Farmers' crisis, agriculture will be focus of 2019 polls and not Ram Mandir, says All India Kisan Sabha leader Hannan Mollah
AIKS general secretary and eight-time MP from West Bengal, Hannan Mollah said agriculture would be a significant issue ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, not the Ram Mandir controversy, because the Narendra Modi government has failed on its promises to implement the recommendations of the Swaminathan Committee in letter and spirit and waive farm loans.
Delhi witnessed a massive farmers' protest rally, a Kisan Mukti March, on 29 and 30 November under the banner of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) — an umbrella organisation of more than 200 farmers' unions and NGOs. One of the major forces in this protest rally was the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) — a CPM-affiliated union that took up farmers' issues in its 15-point charter of demands. By undertaking four long marches covering 18,000 kilometres in 23 days and holding more than 400 rallies from 2016, it has tried to create awareness among farmers regarding the agrarian crisis in India.
Speaking to Firstpost, AIKS general secretary and eight-time MP from West Bengal, Hannan Mollah said agriculture would be a significant issue ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, not the Ram Mandir controversy, because the Narendra Modi government has failed on its promises to implement the recommendations of the Swaminathan Committee in letter and spirit and waive farm loans. He also said that the crop insurance scheme was 100 percent fraud, which had increased the rate of farmers' suicide by 42 percent in the past four years.
Here are excerpts from the interview:
What do you think is the root cause of this agrarian crisis?
The government's failure to implement land reforms is the root cause. After Independence, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, despite promising land reforms, didn't make it happen. Introducing Green Revolution in India helped only a limited number of rich farmers. Landless farmers had no purchasing power. There was high production, but purchasing power was low.
The agriculture policies implemented in the past 70 years have never been pro-farmer and led to the rise of middlemen, who bought agriculture produce at a lower price from farmers due to the lack of a proper procurement policy. As a result, agriculture gradually became a loss-making industry, and farmers' children are not venturing into it.
What is making farmers across the country angry?
Despite the tall promises successive governments have made for decades, including the current Narendra Modi administration, nothing much has been done for farmers, and they continue to live in peril. In 2014, Modi made four promises — the BJP would implement the Swaminathan Committee's recommendations, waive loans, ensure crop insurance and check farmers' suicide — but has back-tracked in the years that followed. For loan waivers, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley put the onus on states.
Farmers are angry and disappointed and are even committing suicide because of these reasons. Due to high input costs of diesel, seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, electricity, etc, the cost of farm produce has increased multi-fold, while farmers are not getting the right price for their labour.
The government doesn't procure crops from farmers, and the Food Corporation of India does limited buying. This has compelled farmers to sell their produce at a lower price to traders.
Moreover, the compensation mechanism meant for natural calamities is also faulty. Droughts and floods recur nearly every alternate year, and the crop insurance scheme is 100 percent fraud. In the last Kharif season, farmers paid premium worth Rs 24,000 crore, but received only Rs 8,000 crore, while six private insurance companies pocketed nearly Rs 16,000 crore.
There's no progress in the institutional loan system as 60 percent farmers, especially the poor, small, marginal and landless tenant peasants, fail to get easy loans from banks and end up going to politically powerful moneylenders, who charge exorbitant interest rates, ranging from 20 percent to 60 percent in comparison to the 8 percent banks charge. A big chunk of bank loans go to agribusiness managed by the rich.
This is a major cause of farmer suicide as they fall into a debt trap. Records show that 52 farmers commit suicide every day, and till now four lakh farmers have committed suicide, with no remedial measures being taken to check this. There has been a 42 percent increase in the suicide rate from 2014.
But even non-BJP ruled states like West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, etc, participated in the farmers' rally.
The problem exists in all states, barring the three Left-ruled states, West Bengal, Tripura and Kerala, and Jammu and Kashmir. Bengal, under the Left Front government, was the first state to introduce land reforms and create a data bank of peasants. In other states, the interests of rich farmers and landlords have been protected. Today, under the Trinamool Congress, small and marginal farmers and farm labourers are in a dire state in West Bengal, and that's why they joined the protest rally.
Why are farmers still unhappy despite the government's revision of the Minimum Support Price (MSP) of crops?
The Swaminathan Committee, in its recommendations, clearly mentioned three factors to be considered to calculate the MSP of a crop and provide one and a half times the price. First was input cost. Second, the cost of family labour. And third, cost of land, rent, cost of depreciation, etc, besides assured procurement by the government.
The MSP revision the Modi government announced didn't consider the third factor, which accounts for 30 percent of the cost of production. The revised MSP offered by the government is 1.5 times of 70 percent of the production cost, including only the first and second factors. Ultimately, a farmer gets 30 percent less than that they should. The government's MSP is a big lie.
Farmers' unions have been demanding loan waivers, which many believe would be disastrous for the economy.
See, the government has waived loans of top industrialists and corporate houses, but is not ready to do it for farmers, who are the backbone of our society and economy. In every year's budget, a provisioning of Rs 6 lakh crore is made for exemption to industry.
It's true that it won't be sustainable if loan waiver is offered every time. We've been demanding waiver of all farmers' loans — both bank and moneylenders' loans — at one go.
Two things need to be done simultaneously — first, loan waivers, and second, implementation of the Swaminathan Committee's recommendations giving farmers 1.5 times the price of their produce in the true sense.
During the UPA regime, loans worth Rs 70,000 crore were waived, but no corrective measures were taken to ensure adequate income for farmers. It's a vicious cycle. The farmers again fall into the debt trap.
More than 43 percent of the workforce is employed in agriculture and allied sectors, but the contribution of this industry to Gross Value Added is merely 17 percent, much behind the services and industry sectors. Why so?
This has happened as there's no investment in agriculture. The budgetary allocation for agriculture and rural development has sharply declined over the years. The income of farmers has fallen, as successive governments have neglected the farming sector. The government's policy is compelling Indian farmers to become migrant labourers. If this continues, there will be a massive decline in farmers' population, like in the US, where only 2 percent of the population is in the agriculture sector.
What's next after this two-day farmers' protest rally?
AIKSCC will pressure the government to hold a special Parliament session to pass the two bills, the way it did to pass the GST bill. These are related to loan waivers and a steady constitutional plan to prevent farmers from falling into a debt trap in future. A normal Winter Session of Parliament won't do because such an important national issue will get lost among other issues and debates.
Do you think the agrarian crisis going to be a major issue in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections?
We will turn agriculture, which is a national agenda, into an election agenda for the 2019 polls. Farmers are not beggars. We have asked 21 political parties, including the Congress, to clearly mention the agrarian crisis in their election manifestos ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. They also have to mention what steps they will take to resolve the crisis if they form government.
Farmers are becoming a conscious force. We want agrarian issues to dominate the election, not the Ram Mandir controversy. The aim is not Ayodhya, but "Dilli Chalo".
The Congress leader's attack came a day after Modi in an address to the nation announced the repeal of the three agri laws that had triggered a year of protests by farmers.
The BKU leader said that their aim is to talk to the government and hence they will go ‘straight’ to the Parliament
The move to suspend the march comes two days ahead of the commencement of the Winter Session of Parliament, during which the government will introduce a new Bill to repeal the three farm laws