By Shivaji Sarkar
Elections and competitive promises for loan waivers for farmers are inseparable. Despite this, the farm distress doesn’t end. Even if not on warpath, the farmers are marching to Delhi and Mumbai in lakhs for some succour.
Loan waivers were given in Punjab, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Andhra, Telangana and Puducherry during over last three years. Now more promises are being made by almost all political parties, including Congress and BJP. New waiver promises have led the farmers to stop repayments in Madhya Pradesh and many go for more borrowings.
This April, the Government told Parliament that between April 2014 and December 2017, public sector banks (PSB) wrote off Rs 2,72,558 crore worth of loans. They recovered Rs 29,343 crores— a mere 10.7 per cent — of the loans that had been written off. This is also over 10 per cent of the Central budget.
This then should put the farmers in a comfortable situation. So why are they marching to Delhi demanding a special Parliament session to press for discussion on the agrarian crisis. It also includes enacting laws, some of which were presented in Parliament as Private Members Bills. The two proposed legislations are: Farmers’ Freedom and Indebtedness Bill 2018 and the Farmers’ Right to Guaranteed Remunerative Minimum Support Prices for Agricultural Commodities Bill 2018. Twenty-one political parties had extended support.
In the backdrop of agitation, remember, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced to implement MSP at 1.5 times the cost as per MS Swaminathan committee report. However, it is different that the basic Swaminathan premise was tweaked to keep the MSP lower than the actual expenses made. What relief have the farmers got?
The Akhil Bharatiya Kisan Sangharsh Samiti, the banner that is leading the farmers and farm workers, encompassing 207 organisations, to the Ramlila Maidan has ostensible support of the leftist Kisan Sabha. Recall, the Bharatiya Kisan Union had also recently organised a similar march from Haridwar on September 23 to culminate in Delhi border on October 2. But the Delhi police fired shots, charged water cannons and restrained them from entering Delhi.
The issues were identical. The Government and some ministers tried to describe this as an Opposition show. But let us not forget that last year too, the nation was surprised to see the farmers marching in perfect order to the heart of Mumbai without disturbing the Mumbaikars, termed as Kisan Long March and got support from ordinary citizens.
Evidently, suicides by farmers have not abated. According to the National Crime Reports Bureau, 296,438 farmers have committed suicide between 1995 and 2014. About 4,000 farmers took their lives in Maharasthra between 2004 and 2013.
Worse, the distress is growing in rural areas as share of agriculture in GDP has come down drastically to about 14 per cent from over 50 per cent. Though a section of economists welcome the trend as it suggests that industry and services are growing and contributing in a major way to “improve” the national economy.
Looking back, the economic changes in the country have led to increasing disparity. The 1991 “liberalisation” led to more government controls. A US think tank, Heritage Institute annual index of Economic Freedom ranked India at 130 of 180 countries. It has categorised India as “mostly unfree” in five categories. India apparently, is nowhere near the Western norms, often mocked at by many conservative experts.
The political system of the supposedly “despised” Congress continues, including the failed ‘Manmohanomics’, often referred to as 1991 New Delhi consensus. Socialism had at least ushered in a green revolution and helped the farmers to an extent. But industrialist-centric liberalism has robbed the farmers of their land for roads, airports, industry, real estate and a chaotic situation.
The farmers and rural destitution has been growing. The urban and non-farm sector has not only seen a corresponding expansion, but has also been growing at a much faster pace than the agrarian economy. Nothing wrong. But it is at the cost of the rural and farm economy.
There was a period when Socialist or Gandhian economy was agro-based and the agriculture sustained the other aspects of the economy, including the industry. The 1991 consensus crushed the farm economy, exploited it, impoverished it and the corrections are still missing. This has spread the bribes to unknown areas, including bank officers and then there was demonetization, which gave unfettered powers to the tax officials. Many farmers and rural entrepreneurs were forced to pay to save their skin.
The indebtedness among farmers is high, said to be around 86 per cent. Almost half the farm creditors were harassed to repay. It led to assets’ sale and a fall in economic position. This is a vortex and leads to more debt burden.
The Supreme Court order for return of acquired land in West Bengal’s Singur to farmers exposed that Punjab had also acquired huge tracts of land in Barnala and even after 10 years these are unused. The land for roads may be giving one-time bounty, but it is displacing farmers and the mesh of roads is causing desertification in fertile areas. Tolls on roads are making the farmers alien in their own villages.
The State has turned into virtual venture capitalists. The big industrialists are making forays into the farmland further impoverishing the farmer.
All of this is what the farmer is protesting today. It is a battle for his survival. There is consensus on this among both the leftist Kisan Sabha and rightists Bharatiya Kisan Sangh as also Swadeshi Jagaran Manch. The character of the State, irrespective of political parties, has not changed.
The cities would not be able to sustain for long if the villages continue to collapse economically. It may severely affect urban India. The government servants who feel secure with a pay packet may soon feel the pinch. Urban India may fall under a new pressure, sooner than later, which could lead to severe governance issues, if not chaos.
Innovative and equitable governance calls for a churning in political thinking. The apathy is palpable howsoever political parties couch it in jargons. If socialism had kept industrialists in shackles of licences, the new “economy” puts many more controls. But liberal FDI has its complexities too. Repatriation of profits is high and farm land is nothing but an investment in real estate.
India has to chalk out its own way. A national policy on land acquisition is a must along with a deep thought on ending rural indebtedness and multiplying farm incomes. Else today’s Gandhian agitation can turn into violent Maoist movement. Political parties need to rethink for their own survival. — INFA