Madhya Pradesh farmers' strike: Looming crisis should be a lesson for BJP; election rhetoric can backfire

It is a miracle that farmers in India still continue to grow crops when it is clear that it ultimately leads to their ruin and, sometimes, even their death.

India is not a country for farmers and the current unrest in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh is yet another reminder of the misery farming has become.

The average household income of farmers, according to the last survey of farm households conducted by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), is just Rs 6,426 per month. And just half of it comes from cultivating crops. In 17 Indian states, the average household income is just about Rs 18,000 per month, with crops contributing to around Rs 9,000.

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

But that is just half the story of their misery. The survey also suggests that 50 percent of Indian households that depend on farming are in debt. And since 90 percent of Indian farmers have very small land holdings – less than two hectares – they remain trapped in a cycle of debt, defaults and rising interest burdens because of their inability to earn enough from farming.

The 2011 Census shows that 11.87 crore Indians are cultivators and 14.43 crore are agricultural labourers. This means that more than half (nearly 55 percent) of the 48.17 crore total working Indian population survives on agriculture. With so much penury and misery around, how does one expect India's rural masses to live in peace?

The agrarian crisis was always a ticking time bomb. But, successive governments offered only slogans and promises to mislead the farmers. The unrest in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh is just the beginning of the crisis. If not addressed immediately, it will turn the Indian economy and polity upside down.

Why are farmers in these two states protesting? The answer is simple. They feel cheated by the government, mislead by pre-poll rhetoric and ad-hoc policies that are framed only with electoral gains in mind. They have realised that politicians have brought them to the verge of ruin.

During the 2014 election campaign, Narendra Modi, who was the BJP's prime ministerial candidate then, promised that he will ensure that farmers get 50 percent profit on the crops they produce. "If NDA comes to power it will ensure remunerative prices to the farmers by adding 50 percent profit into the peasants' input cost," he had said.

"We will fix the MSP (Minimum Support Price) of crops incorporating 50 percent profit in farmers cost of production including seed, irrigation, manure, labour ” he had promised at rallies.

"Today, the MSP is being hiked in the range Rs 200, Rs 250, Rs 300... your produce keeps rotting," he said.

The trigger for the current round of protests is the farmers' inability to sell their crops at rock bottom prices – lower than the support price fixed by the government. In Maharashtra, the government could not buy Tuar (gram) at the Rs 5,050 per quintal it announced as MSP. Unable to find buyers, farmers had to sell it below Rs 3,500 per quintal. Similarly, other crops like soybean and onions had to be sold at rock-bottom prices.

One of the reasons for the crash in prices is the bumper harvest this year. Across India, the food grain production has been nearly 6.5 percent more than the average of past five years. Compared to 2015-16, the yield has been nearly 8.5 percent higher.

When one farmer has a bumper harvest, he becomes rich. But, when all farmers have bumper harvests, they all become poor. In addition to this thumb rule of rural economics, what hurt farmers this year was the lack of liquidity because of the demonetisation drive. When farmers took their crops to markets, they discovered that there was just not enough cash available for buying. After a long wait, they had to sell their produce for whatever price they were offered in a market where demand was low and supply was a record high.

It is obvious that from a country that once hailed the jawan and the kisan, India is fast turning into a graveyard for farmers. Their debts are increasing, profitability is falling, land holdings are decreasing and suicides are rising.

A trigger for the current round of protests in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh is also Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath's announcement to waive off farmer loans worth Rs 36,359 crore in his state. So, the protesting farmers are right in asking why a similar waiver scheme can't be extended to them, especially because of the effects of demonetisation and the government's inability to procure crops at a price that helps farmers make a decent profit. They are justified in feeling that political parties use farmers as a vote bank and lure them with need-to-please schemes.

It is ironic that violent protests have broken out over the past few months in many states ruled by the BJP – the Patidar agitation in Gujarat, the Jat stir in Haryana and the current crisis in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Obviously, there is a lesson for the BJP to learn: Anger is simmering below the surface and every electoral promise can return to haunt the party some day.

Updated Date: Jun 08, 2017 13:08 PM

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