Lok Sabha election: Rajnandgaon farmers rue poor implementation of schemes, criticise Congress and BJP for unkept promises

Thoroughly disenchanted with both Congress and BJP, the farmers of Rajnandgaon have decided to put their faith on one of their own — Zilla Kisan Sangh's Sudesh Tikam, the farmers’ candidate in Rajnandgaon Lok Sabha constituency contesting as an Independent.

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Rajnandgaon: They trusted the BJP for three Assembly terms. They put their trust in the Congress in the 2018 Assembly polls. But in 2019, thoroughly disenchanted with both parties and their unfulfilled manifesto promises, the farmers of Rajnandgaon have decided to put their faith on one of their own — Zilla Kisan Sangh's Sudesh Tikam, the farmers’ candidate in Rajnandgaon Lok Sabha constituency contesting as an Independent. 'Chowkidar' and 'NYAY' have little resonance with the farmers of this constituency. The predominant feeling is one of being ignored and fooled by both BJP and Congress. This prevailing sentiment in Rajnandgaon may impact other Lok Sabha constituencies such as Durg, Raipur, Bilaspur, Korba, Janjgir-Champa, Raigarh where elections will be held on 23 April and farmer votes are counted among deciding factors. This has compelled BJP and Congress to field new faces in all the 11 Lok Sabha seats. The resentment among the farmers is so high that it has compelled the Prime Minister Narendra Modi to address more two rallies in Chhattisgarh, said social activist Anu Verma, who works on farmer issues.

Tikam is a small farmer who has gained the trust of his fellow farmers with his relentless championing of their cause. The presence of Tikam in the fray and his campaign's emphasis on farmer issues has made this important seat a three-cornered contest in this constituency, where the population is mainly engaged in farming. “I am aware of the problems faced by farmers, and did not want to contest. But the problems faced by farmers compelled me to fight for their rights," Tikam said.

The predominant feeling among farmers in Rajnandgaon is one of being ignored and fooled by both BJP and Congress. Image courtesy: Avdhesh Mallick

The predominant feeling among farmers in Rajnandgaon is one of being ignored and fooled by both BJP and Congress. Image courtesy: Avdhesh Mallick

“The BJP and Congress are highlighting non-issues such as 'mandir' and 'masjid', Hindu and Muslim. I want to give voice to the main issues affecting farmers, like MSP, price hike, unemployment, loan waiver, MGNREGS (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) and forest rights, among others.”

The BJP lost from Rajnandgaon only once since 1999. But it lost six of the eight Assembly segments in the Lok Sabha constituency to Congress in 2018. And while the new Congress government in Chhattisgarh has gained some electoral points by increasing MSP for paddy soon after it took office, Tikam points at other unaddressed issues like farmers indebtedness to money lenders, delays in settling insurance claims and continued dependence on an uncertain monsoon due to lack of irrigation infrastructure.

Besides, in a twist of cruel irony, the increase in MSP of paddy from Rs 2,050 to Rs 2,500 per quintal in December —immediately after the Congress came to power — actually hurt many of the farmers who had been holding on to their produce in anticipation of the new government coming through on its poll promises. Unseasonal rains brought by Cyclone Phethai damaged the paddy, either stored poorly in cooperative societies or in the fields without any protection.

“I had taken insurance cover for my paddy crop under Pradhan Mantri Fasal Beema Yojana in rabi season, but my claims are yet to be settled,” said Ramadhar of Dhangaon village, who cultivates paddy, gram and wheat in his 2.59 acres. “There is also no proper irrigation facility and with dry spell looming, I don’t know what to do,” he rues.

Tikam, who has the support of Janata Congress Chhattisgarh (Jogi), Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Sarwa Adiwasi Samaj is hoping to take advantage of the fact that farmers like Ramadhar are already getting disillusioned with the newly-elected Congress government. “No government can survive without the support of farmers and if this government also neglects farmers, it will meet the same fate as the erstwhile Raman Singh government,” said Tikam, who has appealed not just for the farmers’ vote but also a contribution of Rs 10 from each farmer household.

