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Farms On Flames

Farms On Flames

While we were all glued to the television sets watching how the BJP grabbed Tripura, we also saw a huge crowd holding red flags and wearing red caps walking on the streets of Mumbai. Around 35,000 farmers came to the city on foot demanding a loan waiver, among other things. They took six days to cover the distance of around 180 kms.

The moment the march was highlighted by the mainstream media, people from different walks of life came forward with help. While the majority concentrated on food and water, a group started a campaign for donating footwear for the marchers. The media showed their parched feet, some bleeding and some having blisters and cracks.  

One can imagine the kind of interest it evoked in the metropolis. Twitterati started tweeting about their plight and vigour. One tweet said, “Around 52 BEST & over 10 private buses were kept outside Somaiya ground to take farmers to Azad maidan. But farmers have refused to take these buses & said they started from Nashik walking & till Azad maidan they will go walking. They don’t need any bus”. 

The photographs and the videos were certainly touching and moving. Did this bring any change in the attitude of the government?

While praising the marchers for ensuring as little inconvenience to the Mumbaikar as possible, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis remarked that a large majority of the protestors comprised landless adivasis. Since 95 per cent of them are landless, they want forest land. “That is why they are unable to become farmers”, he added.

The adivasis have been tilling land for centuries without having any title. Does that mean that they are not farmers? Yes, they have been demanding transfer of the land they have been cultivating in their name. However, the fact that they have been struggling to win their bread — forget butter — while struggling as farmers cannot be denied.

Most of the politicians went into a denial mode that the people who have been protesting are basically not farmers but politically motivated people. Elsewhere too farmers have been staging protests, be it in Punjab, UP, Haryana or Tamil Nadu. The main reason has been loan waivers and the minimum support price, the price at which the government buys certain crops from the farmers.

So far the government, at the Centre or in the states, has been offering only sops. The Maharashtra protest may have ended on a positive note with the state accepting most of their demands or promising to look into their issues. This is not the end of the story as scores of farmers arrived in Delhi to stage their protest, demanding a loan waiver and implementation of the recommendations made by the Swaminathan committee.

Media reports also suggested that some of the farmers cautioned the BJP-led central Government to be ready to face the consequences in 2019 in case their demands were not met. While the Central government has largely ignored the protest from farmers who came in Delhi till now, a mega protest is being anticipated in the month of April, when the leaders of farmers from Gujarat, Assam and Tamil Nadu are expected to gather.

All this indicates a situation of rural distress. The farmers may have been asking for a hike in MSP or loan waivers but the rural issues are not restricted to farmers or agriculture alone.

The national sample survey conducted during 2011 suggests that 45 per cent of the rural households are engaged in activities other than self-employment or agriculture. It also means that more than 50 per cent of the rural India comprises farmers. The protests, which are now common in almost all the states, indicate that they are not happy. What about the rest of rural India?

The recent report by PRS legislative research points out that the initial momentum that the Narendra Modi government showed in terms of building rural infrastructure could not sustain for long. Rural infrastructure not only implies development but also employment for the skilled and unskilled workers.

If we look at the current and the last budgets, the government has allocated money for three schemes for rural areas – MGNREGS (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme), PMAY-G (Prime Minister Awas Yojana – Gramin) and PMGSY (Prime Minister Gramin Sadak Yojana).

While budgetary allocation under MNREGS remained constant or has slightly gone up during these four years of Modi rule, the expenditure has by and large failed to achieve the core objective of providing a minimum of 100 days of employment to at least one member in a family or rural household that demands work. 

While demand for work was there, the average days of employment was reduced to 37 in 2017-18, compared to 50 in 2012-13. Only 87 per cent of the households were given employment, compared to 97 per cent in 2012-13. However, there has been an improvement in the payment of wages, though there was a huge delay in payment.

Coming to the next scheme, PMAY-G, it has been very close to Modi’s heart. Under this programme, he announced an ambitious target of building 10 million rural houses by March 2019. Yet, the government has been consistently reducing budgetary allocation for this. Out of the 10 million houses, 5.1 million houses were to be constructed by March 2018. The latest figures on the government website show that only 6.5 lakh houses have been constructed so far. In fact, the construction activity slowed down prior to demonetisation and dipped down even lower than what it was in 2012-13. Had the government implemented the programme effectively, Modi would have won a million hearts.

The fact that there has been a cut in the allocations for this scheme in the current budget shows the seriousness of the government towards achieving these targets. Now let us see the effectiveness of PMGSY over the last four years.

Despite the fact that the government increased the allocation for this scheme, it could not spend the entire funds. Even though there has been a considerable improvement since 2012-13 when only 35 per cent of the funds allocated were spent. 

Despite the fact that the Modi government has spent almost 90 per cent of the funds allocated in 2017-18, the target of constructing 51,000 kms of road could not be accomplished. Comparatively, only 28,844 kms was constructed in 2017-18, which comes to 57 per cent. This speaks volumes about how efficiently the money was spent.

The report shows that the government has been able to achieve its targets since 2013-14. At the same time, it also acknowledges the fact that CAG had asked the government to set a realistic target. In other words, the set targets were lower than what the government could have actually fixed with the kind of money that was allocated.

All said and done, while the agriculture sector suffered a setback, the rest of the rural economy does not tell an enthusiastic tale either.

While the finance minister made a bold announcement of increasing the MSP by one-and-a-half times during the recent budget session, it appears to be a political gimmick to entice the poor farmers as most of the allocations under the agriculture sector either remained stagnant or were reduced. The only head that got an increase was crop insurance. The actual spends have been consistently lower than what has been budgeted all these years in both agriculture and the non-farm sector.

Had the government been serious about rural India that is Bharat, the farmers or the rural youth would not have marched and staged protests. The GDP mantra and fiscal consolidation may have attracted some foreign investors in some fancy projects but they cannot attract the rural poor. When they protest, the politicians spend most of their time in politicising the issue, rather than listening to the painful voices and wailing men and women, asking for their rights.

The writer, a company secretary, can be reached at jassi.rai@gmail.com

(Published on 19th March 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 12)