Farmer leaders attending a National Convention in Chandigarh, Aug 19-21, 2015
At least for four times during the day, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on Monday talked to the media to allay any fears arising from the crash of the stock markets, perhaps the biggest fall in seven years. By the evening the nation was informed that the Prime Minister Narendra Modi was personally keeping a watch on the volatile situation.
Some called it heartbreak, others termed it as mayhem. As the Sensex plunged 1,624 points, panic spread, and I heard a number of TV anchors calling it as a ‘bloodbath’. When asked to comment, I said: “The real bloodbath is happening on the farm. As of date, 3.05 lakh farmers have committed suicide in the past 20 years and I have never seen any Prime Minister, what to talk of a Finance Minister, even expressing concern at the continuing serial death dance on the farm.”
Only 1 per cent of India’s population invests in stock markets. And look at the shock that the media – both newspapers and television – are expressing. Look at the way the mandarins in the Finance Ministry go into a huddle to find ways to tide over the crisis, and repeatedly assure the country that all is well. Every hour, two farmers commit suicide somewhere, with the death toll mounting over the years, neither the media nor the mainline economists and planners have ever shown any remote concern.
This dichotomy in thinking – where 99 per cent are ignored at the cost of the privileged 1 per cent – is what brought leaders of 40 farmer organizations across the country for a 3-day intense deliberations at Chandigarh last week. They came from as far as Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar to share and understand the real causes behind the continuing agrarian crisis, and more importantly on how to put agriculture back on the national agenda. The underlying objective being on how to restore the voice of 60-crore farmers and at the same time bring back the pride in farming.
Agriculture has disappeared from the economic radar screen of the country. Over the past few decades, in line with the World Bank directive, farmers are increasingly being pushed out of farming. This is exactly what the World Bank had wanted India to do way back in 1996. It had directed India to move 40-crore people out from rural areas into the cities, by 2015. This is what worries the farming community. Farmers know that conditions are being created by successive governments – both by way of economic policies and by bringing in legislations like the land bill – to force them out of the villages.
“Farmers are only a political raw material and all political parties have used them time and again for their political gains, to be dumped again,” says Balbir Singh Rajewal, leading a faction of the Bharti Kisan Union. Uttar Pradesh farm leader, V M Singh puts it more succinctly when he says it is an ‘aar par ki ladai’ – political parties lead us across the frontier only to later make money by trading our interests’. While farmers continue to produce for the country year after year, they have been sliding into debt, which has been mounting with each passing year. Farmers realize that they are deliberately not being paid for what they produce. “The Minimum Support price (MSP) we get is not what we deserve but what will keep consumers and industry happy,” lamented Pachhe Nanjudaswamy of the Karnataka Rajya Ryot Sangha.
Over the years, farmer leaders too have lost credibility among the farming communities. Farmer leader too realize that farmers are increasingly losing faith among farmers. They are divided on lines of ideology, caste, egos and political affiliations. Many believe that farm unions today are explicitly divided on caste lines. The reservation movement in several parts – whether it is Patels in Gujarat, Gurjars in Rajasthan, and Jats in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh actually comprise farmers who have been divided on majority caste basis. While a majority of these agitations draw strength from the farming community of a particular class, farm issues have been pushed to the background. “The farmer movements began to fail after the advent of Panchayati Raj,” said Ajay Vir Jakhar of the Bharat Krishak Samaj.
Tiding over the internal problems that farmers’ movement across the country faces is one hurdle that the leaders need to cross, but it is the discriminatory economic policies being perpetuated over the years is what angers the farming community most. Farmers are amongst the lowest earning class in the country with the average income per family from farming operations not exceeding Rs 3000 per month. This is because the procurement price has been deliberately kept low. Cotton farmers for instance have been paid 20 per cent less than the market prices simply to keep the textile industry viable. Wheat and rice procurement price are increased by only Rs 50 per quintal this year, which is roughly an increase of 3.25 per cent, simply to ensure that food inflation remains in control. In other words, the burden of keeping food prices low and to ensure cheaper raw material for the industry lies on the farmers.
How to raise farm incomes therefore is becoming a rallying point for farmer organization across the country. Bridging their local and regional differences, farmer organisations are now coming together on three points:
1) An assured monthly take home income package for farmers. If a chaprasi can have a monthly income of Rs 15,000 why should farmers not get an equivalent of what a Class III in the Government gets? In the 7th Pay Commission the demand is to give chaprasi a minimum income of Rs 29,000. Why should a farming family be left to survive on Rs 3,000 a month?
2) Minimum Support Price (MSP) should be extended to all crops and for all regions. At present, MSP is announced for 24 crops but in reality only wheat and rice are procured. The Fair and Remunerative Price for sugarcane is also being dispensed with. Farmers want an assured procurement for all crops for which prices are announced, and at the same time setting up APMC mandis across the country. Against the need for 42,000 market yards, only 7,000 mandis exist at present.