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Bullets For Farmers

Bullets For Farmers

A nation can be considered prosperous not when it has a large and growing club of multi-billionaires but when every citizen is assured of his basic needs. Whatever be the obsession with the GDP growth rate — whether it is single digit or double digit — human happiness comes from the certainty that everyone is treated the same way.

It is against this backdrop that the farmers’ agitation in Madhya Pradesh should be seen. India is still an agrarian nation where a majority of the people are dependent on agriculture for their sustenance. Yet, agriculture is one of the most neglected sectors of the economy. Ask any farmer whether he is satisfied with the way he has been treated by the government and the society at large.

The answer would surely be an emphatic “No”. More and more people have been leaving agriculture to take up any other job available to them. Why do they do so? It is because they receive a rough deal. 

A peon in the government, who gets not less than Rs 25,000 for as easy a task as taking a few files from one table to another, is considered a luckier person than an average Indian farmer with an acre or two of land.

It is common to hear complaints that the prices of cereals, vegetables and fruits have been going up. This may be true from the consumers’ point of view but what is the reality? I am a farmer too in the sense that an organization that I run in a honorary capacity has been cultivating a few acres of land which we own at Gusbethi in Mewat district in Haryana. Recently we had a bumper tomato crop.

Ours is organic farming as we do not use chemical fertilizers at all. We buy cow dung from the market and we pay the minimum wages fixed by the government for our workers, which is about Rs 530 per day. We also make compost and use it as manure. The value of tomato in the wholesale market was less than Rs 8 per kg. To get the peon’s salary of Rs 25,000 we need to sell 3125 kilogram of tomatoes. There is also other costs like the cost of plucking and the cost of transporting the produce to the market. To get that Rs 25,000 after meeting such costs, we would have to sell at least 6000 kilogram.

On two visits to Deepalaya Gram, I brought in my vehicle as much tomato as possible and sold the same to our staff, including teachers, at Rs 10 a kg. Last year we got about Rs 5,00,000 by selling mustard. The amount may look impressive but the cost we incurred in raising that money would not be less than Rs 3,00,000. In short, our income was only Rs 2,00,000. 

In short, cultivation is not easy and there is no big money involved. It would have been uneconomic for us to carry tomato to the market and sell it there for Rs 8 a kg. It would have been economical to use it as organic manure. Fortunately, in our case, we have a large children’s home where some quantity of tomato is used in cooking.

The larger point is that cultivation is uneconomic and a farmer cannot afford the luxuries that a peon in government can afford. I have a friend whose daughter was admitted to a private university to do a three-year degree course in journalism. The cost per semester is Rs 2 lakh. By the time she completes her education, her parents would have spent not less than Rs 12 lakh. A farmer would have to produce at least 3,00,000 kgs of tomato to educate his daughter in the same university. How many farmers can afford to produce such a large quantity? Is it any wonder that farmers have been committing suicide in state after state?

To come to Madhya Pradesh, it was on June 1 that the famers began their agitation. They did so by dumping milk and vegetables on roads. The government was not moved, though newspapers flashed photographs of such dumping. It was only when clashes in Sehore, Indore and Bhopal districts left six policemen injured on June 4 that the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government became active.

A sensitive government would have immediately held talks with the farmers, understood their problems and solved them to douse the flames of their anger. Alas, what Chouhan did was to hold selective talks. Instead of inviting all major farmer organisations, the chief minister engaged with just one – the Bhartiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), which, like the BJP, is affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

That is one problem his government has. He sees everything from the political point of view. His state is notorious for the Vyapam recruitment scandal in which people who tried to expose the scandal have been dying mysteriously. Be that as it may, Chouhan proudly announced the end of the stir, claiming that the farmers were satisfied with a slew of relief measures he offered as part of the deal. 

As was only to be expected, only the BKS was satisfied. The Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangh, the Kisan Union and three smaller farmer organisations insisted on continuing the agitation until the government agreed to their two main demands – loan waiver and remunerative price for farm produce. A quick study of their demands would have convinced Chouhan that the farmers were not demanding  the sky.

One of the first decisions that the Yogi Adityanath government took in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh was to announce a loan waiver scheme under which loans of farmers of up to Rs 1 lakh were written off. In an instant I will come to my point that while doing so, the government inflicted a new burden on the farmers.

The condition of the farmers in MP is the same as that of the farmers in UP. Both states are ruled by the BJP. If farmers in UP can get a loan waiver why can’t the farmers in MP, more so when Chouhan has been claiming that the GDP growth rate in the state has been phenomenal? He has been advertising that his state is number one on several indices though there is no ground-level evidence to support such bombastic claims. A state which claims double-digit growth rate is certainly in a position to meet the demands of its farmers without whom no state can progress.

Instead of recognizing their pitiable condition, the protesting farmers began to be called “anti-social elements” and, on June 5, Chouhan warned that they would be “firmly” dealt with. Nobody took the threat seriously as Chouhan has all along been claiming that his government has been the most farmer-friendly the state has seen. More farmer-friendly than even those run by a galaxy of BJP leaders, including Uma Bharti, Babulal Gaur, VK Saklecha, KC Joshi and Sunderlal Patwa,

That Chouhan’s was not an empty threat became clear when the next morning, six farmers were shot dead at Pipaliya near Mandsaur. State Home Minister Bhupendra Singh quickly appeared on TV and blamed the firing on “anti-social elements” backed by the opposition Congress. What he did not realize was that there were hundreds of people who witnessed the police action, while they themselves escaping the bullets. None of them or their families would accept the line that the firing was done by anti-social elements. Did they come in police uniforms?

