Editor's Note: As UP heads into Lok Sabha Election 2019, Firstpost surveys one of its most influential vote blocs: the farming community; the focus of this multi-article series of reported pieces is the agrarian crisis that has struck India's most populous state.
Agra: Farmers in Barauli Ahir and Barauli Gujjar blocks of Agra in Uttar Pradesh’s supposedly prosperous potato belt have never heard of a soil health card. They don’t know that land-owning farmers are eligible for a partial interest waiver on prompt repayment of farm loans.
They were amazed when Firstpost asked them about the minor irrigation scheme, under which the state government bears 50 percent of the cost of boring a tube well. That something called Pradhan Mantri Kisan Sinchayi Yojna exists and has been around for at least three years was news for them.
This is despite the fact that the region is facing acute water shortage. Farmers with large land holdings are forced to keep a section of their farms parched, while small farmers incur the backbreaking cost of renting a diesel generator and the nearest private tube well for irrigation. And that is just the tip of the iceberg: in the potato belt of Uttar Pradesh, cultivators are crippled by the weight of a bumper produce while an appropriate market remains inaccessible to them. A spike in costs associated with agriculture and middlemen, who control the market, only add to their woes.
This is the story of how even the most well-intentioned schemes devised in New Delhi fail due to the trickle-down approach of implementation.
Potato, this election, was a political crop, much like issues of sugarcane farmers that grabbed headlines in recent by-elections and Assembly elections in 2017. A precursory google search on the issue also reveals some hastily announced quick fixes to ease the crisis-like situation potato farmers face.
Saga of failed government schemes: Market Intervention Scheme, MSP
One such announcement was by the Centre in 2017 to procure one lakh ton potatoes directly from Uttar Pradesh farmers to ease the crisis and break the monopoly of middlemen; the state government, on the other hand, had, in a first, announced a minimum support price to address the plummeting market prices the same year. The Uttar Pradesh government had also said that it would procure at least two lakh metric ton in 2018, when the prices remained low for the second consecutive year.
However, on ground, farmers claim that neither of the initiatives reached even one percent of cultivators facing distress.
Procurement could never become a reality, which is evident from the fact that farmers dumped their produce in front of the chief minister’s residence as a mark of protest. And the supposed MSP too, appears to be another mithi goli (placebo), as farmer Vijay Bahadur Singh calls it.
Farmers in five villages of Agra that Firstpost visited claimed that not even a single procurement centre was set up in Agra villages after the Centre and state’s announcement. “Ek bhi kaanta (local term for government measurement and procurement centre) nahi laga yaha to. Jab sarkar kharidegi hi nahi to samarthan mulya ka kya mol reh gaya, sab mithi goli hai sarkar ki chunav se pehle. Do do sau rupai quintal me beche hain humne aaloo bichauliyo ko abhi 17-18 mein. (There was not even a single procurement centre here. The MSP is a useless electoral promise, a placebo offered right before elections. We had to sell our crops at Rs 200 per quintal to middlemen in 2017 and 2018),” Singh says.
Deputy Director of Horticulture, Kaushal Kumar Neeraj, concedes that the farmers' claims aren’t baseless.
“The thing is that horticulture crops like potato do not qualify for regular MSP. The scheme is meant for food grain crops primarily. What Yogi ji announced should be looked at as a government intervention to stabilise market prices. But in truth, the market price is usually at par with, or higher than what has been announced. Mostly, the prices were at par, or even slightly higher than the government MSP.”
Ten kilometres away from his office, a trolley of potatoes can be spotted being carried to the mandi. The driver reveals he procured it from a farmer in his village at just Rs 300 per quintal, which comes out to Rs 3 per kilogram.
The Yogi Adityanath government had announced that it will procure at least one metric ton of potato at a price of Rs 487 per quintal in 2017 right after Assembly polls. Later, the price was revised to Rs 600 per quintal after massive protests by the farmers.
In view of this, the explanation offered by the horticulture department on the failure of the market intervention scheme makes little sense.
Neeraj’s argument about market prices being higher than support price loses sheen due to the way the political class marketed it. In all public statements and dialogues herewith, the scheme was touted as MSP for all purpose and intent, and not market intervention as claimed by Neeraj.
And MSP, by definition, is a cushion offered by the government to ensure remunerative prices to the farmers for their produce even when market prices fall. MSP as defined on Food Corporation of India website states, “Whatever stocks which are brought to the purchase centers falling within the Government of India’s specifications are purchased at the fixed support price. If the farmers get prices better than the support price from other buyers such as traders/millers etc, the farmers are free to sell their produce to them.”