A futile harvest

Senior leaders from both parties are addressing farmers in the rural areas, with the Bhupesh Baghel government announcing a slew of farmer-oriented measures like loan waiver of Rs 2 lakh, paddy bonus, increase in MSP, and an exclusive scheme ‘Narwa Ghurwa’ to empower villagers.

But poor implementation is the main complaint the contestants will have to address. “I have not benefitted from any government scheme,” said Mochiram Thakur of Tendunullah, who cultivates paddy on his 10-acre farm. “Farming has become costly. To cultivate one acre of paddy, I have to engage 40 labourers at Rs 200 per day and when the time comes to sell paddy in the market, we don’t get a fair price.” Apart from this, there is the cost of transportation and charges for agriculture equipment used in planting and harvesting. “Tell me, where is the profit and how does the farmer benefit? From government to traders, all are engaged in looting the farmers,” Thakur said.

For Ishwari Ranjan Ram, another paddy cultivator, lack of any irrigation infrastructure and increase in input prices are the critical issues. Paddy MSP is now Rs 2,500 a quintal, but it does not take into account the increase in prices of DAP and fertiliser from Rs 1,200 to Rs 1,400 in the past month, he pointed out. “Instead of loan waivers, we require a system which impartially calculates our investment, including labour charges, and provides us one and half times that cost. Otherwise, survival as a farmer is very difficult.”

The lack of irrigation infrastructure can be met to some extent by “installing a lift irrigation system in Hasdeo river which is only 12 kilometres from here,” said farmers Homendra Sahu and Santosh of Kanhar Gauri village. “But the government and bureaucracy are more interested in the construction of big dams and canals which are allocated to the urban population and industry, not to farmers”.

Public sector undertaking (PSU) banks do have several agri-based schemes like interest-free loans, to help farmers. But farmers say they rarely get access to such schemes. It becomes a vicious cycle, as one regional manager of a PSU bank said on condition of anonymity: “As farmers suffer losses, their capacity to repay loans is affected; they then fall under high-risk category, which bars them from getting loans.”

“Unfortunately, in India, rural infrastructure development has come to mean only highways and office buildings,” said Ashok Tomar, a political analyst. “There is hardly any other agriculture-related infrastructure being built such as cold storage, go downs, and food processing units. Farmers problems are hardly being heard in Delhi.”


Farmer suicides and compulsions

The vicious cycle does not end there. With banks shutting them out, the farmers fall prey to money lenders. The spiralling debt then pushes the farmers into the tragic escape of suicide. Media reports put state-wide farmer suicides at 1,344 in 2015-16, with 25 of them from Rajnandgaon.

51-year-old Jain Singh Verma of Sakin Kopedih in Rajnandgaon who committed suicide on 5 October, 2018. He had taken a loan of Rs 3.70 lakh from a local money lender, but even after repaying Rs 5 lakh, the money lender did not return his land patta (a document naming the legal owner of the property), which led to Jain Singh taking his life.

For survival, the minors in the family were forced to work as farm labourers. Jain Singh’s father Shankar Lal Verma said that the family got no compensation till date. “We haven’t received even the autopsy report of my son. The police told me that my son’s mental status was not stable hence he committed suicide,” he said. The local police was unavailable to comment on this case.

“Several farmer families who lost their men due to indebtedness have received no compensation,” added farmer leader Motiram Sinha. “The government argues that if compensation is given, it will encourage farmers to commit suicide,” said Tikam. “The BJP government sent teams to other states to study and report on this issue, but no one has any idea what happened to that report and their recommendations.”

Sanket Thakur, agricultural expert and ex-convener of the Chhattisgarh unit of AAP, said that the government should be held responsible for farmers suicide. “No government recognises farmer suicides as an outcome of indebtedness, instead they say it is due to mental health issues or family feuds.” The spokespersons of the Congress and BJP inevitably refused to accept the farmers’ stories, added Thakur.

“I agree much is left to be done,” said Congress spokesperson Kranti Banjare. “But we are doing our best to empower farmers”. “Terming BJP as anti-farmer is a conspiracy of rival parties,” said BJP spokesperson Shrichand Sundarani. “Doubling of farmers income by 2022 is our priority.”

(The author is a Raipur-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters)

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