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Posted at: Jan 6, 2019, 7:29 AM; last updated: Jan 6, 2019, 7:29 AM (IST)

Who’ll reap the benefits of a bitter harvest?

The countdown to Lok Sabha poll has already begun and both the BJP and the Congress would make loan waiver for farmers a key poll plank. Do the two parties really relate to the problems of farmers?
Who’ll reap the benefits of a bitter harvest?

Rasheed Kidwai

There is a dire need for a broad consensus on the agrarian distress and the issues relating to farmers in India. It is unlikely, however, that the General Election 2019 or beyond will see any joint effort by the Narendra Modi-led BJP-NDA government and Rahul Gandhi and the proposed alliance of regional parties addressing the issues facing the farm sector. The only solution that two major national parties can offer is waiver of loans and direct cash transfers. As the countdown to the 2019 elections has already begun, the Modi government is likely to announce Rs 4,000 per acre/per season direct cash transfers. These would cost Rs 2.3 lakh crore to the exchequer. The Congress is also determined to make loan waivers to farmers a key poll plank.

As per an estimate, given a chance, 64 per cent of farmers would prefer any occupation other than farming. The Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) conducted a ‘Mood of the Nation’ survey in 2018. It revealed that 64 per cent of farmers would prefer to work in cities due to access to better education, health and employment avenues. Over 70 per cent of respondents said their crops were destroyed because of unseasonal rains, drought, floods and pest attack. Besides these, climate change, destruction and degradation of forest cover, drastic changes in the sale of cattle and livestock policy by various states, etc. are putting excessive and unsustainable pressure on the farming community.

The CSDS had conducted a similar survey in 2013-14 as well. In that survey,  only 36 per cent of respondents had said that they would not like their children to take up farming as the source of livelihood. In 2018, this figure went up to a disturbing 64 per cent. 

Low prices of crops continue to be a pressing problem since the past 15 years that have seen the NDA and the UPA running the country and a change in every state government (except for Sikkim).  

Like America and some other democracies, political parties in India are weak on principles. On the face of it, they differ with one another on many issues facing the country. But on many matters relating to foreign policy, defence and economic issues, brokerage politics, an informal spirit of ‘give and take’ has helped ‘reforms’ in many sectors, including pension, insurance and labour. Unfortunately, a similar zeal or sense of purpose is missing where the agriculture sector is concerned, as farm community is sharply divided on caste, religion and regional lines.

The rise of a strong and influential middle class has further alienated the cause of farmers in the country. The Congress, for instance, does not even have half-a-dozen front-ranking leaders (members of the Congress Working Committee) who can understand the agrarian issues on the macro level. As a result, like his grandmother Indira Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi often treats farmers merely as a vote bank. For Rahul, “Economic Right and Social Left” is a cure for most problems facing the country. He has no cogent strategy to deal with the larger issue of farm distress or find a solution to why 64 per cent of the farmers do not want to continue doing it and want their children to seek an other profession.

Indira Gandhi, in 1969, had nationalised 14 banks that controlled 70 per cent of India’s deposits promising that credits would be channelised to agriculture. The banks had to reserve as much as 40 per cent of their credit to agriculture. But it remained rhetoric and never transformed into a reality. Nonetheless, her era’s Green Revolution was a grand success as it helped feed millions. Indira would say: “The discovery of a new seed variety stirs rural people as much as a spacewalk or a transplanted heart does the more literate classes.” But, in the long term, the mechanisation of agriculture reduced job opportunities and the anticipated shift from agriculture to industry did not take place.

By the time she returned to power in 1980, the private sector industry had become her favourite, unlike her father Jawaharlal Nehru, who wanted the private sector to gradually “fade away.” There was no “pull effect” of industrial growth, just the “push effect” of rural unemployment, resulting in huge slums in urban centres.   

Rahul’s commitment to farmers’ cause may be well intended. However, the party neither has a strong line of communication with the farming community nor any clarity on key issues — like acceptance or opposition to GM crops — facing the farm sector. The near absence of big leaders with a broad understanding of agriculture in the 134-year-old party is a major drawback. Bhatta Parsual, Sangareddy and Mandsaur have, therefore, been mere destinations for the young Gandhi. Rahul needs to act as a catalyst, understand the challenges farmers are facing and offer some exemplary good solutions. The UPA’s failure to implement the MS Swaminathan Commission recommendations is a glaring example of the Congress’ callous and shifty attitude towards farmers. Rahul needs to set up in-house think tanks, circulate position papers and engage independent farm leaders before taking a ‘grand’ stand on farmers.

In the ruling BJP, too, few are willing to take a firm stand on agricultural issues. Union Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi, who has been articulating her views on the rapid erosion of India’s biodiversity, is an exception. Her son and BJP MP from Sultanpur, Feroze Varun Gandhi has written a whopping 825-page quasi-academic book, A Rural Manifesto: Realising India’s Future Through Her Villages, that talks of the rural economy.

Varun, who is reportedly unhappy with his parent organisation, wonders why loan waivers to farmers are made to look so ugly and unwieldy when non-performing assets (NPAs) granted by the nationalised banks to 15 industrial houses have been five times more than all loan waivers given to the farmers since 1952. As per his estimates, some 30 million farmers have already abandoned agriculture in the past 10 years, and another 50 million would be forced to do so in the next five years.

There are far too many issues relating to agriculture that seek immediate attention. The government, for instance, has launched an initiative to give soil health cards to farmers, but no step has been taken to sensitise farmers across the length and breadth of the country on how to improve their soil. No education has been offered on the benefits of adding organic manure or farm residue or recycling agricultural waste into the soil. Agriculture, being a state subject, often becomes a ready excuse for the bureaucracy (which incidentally lacks even a big picture understanding of issues relating to agriculture) to blame either the Centre or the state depending upon the situation.

The farmers, however, register their protest through ballot box. That’s something all parties are acutely aware of.

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