The single-most significant promise made was doubling farmers’ incomes by 2022.
Will millions of Indian farmers ever see their incomes double, free from the vicious cycle of debt, despair, distress and death? Or will they be a mere pawn for political parties ahead of polls as rural distress rears its ugly head?
India is witnessing the last few months of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s five-year term in office.
By selling unlimited dreams through popular slogans such as “Ache Din” (Good Days) and “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas” (Collective Efforts, Inclusive Growth), BJP under Mr Modi rode to power winning a comfortable majority of 282 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. But high-pitched election rhetoric apart, the promises made by the Prime Minister have made little difference to improving the lot of agricultural communities.
The single-most significant promise made was doubling farmers’ incomes by 2022. In reality, Mr Modi and his team have continued to play a cruel joke on millions of poor Indian farmers. After sleeping over the promise for four years, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs in July 2018 announced an increase in minimum support price (MSP) for 14 crops grown in the kharif (summer) season, including paddy, cotton, soyabean, pulses and millets.
But it was too late and too little, as profit margins of almost all major crops have fallen. Reason? India is growing more foodgrains.
While India’s farm budget has risen during the last four years, prices have crashed and unpaid agricultural loans have shot up to 20 per cent over the year to 2017.
Out of sheer desperation, about an estimated 35 farmers commit suicide everyday. About 600 million Indians dependent on farming struggle to eat two square meals a day. Interestingly, a government that claims to be farmer-friendly, does not have data on farmer suicides since 2016! This was acknowledged by no less than Union agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh on December, 18, 2018, during Question Hour in Parliament.
With no options left, farmers across the country have hit the streets at regular intervals to highlight their plight either by protesting or throwing their farm products on roads.
Blighted by declining water-levels, poor irrigation, lack of markets for products, over-dependence on the monsoons and thrown at the mercy of money-lenders and middlemen, Indian farmers marched to the capital to remind Mr Modi and his men of their tall promises, demanding better crop prices, drought relief and loan waivers.
The current regime is not just blind, but deaf as well. The Prime Minister finds all the time to meet global leaders, attend summits abroad as well as grace the wedding of Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra on December 4, but did not bother to reach out to protesting farmers on November 30, who had assembled in the national capital to present their demands.
Six farmers were shot dead by policemen during a farmers’ protest in Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh, in June 2017. It would be no exaggeration to suggest that the government’s fallacy now knows no bounds. Mr Modi prides in dedicating the world’s tallest statue for India’s first deputy prime minister Sardar Vallabhai Patel christened “Statue of Unity” by squandering `3,000 crore.
But he needs to be reminded that Patel got the title “Sardar” no less than from Mahatma Gandhi for tirelessly leading the Bardoli farmer’s agitation in 1928 against Britishers who had levied heavy taxes.
That all is not well with India’s farm sector is acknowledged by the Modi government-appointed committee headed by Ashok Dalwai, who headed the panel on Doubling Farmers’ Income.
“The agricultural sector grew at around 4 per cent per year during 2004-05 to 2014-15. The growth was quite impressive as compared to 2.6 per cent per annum during the previous decade (1995-96 to 2004-05),” says the report. Then came the government’s move to import foodgrains to curb inflation, which has totally distorted the market against domestic farmers.
India’s exports of agricultural produce have dipped. They recorded more than five times growth during 2004-2014: from `50,000 crore to `260,000 crore in this period. In a year it had dipped to `210,000 crore in 2015-16, or a market potential loss of `50,000 crore. On the other hand, agricultural imports have reported constant growth. They were pegged at `30,000 crore in 2004-5, which increased to `90,000 crore in 2013-14, the last year of the UPA-II government. In 2015-16, it reached `150,000 crore.
Realising that all this does not augur well politically after the party was routed in the three Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh — where the BJP won 64 of the 65 Lok Sabha seats in the general elections in 2014 — the Modi government may announce a massive universal loan waiver and some sort of financial income support to farmers in the interim budget on February 1 this year.
Will the farmer’s loan waiver work? The answer is a resounding “No”. Pittance to partial waivers were given by various BJP governments during the last few years. This is where the national farm loan waiver announced by the UPA government in 2008 made a big difference when farmers got almost a 100 per cent relief — all their outstanding crop and allied sector loans were waived.
Emerging as a powerful voice of Opposition parties against Prime Minister Modi over the farm issue and the neglect of rural India, Rahul Gandhi has emerged triumphant in his first political battle in the Hindi heartland by winning 285 seats in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan. The BJP managed to win only 197.
It is important for the next government to focus on improving agriculture, which is still the mainstay for the Indian economy that engages 58 per cent of its total workforce, uses 46 per cent of land and contributes 14 per cent to the country’s GDP.
Hitting it off well with rural India, Rahul Gandhi is setting the agenda for the Modi government for the remaining days in office. But then Rahul and the Congress need to focus on implementing the M.S. Swaminathan Committee Report.
Rahul, who has successfully captured the imagination of rural India to vote for his Party in the recent Assembly election, now has to adopt and adapt innovative measures to boost farming practices, market access and ensure higher returns.
The average size of landholding in India has shrunk to 1. 1 hectares. Rahul has a tough task ahead to prepare people for the “small farmers, large field” (SFLF) model. Conceptualised in Vietnam, landholding has spread rapidly from eight hectares to 1,96,000 hectares between 2011 and 2015, resulting in sky-rocketing farm incomes.
Similarly, he has to ensure the introduction of Integrated Farming Systems (IFS), that promotes sustainable systems such as recycling of farm waste for productive purposes, community-led local systems for water conservation and agro-ecological practices.
Besides growing crops, a judicious mix of other income-generating activities such as dairy, poultry, fishery, goat rearing, vermicomposting and beekeeping will enhance livelihood resilience, ensuring steady incomes. Also, the net of welfare schemes like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) implemented by the UPA, which cushioned distress during the lean years, need to be expanded.
Rahul Gandhi’s focus on farming and rural distress is the best tribute to Mahatma Gandhi whose sesquicentennial is being celebrated in India and the world till October 2, 2020. It was the Mahatma who not only brought the marginalised to the centre but also advocated Gram Swaraj and the strengthening of the rural economy. It is time for India to adopt Gandhian best practices.
The writer is associated with the Congress Party and is a former chairman of the Andhra Pradesh Electronics Development Corporation