Rural revolt

Farmers in the BJP-ruled States of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, distressed by demonetisation and government inaction, rise in revolt and spoil the Narendra Modi government’s ambitious third anniversary celebrations.

Published : Jun 21, 2017 12:30 IST

Police and paramilitary personnel in action after farmers throw vegetables on the road during a protest at Shajapur in Madhya Pradesh on June 8.

Police and paramilitary personnel in action after farmers throw vegetables on the road during a protest at Shajapur in Madhya Pradesh on June 8.

HUMONGOUS WAS THE WORD USED WITH pride by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders to describe the plans for the third anniversary celebrations of the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government when they were announced in mid May. The multidimensional celebrations that were to be conducted from May 25 to June 15 by the BJP, the ruling coalition and the government were programmed to start with the launch of the eponymously named event, MODI, or Making of Developed India. It was to be followed by Modi’s address to the nation from Guwahati, the capital of Assam where the BJP was elected to power for the first time in 2016. The celebrations were to continue in 900 cities and towns across the country, with the Prime Minister himself participating in the events in Bengaluru, Delhi, Jaipur, Kolkata, Pune and other major cities. The plans visualised included Modi writing two crore letters and sending 10 crore SMS messages to common people, front-page advertisements in 400 newspapers across the country displaying Modi’s visage and listing his government’s achievements, 30- and 60-second advertisements on television and radio on all the 22 days of the celebration period, and 300 multimedia exhibitions in various States. Apart from this, each Union Ministry launched hundreds of booklets titled “Then and Now (UPA and NDA)”, evidently to highlight how the country had marched ahead under Modi’s regime. The agriculture sector, with particular emphasis on the so-called farmer welfare programmes initiated in the past three years, is given special focus in the booklets.

This self-aggrandisement project ran to the satisfaction of the various organisers for about a week, that is, until June 1, the day farmers’ organisations in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra started separate agitations raising some common demands and a few region-specific ones. The common demands were farm loan waiver and a hike in minimum support prices (MSP) in tune with the promise made by the BJP governments at the Centre and in the two States. The BJP had promised during the campaign to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections that it would implement the recommendations made by the National Commission on Farmers chaired by M.S. Swaminathan in its report submitted in 2006. The report had suggested that the MSP incorporate a 50 per cent profit margin on input cost.

Significantly, the government’s promotional programmes did not make any reference to its pre-election promises on the agricultural front and its failure to fulfil them. Instead, the report card sought to focus on the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY), the near compulsory crop insurance implemented in the past two years, and the large amounts allocated for irrigation projects to help farmers who depend on monsoon rains. The promotional booklet also talked about the government’s ambitious rural development initiatives aimed at doubling farmers’ incomes in real terms by 2022 and uniting the fragmented markets to achieve the goal of “one nation, one market”.

However, barely a week after the commencement of the farmers’ agitations, the grandiose third anniversary celebration plans were in a shambles, thoroughly exposing the hollowness of the government’s claims, especially about enhancing the rural economy and boosting farmers’ interests. The eventful one week witnessed intensification of the agitations in the two big States, with farmers dumping milk and vegetables on roads and damaging vehicles, resisting attempts by the police and the security forces to quell them. The escalated violence resulted in the killing of six farmers in police firing at Pipliya Mandi near Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh on the night of June 6 (see report from Mandsaur on page 9). The news of the killing spread across not only Madhya Pradesh but also several other States, where farmers launched protests to express their solidarity with the farmers of Madhya Pradesh, to extend their sympathies to the families of the slain farmers, and to raise their own demands.

The initial responses from the BJP leadership, including Chief Ministers Devendra Fadnavis of Maharashtra and Shivraj Singh Chouhan of Madhya Pradesh, were to brand the agitations as politically motivated vandalism sponsored by the opposition Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). They continued to insist that the farm sector was successful under the Modi regime and that the farmers’ agitations were entirely unwarranted. So much so that both the leaders either refused to initiate talks with farmers’ representatives or sought to be selective about which farmer organisation and leaders to invite for discussions.

But none of these tactics succeeded. The developments since June 1, including the Mandsaur killings and the nationwide response it evoked, put the two Chief Ministers on the back foot. Both Chouhan and Fadnavis succumbed in different ways to the pressure exerted by the agitation. While Fadnavis announced a loan waiver for farmers with less than two hectares of land, Chouhan, after launching a dramatic indefinite fast to bring peace and calm down the agitating farmers, announced that purchasing farm produce at rates lower than the MSP would be treated as a crime.

While these announcements led to a truce of sorts between the agitating farmers and the government agencies, leading to a state of relative peace, there is no guarantee that the resentment in the two States and in the farm sector in the rest of the country will subside. Already, farmers in Haryana have launched an agitation demanding loan waiver. In Maharashtra, Raju Shetti, leader of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana, one of the leading organisations in the agitation there and a political ally of the BJP in the State, has issued a warning that farmers will wait only until July 25 for the government to fulfil its promise. “If the promises are not kept, the agitation will resume with greater vigour,” he said.

In Madhya Pradesh, too, there are signs of farmer organisations regrouping to launch a more concerted movement. Reports from Hoshangabad district highlighted the suicide of two farmers who were unable to repay the loans they had taken from private moneylenders. This, apparently, has added to the unrest in the State.

