Before march to Delhi, activist explains why farmers feel cheated

Most Governments have been indifferent to agriculture, says the leader in this interview days before embarking on a nationwide ‘Kisan Mukti Yatra’ from Mandsaur to Delhi. It’s a rebellion, he says

NH Photo by Vipin
NH Photo by Vipin

Vishwadeepak & Ashlin Mathew

Consumers naturally love it when prices do not go up. But when vegetable prices stagnate for a decade and farmers find input costs increasing every year, it is a disaster for them. The middlemen are making obscene profits while farmers are unable to store perishable goods in the absence of cold storages. Free imports in years of bumper crop and restrictions on export also queer the pitch. The Government needs to prioritise agriculture, invest more on small irrigation, insure the farmers…but if the priority is Sardar Patel’s statue or the bullet train, funds are not made available for agriculture. If only farmers voted as farmers and not as Jats, Yadavs, Kurmis, Marathas or Patidars, laments YOGENDRA YADAV in this interview with Vishwadeepak and Ashlin Mathew

This year marks the centenary of Gandhi’s Champaran Satyagraha and also 70 years of India’s independence. It is witnessing an unprecedented agrarian unrest as well. How much has changed since 1917?

Champaran is a very good metaphor for understanding the plight of the farmers. The local proverb is ‘Neelhe chale gaye, meelhe rah gaye’. It captures the transition well. One form of exploitation–obvious, in your face and racial–ended and that is why we celebrate Champaran; but it did not usher in freedom for farmers.

Indigo farming was replaced by sugarcane farming. A fresh set of laws forced farmers to sell their sugarcane to one particular mill. Those factory owners do not pay farmers their dues; pending dues of farmers is a routine story in sugar mills of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. So, one form of bondage was replaced by another form.

The model of development followed in independent India was inherently biased against farmers. Policy framers are agreed that we need to develop. And development to them means replicating whatever happened in Europe–urbanisation, industrialisation, lower salience of rural and agrarian economy etc. The entire policy framework of the last 70 years was geared towards advancing industry, modern education, technology and services. Agriculture was assumed to be a residue of the past which, it was hoped, would gradually get smaller, marginalised and manageable on its own.

Are you suggesting that agriculture was never given any priority?

Agriculture became a priority only once, that too because of a national crisis. In the mid-sixties when there was a famine, policy makers realised there wasn’t enough to eat; that even ‘modern’ people need to eat like others! It struck them that agriculture needed attention and they adopted a short-cut.

Attention was directed to areas where one could produce a lot and in a short period. It was therefore pursued in those areas which were already prosperous and produced better yield. This Green Revolution strategy was one which led to greater production but it did not improve the condition of the producers. In most parts of the country, it actually increased disparity in agriculture. The high production that it achieved was unsustainable. Within a few decades, we reached a dead end. This is where we stand today.

Our investment in irrigation has been pathetic and whatever little has been invested is misdirected into large projects and big dams.

You have described farmers’ unrest in Mandsaur, Ahmednagar and Western UP as not just protests but a rebellion. Could you elaborate?

We have a history of peasant rebellions in our country. In colonial times, a small incident would blow up and then like rapid fire, it would spread. If you look at what’s been hap-pening in the past few weeks, several features would look familiar. It starts with a small incident, it is largely spontaneous, leaders lose control very soon and it spreads like wildfire–from Maharashtra to Madhya Pradesh. There is no political continuity between the two states. It spreads to other parts of the country and it happens because there is a deep pent up anger and frustration among the farmers.

That is why it is a rebellion and not a protest. Farmers are, in a sense, coming together spontaneously to protest against basic conditions and they are not willing to accept minor sops. All this gives it the character of a rebellion, but whether it brings about revolutionary transformation or not remains to be seen. Rebellions are often quelled and they have almost always been crushed.

This rebellion may have been triggered by short-term developments such as plummeting prices. In a year when the farmer did not expect it, in a year when the farmer thought it was a good year, the prices plummeted. But the reason is far more fundamental.

Would you elaborate?

The economic crisis is that agriculture as a proportion of our GDP is shrinking. Nearly 55% of our population produce 14% of our income. Agriculture is unable to offer full employment to those who depend on it and agrarian economy is in steady, consistent decline. This is linked to the existential crisis of farmers who have realised that farming is an unviable activity. It is a loss-making proposition. In an extremely good year, the farmer breaks even and manages to survive; in a slightly bad year, they are down and in a bad year, they are out.

Farm product prices have risen at a glacial pace while farm costs have gone up rapidly; consumer expenditure of the farmer has also shot up. Steadily the farmer has been losing out to other sectors like manufacturing and service, and he is now unable to cover even costs. This is his existential crisis.

Much of the agrarian practices are unsustainable. The Green Revolution dream is turning into a nightmare because the new varieties of seeds stopped delivering high yields. These new varieties were dependent on fertilisers and pesticides, demand of which kept increasing. And much of this required huge water resources, which we simply do not have. The water table kept going down and now we are back to square one. This is the ecological crisis.

But bumper crops were reported this year. What went wrong?

This particular year, protests have come from some of the better-off areas (Western Madhya Pradesh, Western Maharashtra, parts of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh) and not from the worst-affected regions of the country. This was a good monsoon year and with some commodities, there was excess production.

