India’s agriculture is once again in the news for two quite unlikely 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 injured in police firing on a mob of agitating farmers in Mandsaur, MP.
As usual, the political parties, especially the BJP and Congress, have since got busy blaming each other for the strife. The agitation is now showing signs of escalation as it spreads to other states.
Mandsaur Raises Some Questions
Various farmers’ organisations are holding meetings and staging demonstrations in support of MP’s farmers. The questions that are being asked are obvious ones:
- Why did the agitation become so violent in Madhya Pradesh, a state where agriculture has been growing at the fastest pace among all the states over the past several years? - - Are the causes immediate or long-standing?
- Are the grievances of farmers genuine, or have they been incited and instigated by vested political interests?
- What should be done to contain the resentment, and more importantly, what could be the measures to address the problem on a permanent basis?
MP Beats Other States in Agricultural Production
No doubt, Madhya Pradesh has been top of all the states in terms of agricultural production. During recent years it achieved an unprecedented high rate of growth up to 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 Congress and BJP. It is a well-known fact that expansion of irrigated area is the main factor responsible for increase in productivity.
It is due to a series of Narmada dam projects and other small as well as medium irrigation schemes that Madhya Pradesh, and even Gujarat, could accomplish such a feat and distinction. So the credit is not the state’s alone but belongs to schemes and projects that worked wonders.
It must also be accepted that Chief Minister Shivraj Chouhan has been quite sensitive towards and supportive of the farming community.
Launching of Balram Taal Yojana, large-scale procurement of food grains, payment of bonus over and above the centrally announced minimum support prices, e-chaupals, development of animal husbandry, dairy, milk processing, poultry, fishery and horticulture during his regime are standing testimony to Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s sincerity and commitment.
Record Production, Fall in Prices
However, for the past three to four years, the sector have been fraught with serious problems. Having been advised by the government and scientists, farmers diversified production of vegetables and fruits resulting in record production. The prices, however, started plummeting, which did not allow the growers even to recover basic costs of cultivation.
Whether it is potato, or onion, or tomato – the three major items of vegetables, farmers were often compelled to sell below cost and sometimes even dump them as the freight to carry them to market place exceeded the value realised.
In response to the price incentive in the form of higher minimum support prices announced by the central government, farmers produced more oilseeds 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 the MSP.
News stories related to the hardships being faced by farmers have been frequently appearing in the media since last three years since the BJP government came to power at the centre. Demonetisation further added to the woes of the farmers.
Non-availability of cash and currency at the critical time of winter harvest brought down the prices of all perishable commodities including vegetables, fruits, milk, poultry and fish, many of which are grown by small and marginal farmers. Large number of wage earners working in brick kilns and construction industry who were displaced lost their supplementary income.
Lure of the 50% Profit
Another factor that has contributed to the build-up of anguish among farmers is high expectations, due to the tall promises made by BJP leaders, including Narendra Modi, during their campaign for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
The first promise was to implement a 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 minimum support price (MSP).
The second promise was that farmers’ incomes would be doubled by 2022 i.e., within eight years (after BJP came to power in 2014).
Thirdly, they promised to come up with a farmer-friendly comprehensive agriculture insurance scheme to provide relief from losses caused by natural calamities.
Three years have passed since BJP came to power, and the first two promises are yet to be fulfilled. In response to a public interest litigation filed in the Supreme Court the government has stated that ensuring 50 percent profit over input cost is not practical.
Perishables Among the Worst Hit
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 about 3.5 percent per annum, while general inflation has been reigning at an average of 7 percent during these three years.
As already stated, many of the commodities covered under the MSP regime including oilseeds 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 the year 2013 in open auctions at all mandis. In 2014, the rates went down to Rs 3,300 and Rs 2,200; and during 2015 season to Rs 2,400 and Rs 1300. It was more or less the same story in 2016. Perishable produce was among the worst hit among agricultural products in the last three years.
The conditions and process of the insurance scheme by the government are complicated and incomprehensible for the farmer. Payment of compensation is neither adequate, nor timely, nor transparent. So far, the scheme has benefited the companies more than the farmers. Farmers are so appalled that they feel they have been cheated.
UP’s Loan Waiver the Last Straw?
The immediate trigger for the MP agitation seems to be the UP government’s decision to waive farm loans. It is but natural that the farmers of other states too start expecting and demanding the same. The Centre’s excuse 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?
But all these promises and jumlas were part of the BJP manifesto and were repeated so many times that the whole nation took it seriously. But that is what politics perhaps is all about!
Prompt Action Needed
The question whether the farmers got enraged on their own, or were incited by a political adversary, cannot be answered with certainty. One thing, however, is quite clear: that the BJP has been in power in Madhya Pradesh since 2003, and Congress has been enfeebled over the last 14 years. So what explains the recent turmoil? A plausible answer is that unless there was something simmering underneath, nothing could 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 shows that timely intervention and prompt action is the answer.
The habit of the government(s) to ignore the problems, allow them to simmer and explode, and then do the firefighting, needs to be done away with.
(The writer is former Minister of State for Agriculture & Water Resources, Member Union Planning Commission and First Chairman of National Commission on Farmers. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)
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