This “Congress as instigator” line became the BJP’s de facto position. The BJP leaders should have answered how the “anti-socials” could get guns and fire at the farmers when gun control laws are one of the most firmly implemented in the country, unlike in the US and some other countries where guns can be bought off the shelf. “Farmers do not resort to violence,” declared Union minister Venkaiah Naidu. “It is the Congress which is creating trouble to malign the Shivraj Singh government for political mileage.” 

The chief minister echoed this position when he appeared on TV and urged people not to be swayed by “rumour-mongers”, who thrive on falsehood. The fact is that it was the government which was promoting falsehood to save its skin. 

It is now nearly 60 years since Glory, a pregnant woman, was shot dead by the EMS Namboodiripad government when it dealt with the Liberation Struggle that some caste organizations launched to demand his removal from office. The slain woman became the leitmotif of the agitation. In short, the police firing boomeranged on the government. Chouhan would do well to remember this incident.

The state home minister reappeared on TV news channels  on June 8 and declared that peace had returned and “those still bent on vitiating the atmosphere aren’t farmers but Congress-supported troublemakers”. Nonetheless, he admitted that the farmers had been killed by the police. 

“It was investigated and proved that the death of the farmers happened because of police firing,” he said. “Initially, the details provided to me were that police firing did not cause them. I amended my statement after receiving the correct information.”

How could a popular government use the ultimate weapon in the hands of the police — the gun — against its people when the lathi, teargas, water cannon etc could have been used to disperse the farmers. The police action would have, however, done a Pol Pot or a Idi Amin proud. Claiming the bloodshed was the result of “administrative failure” in Mandsaur, he said his government had removal District Collector SK Singh and Superintendent of Police OP Tripathi “as corrective measure to restore confidence of the people”. But was administrative failure alone to blame for the farmers’ agitation? Small wonder that Mandsaur, the epicenter of the violence, remains on the boil despite the curfew imposed on the town.

The police can claim credit that the curfew is so fool-proof that Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi could not hoodwink the police and enter the district. The government should have shown greater alertness in dealing with the basic problem that caused the agitation — the increasing pauperization of the farmer.

While the BJP refuses to accept that anyone other than  the “Congress’ goons” were responsible for the violence, the main opposition party calls the Chouhan regime “murderer of innocent people”. The home minister claimed that he has “hundreds of proofs” of the Congress’ “direct involvement” but declined to share any with the public. He should have and it could have called the so-called bluff of the Congress.

“Some TV channels have aired a video clip as “proof” of the Congress culpability. Purportedly, it shows a police official accusing Congress MLA Jeetu Patwari of reneging on his promise to keep peace during the farmers’ protest in Indore. But the video predates the Mandsaur firing, which triggered widespread violence in the city.

“The police have booked at least 60 people for allegedly inciting the violence in Mandsaur but none is a worker of the Congress, officials said”. The Congress leaders are a surprised lot. They themselves have been under the impression that they are a spent force in the state. In the last Lok Sabha election, the BJP won 26 seats leaving only three for the Congress. In the previous Assembly election, the Congress was given the lowest representation in the Assembly.

Of course, elections to the Assembly are due only towards the end of next year. There is no immediate threat to the Chouhan government. Yet, the BJP is rattled because most of those who suffered in the agitation belong to the Patidar community. It is this community which has been the backbone of the BJP in MP, as they are in neighbouring Gujarat. That is precisely why the government announced a compensation, as startling as Rs 1 core, to the kith and kin of those killed.

There is universal recognition that the farmers are a harassed lot. Give them a peon’s job, a large majority of them would gladly give up their profession to accept the peon’s job which would also fetch them many perks. Yet, what has the government done for them?

It recently introduced new rules which prohibit the farmer from selling their unproductive cows, bullocks and buffaloes in markets. The slew of anti-cow slaughter measures that the BJP governments have been adopting have hit the farmers hard. The government expects the farmer to feed unproductive cows because it considers them “sacred”. Earlier, the farmer could take such animals to the cattle fair and sell them for their meat value.

An unproductive cow or buffalo would fetch the farmer at least Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000. The farmer might lament that he had to sell the old cow but he would nonetheless sell and receive the money to keep his hearth burning. Now this has stopped. 

The anti-cow slaughter measures would have affected the eating habits of millions of beef-eaters but it has affected many more millions of farmers. However, the RSS would not allow the government to be realistic. It has its fads and it wants those fads enforced on the people. That alas is the tragedy.

The farmers have a point that when billions of rupees that industrial firms owe to banks can be written off, why is it hesitant when it comes to the farmers demanding a loan waiver. While a loan defaulter and fugitive like Vijay Mallya  is attending parties for cricketers in London and exchanging notes with prominent cricketers, farmers in MP are receiving bullets.

Let the government sit down with the farmers, discuss with them their problems and address them in right earnest. Allow them to deal with their cattle in the way they like, selling for the maximum price they can get. That is what you and I would do if we want to buy a new car - sell the old one and get the maximum price possible.

Alternatively, the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government should buy all the unproductive cattle from the farmers, build thousands of gaushalas and feed them till they die a natural death with the so-called double-digit growth the state has allegedly been recording. A government cannot force its fads on the people. That is the clear warning from Mandsaur!

The writer, a senior journalist, can be reached at  ajphilip@gmail.com

#(Published on 12th June 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 24)