A broken promise brokers unrest

Columnist  | Pavan K Varma

Opinion, Columnists

The truth is that Shivraj Chouhan did not give the required attention to agriculture and to the needs of farmers.

MP CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan

Shivraj Singh Chouhan is, perhaps, a well-meaning man.  The deep blot of the Vyapam scandal notwithstanding, he is generally considered to be a good administrator.  Reports suggest that he spends considerable time walking along the banks of the Narbada and praying at the many temples that dot its banks. It is also likely that he was genuinely upset at the fact that under his watch six farmers were gunned down in cold blood. His one-day upvaas for the restoration of peace and normalcy (which was purposeless since Section 144 remained clamped at Mandsaur when he broke his arduous fast) was, as per his supporters, a noble gesture.

But, one basic question remains unanswered: Why was he not aware of the growing distress of farmers in Madhya Pradesh, and why did six tillers of the soil have to be shot dead by the police, for him, and his administration, to wake up to this looming crisis?

The truth is that Shivraj Chouhan did not give the required attention to agriculture and to the needs of farmers. This was entirely in keeping with the signals he got from the apex leadership of the BJP, for whom the rampant agrarian distress across India remains an insignificant footnote in the larger utopian dream of bullet trains and smart cities. If this is not the case, Prime Minister Modi would never have broken his promise, made publicly and put down in writing as part of the BJP’s election manifesto, of giving farmers a minimum support price of cost plus 50 per cent.

Among the plethora of largely unfulfilled promises the PM made during the elections, this was, arguably, the most important. After two successive drought years, it offered to farmers the possibility of a remunerative return for their produce, and the hope that the new government would, in general, be more concerned about their needs. But this was not to be. In a spectacular and cynical breach of faith, the BJP government told the Supreme Court in February 2015 that it will not raise the MSP.  

As the chief minister of a BJP ruled state, the message would have come loud and clear to Shivrajji. He would have understood that now that the BJP had won the elections of 2014 with a sweeping majority, the welfare of farmers could be placed on the back burner. As a result he may not have noticed that while agricultural production in MP was, indeed, growing at around 20 per cent, farmers were being compelled to dump their bumper crops of onions, tomatoes and potatoes as the state had neither made arrangements to procure the crops, nor done anything to ensure a reasonable price.   While understandably proud of his Krishi Karman awards, Shivraj Chouhan may not have been overly concerned about the fact that between November 2016 to February 2017, 287 farmers and farm labourers committed suicide in his state.  

In this indifference, he was but mirroring the approach of the BJP-NDA government at the Centre. Farmer suicides went up by 42 per cent between 2014 and 2015 (with 581 in MP alone in 2015), even while the Modi government was announcing the resolve to Make in India. In fact, if Chouhan saheb was so genuinely moved by the plight of farmers, as he now says he always was, he should have sat on a fast the moment the BJP government broke its poll promise to increase the MSP.

That would have not have made his masters in the BJP happy, but it would have been a courageous gesture. He could have also considered abstaining from food for a few hours when the Central government decreed that no bonus should be given by state governments to farmers, and if state governments do give this bonus, they must bear the entire financial burden themselves, and accept the fact that no place would be provided for the extra procurement in the warehouses of the Food Corporation of India (FCI).

The decision to partially waive farm loans, or increase the subsidy on interest payable, are steps that are clearly too little, too late.

Loan waivers may help in the short run, but they are just  painkillers when what is needed is a strong doze of antibiotics in the form of policy measures. These measures must include a quantum jump in agricultural investments, through such steps like increased cold storages, warehousing, transportation, seeds and pesticides, irrigation coverage, marketing strategies and the elimination of exploitative middlemen. There are other deeply troubling questions. Why were pulses imported from Myanm-ar, Tanzania, Mozambi-que and Malawi, even when there was a substantial increase in production of tur dal in India? As a result of this decision, the price of lentils fell within the country from Rs 11,000 per quintal in December 2015, to below Rs 4,000 in December 2016. If this is true, why should responsibility not be fixed, and an inquiry be instituted on who benefitted?  

What is truly amazing is that when leaders of Opposition parties wished to meet with the bereaved families of the killed farmers, BJP politicians and their friendly media outlets dubbed such visits as “political tourism”.    Farmers are shot in cold blood by the police, and if the Opposition wants to visit Mandsaur to find out what happened and why, they are stopped from going, and their desire to do so is almost considered an anti-national act!

It is conveniently forgotten that during the 2008 Mumbai attacks, even while the terrorists were on the rampage, a certain CM from Gujarat, against the advice of security agencies, rushed to Mumbai and made a speech on how incompetent the Manmohan Singh government was!   That was not considered “political tourism”.  Indeed, it was considered an act of patriotism. Talk of double standards!

Given the seriousness of the agrarian crisis, what India needs is a new Mission Agriculture. What the farmers have got thus far is Mission Neglect.