Political brinkmanship

Commenting on the state of play, Anupam, leader of the Swaraj Abhiyan, an organisation that has been taking up farmers’ issues consistently, pointed out that the promises made by Fadnavis and Chouhan and the Union government had not adequately addressed the underlying short-, medium- and long-term factors that had forced farmers to take the path of agitation. “These leaders have been dictated by political brinkmanship throughout, and this does not help in finding lasting solutions to farmers’ grievances. The current announcements fall in the same bracket,” Anupam said. This point was underlined in the course of the developments in June. In fact, the demand for loan waiver came up in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra because the Prime Minister himself spearheaded this brinkmanship during the campaign for the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections when he promised loan waiver for farmers in the State if the BJP was elected to power. Such was the rhetoric that Modi said the loan waiver would be the first decision of the new Cabinet. He also said the Union government would contribute towards the expenditure incurred by the loan waiver. The BJP was elected to power in the State and the new government, under Yogi Adityanath, was forced to live up to this rhetoric and announce loan waiver. It is this that triggered the current phase of farmers’ agitations in other States. The Uttar Pradesh government is, however, finding it difficult to implement its decision, which has resulted in growing resentment on the ground (see Uttar Pradesh story on page 19).

The government’s failure to address real and concrete factors relating to farmers’ distress was evident from the way the movement built up in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. In both the States, the agitation gathered strength not in areas where there was crop failure but in places where crops were abundant but farmers were denied remunerative prices. For instance, Madhya Pradesh saw growth in the area under tur (arhar) dal, soya bean and onion cultivation as the farmers got a good price for these crops in the previous years. “The hype over pulses and onions last year made farmers sow these crops in abundance, but the market crashed this year. Tur dal, which was selling at around Rs.10,000 a quintal last year, came down to Rs.3,000 this year; onion, which was selling at Rs.40-50 a kilogram last year, did not even fetch Rs.4-5,” said Sudheer Gupta, the BJP Member of Parliament from Mandsaur, underscoring some finer details. Madhya Pradesh farmers were also aggrieved that the State government was propagating falsehoods about the farming sector. The Shivraj Singh Chouhan government had been claiming a 20 per cent growth in agriculture in the past five years. (The government received the Krishi Karman award (excellence in agriculture) five years in a row for this.)

Sajjan Singh Verma, former Congress MP from Dewas, said: “This was like rubbing salt into the farmers’ wounds. On the one hand, farmers were agitated that the crop was not fetching them the expected returns, the cost of production had gone up, and the promises of loan waiver and power and water charges waiver were not materialising, and on the other the government was patting itself for a bumper agriculture growth. This was a tailor-made situation for a flare-up such as the one witnessed in Mandsaur.”

The BJP Chief Minister and the rest of the party leadership have also sought to underplay the role of the Prime Minister’s demonetisation drive in creating agrarian distress. On June 7, a day after the Mandsaur killing, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) released its second bimonthly “Monetary Policy Statement” of the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), indicating how the demonetisation drive had caused a state of panic in the farm sector. The statement noted: “Propelled by significantly higher arrivals in mandis relative to the seasonal pattern, prices of vegetables also fell markedly from July (2016) and bottomed out in January 2017, with fire sales during the demonetisation period accentuating the fall. The seasonal uptick that typically occurs in the pre-monsoon months has been muted so far. In the fuel group by contrast, inflation surged across the board. Prices of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and kerosene rose in sympathy with international prices even as the subsidy was set on a path of calibrated reduction. Fuel used by rural households rose for the third month in succession, narrowing the wedge between fuel inflation facing rural and urban households.... The abrupt and significant retreat of inflation in April from the firming trajectory that was developing in February and March has raised several issues that have to be factored into the inflation projections. First, it needs to be assessed as to whether or not the unusually low momentum in the reading for April will endure. Second, the prices of pulses are clearly reeling under the impact of a supply glut caused by record output and imports. Policy interventions, including access to open trade, may be envisaged to arrest the slump in prices.”

Clearly, the RBI highlights the enhanced arrivals in mandis and fire sales during the demonetisation period as two major factors leading to the falling prices. But there are no signs of accepting or addressing this factor even as quick-fix suggestions are bandied about in the name of pacifying distressed farmers.

Pointing out the determined refusal or inability to address comprehensively issues pertaining to the farm sector, Dr Krishan Bir Chaudhary, president of the Bharatiya Krishak Samaj, told Frontline that while measures such as loan waiver might bring temporary relief to farmers in the respective States, larger policy initiatives were required to bring lasting stability to the farm sector. “There is need for substantive policy initiatives and incentives in the sector. The single most important thrust of these initiatives and incentives should be to rescue the farming sector from the predations of the corporate sector and their interests. This predation has been marching on and on over the past two and a half decades. Governments after governments and political parties after political parties have asserted they understand the dynamics and perils of this predation, but at the level of policy and governance they have all played the facilitator role to the deprivations of these forces. The big question is whether any government will show the political will to take on this problem and thus protect the farmer and through that the country itself,” he said. Chaudhary is also of the view that as things stand now, there is not much hope for this fundamental course correction.

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