Madhya Pradesh farmers' strike: Rahul Gandhi’s antics mean little but BJP must address crisis

In communist China, faced with continuing glut in corn production and crash in prices, the government stopped a price support system for the crop last year and asked farmers to cut down production this year. The world’s second largest producer of corn after the United States, China, has found desperate but ingenious ways to convert its official corn stockpile into ethanol, sweeteners and even biodegradable plastic that can be used to make carry bags and tableware. The government says a solution may be in sight.

In capitalist United States, with no socialist pretensions, also faced with a corn glut, farmers are dumping their produce on airport tarmacs of decommissioned air bases, parking lots and empty fields and are bracing for a steep fall in incomes this year.

Farmers. Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

In capitalist India, with socialist pretensions, the governments of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, this week, have come up with populist, quick-fix, temporary solutions after excess production of pulses, onions, tomatoes etc led to a slump in prices: they have partially waived off farmers’ loans and are promising to strengthen the market price support systems.

The crisis of bumper crops – the problem of plenty as against crop failures during drought – sparking price crashes is not unique to either India or any one part of the world.

Last week, there were fears of a civil war in Ivory Coast after prices of cocoa nosedived nearly by half compared with last year. The West African nation, which accounts for about 40 percent of the world’s cocoa production, is still looking for a way out.

Farmers of Russia, Australia, Brazil and Argentina, to name a few, too are suffering from falling prices and inadequate storage places after reporting bumper crops that include corn, wheat, soya beans and barley.

Petty politics makes it worse in India

Even the situation prevailing in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh right now is, of course, not unprecedented. In recent years, farmers of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana dumped tomatoes on roads because prices were less than the cost they would incur by taking them to the market for selling. Many of them killed themselves.

In April this year, chilli farmers of Telangana’s Khammam district went on a rampage, setting on fire tables and chairs in the local agriculture market yard after prices fell.

Though demand-supply mismatch in agriculture leading to price crashes is a global phenomenon — the world is reeling under it right now — petty politicisation of the farmers' plight with an eye on making newspaper headlines and luring vote banks is an Indian speciality.

Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi party squarely blamed the opposition Congress and Telugu Desam for the violence by chilli farmers in his state.

BJP too is not innocent

And the BJP, which rules Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, is accusing the Congress of engineering farmers' protests. The Congress may well be resorting to some cheap tricks in Madhya Pradesh, but the BJP’s outbursts lead to an inevitable impression that it's more perturbed by what the Opposition is doing than by the farmers' suffering.

The Congress, on its part, is reacting to the situation as if prices are falling for the first time in India’s history and as if the BJP, especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is solely responsible for the current plight of farmers.

The BJP too is not innocent of politicising farmers' troubles. In Karnataka, the party’s state president and the chief ministerial candidate, BS Yeddyurappa, is threatening to hold a rally of "lakhs of farmers" in Bengaluru if the Congress government does not waive their loans. If held, the rally will help neither farmers nor the BJP, though it's guaranteed to turn traffic in the Karnataka capital from pathetic to insufferable.

Rahul Gandhi’s bike stunts won’t help

How Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi imagines he can help the farmers of Mandsaur by resorting to stunts like going on a motorbike to dodge a police barricade and getting himself arrested beats us. Far from mitigating the farmers' genuine grievances, it can only add to the law and order mess. But Gandhi, of course, feels compelled to live up to his reputation as a "disaster tourist".

Gandhi was nowhere in sight in the worst drought-affected areas of Congress-ruled Karnataka, where this year alone so far, according to official figures, 520 farmers have committed suicide.

Left must remember Nandigram massacre

The Left leaders and intellectuals, who are trying to shed tears over Mandsaur killings, must remember how the police, accompanied by armed goons of the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), massacred 14 agitating farmers in Nandigram in West Bengal in March 2007.

Politicisation of issues won't help farmers, but long-term strategies might. The central and state governments of India must find why farmers, in the first place, produce more than they should, though there are no easy answers and surefire solutions, as even developed nations are finding out.

Perhaps we need "ground-truthers"  as researchers and aid workers – who visited farmers, farms, markets and households to track supply, demand and prices in Ethiopia on a continuous basis in the late 1990s – were called. Not that their warnings about record harvests leading to record low prices were taken seriously. At least they were warning farmers and authorities. The states in India must find ways to link agricultural production to price trends, though it's not an easy job.

In India, that actually is the job of the lakhs of field staffers of the agriculture departments of the states across the country. But they focus more on seeds, plant varieties and fertilisers than market possibilities for their produce. And agriculture is not all about subsidies and bank loans either, as the politicians would have us believe. It's about the market, and the states must clean up the mess in the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) network.

The Narendra Modi government's move to minimise risk in agriculture by expanding insurance cover is laudable, though it takes more time to produce results even if it does. And right now, Modi's talk of doubling farmers' income by 2022 makes little sense to the agitators. All that the farmers of Mandsaur and elsewhere in India want right now is to be able to sell what they have produced at prices that will help them make ends meet.

Expert management based on sane advice may help resolve the immediate problem. Political consensus, not political score-settling, will help matters.

Author tweets @sprasadindia

Updated Date: Jun 08, 2017 20:32 PM

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