Bandu Ghormade, a vegetable grower in a village 50 km from Nagpur, had no choice but to accept the old Rs 500 notes from the procurement agent and a lower price: Rs 200 less for every 40 kg crate of his freshly harvested eggplants.
When I met him in the sprawling Agriculture Produce Market Committee yards a couple of days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation decision on 8 November 2016, farmers like him were selling freshly harvested fruits and vegetable commodities at depleted prices then.
The prices had fallen because traders had stopped buying – the traders weren't buying because most farmers won't accept the old notes or forward supply chains had been hit.
Also Read: MP Farmers’ Protest Live: Rahul Gandhi Detained Near Mandsaur
Several farmers across India junked their vegetables and fruits in that period in the absence of buyers.
A few days later, I met Sandeep Thavkar, a 28-year-old farmer in Virkhandi village, 65 km from Nagpur, on his farm which was a spectacle of a forlorn, devastated, piece of land. He had run a tractor over his standing tomato crop in sheer frustration that the fruit was not even fetching 50 paise per kilogram.
The monsoon had been very good last year, the climate perfect and the yield bumper. Sandeep thought his tomatoes would fetch a tidy sum. His dream came a cropper.
The same time, Chhattisgarh tomato growers threw tonnes of the red fruit on the roads in disgust.
Cut to Kadamankudy village in coastal Tamil Nadu’s once-prosperous Cauvery Delta region.
Veermani’s was not an age to suffer a heart attack – he was merely 35.
“He just collapsed on the field right in front of me and died,” his widow Kavitha told me recently at her village. She’s still wondering how her husband could die of a heart attack at such a young age.
He was fit and fine, she says, but in a lot of stress and tension.
Nothing was left of the farm – it wore a forlorn look, she says.
Veermani was not the only farmer to have died of shock; Tamil Nadu has registered more than 200 such shock deaths of farmers over the last few months in addition to suicides.
Also Read: Why a Bountiful Harvest Drove Farmers to Despair and Anger
Mandsaur, Just a Symptom
As the rage spilled over in a small village in Mandsaur in north-western Madhya Pradesh, with the police allegedly opening fire and killing at least five protesting farmers on Tuesday, the country woke up to the sudden anger that has been brewing up for a week now, but simmering for nearly three decades.
Mandsaur, a hub of soybean, pulses and spices, is but a symptom – the problem is wide-spread, deep-rooted, and pretty old now.
India has been sitting idle over the agrarian crisis and continuing farmers’ suicides for three decades, undermining its consequences: After all when a farmer kills himself, it’s a violence directed inwards – it could turn outward any time. This is what happened in Mandsaur, when the trigger was provided.
Small, marginal and even mid-level farmers aren’t able to subsist in an uncertain and economically competitive world where a failure of monsoon or a sudden crash in commodity prices is calamitous for them but don’t affect the urban consumer. The realisation is slowly dawning on farming masses that they have been left out of the growth story in a post-liberalisation world.
As the Modi government dismantles the welfare programmes of the previous UPA regime, chickens are coming home to roost. The pangs are being felt by those on the bottom, in the countryside.
What are the farmers demanding? Remunerative prices and a complete farm loan waiver.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi repeatedly made a promise before the 2014 general elections that he’d give better prices to farmers if he were elected to the throne. Farmers now want it implemented.
Also Read: Primetime TV Squabbles on MP Farmer Killings: Who Said What?
Trigger of Loan Waiver
The immediate trigger for a demand for loan waiver is the BJP’s duality: It gave a debt waiver in Uttar Pradesh, but isn’t agreeing to the demand in other parts. The Centre has passed on the buck to the states, which don’t have resources to deal with the burden of loan waivers.
The demand is spreading to other states, where farmers are reeling with years of crop failures, price slump, and inability to make profits or even break even.
As the 2017-18 agrarian season sets itself on the beleaguered, indebted, sullied and fatigued farming communities across the country, there is much to learn and reflect from the season just gone by.
