Farmer power

Print edition : June 08, 2002

In Haryana, protesting farmers face police repression after the Chautala government fails to keep its election promise of waiving their electricity dues.

WHEN Om Prakash Chautala became Chief Minister of Haryana in February 2000, little did he realise that an unkept election promise would leave the State's farming community so incensed as to alienate it from the government, the consequences of which could linger for long. His attitude towards them stood exposed on May 19 when the police lathicharged and opened fire on agitating farmers in a village in Jind district, leaving one person dead. Ten days later they opened fire again on farmers gathered on the Jind-Hansi road, killing two persons.

Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Ghasi Ram Nain addressing the participants of a dharna at Kandala in Jind district on May 29.-SANDEEP SAXENA

During the run-up to the Assembly elections, Chautala promised the electorate, especially the farmers, that all pending electricity dues would be waived. This populist move paid rich dividends, fetching both Chautala and his Indian National Lok Dal more than a comfortable majority. However, he did not keep his promise. Early in April he declared that the government would waive 75 per cent of the dues each, and the farmers would have to pay up the rest.

It proved to be the last straw for the farmers. They decided to resume the agitation they had suspended on January 31 after the Chief Minister assured them that the issue of pending bills would be sorted out. He had also promised to drop the cases filed against farmers in December, when they began their agitation.

However, the administration soon began to put pressure on farmers to pay their dues. The power connections of many small farmers using tubewells were cut. Many of them had not paid their bills since the 1990s, when the power rates were increased drastically. The Chautala government itself had initially encouraged them not to pay. The volte-face was incomprehensible. The Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), which spearheaded the December agitation, responded by resuming its agitation. And for more than two weeks now, farmers in the State have been on the warpath.

THE epicentre of the agitation was in Jind in December last year, and it gained momentum in those parts of the State where tubewell irrigation is the only source of water for crops. An upheaval occurred on May 19, the day on which the BKU had planned a huge rally of farmers at Kandela in Jind district. The administration tried hard to dissuade BKU leader Ghasi Ram Nain from organising the rally, but failed. Subsequently, it organised raids in villages and began picking up farmer leaders. This fuelled resentment and women too joined the agitation in large numbers. The state machinery deployed policemen in large numbers, and certain areas came to resemble police cantonments.

In several villages in and around Jind, people held rallies, to which the administration responded with the use of force. On May 19, at Nagura village in Jind the police fired upon the protesters, killing one person and injuring several others. On May 21, agitators at Kiloi village in Rohtak district took five persons, including two police officers, hostage. They released them subsequently.

According to Ghasi Ram Nain, it had been agreed that all the farmers who had been arrested during the December protests and on May 19 would be released. "I have no faith in this government anymore," said Nain. The government reneged on the deal, and even as the farmers let off the hostages, several rallyists continued to be in jail. The police repression continued. The BKU had planned a meeting on May 29 to condole the death of farmers and decide on future action. It set up blockades all over the State. It was during a blockade that two farmers fell to police bullets on the Jind-Hansi road. Farmers also blocked the Kaithal-Jind road that leads to Chandigarh.

The farmers say that for the last few years farm output has not matched the cost of production. And the government was not procuring enough produce. It had not even paid for the sugarcane supplied to sugar mills. The cotton crop, too, had failed for several reasons, including poor quality pesticides, and no compensation was paid to the farmers, said Ved Pal Malik, joint secretary of the State unit of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS). The districts affected were Fatehabad, Sirsa, parts of Jind, Hissar, Bhiwani, Kaithal and Mahendragarh. The Kisan Sangarsh Samiti, supported by the AIKS, started a movement to claim compensation for the failed cotton crop.

Meanwhile, a lot of pressure was being put on farmers to clear their electricity dues. Several of them told Frontline that when they wanted to avail of any government facility or even apply for a government job, they were told to clear their dues and furnish proof of having done so. Today, the tariff rate for farm irrigation systems (per horse power installed) is nearly double that of the early 1990s. "The same Chautala used to support us against Bhajan Lal and Bansi Lal and today he is doing just what they did to us. Now he is asking us to grow flowers," said a small farmer in Kandela village.

THE issue of electricity rates in the water-deficit northern and southern Haryana has always been an explosive one. In 1997, the Bansi Lal government unleashed its administrative fury on protesting farmers in Mandiali in Mahendragarh. The protests were led by a broad front of the Kisan Sangharsh Samiti. This front, which comprises several State level groups, has time and again launched protests on issues related to water and electricity. The BKU, on the other hand, though essentially a non-political front, has traditionally supported the Lok Dal and its latest avtar, the Indian National Lok Dal.

There are at least five lakh tubewell connections in the State and more than 50 per cent of them run on electricity; the rest are diesel-operated. The State Electricity Board was converted into a corporation and, simultaneously, subsidy on electricity drawn by tubewells was removed. Ved Pal Malik of the AIKS said that while farmers did not oppose corporatisation during Bhajan Lal's tenure in the early 1990s, they nevertheless declined to pay the bills. From 1991 onwards, there have been several such protests leading to police action.

The AIKS, he said, had never supported the demand for free supply of electricity, but had demanded the restoration of the earlier policy of subsidised supply. However, it had demanded that small farmers be exempted from paying. In several areas where the BKU does not have any influence, that is, in the "tubewell belt" of Kurukshetra, Kaithal, parts of Jind, Karnal, Mahendragarh and Panipat, the government had begun recovery of dues through various means including the use of strong-arm tactics. Moreover, the latest partial waiver announced in May had prompted some farmers to pay up their remaining dues, which, according to one farmer, still totalled several thousands of rupees. Ramesh Kumar from Pokri Khedi village said that after the partial waiver his family paid up Rs.51,000.

Several political parties reacted to the manner in which the administration had dealt with the farmers' agitation. The State unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Congress(I) and the Haryana Vikas Party criticised Chautala's populist policies, especially with regard to the promise of waiving electricity dues. The CPI(M) also stated that the confrontation could have been avoided had the government implemented the agreement after the December events. Interestingly, the HVP led by Bansi Lal, which had itself unleashed repression on farmers, has demanded Chautala's ouster.

Significantly, the majority of the agitating farmers had voted for Chautala and the INLD. Naturally, they feel betrayed. While the movement is led by the small farmers, they enjoy the support of their richer counterparts in the State. The farmers have not been called for a dialogue to seek a way out of the crisis. This certainly is not going to be the last agitation by farmers in the State. If anything, the police action and the INLD's indifference has united farmers against Chautala and his government.

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