As they continue to struggle with underdevelopment and the state's neglect, when will India's farmers receive their due?
They are the vast majority in India, but they are mostly silent and rarely on the publicity radar, they are, in short, out of sight and out of mind -- out of the mind of policy makers, governments, the urban chatterati and the mainstream media. Yet, they provide food that makes India self-sufficient and grease the machinery that keeps the country ticking. Meet India’s farmers, who are constantly slogging in the fields but figure among the most vulnerable on the economic chart.
Governments that have neglected the country’s farming community have realised the heavy price they have had to pay for that in electoral terms. The latest to feel the pain was the ruling right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which in December was defeated in crucial elections to three state assemblies. Among the widely acknowledged reasons for the defeat was the intense distress in the states’ rural agrarian hinterland.
Since independence seven decades ago, India’s successes in modernising its agriculture and reaching self-sufficiency in food grains have been overshadowed by increasing insecurity among its peasants. The spiralling costs of inputs like fertilisers and pesticides have not been compensated by the increase in rates for the varying farm produce. Natural disasters such as droughts, floods and the like have hit the farmers hard as they have not been able to repay their loans. And governments, by and large, have not been able to figure out how to sort out these complex issues to bring relief to the farming community. According to a recent official estimate, some 52 percent of farming households in certain states are in debt to the extent of 89-92 percent.
The upshot of years of neglect and, at best, short-term solutions, have only exacerbated the living conditions of farmers. Unsurprisingly, in the last three decades hundreds of farmers have committed suicide across various states due to meagre earnings and the inability to withstand pressure from creditors for loan repayments. Figures from the National Crime Records Bureau in 2015 indicate that 7,536 farmers committed suicide across the country. The latest figures for 2018 are not yet available. From 2009-2016, in the state of Maharashtra alone, 23,000 farmers committed suicide.
Schemes such as state-sponsored insurance schemes, designed to insulate farmers from the vagaries of nature and other reasons beyond human control, have not really helped. The only succour governments have been able to offer farmers in distress has been to waive their debts. While that has undoubtedly been of some relief to farmers, such decisions have fallen woefully short of making deeper systemic changes that would protect farmers earnings and ensure a decent livelihood.
Politically therefore, farm anger has turned out to be a powerful sentiment that has unfailingly dislodged political parties from power. Take the latest case of the federal government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His November 2016 decision to overnight demonetise currency notes of 500 and 1,000 rupees shocked the nation but proved to be disastrous for farmers. Modi’s intentions may have been to neutralise black money in circulation but in reality it hit the nation’s economy and farmers, already reeling under various problems, suddenly saddling them with a huge liquidity crisis.
Since much of India’s farm trade happens in cash, the demonetisation saw 86 percent of currency notes in circulation evaporate into nothing. With no access to credit cards or any of the newfangled methods of Internet-based monetary transactions, almost the entire farm trade came crashing to a halt. Farmers were unable to sell their produce in the market as the buyers did not have the facility to pay them, nor were farmers able to buy any essential goods as their currency notes had become worthless.
Long lines formed across the country, particularly in rural areas, with people waiting to change the notes for lower-end denominations. Some even died standing in lines, while many had to walk back home as banks ran out of valid currency. The government, meanwhile, refused to back down on its decision and instead announced minor reliefs such as extending the deadline to exchange the currency notes, which hardly made any difference to the suffering of the farming community.
Another decision was the religiously-driven move to ban the cattle trade. The BJP, a party with a clear cut agenda to push its vision of a Hindu-centric nation, appeased its supporters by imposing a ban on cattle slaughter and trade, expecting to win mass support for its move. Again, the worst hit was the farming sector, of which the cattle trade is an essential component. Farmers, though many of them Hindus, have historically sold cattle that have outlived their utility and with the money bought younger, more energetic, replacements.
But, with various BJP-run state governments enforcing the cattle ban, the trade in these farm animals has almost come to a halt, affecting thousands of farmers and rural cattle owners. The anger and frustration came to the fore with elections to the three BJP-ruled states, resulting in the party’s defeat in all three.
The opposition Congress party, sensing the anger, offered to waive farm loans if elected to power. The plan worked and it returned to power in all three states and its first action in all three states was to implement their promise.
India’s rural vote, dominated by various classes of the farming community, has historically influenced the eventual winner in most elections. During the Emergency (1975-77) under the Congress government of the then prime minister Indira Gandhi, the policy of forced sterilisation affected thousands of farm families. Her defeat in the general elections of 1977 was attributed to rural anger, among other reasons. More recently, in 2004, when the coalition government led by the BJP under Atal Behari Vajpayee was expected to return to power, it was again his government’s perceived neglect of the rural voter that many attributed to the party’s shock defeat.
The recent electoral defeat in the three states appears to be causing concern within the BJP as many see the loss as an indicator of rural anger that could again go against the party in the all-important parliamentary elections in May 2019. Many point to the march by at least 50,000 farmers who walked some 180 kilometres from the rural areas of Maharashtra to state capital Mumbai in March 2018. More recently, in November, thousands of farmers from all over the country travelled to India’s capital New Delhi protesting against the government’s neglect and mismanagement of the farm sector. The moot question is whether the federal government can do anything substantial to reverse the negative effects of its policies on the country’s farming class as there is not much time left.
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