying labour charges and agents’ fees, he was left with just Rs.380—the potatoes had fetched him a paltry 9 paisa a kg while the cost of production was at least Rs.3 a kg. In the wake of such distress, despite many representations, deputations and peaceful protests, the government stubbornly refuses to pay heed.

The BJP government has done little to stabilise prices and assure farmers remunerative prices. Farmers in Mandsaur categorically said that they did not need loan waivers if they were paid remunerative prices for their produce. This sentiment was echoed by farmers across the country. In reality, reducing the cost of production by providing production-enhancing technologies and quality inputs at subsidised rates, and assuring procurement at remunerative price will go a long way in addressing farm distress. Loan waivers are, at best, a palliative that can provide temporary relief to a small section of farmers. Tenant farmers, small and marginal farmers, agricultural workers and the landless rarely benefit from it unless there is a comprehensive Debt Relief Commission which goes into formal and informal sector loans. Unless basic and structural issues are addressed and comprehensive state intervention is made at the levels of production, procurement, processing and marketing, with adequate emphasis on cooperatives, loan waivers will be the easy way out for the political establishment.

Litany of Broken Promises

The BJP had come to power riding a wave of popular discontent against the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, promising that it would usher in “achhe din” for farmers and put an end to farm suicides. Increased public investment in agriculture and rural development, a minimum of 50 per cent profit over the cost of production, cheaper agricultural inputs and credit, latest technologies for farming and high-yielding seeds, linking of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) to agriculture, a national land use policy to protect farmers’ interests and food security, farm insurance scheme to take care of crop and income losses, expansion of rural credit facilities, irrigation facilities, a price stabilisation fund, welfare measures and more were promised. What more could a farmer ask for? The fact that the BJP had made tall promises in the States, including loan waivers, had also raised expectations. Three years down the line, each of the promises made to the farmers and the rural poor stands betrayed.

Data from the National Crime Records Bureau on farm suicides showed that a total of 12,602 persons involved in the farming sector had committed suicide in 2015. Suicides by farmers rose 42 per cent between 2014 and 2015. Despite the obvious under-reporting, these figures show an increasing trend when compared with 2013 and 2014. BJP-ruled Maharashtra saw an unprecedented 4,291 suicides; the BJP-ruled States of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh accounted for 6,535, or more than half of all farm suicides in India. Suicides by farmers in National Democratic Alliance (NDA)-ruled States accounted for 7,723 suicides (61.28 per cent of all farm suicides).

Farmers’ hope for prices recommended by the M.S. Swaminathan Commission, an expectation utilised to the hilt by Modi, was the first promise to be put in cold storage. The government also filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court stating that it was impossible to fix MSPs recommended by the commission, that is, at least 50 per cent above the cost of production. The blatant manner in which the most popular promise was shelved and trivialised as a mere election jingle has not gone down well with the peasantry. It was followed by an undisguised attempt at facilitating a corporate takeover of land through a draconian Land Acquisition Ordinance, which saw the first signs of a united resistance, forcing the Central government to temporarily hold back and change strategy to push it through BJP-ruled States.

Two consecutive years of drought had led to massive losses and the government response was seen as insensitive. Allocations to MGNREGA were also drastically cut, leading to mounting arrears of wages and the average days of work generated getting as low as only 34 days. The government merged different insurance schemes and came out with the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana with a lot of hype. Schemes for irrigation, price stabilisation, welfare measures and other promises also left a lot to be desired.

Spreading protests

The spate of peasant movements and the broader issue-based unity that is successfully being built towards coordinated action against BJP governments at the Centre and in the States is a pointer to changing times. The protests are providing a basis to build a broader consensus for the fight against policies responsible for the agrarian distress and the loot of forests, land and resources. This, clearly, is a warning bell for the BJP regime and the Prime Minister. The first instance of such a broad issue-based unity was witnessed in the struggle against the Land Acquisition Ordinance when the AIKS played a role in bringing together organisations of the peasantry, agricultural labour, oppressed sections and civil society groups under a banner called Bhoomi Adhikar Andolan. It played a significant role in building a movement against the ordinance and forced the BJP government to retract.

In the days ahead, the peasantry’s struggle is likely to spread; efforts are also on in States such as Jharkhand to unite them with Adivasis against the attempts to tamper with the two tenancy laws that were won after the uprisings of Birsa Munda and Sido Kanhu against the British in the 19th century. Solidarity action against attacks on workers’ rights, women, Dalits and Adivasis and the barbaric attacks by vigilante gau rakshaks and restrictions on cattle trade are also increasing.

Even those who were ideologically and politically with the regime are now raising questions. The BJP has sought to paint these protests as leaderless on the one hand and, on the other, claim that they are stoked by the Congress—both of which are far from the truth. It is but natural for opposition parties to articulate demands of farmers in such circumstances; in fact, that is their duty. But the fact of the matter is that a constituency that stood with the BJP for the past 15 years in Madhya Pradesh, for over two decades in Gujarat and during the last elections in Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Haryana is turning restive. Splinter groups from the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) and Swadeshi Jagran Manch, which were the BJP’s core support base, are in revolt. Notably, one of the rallying points of the movement in Madhya Pradesh was the Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangh and its leader, Shivkumar Sharma “Kakkaji”, the erstwhile president of the BKS, the farmers’ wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. He is openly recanting and rueing his association with the Sangh today.

The erstwhile Sangh ideologue K.N. Govindacharya and those associated with the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and the BKS are also turning trenchant critics of the BJP government’s agricultural policies, especially its penchant for free trade agreements. Raju Shetti of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana, who was elected as a Member of Parliament from Maharashtra with NDA support, is one of the faces of the protests in the State. He went on a yatra to repent for having enlisted farmers’ support to make the BJP victorious.

The AIKS united the peasantry and organised massive mobilisations against the decision of the Vasundhare Raje-led BJP government in Rajasthan to hike electricity prices by 40 per cent. The unprecedented mobilisation forced the government to withdraw the decision. In Maharashtra, preceding the recent wave of protests, the AIKS had organised massive mobilisations that helped in popularising the demands of the present struggle. Notably, the Maharashtra Kisan Sabha State Secretary, Dr Ajit Nawale, was unanimously elected as the convener of the joint struggle committee. There undoubtedly is an organised resistance being built in Madhya Pradesh, which, after Mandsaur, has seen an outpouring of solidarity. On June 16, a day of coordinated protests was observed across the country by different organisations in solidarity with Indian farmers.

Whether these rounds of protests snowball into a wider resistance against the policies that have undermined livelihoods in agriculture remains to be seen. But it is undeniable that the Indian peasant has clearly signalled that he/she has joined the fight against the ruinous policies that have taken farm livelihoods in India to the very brink.

Vijoo Krishnan is joint secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha.

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