An Overview

The Peasant Question Returns

Manas Bakshi

Now that the assembly election in the five states— Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Telengana and Mizoram—are over and results are announced, it is immaterial to harp on why and how one is the winner and the other is a loser. How far these poll results will affect the ensuing parliamentary election in 2019 is the moot question. For, looming large in the background are some crucial issues like unemployment, inflation, economic offence, deprivation of Dalits and other disadvantaged sections and the farmers' plight—to name only a few. And coalition or no coaltion, who will win the heart of the electorate with politically hyped rhetoric and hyperbole depends much on the course of action and performance potential of the parties entrenched in power in the states at present.

Among the issues mentiond, agriculture is one area that is claimed to have played a pivotal role in moulding people's verdict in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Rajasthan. If one looks back and takes into consideration the stages the farmers' movements took shape from time to time, one may have a clear picture of the situation that accelerated the pace for the fall of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the three states.

In March 2018, peasants of Maharashtra—mostly tribals—gathered in large number for what was called a "Long March" at Mumbai to raise their voice. On 5th September, 2018, more than 1.5 lakh peasants, argicultural labourers and workers staged a rally in New Delhi. And the joint rally of the three sections on the Parliament Street was the first of its kind to have brought the peasantry and the workers together. On 30th November, 2018, Indian farmers were once again on the path of agitation demanding to endorse in the winter session of parliament two bills for (1) fair and assured prices of agricultural produce and (2) freedom from the burden of indebtedness.

Remarkably, the volley of protest against the farm-sector-distress came from over 200 organisations of farmers who assembled in Delhi on 30th November 2018, and marched from the Ramlila maidan to parliament to make the rally a significant one. It is indeed commendable that some 200 odd peasant organisations came under the canopy of All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) to herald the justified cause; but undeniable, at the same time, is the fact that unless the opposition parties leading their farm outfits came together to form a beeline, looming large in the backdrop was the apprehension, for some of them, of slipping into political oblivion. Undesirably also, some political parties seeking a toehold beyond their regional periphery were prompt enough to fish in troubled waters by joining hands in support of the long standing demands of the farmers.

What the demands specifically were? Those were mainly a nationwide loan waivers to the farm sector and remunerative price of agricultural products. Notably, in the run up to the assembly election last year in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh, Congress made a pitch for farm loan waiver. Needless to mention, loan waiver to the tune of several crores in these states has taken place. But does the staple of an election manifesto really serve any purpose? Most unlikely, because first of all, it costs an adverse effect on an economy already constrained by several factors. As a matter of fact, in the September 2018 quarter, the country's GDP growth came down to 7.1% from 8.2% in the June quarter. What is more, a sluggish farm sector recorded only 3.8% growth. There is another point "Loan waiver announced by several states in 2017" led to a 15% decline in the coverage of farmers in 2017-18 as far as the Centre's flagship crop insurance scheme 'Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana' (PMFBY) was concerned. In states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Rajasthan, farmers' enrolment dipped from 57.3 million in 2016-17 to 48.8 million in 2017-18. Admittedly although, favourable monsoon and dealy in payment of claims under PMFBY were two other factors responsible for the dip in crop insurance coverage.

Secondly, it is not only loan waiver but remunerative price of agricultural products that has so far been sought earnestly. It is worth mentioning, here, that in 2004, a National Commission on Farmers (NCF) was set up by the Government of India to probe agrarian problems and find out ways for removing those with an eye to making farming so remunerative that the progeny of the farm-families find interest in farming. Ensuring a "minimum net income" for the farmers was also envisaged to promote economic viability of farming and betterment of rural livelihoods. Unfortunately, nothing fruitful has taken shape as yet. Even timely availability of institutional credit or state support by way of an "upfront investment" as it has happened in Telangana has still to make a headway across the entire country.

Thirdly, as far as the issue of remunerative price is concerned, one can look into the recommendation of NCF. To quote Mr M S Swaminathan "government has ensured in its notification that from Kharif 2018 onwards Minimum Support Price (MSP) of the notified crops would be minimum of 150% of the cost of production; it ranges from 150%-200% for coarse cereals". It has remained a remote possibility because the malady lies elsewhere: In the absence of system for timely procurement and proper public distribution of agricultural production, the farmers at large are suffering a lot since long. Even determining the MSP in keeping with the recommendation of NCF has remained largely confined to an illusory agenda only—let alone the question of developing methods to double the income of farmers within next five years!

How can one think of change for the better in the farm sector when the very distribution network has remained mostly in the firm grip of the middlemen who exploit the opportunity of making money by hoarding? Hardly any measure has so far been taken to reduce their monopoly power. Which is why the cultivators of onion in Maharashtra or the cultivators of potato in Uttar Pradesh faced the misery of bankruptcy while their farm commodities are being hoarded for sale afterwards at exorbitant prices in some other states. And the process is continuing undeterred before the eyes of the rulers.

The consequences are deplorable. National Crime Bureau has recorded an alarming rise in the rate of suicide committed by farmers; ironically, over three lakh peasants committed suicide between 1995 and 2015. It is not only because of not being compensated with due price of their product but also being affected by the hike in the prices of fertilisers and pesticides—both the factors compelling them to get more enmeshed in debt-trap to carry on farming. It is against this perspective that their next generation is hardly anymore interested in farming as a way of earning, the number of farmers who had left farming was around fifteen million between the 1991 and the 2011 censuses. And, at the same time, migration to urban areas threatened with non-availability of other works in a country plagued by acute joblessness plunges them into further desperation.

More disquieting is the fact that Indian farmers are still, to a great extent, at the mercy of nature. Either flood or drought haunts them. Despite budgetary and non-budgetary allocations for providing micro-irrigation facilities through the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana (PMKSY) or enactments like Agricultural Produce and Livestock Contract Farming Services Act, 2018, neither infrastructure with appropriate modern technology nor-agriculture markets with electronic devices have yet paved the way for farmers' welfare.

But most of the political parties in opposition seem to be more vocal only about temporary reliefs or 'default solution' like loan waiver than meaningful reforms. Waiver of loan does not mean freedom, that is, liberation from indebtedness—a sine qua non of rural distress. And whatever the outcome, the magnitude of the peasant mobilisaiton at New Delhi hardly had a pragmatic appraoch towards resolving the long standing issues which the farmers are confronted with. Again, it is also not impossible that the fervour of apparent bonhomie between Congress, CPI(M) and some other political parties present on 30th November, 2018 at the Kisan Mukti March in New Delhi can melt anytime on the pretext of electoral disagreement. What is required is a dynamic policy on agriculture and its implementation for proper cycling of institutional credit, use of HYV technology at reasonable cost, irrigation facilities and, above all, procurement at remunerative price and distribution of farm commodities in cooperation with state agencies in a systematic way besides complying with recommendations of NCF.

[Manas Bakshi, a doctorate in Rural Economics is the author of 'From Feudalism to Capitalism' and 'Land Reforms in Left Regime']

Vol. 51, No.31, Feb 3 - 9, 2019