Modi's Maun Vrat On Farmers' Crisis Says Much

Published: June 20, 2017 11:21 IST
Among the most curious creatures in his menagerie is Modi's Minister of Agriculture, Radha Mohan Singh. He has been shown on NDTV (and possibly other channels) responding to a question on what he proposed to do about the farmers' agitation that had by then taken several lives, and responding with the ultimate non sequitur: "Yoga kijiye"!

He is assisted by another weird character, Sanjay Baliyan, as Minister of State, patron saint of gaurakshak vigilantes, whose principal claim to infamy is that he was a leading figure in the incidents leading to the tragic lynching of Mohammad Akhlaque; indeed, he is the MP for that constituency. I doubt he understands the difference between "real" incomes and "nominal" incomes. Indeed, I expect such a question would fox even the Prime Minister because he has never clarified what he means by "doubling" farm incomes in seven years. Even savings in a fixed deposit account double in seven years; so what's so special about doubling farmers' nominal incomes (that is, income at current prices) in five years - especially when the current agrarian crisis is principally the result of the precipitate fall in selling prices of a wide range of food products in the aftermath of a bumper crop that should have raised living standards in rural India after two dreadful years of acute drought? Our "real" agricultural growth rate in three years of Modi is down to 1.7% in what Modi claims is the "world's fastest growing economy". Why the dichotomy?

This is what happens when totally unqualified ministers are put in charge of a ministry that determines the fate of nearly 60% of our people. These ministers certainly know how to twist their legs around their necks, but are clueless when it comes to elementary agronomics. With such ministers, how does Modi intend fulfilling his party's manifesto commitment to giving "the highest priority to agriculture"? Through jumle-baazi? Or through thought in the head and action on the ground?

A few figures will put the nature of the immediate crisis in perspective. Although the government's Minimum Support Price (MSP) for arhar/tur is a modest Rs 5,050 per quintal, market prices that were averaging a low of Rs 4,500 in January are now down to Rs 3,700. As pulses are grown in rain-fed areas, the worst sufferers are the poorer and poorest farmers. In Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh, the focal point for the recent agitation, garlic has collapsed from Rs 4,100 a quintal to Rs 3, 400; methi (fenugreek) from Rs 4,800 a quintal to Rs 3,100. Potatoes prices have halved from Rs 600 per quintal in February to a pathetic Rs 350 now; onions have slumped from Rs 1200 to Rs 450 a quintal; and tomatoes from Rs 1,600 per quintal to a mere Rs 300. When last, asks Harish Damodaran in The Indian Express have potato, onion and tomato prices all collapsed together?

But behind the chute down which farm prices have gone is a larger structural collapse of sociological, political and ethical dimensions to which Gopal Gandhi in The Wire, succinctly draws attention: The agitation is not about loan waivers. "It is about agriculture's place in the life of our country, equity's place in the life of our agriculture, and farmers' place in the world of equity."

Mahatma Gandhi understood unambiguously that Indian lives in its villages and that it is agriculture that merits the top priority. "The Kisan or the peasant comes first," he wrote in The Bombay Chronicle of 28 October 1944 and then, shrewdly grasping the need for political power to give the kisan his due, added in an article the following year in the same journal (12 January 1945), as India moved to full independence, "if we have democratic Swaraj...the kisan must hold power in all its phases, including political power."

Wedded as Nehru was to industrialization to draw large numbers from farm to factory, his keen historical sense drummed it into him that British colonialism had begun with a famine that took the lives of a third of Bengal's population in the 1770s and ended with a famine that spirited away three million lives in the Bengal famine of 1943. He therefore summed up his economic philosophy in a famous aphorism that became India's beacon in the first decade of freedom: "Everything else can wait, but not agriculture." Not only did agriculture lead the way, thanks to land reforms and the abolition of princely states and zamindari, it raised by five times in five years to 3.5% the average annual GDP growth rate of 0.72% in the half-century leading to Independence. Most significant of all, the same India that was repeatedly ravaged by famine in British times has totally escaped famine since Independence, although occasional starvation reports are received and malnutrition is disturbingly widespread.

Lal Bahadur Shastri gave the call of "Jai jawan, jai kisan" and initiated the Green Revolution during the dreadful years of 1964-66, when India became pathetically dependent for survival on PL-480 grain imports from the US.

Indira Gandhi so successfully yoked together her agriculture minister, the brilliant C Subramaniam, and our even more brilliant agricultural scientist, Dr MS Swaminathan, that  between them, they gave such a fillip to Indian agriculture that we are today the world's largest producer of wheat, leapfrogging some ten times from under 12 million tonnes in 1962-63 to 102.54 tonnes in fiscal 2015, the last year for which final figures are available. In rice, we have gone up three times over the same period from 34.5 million tonnes to 91 million tonnes. Our surplus in food grains has, with other food products, put this country among the 15 top exporters of agricultural products in the world, earning some 10% of our foreign exchange through trade. We are now the world's largest producer of spices, pulses, milk, tea, cashew, jute, mango and banana; the world's second-largest in wheat, rice, sugar cane, cotton, oil seed, and fruits and vegetables; and with the highest productivity in grapes. Without Indira Gandhi's path-breaking institutionalization of the Green Revolution, none of this would have been possible.

