Farmers' protest

Rural rumbles

Print edition : March 01, 2019

During the Kisan Mukti March demanding a special session of Parliament to discuss farmers’ concerns such as debt relief and assured remunerative prices, in New Delhi on November 30, 2018. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Anna Hazare addressing the media on the farmers’ issue in New Delhi on January 21. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Disgruntled farmers plan a concerted protest against the government, posing a formidable challenge to the BJP government when the Lok Sabha election is just round the corner.

Many people attributed the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) electoral defeat in the Hindi heartland States of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh on December 11 to rural distress, in particular the marked resentment of farmers towards Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The BJP-led government had gone back on key assurances given by him in the run-up to the 2014 election, including price protection for farm produce and debt relief. With the next general election round the corner, Modi is confronted with lakhs of disgruntled farmers, who have joined hands with the anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare.

From January 30, prominent farmers’ leaders belonging to the Rashtriya Kisan Mahasangh (RKM), which has been at the forefront of farmers’ agitations nationwide in the past two years, sat on an indefinite hunger strike along with the 81-year-old Anna Hazare to press for their demands that include a Lokpal at the Centre and Lokayuktas in all States, complete debt relief, minimum support price (MSP) for crops as recommended by the M.S. Swaminathan Commission, and minimum basic income for farmers. Although Anna Hazare did not attract the kind of media attention he did in 2011 and the fast was called off on the seventh day, on February 5, following assurances made by Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, the latest offensive has set the stage for a more pitched resistance by farmers in the days ahead.

When the RKM, a federation of 130 farmers’ organisations, and Anna Hazare held a joint press conference in New Delhi on January 21, they dropped hints that they were likely to take on the Modi government politically and that raking up the Rafale scam would be a critical component of their calculus. During the press conference, Anna Hazare was vocal in calling out the Modi government for the gradual weakening of institutions under its watch. He also enumerated the lacunae in the Rafale deal, and while talking to Frontline he insisted that “if a Lokpal had been appointed, the Rafale scam would not have taken place”.

Evidently irked by the BJP, and in particular Modi, who until recently did not respond to any of his 32 letters asking for the appointment of a Lokpal, Anna Hazare has plans to lead disgruntled farmers ahead of the upcoming general election, according to sources in the RKM. A couple of top functionaries of the RKM told Frontline off the record that he was contemplating anchoring a full-fledged political movement along with farmers, with the Rafale scam at the core of it.

Although the success of such a plan is uncertain, what is certain is that farmers’ conflict with the Modi government is set to be fraught. If that happens, the spectacle of tens of thousands of protesting farmers will be of immense political capital to the opposition and help it fuel the simmering unrest in India’s rural belt against Modi’s anti-poor and anti-farmer policies. This might pulverise the BJP in the farmer-dominated States of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab. Fadnavis, along with Union Minister for Agriculture Radha Mohan Singh, met Anna Hazare at his Ralegaon Siddhi village in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra, and assured him on behalf of the Centre that a meeting of the search committee for a Lokpal would take place on February 13 and that a committee under Radha Mohan Singh would be constituted to look into the agrarian issues raised by farmers. The committee would include three representatives from farmers’ bodies and a couple of members from NITI Aayog. It was under his insistence that the social activist called off the strike.

But a source in the RKM said that this did not in any way indicate that the government would be able to buy much time from them. Apparently, Anna Hazare and farmers’ leaders had had a discussion on their next course of action even before they began their fast. The source revealed that under the aegis of Anna Hazare they had contemplated organising long marches from the Prime Minister’s home State, Gujarat, in the coming days, which would spread towards Kashmir and Assam in the north-east and Kanykumari in the extreme south.

Although the RKM pledges political neutrality, off-the-record interactions with its senior functionaries give one a sense of farmers’ indignation with the BJP. The source confirmed that the decision to rope in Anna Hazare was a calculated one aimed at deriving political mileage.

“Farmers are numerically strong, our demands are genuine. But the national media remain fixated with political controversies only,” the source said. “Anna Hazare will ensure just that. He has some documents relating to Rafale, which he is currently studying. As soon as the election campaign begins, we will simultaneously launch our long marches focussing primarily on the Rafale scam. Anna Hazare will also raise electorally significant issues such as Modi’s unfulfilled economic promises, his jumlas [empty promises] and his suppression of important data on jobs and economic growth. If Modi thinks that farmers cannot affect his electoral prospects beyond the hinterland, he is underestimating us.”

Anna Hazare’s fast had received notes of solidarity from the BJP’s ally, the Shiv Sena, besides the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena led by Raj Thackeray.

Empty promises

In the run-up to the 2014 general election, Modi asserted in no uncertain terms that if the BJP was voted to power he would ensure remunerative prices to farmers by adding 50 per cent profit into the peasants’ input cost. The specifics of his proposal, though, were vague, and in February 2015, barely nine months after he ascended to power, his government filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court stating that it would be economically unviable to implement the promised hike in the MSP. In November 2016, the hardship of farmers grew exponentially as the government demonetised the country’s two biggest currency denominations. Most economists believe that this broke the back of the farming sector, a cash-driven economy.

Yogendra Yadav, co-founder of the sociopolitical organisation Swaraj Abhiyan, which since its inception in April 2015 has played a pivotal role in highlighting agrarian distress, is of the same view. During an exclusive interaction with Frontline, the psephologist-turned-politician said that the “note ban” had inflicted calamity on farmers as it seriously disrupted agricultural funding. A study titled “Impact of Demonetisation in Agriculture Sector”, published in IOSR Journal of Humanities and Social Science, also pointed out that demonetisation had led to the loss of perishable products such as fruits and vegetables as farmers were unable to conduct daily transactions in the absence of cash supply.

