A large numbers of agriculturists have been on a 10-day “strike” from June 1.
Today is the first anniversary of the killing of some half a dozen farmers by the police at Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh, and the country’s farmers are on the move once again. A large numbers of agriculturists have been on a 10-day “strike” from June 1. Their “gaon bandh”, or village shutdown, is planned to culminate in a Bharat Bandh on June 10.
It doesn’t matter how successful the farmers’ protest turns out to be. The point is that India’s farm sector is going through a period of acute distress, which began long before the Narendra Modi government announced its disastrous demonetisation policy in November 2016.
While the very negative impact on the economy of that ill-considered move has now begun to balance out haltingly, there have been no serious attempts by the government to address fundamental concerns of the farm sector, which yields approximately 16 per cent of GDP but supports around 60 per cent of the country’s population.
By some estimates, unable to face up to their debt burden, 30-35 farmers take their own lives every day, and yet the official response has been lukewarm, at best.
This is surprising given that the Narendra Modi government had promised to double farm incomes by 2022. The basis of this optimism, which had also found a place in the finance minister’s first Budget speech, is far from clear.
What’s clear, however, is that the scale of investment in agriculture and the rural economy as a whole needed to tackle such a target is nowhere near forthcoming. Indeed, if rural incomes were to double in the near future, India might well be on its way to becoming a middle-income country.
In response to the farmers’ current strike, Union agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh has said farmers have gone into action to catch media attention, suggesting they don’t have any real grievance. Other leading BJP figures have tried to read a political motive into the farmers’ agitation.
This is a way of saying that the government has no responsibility towards the farm sector, or its impact on the nation’s economy. This is a pity, for it should be obvious that if agricultural incomes fall, the market for industrial goods too will shrink, affecting the economy as a whole.
The farmers are demanding the implementation of the M.S. Swaminathan formula as minimum support price, which is a 50 per cent markup on the cost of production, which should include improvements in land, and not just running costs. In some parts, agriculturists also seek a loan waiver when agriculture has crashed. When they produce too much, prices fall, hurting farmers’ incomes. When crops fails, there isn’t much to sell and earnings are hit. Agriculture needs long and short-term measures, and structural as well as running improvements.