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Desperate Farmers

Desperate Farmers

When Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan was undertaking pilgrimage around River Narmada under the much-publicized five-month long Namami Devi Narmada campaign, the farmers in his state were seething with anger. In Malwa region, where farmers grow one of the finest varieties of wheat, they had once again raised bumper crops of wheat, onion, soyabean and Jowar.

When it came to selling their produce in the mandis, they realized that nothing had changed and they would not get the returns on their costs on the crops.

The seething anger flared into a tragedy on June 6, when the angry farmers clashed with police at Mandsaur and six of them died in the police firing. The firing incident finally took Chouhan out of his stupor. The realities of Madhya Pradesh’s ever increasing farm production was before his eyes.

The state had made strides in raising the farm output over last several years but that had not helped improve the condition of farmers who continue to live in penury and debt, like in most parts of India.

The agitating farmers were demanding a loan waiver on the pattern of the one announced by BJP regime of Yogi Adityanath in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh and lucrative price for their produce in the mandis. The police firing went on to show that the political leadership had never treated the simmering discontent among farmers seriously.

People familiar with the developing situation in the Malwa region of MP say the farmers’ anger was growing ever since an organized cartel of traders and middlemen had ensured that their produce was brought at cheap rates by them. At places the farmers wouldn’t even recover their costs. Now some of them withheld the produce for market prices to improve but with approaching monsoons they got frustrated as they needed money to buy seeds for sowing well before the start of the rains.

In the meanwhile, Bharat Kissan Sangh, an affiliate of the RSS, got involved in organizing the angry farmers. Sources say that Chouhan is not on good terms with many RSS leaders and hence many of them decided to take up cudgels on behalf of the farmers to teach him a lesson. A former member of the BKS, Shiv Kumar Sharma alias Kakkaji played a pivotal role in organizing the farmers and leading their agitation. Kakkaji, who had continued to voice concerns for farmers has claimed in MP 1800 farmers had ended their lives in distress.

However, soon after the firing incident, which added fuel to the fire, Chouhan held a meeting with the BKS leaders. At the end of it the BKS leaders unilaterally claimed the farmers had withdrawn their agitation. Sources say this has left the farmers confused, frustrated and cheated. “A farmer is not much politically inclined; they are feeling cheated by BKS leaders including Kakkaji for using them as tool in their political game against chief minister,” a senior journalist from the region told the Indian Currents.

Chouhan, like his mentor Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is prone to making boisterous claims particularly on agriculture production, for which MP has been praised by the national bodies as well. “Since this growth has not taken into account the unchanged condition of farmers, the latter have often felt very upset at the government’s bragging,” locals said.

Besides the Chouhan government’s policies had not been particularly farmer friendly. For example the chief minister had announced a scheme in which a farmer could take a loan of Rs 1,000 and repay just Rs 900 to the government. Many farmers availed of this but when it came to repaying, the authorities told them that there is no provision for a rebate of Rs 100. “It seemed the chief minister had never got the orders passed for the scheme,” Shakeel Akhter, a senior journalist who hails from MP says. ”The farmers felt betrayed and insulted.”

Shakeel said the agitating farmers are unhappy at the lack of facilities and services in rural areas. “It’s a cumulative effect of the schools without teachers and dispensaries without medicines and doctors which is adding to the farmers’ anger.” He says the farmers don’t like the boisterous claims of Chouhan government.

The farmers were angry at Chouhan government’s policy of importing Tur dal – a staple of the vegetarian communities in the state. In view of shortages in previous years, farmers had increased the tur cultivation as they felt the lentils would be a cash crop and fetch them good returns; instead there is a glut in the market and the farmers are not getting proper price for the lentils.

Chouhan government had tried to break the power of the farmers in choosing the members of the Agriculture produce market committee by tweaking rules for direct election of its members. Now the APMC members are elected by the village level elected representatives, who can be easily controlled by the government. The APMC runs the mandis where farmers can go to sell their produce.

Interestingly, while Malwa was burning over farmers’ deaths, the studied silence of the twitter and social media savvy Narendra Modi government was shocking. The central government behaved as if nothing had happened or it didn’t concern them. On the day of the killing of farmers, according to media reports, union agricultural minister Radha Mohan Singh was in Imamganj, Bihar, addressing a NABARD programme. The minister neither took to social media to express his grief or address the problems of the agitating farmers nor did he fly to be amidst the grieving families.

Interestingly, in his next tweet on the same day Singh said he will be addressing a press conference on Swachta Pakhwada, cleanliness fortnight; a day after, he was discussing a weed problem in Kerala and he had tweeted: “Discussed the #Kuttanad weed problem with #Kerala agri minister. Have asked him to get the proposal sent and have assured all help”. Within 48 hours since the Mandsaur incident, Singh was seen performing yoga with Ramdev in Motihari!

Ironically MP under Chouhan is the first state in the country to have a ministry of happiness with a budget allocation of 3.8 crore. Nobody really knows why its head is paid Rs 1.5 lakh per annum and what exactly the purpose of this department is. Jingoism prevails in MP while people privy to ground realities say the farmers stir is likely to spread to other parts of Madhya Pradesh in the coming days. Will the Chouhan government pre-empt their seething anger or would he continue to play politics on this? May be he can activate the happiness ministry to put out the anger of farmers.

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