Yogendra Yadav described the Modi government as “the most anti-farmer government that India has had”. Underlining the government’s insensitivity to farmers, he said: “The government attempted to amend the Land Acquisition Act not once but four times, and when it failed it tried to bring it through the back door, through State governments, which only shows its will to snatch land from farmers. Specifically in the case of Adivasi farmers, it has diluted the Forest Rights Act.”

As much as 17 per cent of India’s $2.3-trillion economy comes from farming, but the income of farmers has remained stagnant or, worse, has shrunk continually, leading to a compounding debt cycle and a consequent spate in farmer suicides. At least 300,000 farmers have killed themselves since 1995. According to the April 2016 findings of the National Sample Survey Office on the basis of a survey it conducted during July 2012-June 2013, about 52 per cent of the agricultural households in rural India were reeling under debt. The average debt per household was estimated to be Rs.47,000, a significant amount considering the fact that the average annual income of a farmer was found to be less than Rs.20,000 in 17 States.

In last year’s Budget, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said that the MSP for all unannounced crops would be fixed at one and a half times the cost of production. But farmers said the announcement was misleading as the increased MSP was not on the basis of the Swaminathan Commission report, which had recommended the C2 method that takes into account rents, interest on capital and skilled labour rates. Moreover, the government announcement effectively meant that at least 25 crops, for which the government announces the MSP, including paddy, wheat and millets, were out of its purview.

Farmers’ income declined

Ahead of last year’s election in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, Modi tried to allay farmers’ discontent by promising to double their income by 2022. But critics have pointed out that he is woefully far from the target.

Yogendra Yadav explained: “The government’s own committee has said that doubling of farmers’ income would require 10.4 per cent annual growth in farmers’ income for the next three years from now. But the government has not been willing to reveal information on how much farmers’ income has grown so far. We have only two statements coming from the government. One is the Economic Survey of last year, which candidly acknowledged that farmers’ income had remained stagnant, and second is the Budget statement this year which said that farmers’ income had declined.”

Crop Insurance Scheme

The government has also received flak for its flagship Prime Minister’s Crop Insurance Scheme. During the Madhya Pradesh elections, the Congress’ star campaigner Jyotiraditya Scindia called it a scam. “The Prime Minister’s Crop Insurance Scheme is a big scam, in which Rs.3,000 crore was deducted from farmers’ bank accounts without their consent and less than Rs.50 crore was paid to them as compensation against their damaged crop worth Rs.600 crore,” he said at a public meeting at Balwadi in Barwani district on November 12.

During a field visit to Madhya Pradesh’s farm belt of Malwa-Nimar at the time, this reporter found that most farmers seconded these allegations. At Harsola village in Mhow tehsil, for instance, a farmer, Dashrath Chouhan, told Frontline: “We do not have the choice to opt out, and then, it’s unaffordable. For example, for cotton, farmers have to pay a premium of Rs.1,200 an acre. This means that if a farmer grows 10 acres of cotton, he will have to shell out anything between Rs 8,000 and Rs.10,000 as premium per crop.”

Others shed light on how the scheme benefits insurance companies. “When we procure a loan, the bank deducts the premium without our consent. But when our crop fails, there is no provision for early assessment and relief. The patwari [assessor] turns up 15 days after the incident and usually does a sloppy job. We cannot claim the insurance benefit individually even though we pay the premium individually. The scheme stipulates that the benefit can be claimed only if the crop in the entire region covered by it fails” (“Farmers’ anger”, Frontline, December 21, 2018).

“As per my study,” Yogendra Yadav said, “the insurance companies made a profit of Rs.200 crore in Uttar Pradesh in 2016, and in flood-ravaged Bihar in 2017 they made a profit of Rs.470 crore. Clearly, the private companies have been able to suppress the payment claim.”

The agrarian discontent snowballed into a full-blown agitation against the Modi government in June 2017 when in Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh, the police opened fire on protesting farmers, killing at least six people. Since then, there have been continual protests. In a major show of strength galvanised by the All India Kisan Sabha, an affiliate of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), nearly 40,000 farmers marched on the streets of Mumbai on March 11, 2018. From June 1, 2018, farmers under the banner of the RKM organised a 10-day blockade along 30 major highways in Haryana, Rajasthan, Jammu and Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala. On September 5, 2018, thousands of farmers gathered at Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi for the Kisan-Mazdoor Sangharsh rally, and on November 29, nearly one lakh farmers reached Delhi to participate in the Kisan Mukti March.

Abhimanyu Kohar, national spokesperson for the RKM, who participated in the seven-day hunger strike in Faridabad, told Frontline that they were determined to up the ante against the government in the days to come. When asked about the Modi government’s latest offer of a minimum income support of Rs.6,000 a year for farmers, he said it was a “cruel joke”.

Attempt to buy votes

According to Yogendra Yadav, it is an “insincere and cynical attempt at buying farmers’ votes and that too very cheap”. “The entire exercise is basically meant not to bring about any long-term change or to give any big, sustained support to farmers, but somehow send one instalment of Rs.2,000 to two crore famer families just before the elections, avoiding the model code of conduct,” he said.

Kohar is confident that none of the government’s ploys will work. He said the government’s response to their “fast unto death” was “most undemocratic”. “In Chandigarh, they [the administration] cut off the electricity and water supply at the site where our volunteers were on fast, and in Faridabad there was not a single visit by doctors to attend to the fasting volunteers,” he said. He said the RKM had decided that if no substantial progress was made towards implementing their demands by the end of February, it would go ahead with its nationwide long marches along with Anna Hazare.

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