One: That bumper production does not always mean profits. Two: Monsoon, even when it is bountiful, does not necessarily bring in relief for the peasantry. Three: Drought is not only a water-food-productivity crisis. It exists even when there’s abundance.
Also Read: To Survive Drought, Tamil Nadu Farmers Switch to Organic Farming
Fall in Commodity Prices
The current anger has also been precipitated by a crash in commodity prices in the year gone by. Almost every crop – including fruits – sold at record low prices this year and neither the Centre nor the states intervened to stem the free fall of the commodity prices.
Soybean prices plummeted to an all-time low in October-November: From Rs 6,000 a quintal in 2015-16 to Rs 2,300 in 2016-17; perishables were about to enter the markets when Modi demanded a sacrifice through demonetisation. Cotton prices held on to a little over the minimum support prices, but only just. Today even those prices are falling as rupee appreciates. Tur prices are below the support prices.
Chilly prices – like that of all other commodities – sank to their lowest in a decade as a bumper crop led to a glut; the growers in Andhra and Telangana burnt their crops in disgust.
Latest to suffer price slump is the sweet lime: The prices last year hovered around Rs 15,000 per ton. This year they are at Rs 3-5,000 per ton.
Also Read: Farmers in Kerala’s Kole Wetlands Reel Under Unprecedented Drought
Discontent in Maharashtra
While the Madhya Pradesh protests have a caste angle – there Patidars are up in arms against the BJP like they are in Gujarat or Rajasthan – BJP allies in Maharashtra are turning sore.
The Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatna leader and MP Raju Shetty is on atmaklesh (repentance) mode across western Maharashtra for having asked the peasants to vote for Modi’s party in 2014, calling it his gravest mistake. The ‘strike’ that began on 1 June from a village called Puntamba in Ahmednagar district has paralysed the markets. Puntamba farmers have made several demands, and loan waiver is on the top.
About 40 farmers’ organisations and tens of villages have joined in support. The opposition parties, the Congress and NCP, and BJP’s ruling ally, the Shiv Sena, are also backing the protests.
Also Read: Marathwada Farmers Desperate to Sell Animals to Overcome Debt
Socio-Economic and Political Marginalisation
Three events between 1988 and 1993 seem to be at the root of the socio-economic transformations that are causing unrest among the dominant farming castes across the country – the Marathas in Maharashtra, the Patels or Patidars in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the Gujjars and Jats in the entire cow belt, or the Kammas in the Andhra. They explain their plea for reservation too.
The first event was the implementation of the Mandal commission’s recommendations; followed by the 1991 economic reforms, and third, the demolition of the Babri Masjid.
The reservation for the OBCs in education, jobs and politics shrunk the space that was once solely occupied by these dominant communities in administration, social institutions, and politics.
The economic reforms opened the ever-expanding service sector to the landless and backward classes; and while the BJP antagonised the Muslims by bringing down the Babri Masjid, an unintended consolidation of the OBC masses behind it also hit the politically powerful, numerically small, upper layer of the OBCs.
One generation has grown up since and it is realising that it now has to share spaces that were solely dominated by their community until the 1990s – it’s leading to deep psycho-sociological disturbances within the dominant castes.
They not only have to compete in the open space with other communities; they must also overcome the traditional aura of the landed class as vast sections of peasantry are now in deep economic malaise.
There’s a growing realisation among the younger generations that the hierarchy means nothing in the face of a transforming socio-economic milieu. They know that they are stuck in the stagnant agrarian economy while the rest of the world has zoomed past them in the post-1991 era.
These fundamental changes in the socio-political character of India’s hinterland and heartland are subtly getting expressed, sometime in the form of social unrests of the Patels or Marathas or the Gujjars and others through the acerbic protests of the farmers.
The latter are not caste-exclusive but joined in also by other communities that are living through the seemingly unending agrarian predicament.
(The writer is a Nagpur-based journalist, writer, researcher, cricket enthusiast and a PARI volunteer, and author of the book A Village Awaits Doomsday. He can be reached @journohardy. )
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