Beyond Populism

The ruling parties and opposition as well seem to have drawn their line for up-coming parliamentary poll. It is the time for populism and election means competitive populism. Farmers being the soft and easy target, all are indulging in populism by way of offering loan-waiver if they come to power. But they never explain why they have failed so miserably to come to grips with the prolonged farm distress. Not that this agrarian crisis is a recent phenomenon. No doubt the farm sector has been the physical and intellectual battle field that defines present time. Farmers, poor and marginal farmers to be precise, are the victims of a deliberate policy of discouraging small-scale farming—the back-bone of India's rural economy. Loan waiver apart, the centre and some state governments have offered some budgetary sops which are too inadequate to help even the marginal peasants, marginally. In truth some state governments like Telengana and Odisha have shown better magnanimity to woo peasant voters by doling out better packages. In other words the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led governments, both at the centre and in states, lag behind in agrarian populism. Telengana government has a point or two to talk differently than what Modi is saying day in and day out to focus his party's—BJP's—peasant friendly programme which is at worst a mockery of addressing the mounting farm crisis.

To prevent farmers from falling into a debt trap, the Telengana state government has started the agricultural investment support scheme "Rythu Bandhu". Under the scheme a grant of Rs 8000 per acre is given to eligible farmers in each season (Kharif and Rabi) for purchase of inputs like seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and labour, as investment support. As per the state government claim, about 5.9 million farmers seem to have been benefited from the 'Rythu' initiative and the total burden on the exchequer is around Rs 120 billion—a staggering sum indeed! However, around 1.5 million tenant peasants are not covered under the scheme—they were not given due consideration when the scheme was framed. It was all about rich and middle peasant families. It remains to be seen whether direct income support for farmers compensates for fall in prices as peasants are being forced to resort to distress sales during harvesting season. If this type of populism is adopted by all states, India's exchequer could take a hit of Rs 600 to 700 billion a year—a frightening scenario! Insecurity continually haunts Indian peasants—insecurity is the most acutely felt economic problem. Around one-fifth of India's population is below the poverty line officially. But large sections of those even much above that red line are subject to insecurities of various kinds, caused by weather vagaries, health risks, market fluctuations and job losses.

In the end loan waivers for farmers like loan waivers for corporate defaulters, plays havoc with banking culture. Only middle and big farmers have been benefited from such measures while small and marginal peasants continue to toil in drudgery and face destitution. More than two thirds of Indian peasants are marginal peasants, with less than one hectare of land, who take only 20 percent of institutional loans and owe the remaining loans to private lenders. These poor and marginal peasants and tenant peasants as well are not touched by the much touted waiver programme. And yet they continually beat around the waiver-bush, to garner votes.

Also, price support mechanism doesn't really help small farmers as they would be forced to sell their produce to middlemen at harvest time. The current farm insurance premium subsidy scheme is plagued by low participation, tardy claim settlements which finally benefit private insurance companies more than targeted beneficiaries—farmers. Almost all subsidies from the central and state governments add to about 6 percent of GDP, and are largely enjoyed by the better off sections of the population.

Subsidy is no answer to crippling job losses and fall in real income in agrarian sector. Economic distress is multiplying with every passing day from the government's failure in creating sufficient jobs. Low-earning farmers are in a procession to move to non-farm jobs for sheer survival. The pauacity of jobs, rather search for secure jobs leads to agitation on job reservations even by dominant peasant castes (Marathas, Patidars, Jats, Kapus) and state violence. The ruling establishments, irrespective of their colour, indulge in every brutality, every hypocrisy, feed every contradiction and salt every would in their efforts to crush peasant agitation whenever they flare up.

Despite propaganda blitz to project the rulers' pro-farmer image, farmers across the country look restive. Last time the nation witnessed the historic Long March and Mumbai was humbled when over 30,000 farmers marched in silent protest in scorching sun in November 2018. Faced with peasant defiance and prospects of its adverse impact on the upcoming parliamentary poll the BJP-led Maharashtra government quickly agreed to the demands. Then they indulged in dilly-dallying tactics with a view to sabotaging the second Long March. They in reality utilised the carrot and stick policy to weaken the AIKS-led peasant movement. The second Long March has been deferred but it is unlikely the government will heed to their agonising concerns.

All of their demands have remained unfulfilled. They demand immediate relief in the grim drought situation, assured irrigation facilities, land rights, complete liberation from debt, not path-work in the form of loan-waiver, minimum support price or remunerative price of farm produce at one and a half times the full cost of production and a genuine pro-farmer insurance plan.

One Long March is not enough. The country needs more Long Marches. There is one question that deserves serious attention in organising Long March. After all it is basically a peasant question but in the present context it is inseparable from the people's broader perspective. People in general must feel the bonding, not alienation when peasants march. Insecurity gives birth to peasant unrest. No doubt only a powerful peasant assertion can make a difference and break the status quo. The peasants have consistently expressed themselves in terms of rebellion from which all oppressed sections of society benefit.


Vol. 51, No. 38, Mar 24 - 30, 2019