Sikar: Can onions politics be more potent than patriotism?

There is a growing disenchantment amongst the farming community. Unlike the case of wheat and paddy, the central government doesn’t have a policy to buy a part of the onion produce

Representative Image (social media)
Representative Image (social media)

Rakhee Roytalukdar

Janki Ram Choudhary, 55, an onion farmer from Rashidpura village in Rajasthan’s Sikar (118 km from Jaipur), waiting on the side of Sikar-Jaipur highway on a hot, sweltering day, to sell off his bumper produce, thinks not.

He rattles off , “Onion’s power has diminished, just like its falling prices. Onion doesn’t have the potency to make or break governments anymore. Not like in 1998, when the humble onion and its soaring prices had brought down the BJP government. Now it is the other way round. The falling prices have, in fact, broken the farmer’s back in Sikar.”

Choudhary doesn’t have much of a choice. Either he lets his huge production of onion rot away or he sells them at a throwaway price. He prefers the later, willing to sell off his lovingly nurtured pink- purplish, succulent onions at ₹2 per kg, which fails to even offset its production cost of Rs 8 per kg.

Ask him about the impending elections, he seems disinterested. His retort: “Let us at least conjure up ways of survival, then only can we think of poll metrics. Here the farmer distress is for real and not an issue to be debated about on TV. We ought to have got the attention of the central government. But no succour from there yet.”

A dejected Choudhary adds, “We have no option. With surplus production, we are being forced to give away our onions at a loss ranging between ₹4 to ₹6. Our production cost for one kg of onion turn out to be Rs 8 per kg, but we are only able to sell it at ₹2 per kg or lesser. People are taking up onions from Nasik and Gujarat. This way how can we ever recover our production costs? At least 40,000 kattas are lying in the Sikar mandi unsold.”

Like Choudhary, there are thousands of other onion farmers in Sikar, who have been forced to destroy their crops in February, March this  year as there are no buyers for their bumper crop.

There is a growing disenchantment amongst the farming community. Unlike the case of wheat and paddy, the central government doesn’t have a policy to buy a part of the onion produce. The state government does try to help farmers when the prices crash.

But with no proper cold storage capacity, the farmers are forced to make distress sales.

This demand for a cold storage for onions, which is mainly grown in the Dhod and Laxmangarh belt of Sikar, has been a long standing one.

Ashfaq Kamkhayani, political analyst from Sikar, told National Herald: “This time the farming community here are more concerned about the local issues rather than national security or nationalist fervor. Not just farmers, others too want the broad gauge to connect Sikar with Bengal, Assam, Maharashtra, where many from Sikar live. They want the sanctioned government Sikar Medical College to start, which was actually wrested away to neighbouring Churu district by a powerful state BJP minister. The Sikar Medical College is to start on a Public Private Partnership mode, which the people here do not want, as the fees would be high. They want bridges and road expansion and small scale industries to come here.”

The farmer’s issues in Sikar got noticed nationally after their hugely successful agitation in September 2017 for higher remuneration for their crops, better water supply and expansion of farm subsidy.

Veteran Communist leader, Amraram, vice president of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) was instrumental in making the 2017 agitation a success, making the BJP government give in to their demands. They sat in protest in the main markets, surrounded government offices and blocked roads and highways.

Around 15,000 farmers had gathered at Sikar mandi on Sept 1, 2017 and by the 13th day, their number had swelled to one lakh, With around four lakh members on their rolls, the AIKS managed to mobilise support in 13 other districts.

A number of measures like demonetization, ban on cattle sale for slaughter and Goods and Service Tax (GST), too were worrying the farmers and farm traders.

After the protest, the BJP-ruled state led by Vasundhara Raje was forced to give a ₹50,000 discount on loan repayment.

So the CPM, who has put up Amraram as their candidate, is banking on farmers’ support, brick kiln workers, Scheduled Castes for whom they have time and again raised voice and held demonstrations.

But Kamkhayani analyses: “The voters may have veered towards the CPI(M) in past Assembly polls, but Parliamentary polls is another story.”

