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Farmers' protest in Maharashtra, MP: Both BJP-ruled agrarian states need long-term policy measures

After Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh has now been rocked by farmer unrest. At least six farmers were killed and eight others were critically injured on Tuesday when the police resorted to firing to subdue the protesting farmers in Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh.

In both Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, the farmers’ demands are almost similar: they want complete farm loan waiver as a short-term palliative and secondly, institutionalised mechanism for getting better prices for agricultural produce.

Incidentally, both the states are ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); in Maharashtra, it is an alliance government with Shiv Sena, the latter, however, is a junior partner. It is therefore alarming for the BJP, which also rules at the Centre, to face the farmers’ wrath as the ruling party has made the ambitious plan to double the farmers’ income in the next five years.

It is all the more disturbing for the BJP as Madhya Pradesh under Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s stewardship has been hailed as the biggest success story for agriculture in the recent decades.

Barely a month ago, Ashok Gulati, an eminent agriculture expert, wrote in The Indian Express: "Several of these steps (like farm loan waiver, government purchase of wheat and potatoes and notice to sugar meals for clearing farmer dues, etc) highlight the Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s concern for farmers who have been getting a raw deal for years. Should he intend to be in for the long haul, Adityanath would be better off taking a leaf from what we call the Shiv mantra. The mantra derives its name from Shivraj Singh Chauhan, who is in his third term as the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh."

Gulati then goes on to state the achievements of the Shivraj government that created the golden era for agriculture in Madhya Pradesh. He gives the statistics for it: "Madhya Pradesh’s agri – gross state domestic product (agri-GSDP) grew at 9.7 percent per annum – the highest ever achieved by any state – between 2005-06 and 2014-15. All-India agri-GDP growth during this period was 3.5 percent.”

Why then have things gone so horribly wrong in Madhya Pradesh where farmers are out on the streets in thousands demanding justice? Chouhan has also tried to do what his Maharashtra counterpart attempted a couple of days ago – to break the unity of the farmers by inviting one farmer union group for talks to the exclusion of the other.

Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis conceded the farm loan waiver for the small and marginal farmers in his meeting with a farmers’ union which in turn announced the withdrawal of the strike. But other farmers’ unions were enraged at their exclusion from negotiations and vowed to continue the protest.

Farmers and activists spill milk during a protest in Nagpur. PTI

Farmers and activists spill milk during a protest in Nagpur. PTI

The same scenario was repeated in Madhya Pradesh when Chouhan called the leaders of one organisation for negotiations, which ended with those leaders calling off the strike, but other union leaders have refused to toe the line until Madhya Pradesh government declares a complete farm loan waiver.

Why has Gulati’s ‘golden state of agriculture’ turned into a farmers’ graveyard? It is not as if agricultural pot started boiling last week. The official data presents a dismal picture over a longer period. The Madhya Pradesh government also admitted on the floor of the legislature that between 1 July, 2016 and 15 November, 2016, 531 farmers had committed suicide in the state.

The home minister of the Madhya Pradesh government had to also put on record that between 16 November, 2016 and 27 February, 2017, 106 farmers and 181 farm labourers have committed suicide.

The official data for farmer suicide in Maharashtra is starker. The data compiled by the relief and rehabilitation department of the Maharashtra government has admitted that 639 farmers committed suicide in just three months, between 1 January and 31 March of this year. Last year, in 2016, on official count confirmed that at least 3,052 farmers committed suicide in the state.

This is a cause for worry for the BJP as Madhya Pradesh goes for election next year and Maharashtra is due for its next election the year after. No party can hope to win an election in a state by incurring the wrath of the rural community, especially the farmers. By a conservative estimate, more than 50 percent of Indian population are employed – or if you like, underemployed – in agricultural activity. A ruling party cannot afford to ignore their concerns.

What then ails Indian agriculture? And what can the government do to alleviate the conditions?

For quite sometime, the common idea that was held was that agriculture in India faced a crisis because farmers were over-dependent on monsoons in the absence of adequate irrigation facilities. When the monsoon failed or was below normal, the drought condition prevailed and agricultural production took a hit.

Police detain NCP farmers during a protest as part of their Maharashtra bandh over various demands, in Nagpur on Monday. PTI

Police detain NCP farmers during a protest as part of their Maharashtra bandh over various demands, in Nagpur on Monday. PTI

So the states which wanted to take care of its farmers, prioritised irrigation facilities. Madhya Pradesh took the lead in this regard. "Between 2009 and 2014, over 1,400 minor irrigation projects were completed in MP, increasing the state’s irrigated area by 4.8 lakh hectares… The irrigated area in MP, thus, increased from 30 percent of the cropped area in 2005-06 to 41.2 percent of such area in 2014-15."

The relatively good monsoon last year added to the bountiful production of food crops. Why is it then that the farmers in Madhya Pradesh are distressed?

The agricultural distress has turned on its head there. Food scarcity is no more the issue in the state. What plagues the farmer there is over-production. The Madhya Pradesh government, in its over enthusiasm, had implemented a policy of 10 percent bonus over and above the Centre’s minimum support price (MSP) during 2007-08 and 2014-15. It resulted in a glut – Madhya pradesh’s share of wheat production rose from 8.6 per cent in 2005-06 to almost 20 per cent in 2014-15.

The state has had to deal with the consequent problem of over-production. The state did not have the wherewithal to store the foodgrains in the warehouses. It did not make economic sense for the state to create additional warehouses to preserve the foodgrains only to rot.

When the state government tried to give away the foodgrains free to the people below the poverty line, the central government raised a red flag saying it would distort the market economy.

The rural distress today is largely on account of the falling prices. Madhya Pradesh today faces a glut in onion production. The MP government has announced the decision to buy onion from farmers at Rs 8 and sell at Rs 2 through the public distribution system. The Shivraj Singh government has also created Rs 1000 crore stabilisation fund to ride over the immediate crisis.

But clearly, these short-term measures have not assuaged the sentiment of the farmers. They are demanding complete bank loan waiver to get back on their feet. Even if the MP government concedes this demand – just as the Maharashtra government has partially done – it would be another short-term palliative.

The writing on the wall is clear: what the agriculture sector today needs are the long term policy measures to shield the farmer from the consequences of both over-production and under-production of agricultural goods. Otherwise, rural distress and farmer suicide would remain the recurring feature of Indian reality.

Also read: Maharashtra farmers strike: A handy tool for Congress and NCP to hide 65 years of self-enrichment

Updated Date: Jun 07, 2017 10:20 AM

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