THE run-up to the October 13 round of Assembly elections in Maharashtra has been a distinctly new experience. If in the earlier rounds political parties were quick to project the real issues, this time intra-party politics has pushed them to the background.
Thus, the impact of the delayed monsoon on the already debt-ridden farmers, price rise and the long-pending issue of assisting growers by taking their produce directly to the consumers have been practically ignored. Urban concerns, too, have not fared well, with the civic and transportation infrastructure being largely neglected.
The erratic monsoon affected 22 of the 33 districts in the State and destroyed the kharif crop. In the Marathwada region, Aurangabad district was declared fully affected.
Said Raju Waghore, who owns about half a hectare of land in Pithalkhora taluk of Aurangabad district: All around there were fields of tur dal, cotton and maize waiting for rain. When we planted there was some hope, but if you dont get rain in the first 10 to 15 days the plants wilt. Until the middle of June the monsoon was 77 per cent below normal in Marathwada and this badly affected cotton.
Waghore said many farmers did not grow cotton this time. However, the end of the season actually saw a lot of cotton-planting and on this basis the Cotton Dealers Association estimated that the area under cotton in Maharashtra would be around 33.30 lakh hectares (1 hectare = 2.47 acres), up from 31.5 lakh ha in 2008-09. Though the increase is attributed to the improved rainfall towards the end of the season, the main reason seemed to be the international cotton shortage and the higher minimum support price (MSP) offered by the government.
The erratic rainfall also affected the corn harvest. Many farmers did not plant the crop, hoping at least to save their seeds. This has happened for the second consecutive year and is bound to affect the already low maize output.
Pulses, too, have been affected severely, but because most farmers grow them in both rabi and kharif seasons it has not been a total disaster. Said Waghore: Dals grow quite well if the soil is moist. The few brief showers we had saved most of this crop. But since the coarse-grained soil does not hold moisture for long, agricultural universities in the State have advised farmers to sow tur, sunflower, maize and a hybrid bajra.
The State Agriculture Departments statistics show that the area under cereals has declined by 9 per cent compared with last year, while oilseeds were down by 6 per cent and foodgrains by 5 per cent. In Vidarbha, the rainfall was 40 per cent below normal at the time of sowing and this affected the cotton and soya bean crops. The Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti and a farmers leader, Kishore Tiwari, say that if there is any issue in this election it is the complete neglect of farmers by the main political parties.
If the Congress had kept its promises, it would have benefited from this region. The BJP and the Shiv Sena are taking mileage from the Congress default, said Tiwari. He pointed to another major demand: electricity. The districts, he said, went without power for about 20 hours a day. This made it difficult to pump water, a key issue, be it for irrigation or drinking.
Vidarbha faces its second straight year of drought. The state has rescheduled crop loans but that is small comfort for the farmer. Unfortunately, he will not get another loan unless he pays the earlier loans. The State will have to address this, said Vijay Jawandhia of the Shetkari Sanghatana in Wardha. The National Crime Bureau has recorded close to 43,000 suicides among cotton farmers up to 2009.
The Central and State governments give Rs.1 lakh as compensation to each of the affected families. Jawandhia said the families of only 50 per cent of the victims had benefited because, according to the government, the others do not meet this criterion. This issue, too, had to be addressed, he said.
In Western Maharashtra, rainfall has been about 42 per cent below normal. The late rain in August is expected to lessen the impact somewhat, but that was not enough to prevent Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar from announcing that the new sugar season will have lower stocks because of the failure of the sugarcane harvest. This is despite the fact that most of the States irrigation projects are located in this region.
One positive outcome of the poor rainfall was that farmers opted to grow bajra, the traditional crop in the region, instead of the water-intensive sugarcane. Cane cultivation was to a large extent forced on farmers by the sugar lobby. Whether they persist with bajra and benefit from the security it offers in the long term or succumb to the politics of sugar and revert to sugarcane, only time will tell.
Farmers have repeatedly sought government assistance in marketing but with little success. However, a couple of months ago, when the prices of basic commodities shot up the State government inaugurated low-priced vegetable centres in Mumbai.
The ease with which this was done made many wonder why such a beneficial system had not been institutionalised. In effect, the government absorbed a monthly subsidy of Rs.150 crore and waived taxes to keep the prices of essentials down. The subsidy will continue through the festival season, which, happily for the government, coincides with the period of the elections.
The ruling Democratic Front has tried to woo voters by mending quickly the neglect of the past five years rather than by talking of the road ahead. The special development package declared for Konkan and Northern Maharashtra is one example.
While Konkan has been allocated Rs.5,200 crore, it is not clear how this money will be spent. The local people want more agricultural produce marketing initiatives to make agriculture viable again, but the government is believed to be interested in creating more tourism and industry-related projects.
Northern Maharashtra received a package of Rs.6,509 crore, which will largely be used for building four airports. The tribal areas here have been promised roads, a sports complex and a library. There is no specific mention of tackling the severe health (especially malnutrition) or water problems of the region.
This is perhaps the first election in which issues have taken a back seat and intra-party battles have been fought in public. With more than 7,000 nominations filed for the 288 seats, it is not surprising that the focus will be on rebellions and seat-sharing.
Maharashtra has also seen an upsurge in dynastic politics. As a result, the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) alliance has had to contend with at least 40 rebel candidates. Many of them hold sway over their constituencies and may well win if they choose to contest as independents.
In 1995, when faced with a similar situation, the two parties ignored powerful candidates in favour of others owing to various compulsions. The rebels contested as independents and won, and the parties swallowed their pride and wooed them back. This time the parties say they will not entertain rebels, but given the imperatives of coalition politics this is a hollow threat. Western Maharashtra, the stronghold of the two parties, is in disarray, with rebellions in the key districts of Kolhapur, Pune and Sangli.
The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) of Raj Thackeray is the only party that has not been bogged down by rebellion. Formed three years ago, the party has concentrated on the sons-of-the-soil campaign.
With unemployment remaining a major issue, especially in Mumbai, migrants are an easy target for the MNS. After much toing and froing about the Marathi manus policy, the Shiv Sena and its coalition partner, the BJP, have included it in their manifestos.
The topic was taboo for some time in the BJP because it was seen as having affected the partys national image. The Shiv Senas hesitancy is explained by a shakha leader: After 44 years the Sena is expected to have matured. People interpret this as us moving away from our basics. It is one of the curses of maturity.
After sorting out the various rebellions and quarrels over seat-sharing, the saffron coalition has got its act together much quicker than the Congress-NCP. It promises a complete waiver of farm loans and accumulated interest, employment for sons of the soil and uninterrupted power supply across the State.