This should mean that the market price should not have had an effect on availability of procurement centres as the intent of the scheme remains to ensure that the farmers are not compelled to sell their produce below support price.
Yet, market data suggests that is the reality.
When asked whether this means the scheme was inadequate, Neeraj veers off to speak about other schemes.
What is left unsaid is that against the target of 1,00,000 ton, the government only procured 13,000 ton because it failed to open procurement centres on ground.
Sources in the Agra administration tell us that the higher authorities had insisted that the infrastructure already in place to procure Rabi and Kharif crops can be used to procure potato too as the crop is steadily released in market throughout the year. But this was not done for some unexplained reasons.
However, public policy expert and member of Uttar Pradesh Planning Commission Professor Sudhindra Panwar takes an informed guess on the reasons behind the failure of the scheme.
According to him, putting the blame on government servants tasked to implement the scheme is pointless. He said the schemes were announced sans budget and intention. The government merely announced the procurement of the crop without making sufficient budgetary allocation to cover cost of storage of the perishable crop.
The mechanism for procurement of wheat and paddy is marginally better because those farmers account for a larger vote bank, and the produce does not need preservation; it can be dumped in various government and/or privately-owned godowns. In the case of potato, the government does not own any cold storage. Cold storage, again, is another industry with completely different dynamics.
Furthermore, cartelisation by middlemen and traders prevents price discovery mechanisms from functioning in mandis. This is the reason why declared MSP is often removed from reality.
Income support means little for farmers
It is not just the potato-specific policy interventions that failed to deliver on ground. Most of the agricultural schemes designed to achieve the BJP’s promised goal of ‘doubling farmers’ income failed to kick off on ground, which will be discussed in greater depth in the next part of the series.
However, Agra farmers do know about “Modi ji ki 2,000 vali scheme.” But even the much-touted Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojna is a fable for farmers in the region, that has traditionally supported Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party. Each person who was spoken to has heard that “someone” in the vicinity has received a few installments of the prime minister's income support scheme, but nobody quite knows who the beneficiary is.
Only in the much more developed Khandauli region of Agra district were people who said they have received two installments of the scheme money. Here, people have received their soil health cards as well.
“I am sustaining losses worth tens of thousands of rupees in my one-acre farm, what good is Rs 2,000 going to be?” Rakesh Sharma of Khedia village in Khandauli block asks in mock amusement.
“Ye milat hai 2,000 me itte me chauthai khet bhi na puro hogo (This is what Rs 2,000 is worth, it won’t even cover one fourth of my farm),” another farmer Mahendra Singh says, pointing to a few millilitres of a pesticide and a five kilogram bag of potash soil.
Mohan Singh Chahar, leader of Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, the farmers’ wing of the RSS, concedes that the support offered under the scheme is grossly inadequate. He claims that the organisation has been opposing regular doles and the tendency to announce loan waivers before every election. “The government is not able to correctly gauge the cost incurred by farmers. For example, no scheme takes into account the cost of land and labour,” Chahar said.
“We have been asking honourable prime minister to roll back other doles and announce a yearly payment of at least Rs 25,000 per year to help the farmers with the cultivation cost.”
“Aap kisan ki laagat kam karo vo aapse kuch aur nahi mangega,” Chahar said.
He claimed that the Yogi Adityanath government announced a minimum support price for potato in a first following Kisan Sangh’s demand. “The initial announcement was of Rs 449 per quintal, it was raised to Rs 600 per quital after our demand to reconsider the amount. But sadly, even that is inadequate as the farmer is spending over Rs 900 in growing one quintal of potato. At least that much should be ensured to create a no-profit no-loss situation. Anything under that is a loss.”
A mention of PMKSNY inadvertently brings the discussion to Congress’ promised NYAY scheme which claims to increase income support price to Rs 72,000 per year. However, a majority of the farmers we spoke to are reluctant to pin their hopes on the electoral promise. “Chunaav ke baad ye 2,000 bhi aate rahein vo badi baat hai. Kisan ko koi 72,000 ni utha ke dene vala (Nobody is going to spend Rs 72,000 on a farmer. I doubt if even these Rs 2,000 will be paid after the elections),” Mahendra Singh says.
But Panwar believes that both parties resorting to income support schemes are a tacit acknowledgment that they have failed to make farming remunerative. All they can do is compensate the farmer on their investments and losses. “It points towards a total policy failure between both parties who took turn to rule. Forget doubling farm incomes, they are struggling to find ways to compensate the farmers,” Panwar said.
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Updated Date: Apr 25, 2019 07:54:49 IST