The plight of sugarcane and potato farmers in Uttar Pradesh fails to draw the government's attention as the two main constituents of the ruling coalition, the BSP and the BJP, are busy dealing with intra-party affairs or celebrating one thing or the other.
EVIDENTLY, the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party-Bharatiya Janata Party coalition government in Uttar Pradesh has no time right now to attend to issues of popular concern. Celebrations over either the Chief Minister's birthday or the first anniversary of the coalition government (which fell on May 3) or swabhimaan diwas take priority over matters like the distress of the farmers.
The BJP is equally responsible for the government's general apathy towards the real issues of governance. In fact, its desperate struggle for survival in Uttar Pradesh has made it oblivious to everything else. The party's desperation is indicated by the fact that efforts are on, reportedly at the urging of Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, to bring former Chief Minister Kalyan Singh back into the party fold, in order to counter Mayawati. Kalyan Singh was expelled from the party three years ago for criticising the Prime Minister and working against the party's interests in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections. Two BJP Rajya Sabha members, Dinanath Mishra and Balbir Punj, and Swadeshi Jagaran Manch leader S. Gurumurthy, met Kalyan Singh recently in Lucknow in order to explore the possibility.
According to reports, Kalyan Singh, who has been on the fringes of the State's politics since his expulsion, was not averse to the idea, provided some of his conditions were met. Apparently one of the conditions was the political rehabilitation of his long-time partner Kusum Rai in the party and the allocation of a Legislative Council seat to her. He also wanted a free hand in the running of the State party, even the power to decide to snap its ties with the BSP. Apparently, the BJP leadership expressed no objection to his conditions as it realised that the alliance with the BSP was not yielding political gains.
Moreover, the senior leadership is apprehensive about Mayawati's plans for the Lok Sabha elections, and is unsure whether she will allot a fair share of the seats to the party. Considering that the BJP may have to exploit the Ram temple issue to fight 2004 the Lok Sabha elections, Kalyan Singh would be the ideal person to lead the party to it. He was the Chief Minister when the Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992. He was even jailed for contempt of court for having failed to honour an affidavit that he had filed in the Supreme Court stating that the State government would protect the mosque at any cost.
Some BJP leaders in the State, including party general secretary and former Chief Minister Rajnath Singh, do not relish the prospect of Kalyan Singh's return. They are keen to ensure that Mission Kalyan Singh is foiled, at least for the time being. After details of the plan were leaked to the media, the top leadership and Kalyan Singh were forced to deny that any such move was on. While Kalyan Singh said there was no question of his going back to the party that had expelled him and that his alliance with the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) would continue, the BJP leadership said there was no move to bring him back. "If somebody has met him, it must have been in their individual capacity. The party has authorised nobody to speak to Kalyan Singh," said BJP spokesperson Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi. Moreover, Kalyan Singh, apparently making a reference to the Prime Minister and his Principal Secretary Brajesh Mishra, said that the Central government was being "run by retired bureaucrats and tired politicians". He added that he had no intention to go back to a party that had signed its own death warrant by expelling him.
While such claims are bandied about for public consumption, the truth is that Advani is serious about getting Kalyan Singh back, also in order to regain the party's base among the Other Backward Classes. According to informed sources, Uttar Pradesh Assembly Speaker Kesri Nath Tripathi met Advani in New Delhi recently to discuss the matter. Tripathi has been entrusted with the task of exploring the possibility of Kalyan Singh's return. Significantly, BJP Legislature Party leader and State Urban Development Minister Lalji Tandon and the BJP leader in charge of the State unit, Kalraj Mishra, too were consulted in this regard and reportedly they too have no objection to Kalyan Singh's return. In fact, the two leaders also called on Kalyan Singh when he was in New Delhi recently. However, some BJP leaders have made it clear that the efforts will crystallise only after the results of the Assembly elections to be held later this year in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi and Chhattisgarh are known.
Incidentally, the BJP was annoyed by a booklet brought out by the State Information Department listing the government's achievements. It made it appear as if the government was being run by the BSP alone; it made no mention of the BJP.