Amraram, who doesn’t move with a paraphernalia like the other candidates, says: “Rural discontentment is definitely an issue this elections, coupled with water scarcity and fluoride laced water. There is no industrialization here. And with a ban and restriction on livestock selling, farmers are here in trouble. Farmers can vote as a collective, cohesive group. We are trying our best to get the farmers together as a group to vote for change.”

Farmers under AIKS umbrella have a demand list of a proper mandi for onions in Rashidpura, arresting the rampant corruption in cooperative societies, complete loan waiver, unemployment allowance and fair price for milk.

Amraram says, “The loan waiver has helped some farmers who took loans from co-operative banks. Those who took loans from the nationalized banks are yet to get any relief. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ₹6000 a year for farmers is a pittance when the  losses are alarmingly high.”

Sikar doesn’t have much of an unemployment problem as most farmer families have at least two to three other members in government service. And also a sizeable number in the defence forces. So the discontentment is mainly over local issues, says Kamkhayani.

And Congress’s Subhash Maharia, who had won the Sikar Lok Sabha seat on a BJP ticket in 1998, 1999 and 2004 and had also been a minister in NDA government, is harping on the local issues and local connect. This time Maharia is fighting on a Congress ticket and his main poll plank he being a local, is with the people of Sikar 365 days a year. Now people run to the MPs even for government hospital admission, or a hostel admission, so the MP’s physical presence is important, say locals.

Even when he was not an MP, Maharia has been in Sikar to lend a helping hand to people.

The incumbent BJP MP Swami Sumedhanand Saraswati, from neighbouring Haryana, had sailed in 2014 with a margin of 2.40 lakh votes courtesy the Modi wave. This time too he is banking on Modi to see him through and dwells on ₹6000 a year for farmers and Balakot air strikes but chances are remote as his public dealings has not been upto the mark.

Political observers say he has hardly visited villages in the last five years and he has even been turned out from the Vedic Ashram in Piprali village of Sikar.

While farmers’ distress is deliberately relegated to the background by the overriding muscular nationalism, the CPI (M) stands a remote chance. Amraram has been contesting from the Sikar Lok Sabha seat since 1996, but has never been successful in his six attempts.  Although he has won Assembly elections from Dhod thrice in 1993, 1998 and 2003 and Data Ramgarh, 2008, Amraram admits so himself, “Winning a Lok Sabha seat is a different ball game. We might not win but we will remain here for people’s struggle and lend voice and strength to their struggles. Sikar will always remain synonymous with the red dot. People want us to remain in the midst of saffron and blue to maintain a check on the other two.”

CPI (M) has won only one Lok Sabha seat till now from Rajasthan. Sopat Singh Makkasar had won from Bikaner in 1989.

Political observers say Sikar is perhaps one place in Rajasthan, where farmer distress may just have an iota of effect despite the nationalism rhetorics. Rahul Gandhi’s NYAY scheme to five crore poorest families covering 25 crore people and ensuring ₹72000 a year, is likely to be a game changer.

Moreover the Congress government’s promise of not hiking electricity rates for farmers in the next five years and also providing one lakh connections by June this year, is likely to favour the farming community.

There are plans to set up food processing units on agricultural land in villages without the need for land conversion in case of plots up to 10 hectares and also arrange loans for these units. The government has also assured the farmers of getting the Minimum Support Price for their produce.

Tilak Choudhary, another farmer, who grows lentils, says : “The measures if implemented is likely to improve our community. The promise of not hiking electricity charges is welcome.”

But if these farm favouring measures don’t sway the voters to the Congress camp, then caste equations may play a major role as 4.5 lakh Jat voters, 3.5 lakh Scheduled Caste and 3 lakh minority voters voters take a call. With all three candidates being Jats, including Subhash Maharia,  Amraram and Swami Sumedhanand(Haryana Jat), wooing the Jats, the community will stick to their saying “Vote aur beti sirf Jats ko hi de.” But which one of the three, only May 23 can tell.

Sikar goes to polls on May 6.

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