India’s agriculture is once again in the news, but for two entirely opposite reasons.
The good news is that the country has harvested an all-time high of 273 million tonnes of food grains this year. The bad news is that six persons have died and several have been injured in police firing on a mob of agitating farmers in Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh. As usual, political parties, especially the BJP and Congress, have since busied themselves with claiming credit for the grand success and blaming each other for the strife.
The agitation is now showing signs of escalation and spreading to other states. Various farmers' organisations have already started holding meetings and demonstrations in support of their Madhya Pradesh counterparts. Questions that are being asked aren't unusual.
Why did the agitation start in Madhya Pradesh — where agriculture has been growing at the fastest pace among all states over the past several years?
Why has the agitation turned so violent?
Are the causes immediate or longstanding?
Are the grievances genuine or have farmers been incited/instigated by vested political interests?
And lastly, what should be done to contain the resentment, and more important, what could the measures be to address the problem on a permanent basis?
No doubt, Madhya Pradesh has been on top of all states in matters of agriculture production. During recent years, it achieved an unprecedented high rate of growth upto 11 percent per annum. There should also be no hesitation in acknowledging that this could not have been possible without some positive policies and programmes initiated by various governments including those helmed by the Congress and BJP.
It is a well-known fact that expansion of irrigated areas is the main factor responsible for increasing productivity and production. It is due to a series of Narmada Dam projects and other small and medium-sized irrigation schemes that Madhya Pradesh, and even Gujarat, could achieve the feat and distinction. But none of the two parties can claim full credit therefor. It must also be accepted that Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has been quite sensitive towards and supportive of the farming community. The launch of the Balram Taal Yojana, large scale procurement of food grains, payment of bonus over and above the centrally-announced minimum support prices to growers, starting of e-chaupals, development of animal husbandry, dairy, milk processing, poultry, fishery and horticulture during his regime are standing testimony to his sincerity and commitment.
However, for the past three to four years, farmers had been facing serious problems. Having been advised by the government and scientists, they diversified into producing vegetable and fruit on a large scale and achieved record production. The prices, however, started plummeting, which did not allow the growers to even recover basic costs of cultivation. Whether potato, onion or tomato – the three major vegetables, farmers were often compelled to sell below cost and sometimes even dump them as the freight to carry them to the market place exceeded the value realised.
In response to price incentives in the form of higher minimum support prices announced by the Central government, farmers produced more oil seeds and pulses, but had to sell these at much lower rates, as there was no adequate arrangement by the government to purchase these. So much so that even paddy and wheat in some of the mandis have been sold below minimum support price (MSP). News about all these has been frequently appearing in the media for the three years since the NDA government at the Centre assumed office.
Demonetisation added to the woes of farmers. The non-availability of cash and currency at the critical time of the winter harvest brought down the prices of all perishable commodities including vegetable, fruit, milk, poultry and fish — many of which are grown by small and marginal farmers. A large number of wage-earners working with brick kilns and the construction industry were displaced, losing their supplementary incomes.
Another factor that has contributed to the build-up of anguish among the farmers is the high hopes raised by the tall promises made by the BJP leadership including Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the party's campaign for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. One of these was to implement the most important recommendation of the National Commission on Farmers headed by Dr MS Swaminathan to add 50 percent to the cost of cultivation calculated by the Commission on Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) while deciding the MSP. The second was that farmers’ incomes would be doubled by 2022 ie within eight years. Third, they undertook to come out with a farmer-friendly comprehensive agriculture insurance scheme to provide relief from losses caused by natural calamities.
Three years of the BJP government have passed and the first two promises are yet to be fulfilled. It is alleged that in response to a public interest litigation filed in the Supreme Court, the government has stated that cost plus 50 percent MSP is not practicable. So far as the income-doubling programme is concerned, the government has yet to come out with a road map thereof. Various statistics and reports including the NSSO survey reveal that the real incomes of farmers have declined, as MSPs of important commodities like wheat and paddy have increased at a rate of around 3.5 percent per annum, while general inflation has been at an average of seven percent during these three years.
As stated earlier, many of the commodities covered under the MSP regime including oil seeds and pulses have been selling at sub-MSP rates. Superior varieties of rice like Pusa 1121 and Pusa 1509 had fetched Rs 4,800 and Rs 3,500 per quintal respectively in 2013 in open auctions at all mandis. In 2014, the rates went down to Rs 3,300 and Rs 2,200 respectively; and during the 2015 season to Rs 2,400 and Rs 1,300 respectively — a position that remained the same in 2016.
Perishable produce has been the worst-hit in all three years. The conditions and procedure of the insurance scheme implemented by the government are highly complicated and incomprehensible to the farmer. Compulsory deduction of the premium at the time of granting loans is also strongly resented. Payment of compensation is neither adequate, nor timely or transparent. So far, the scheme has benefited companies more than the farmers. Farmers are so appalled that they feel they have been cheated.
The immediate trigger to the Madhya Pradesh agitation has perhaps come from the Uttar Pradesh government’s decision to waive farm loans. It is but natural that the farmers of other states too start expecting and demanding the same treatment. Maharashtra farmers are already seeking it, and this contagion got exported to neighbouring Madhya Pradesh. The Centre’s stand that if the states wish, they can do so out of their own resources, is hardly acceptable.
People ask if one state ruled by the BJP can do it, why not the others? Some senior BJP leaders are reported to have said that such promises were chunaavi jumlas (election rhetoric) only. If so, it amounts to nothing less than premeditated lies and deceit. Some of them also deny having made any such promises. But all these are recorded in print in the BJP manifesto; and were hyped so loud and repeated several times daily that the whole nation listened to and was inclined to believe them. But that is what politics perhaps is all about.
The question of whether farmers were enraged on their own, or instigated by some political adversary, as alleged by the Congress, cannot be answered with certainty. One thing, however, is quite clear: The BJP has been in power in Madhya Pradesh since 2003 and the Congress over the past 14 years has become the weakest ever. Unless there was something simmering, how could the Congress arouse the farmers all of a sudden?
What could, or should, have been done to contain the agitation is the last but the most important question. The fact that the Madhya Pradesh cabinet has taken some good decisions after the violent incidents is enough to tell that timely taking note of the problem and a prompt positive action is the answer. The habit of the government(s) to ignore the problems, allow them to simmer and explode, and then do firefighting needs to be shed. Listing the measures needed to address the problems of farmers in a comprehensive manner and on a long-term basis would require more space and time than prescribed for this article.
The author is former Minister of State for Agriculture and Water Resources, member of the Union Planning Commission, and first chairman of the National Commission on Farmers
Updated Date: Jun 12, 2017 14:31 PM