MEANWHILE, the S.P., which has launched a halla bol campaign against the BJP-BSP government, is making things difficult for Mayawati. The campaign began on April 23 with S.P. president Mulayam Singh Yadav riding a cycle through the lanes of Lucknow to mobilise popular opinion against the government. Mulayam, who rode for about 12 km along the lanes, addressed crowds at various places and made repeated references to the videotapes showing Mayawati allegedly demanding for the party cuts from the development funds at the disposal of her party MPs and MLAs and to her statements denigrating Hinduism. He also said that MPs, cutting across party lines, had opposed the politically motivated cases filed against him and his party colleagues and demanded an end to the politics of vendetta.
AMIDST all the political manoeuvring and celebrations, the crisis faced by potato and sugarcane farmers in the State received hardly any attention. The State has registered a bumper potato crop this year, of over 102 lakh tonnes, the largest ever. Significantly, Uttar Pradesh is the largest potato producer in the country, contributing 43 per cent of the total production. However, in the absence of an efficient system and government policy to procure the produce on time and arrange for its sale also outside the State, the farmers have got swamped with their own production. About 1,000 cold storages in the State, with a storage capacity of 65 lakh tonnes, are full of potatoes. Moreover, since the fields had to be cleared for the rabi crop, many farmers were forced to sell their produce at less than half the cost of production. The government's move to have National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India Limited (Nafed) and other State agencies procure the produce came too late. Even its efforts to arrange for the export of the produce met with only limited success. Agriculture Produce Commissioner A.P. Singh said that 3,000 to 4,000 tonnes of potato had already been exported to countries in the Gulf, mainly Dubai.
The sugarcane farmers too find the going tough. Uttar Pradesh accounts for 37 per cent of the sugarcane and 30 per cent of the sugar produced in the country. However, sugarcane farmers in the State today are a ruined lot. The government remained inactive through much of their period of misery, which began in November-December 2002. Although the early maturing variety of sugarcane was ready by November 2002, owing to a glut in sugar production and a dispute with the farmers over price, the mill owners refused to start crushing. As a result, the crop started getting spoilt in the fields.
Angry farmers took to the streets, blocked road and rail movement, and held dharnas and demonstrations in various parts of the State. One such demonstration at Munderwa in eastern Uttar Pradesh turned violent, resulting in the death of at least three farmers in police firing. The agitation in western Uttar Pradesh, led by Bharatiya Kissan Union leader Mahendra Singh Tikait, also turned violent, with the police resorting to a lathi-charge. While all this was happening, the government did nothing to make the mill owners start crushing operations. The farmers started burning the standing crop in western Uttar Pradesh, resulting in the destruction of thousands of hectares of sugarcane, to make way for the rabi crop.
Added to this was the crisis caused by the dual pricing policy for sugarcane. While the Centre fixes the price for private mills, the State-owned mills pay the price decided by the government. (Out of 101 sugar mills in the State, 52 are in the private sector, 27 are in the cooperative sector and 22 are owned by the State government.) The private mills refused to lift sugarcane because they did not want to offer more than the price fixed by the Central government, Rs.70 a quintal, which was lower than the cost of production. The State-owned mills offered Rs.95 a quintal, but they had only limited capacity. The private mill owners have sought the Supreme Court's intervention.
It was to discuss this problem that the Prime Minister convened a high-level meeting on April 27, which was attended by Chief Minister Mayawati. She reportedly asked the Prime Minister to give her the power to fix the prices for the private mills. Since the political repercussions of such a decision would be serious, a committee, headed by Consumer Affairs Minister Sharad Yadav and comprising Agriculture Minister Ajit Singh, Law Minister Arun Jaitley and State Sugarcane Minister Premlata Katiyar, was constituted to find a solution. Owing to her "busy schedule", it was not clear whether Mayawati would attend the first meeting of the committee, which was to be held on May 4. Any decision taken in her absence will remain less than binding because her approval would be required for any final settlement.
The farmers of Uttar Pradesh are already reeling under the impact of a drought in which they lost their entire kharif crop. Now it seems that the rabi crop too would be affected.