Tamil Nadu farmers protest has grabbed enough eyeballs but state govt must step up for their cause

Farm loan waiver has become the buzzword today in the national media, thanks to the eyeball-grabbing tactics adopted by about 100 farmers of Tamil Nadu camping in the national capital for almost four weeks. Whoever planned their protest had a good idea about the ways to get focused media attention — especially television media that is a bigger draw today.

The protesting Tamil Nadu farmers have succeeded in their effort to a large measure. The national television has been capturing their protest almost on a daily basis for last one month – beginning from the day they sat down at Jantar Mantar half-naked with a begging bowl hung around their neck and human skulls (supposedly of their near and dear ones who died of hunger or depression due to severe drought in the last few months) lining up their protest venue, apparently to give out a stark statement about their own impending fate.

But that was not all.

Five of the protesting farmers cut their wrists on 7 April, live on television, to express their distress; three of them fully stripped on 10 April, again live on television, to register their disenchantment when senior officials of the Prime Minister’s office refused to meet them and receive their memorandum. Then, these protesters again came alive on television on 11 April when scores of them ate food off the street to highlight their misery.

 Tamil Nadu farmers protest has grabbed enough eyeballs but state govt must step up for their cause

Tamil Nadu farmers protest with human skulls to demand farm loan waiver. Firstpost/ TS Sudhir

It is not clear how long would this made-for-television protest continue and what more innovative ways these farmers would adopt to stay in news. But one thing is clear: this protest has ensured that the reality of the agricultural distress has sunk into the psyche of millions of urban dwellers as well.

Most television channels and even print media — some outstanding exceptions notwithstanding — do not focus on rural distress; such news is dismissed flittingly. Tamil Nadu farmers have forced them to mend their ways, even if only for the time being.

But do the Tamil Nadu farmers have a convincing argument? As always, for every demand raised by an affected party, there are two sides. The protesting farmers are right — and the available data bears it out — that they are facing the worst drought in Tamil Nadu in the last 140 years and their survival is at stake and that the loan waiver is the only way to tide over the immediate crisis.
And they are making this demand when the announcement of the loan waiver is the flavour of the season.

The newly-elected Uttar Pradesh chief minister made a big splash by waiving more than Rs 36,000 crore worth of farmers’ loans a few days ago. The new Punjab government has announced its intent to act on its electoral promise of loan waiver for marginal farmers. Maharashtra and Karnataka are also planning to follow suit, citing the persistent drought conditions. Why should Tamil Nadu farmers be left behind? That is because, unlike other states, the Tamil Nadu government is not ready to pick up the tab such loan waiver entails.

Jayalalithaa too had made the election pledge to waive the outstanding loans of the farmers and she kept part of her promise when she was re-elected in May 2015 – she waived the loans that the farmers owed to the state co-operative banks. Jayalalithaa had then urged the central government to waive the loans farmers owed to the public sector banks. Alternately, she had demanded Rs 40000 crore as drought relief from the Centre. The post-Jayalalitha administration has persisted with the similar demand. But the central government has refused to oblige. It has merely advanced Rs 2000 crore to Tamil Nadu in this regard.

The central government is right in arguing that it could not make an exception in the case of Tamil Nadu; every state would then cite that precedent to urge the Centre to undertake the loan waiver burden. That would encourage fiscal irresponsibility on the part of the states, the Centre contends.

The farmers of Tamil Nadu are squeezed in this tug-of-war between the state and the Centre. It is time the Tamil Nadu government accepts its moral and political responsibility to alleviate the suffering of its millions of farmers, and not pass the buck to the Central government.

But the Central government cannot escape its responsibility for improving the prospect of agriculture which is increasingly becoming an unremunerative profession. It is a valid charge that a government obsessed with the GDP growth rate is paying scant attention to agriculture which contributes less than 15 percent to our national wealth. It is also equally true that agriculture has barely managed to stay on the list of our ruling elite only because it still provides employment (or, if you insist, underemployment) to more than 50 percent of our citizens. And it is too big a number to be forgotten or neglected in a democratic polity where elections are held on the basis of universal adult franchise.

That explains why every ruling party pays lip service to agriculture but does not commit enough resources for upgrading the facilities. Take the case of ramping up irrigation which is the mainstay for agricultural output (the demand for loan waiver is raised whenever there is crop failure due to drought). But our success in this regard is so limited that the marginal farmer is left to the vagaries of the monsoon.

The Tamil Nadu farmers are demanding a Kaveri management board to decide the optimal use of the Kaveri water by the two major riparian states — Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The Kaveri River Dispute Tribunal took 16 years to give its award and one is not sure how many years it would take the Central government to set up the management board to operationalise the award.

Thus the agricultural crisis, brought alive by the maverick ways of Tamil Nadu farmers, points to a deeper institutional malaise for which both central and state governments are squarely responsible. Loan waivers are just a palliative; of course, it is a much-needed palliative, as it involves the immediate survival of the millions of poor. But this succour has to be provided for by the state government. The central government’s task is cut out to create effective inter-state infrastructure to pre-empt recurrence of such incidents of agricultural distress.

Updated Date: Apr 12, 2017 14:12:32 IST