In the absence of storage facilities and policies, it created a situation which led to a crash in prices.

Secondly, demonetisation resulted in sudden drying up of cash and since much of the agricultural market is cash driven, absence of cash can restrict the demand.

Third, the problem was the slew of import policies followed by the government–import of oil, dals and wheat reduced the demand for these commodities when the new crop arrived. In the agriculture cycle, there is always an accentuated demand just before the harvest, because of which the prices go up slightly. That was when the government depressed it with imports. So, the natural hunger that should exist when the harvest arrives wasn’t there. These three things contributed to the crash across commodities this year.

What steps could be taken to address the agrarian crisis?

We cannot look at agriculture as a residual sector. We need to look at it as a priority sector. In the best years of India’s growth, agriculture was growing at 4%, while the country was growing at 8% or 9%.

Rural consumption market is extremely critical. If it gets a boost and farmers have some money to spend, then everyone gains. The beginning must be with a minimum assured income to the farmer. A farmer must know that if he has sown the crop, this is the minimum he would get. So, there is this income guarantee scheme. We call it RUPYA, which is Remunerative Universal Price Yield Assurance.

The scheme has three components — one is that the Government of India should declare a support price for every single crop. It should cover their cost plus 50%. The Government need not purchase everything but the Government must pay the difference between the support price and the actual price they get in the market.

Subsidy for fertilisers must be paid directly to the farmers and not to the companies. We currently have such a perverse incentive for greater consumption of fertilisers because the government pays the subsidy directly to the fertiliser company. Instead, it should be paid to the farmers and then farmers should be asked to go out and buy it in an open market. It’s only then that the farmers will be careful of what they put into the soil.

The third component of the scheme is saving farmers from calamities, disasters and uncertainties. All insurance schemes are such that they do not cover even one quarter of our farmers. We need a new kind of insurance scheme, which is universal.

The current government has come up with the Fasal Bima Yojana, one of the recommendations made by the MS Swaminathan Commission. Will this address the problem?

The Fasal Bima Yojana is nothing but the latest version of the various agriculture insurance schemes that the government has been trying to implement in the last 30 years. The problem with the Fasal Bima Yojana is, like every of its predecessors, it covers less than one quarter of the farmers.

The latest data of Fasal Bima Yojana shows that its coverage is only 23%, and that too because farmers have been forced into it. Any farmer who takes loan against a Kisan Credit Card is asked to be insured under Fasal Bima Yojana. At least 75% of the farmers are not covered under the scheme. So, what kind of the scheme is it? Moreover, it does not cover all the crops. We need a scheme that covers all farmers and all crops against all forms of losses.

You undertook a Kisan Yatra from Karnataka to Haryana last year. What was your experience? Are there common reasons for the crisis or are the problems region-specific?

When we undertook the Samvedna Yatra in 2015 from Karnataka to Haryana, what struck us was how shoddy and patchy was the state response to the tragedy of drought. We wrote to all state governments and, of course, we hardly got any response and then we thought a legal intervention was needed. That is when we took 11 states to court and it resulted in a historic verdict in May 2016.

The court said that protecting people during drought is a state responsibility and that the buck stops with the Central government. Lack of resources cannot be used as a pretext. They ordered a change in the midday meal menu, ordered funds to be made available for food across the states. They ordered MNREGA to be improved. So, it was a great victory, but when it comes to the implementation of the rule, then we realise that the implementation was extremely poor.

How would you rate the Modi government vis-à-vis the agrarian crisis?

Most governments have been quite indifferent and farmer unfriendly. I think the current Modi government is probably the most farmer unfriendly government that we have had in post-independence India. The UPA was bad. They appointed the Swaminathan Commission but they did not revisit the recommendations of that commission. During the UPA-I government, the MSP went up by 10 to 11%, during UPA-II, it was around 6% and now, during the NDA government it is 4% or less. So, even if the UPA did not implement the Swaminathan Commission recommendations, the UPA raised the MSP which covered inflation. Now, it doesn’t even cover inflation.

Should farmers pursue other livelihood options?

It is absurd to suggest that 55% of the population can survive only on cultivation. It is equally absurd to ask the farmers to move to tertiary sectors. The problem is not as if jobs are waiting for farmers and they are refusing it; the problem is there are no jobs. But even then, farmers are leaving farming. Those who pontificate, should tell the farmers where they should go, where are the opportunities?

Manufacturing isn’t picking up; whatever growth is taking place is jobless growth. In a situation where urbanisation has already become a nightmare, to say to farmers that we need to reduce the population dependent on agriculture, looks like an invitation to mass murder.

The only solution is to strengthen and diversify the rural economy. It need not be only an agrarian economy. There should be space for agro-business, agro-industry, handicrafts and small scale modern industries. Much of the manufacturing can take place in rural India because rural India continues to have two big resources–land and cheap labour. So, they should be competitive.

People are leaving rural India not because they have ready-made employment opportunities outside, but because rural areas are deprived of basic dignities of life. Policy makers should plan how to prevent this flow of population into urban India. Otherwise, we are staring at a nightmare.

Yogendra Yadav is a scholar, activist and founder of the political party Swaraj India

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Published: 04 Jul 2017, 1:24 PM