Agrarian distress is not new to India. It has been there for over the last twenty years.
But, we are now waking up to it as angry farmers spilled on to the streets in various parts of India disrupting normal life. They emptied milk cans and vegetable carts on to the streets. Many gave their produce free to anyone passing by to underline they were not getting any worthwhile price for their products.
In the last 23 years, over three lakh farmers committed suicide as it was the only way to escape debt, hunger and poverty.
The government buried its head in sand. Union Agriculture Minister, Radha Mohan Singh, said farmers were agitating only to attract media attention. Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar of Haryana made similar remarks while underlining how great the BJP led government was. It did not help matters. But with elections scheduled in various states and general elections next year, the government moved to firefight announcing that it is seized of the problems that farmers face.
The government just has to look at this: Statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau: In 2014, there were 628 farmer protests. In 2015, there were 2,683 and there were 4,837 in 2016.
Why are our farmers so angry?
While campaigning for the last general elections, Narendra Modi promised to give farmers a new deal and in his dramatic style empathized with their plight. They believed him and voted his party into power. But, four years later, their conditions are worse than it has ever been.
Farmers did not get the assured support prices. Farming became financially unviable. Their loan amounts ballooned to such an extent that it became difficult to repay. Droughts and monsoon failures wreaked havoc. Costs of fertilizers and pesticides spiraled. Proud land-owning farmers were forced to migrate to cities in search of pathetic daily wage jobs as labourers.
Wages in rural areas fell. To add to this, demonetization created havoc in rural markets. The newly introduced goods and services tax pushed up their production costs. Livestock rearing that had its own unique economy, spiraled into a crisis with slaughter of old cows banned. There was also the fear of cow vigilantes running riot and killing those who were seen transporting cows to animal markets where they were sold and bought.
For ages, rules on leasing land had not changed. It became extremely difficult for a farmer to sell his agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes if he wished to exit farming because of mounting losses. When was the last time we heard of agricultural reform?
The erstwhile Congress-led UPA regime set up the National Commission on Farmers in an effort to look at the problems and likely solutions. It was better known as the Swaminathan Commission. But the recommendations were stymied on paper. Nothing happened as a follow up to the holistic recommendations. It had advocated for land reforms, not allowing fertile land to be converted for non-agricultural purposes or given away to industries, allow grazing rights and access to common property resources. None of these ever happened.
The Commission eloquently stated that the only way to ensure higher productivity was to pump in huge investments in saving water, irrigation, conservation farming, land development and protection of biodiversity. It wanted farmers to get equitable access to water which was similar to what Pani Panchayats in Maharashtra tried to achieve. It also had a slew of recommendations to fight farmer distress in terms of easy credit, low interest rates on loans, waiver in cases of distress and calamities.
The Commission wanted insurance with low affordable premiums. It also wanted a fund created to give relief to famers in case of natural calamities.
Whenever you think of a farmer, what is the picture that comes to your mind? It is always of a weather-beaten man, never of a woman. The Swaminathan Commission wanted that women be recognized as farmers so that they could take advantage of government schemes, get kisan credit cars and have their names adorn landholding pattas.
FARMERS OPTING OUT
Farmers are dropping out of the profession by many hundreds every day. According to the 2011 Census, India has 95.8 million farmers. Is there reason to worry? Yes. In 1991, there were 110 million farmers.
Farmers lose heavily as India strangely has not in all these decades concentrated in building cold storage facilities. Fruits, grains and vegetables worth over Rs. 50,000 crore are lost every year due to lack of adequate storage infrastructure. The annual wastage of fruits and vegetables is estimated at Rs 13,309 crore. If wastage of rice, wheat, cereals and others was taken into account, it would increase to around Rs. 44,000 crore. India needed 61.3 million tonnes of cold storage against the present capacity of around 29 million tonnes.
There is this argument among BJP supporters that the government was suddenly caught off the foot suddenly with the farmers’ agitation and did not know what to do to douse the anger. Really? The BJP manifesto in 2014 had generously lifted parts of the Swaminathan report promising to give a better deal than the earlier Manmohan Singh led government. Four years down the road, it is clear that it could not even do what the previous government had.
Food policy analyst Devinder Sharma says that enhancing farm incomes has never been on the top of the economic agenda. “Nearly 94 per cent farmers are dependent on exploitative markets. If after 70 years of Independence, the average income of a farm family in 17 States, which is roughly half the country, is Rs 20,000 a year as the Economic survey 2016 has shown, the primary cause of the terrible agrarian distress that prevails is before us. The 2016 data for farmer suicides has made this abundantly clear,” he said.
India needs to recognise it is an agriculture economy and if it is not allowed to survive, not only will it drive millions into poverty and hunger, it will have to use precious foreign exchange to import food in the years to come. India has done an admirable job since independence to become surplus in food grain production. But, we can hardly afford to take it for granted.
The Modi government cannot afford to ignore the demands of the farmers if it wants to ride back to power next year. It has stepped in for band-aid measures but the farmers are not going to be fooled again. Consecutive governments have given them a short shrift and they were just seen as vote banks.(Published on 11th June 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 24)