Dissent in the Parivar

Published : Feb 27, 2004 00:00 IST

Laljibhai Patel, on a hunger strike in Ahmedabad. - BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMNET

Laljibhai Patel, on a hunger strike in Ahmedabad. - BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMNET

Gujarat's agriculture is in the grip of a crisis. The farmers' protest against the increase in power tariffs is only one aspect of it.

DISSENT is hard to come by in Gujarat. The Opposition puts up a feeble fight. The press is largely pliable. Activism is squelched. Criticism is not tolerated. You will be accused of hurting Gujarati asmita (pride), a chauvinistic fervour whipped up by Chief Minister Narendra Modi during his pre-election Gaurav Yatra.

But Gujarat witnessed an unusual sight over the last 15 days. The first rumblings of dissent against the Modi administration emerged from within the Sangh Parivar itself - the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), the farmer's wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). A Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) pracharak and co-founder of the BKS, Laljibhai Patel, camped on the banks of the Sabarmati in Ahmedabad on a hunger strike.

The BKS has been at loggerheads with the Modi government since June 2003 when it raised power tariffs from Rs.500 to Rs.1,260 a horsepower. Farmers have also been against the Gujarat Electricity Board's (GEB) effort to install meters for farm pumpsets. With the BKS agitation gaining support, the government reduced the tariff to Rs.900 an hp in October.

The farmers were not satisfied. They continued with their agitation. That irked Modi. He got the BKS to vacate its office in a government flat in Gandhinagar. Then Laljibhai joined the agitation of the BKS.

After two weeks of resistance and negotiations and intervention by Union Law Minister Arun Jaitley, a compromise was reached on February 4. Laljibhai called off his fast. What the farmers got in return was a tariff reduction of a mere Rs.50 an hp.

The truce may have saved Modi some embarrassment, but it will be a long way before the problems faced by Gujarat's farmers are resolved. The power problem is closely linked to the acute water shortage that the State confronts. With no water available from other sources, farmers pump groundwater. Groundwater irrigates around 85 per cent of Gujarat's irrigated land as compared to 60 per cent across the country. This has affected agriculture.

Production costs being high, agriculture is no longer profitable in many areas. "Wheat cultivation in north Gujarat is 10 times more expensive than in central Gujarat because in the north they consume a lot more electricity to pump water," says Jay Narayan Vyas, former Narmada Minister. Unable to keep up with spiralling input costs, several farmers are heavily in debt.

"Our expenses are much higher than the price we get in the market for our produce," said Bhikabai Patel, a BKS member. "We spend Rs.550 to grow 20 kg of wheat. But the market rate is only Rs.125 for 20 kg. All farmers are already suffering heavy losses. By doubling the electricity prices, the government has added to our burdens."

The farmers have faced several difficulties owing to the GEB's erratic services. "Why should we pay more when they don't deliver on their promise of 14 hours uninterrupted power supply? We get electricity for only six hours a day, sometimes at odd hours of the night," Patel pointed out.

It is unfair to blame farmers alone for the GEB's losses. "Transmission and distribution (T&D) lossed are also very high. This is because industrialists bribe local engineers and steal electricity directly from the cables. Wherever there are industries, line losses are the highest. Why doesn't the government look into this?" asked Parthibhai Patel, a farmer from Banaskantha.

The Gujarat government, however, says that it has no choice but to raise the power tariffs for farmers. In the past five years, the GEB has accumulated a loss of Rs.6,000 crores. "We are giving farmers a subsidy of 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."

Cheap power also allows indiscriminate drilling of tubewells, up to depths of 1,500 feet. This has depleted the aquifers. "In the future, even if you give farmers electricity free of cost, they will have no water to pump," says Jay Narayan Vyas. Falling groundwater tables have also had adverse environmental effects. Owing to excessive fluoride in the groundwater, people suffer from flourosis, a condition in which teeth and bones get degraded.

The BKS agitation points to the larger problems that farmers confront. "Water is a life and death issue for farmers today. Alternative sources of irrigation, like Narmada water, have to be provided. That would reduce electricity usage by one-third and regenerate water tables," says Tushar Shah from the International Water Management Institute. "Also, cropping patterns must change. Farmers in north Gujarat should stop cultivating water-guzzling crops like wheat and alfalfa, which are not suitable for such an arid region."

The crisis in agriculture stretches far beyond a tussle over power tariffs. The can of worms has been opened. For how long will the Modi government be able to contain the crisis?

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