And the only year in which Indian GDP growth rates ever reached double figures, 10.87%, was in 1989-90 when Rajiv Gandhi pulled the country out of the morass of drought, visiting every state (with me in tow!) that was drought-hit (virtually the entire country) and making more public investment in drought-proofing in Rajasthan (the worst-affected state) in a single year than in the previous 40 years put together. That is what is called prioritizing agriculture.

Not the maun vrat that Modi has taken. While he jets around the world, he has not made a single visit to states hit by agricultural distress or made any significant statement regarding what the BJP meant by claiming in its party manifesto that the "highest priority" would be accorded to "agricultural growth".

In a devastating analysis of three years of Modi's achhe din in agriculture, our best authority on the subject, Dr Ashok Gulati, along with his colleague, Siraj Hussain, has found that the "impact has not been felt" of the NDA's flagship programmes: PM Krishi Sanchar Yojana, Fasal Bima Yojana, and e-NAM (National Agricultural Marketing); that there has been "hardly any talk of ensuring 50% profit to farmers" (a BJP manifesto pledge they have reneged on); that promised reforms in the food management sector "have been almost forgotten"; that despite the Shanta Kumar Committee recommendation, "hardly any attempt (has been made) to try Direct Benefit Transfer for the food subsidy"; that of 14 crore soil health cards to be distributed, only six crore (less than half) have so far been given out and all states have "shown poor performance in testing soil samples"; and that the disbursement of the fertilizer subsidy direct to fertilizer companies has not taken into account the health of the soil and its requirement of nutrients, thereby destroying the very purpose for which this innovation was introduced. Moreover, the key structural requirement of Indian agriculture - which is public investment that has dwindled ever since economic reforms were undertaken - has not been increased, with subsidies in BJP budgets swallowing 88% of the agriculture budget, leaving only 12 percent for public investment. 

Further, as Gulati and his other colleague, Prerna, have demonstrated, net margins across the board in all agricultural commodities have actually declined in Modi's three years, where the real rate of growth in agriculture should be at least 4% (not way below 2%, as of now) if Modi's empty boast of doubling farm incomes in seven years is to be attained. Do you now see why farmers all over the country - in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, even relatively prosperous western UP, Punjab and Haryana, have taken to the streets? They know no one in the BJP cares - and so are heeding Gandhi-ji's advice, "The kisans must come into their own and have the upper voice...If the legislature proves itself to be incapable of safeguarding kisans' interests, they will, of course, always have the sovereign remedy of civil disobedience and non-co-operation" (The Bombay Chronicle, 12 January 1945). Clearly, the protestors know more Gandhi than the entire BJP/RSS lot!

It is also noteworthy that these protests are being led not by skeletal farmers wracked and ruined by governmental indifference, but by angry, disappointed, educated rural youth in trousers, even jeans, and shirts, who are suffering, says Sudhir Kumar Suthar, an "identity crisis" in their "vanishing villages" (a term coined by sociologist Dipankar Gupta). This is the common thread that binds the Jats of Haryana, the Patels of Gujarat and the Bhim Army of western Uttar Pradesh, not to mention charismatic student agitators with a rural background like Kanhaiya Kumar. They are convinced, as one young man put it to Suthar, that "villages are not on the priority list of the government", and who believe that "villages are kept backward deliberately in order to fulfill the rising demands of urban India". Who can deny this on encountering rural India's suffering on account of "marginalization", "negligence", and a deep "sense of inferiority about themselves vis-à-vis urban India"? These are rural youth whose "expectations and aspirations" are betrayed, who "crave for self-respect" in all its dimensions - caste, masculinity, religious identity etc. - but are thwarted.

The outstanding expert on the sociology and economics of agriculture, Professor Bina Agarwal, confirms that it is not the destitute and the deprived but young men "owning more land, educated above middle levels, living in pucca houses - but unable to fulfill aspirations" who are the leaders of the protests. This is what persuades Yogendra Yadav, another keen academic observer turned political activist, to argue in The Tribune of 7 June that "the spontaneous nature of this protest and its rapid spread reminds us of peasant rebellions in colonial times". He adds: The protests are "not localized, seasonal, crop-specific or calamity-driven distress. This protest is directly linked to the crisis of Indian agriculture." "The current protests," writes Professor Suhas Palshikhar, are a "battle between the imaginary achhe din and lived ground reality". 

All this is new and points to the imperative of taking a holistic view of the crisis instead of just tinkering with the works as Modi's Chief Ministers are doing.

The model on which we have been operating since Independence is to keep agricultural prices low for urban consumers by denying to our farmers a vibrant national market and no export restrictions where they can receive a fair price. Rural Indians have been "subsidized" but denied the privileges of economic freedom bestowed on urban India, particularly after the economic reforms of 1992 and later. So strong is the urban bias that as P Sainath points out in an interview to India Today, "Mr. Adani gets a loan from SBI which is greater than the entire farmer debt of the country"! This reflects Gandhi-ji's perceptive observation in The Harjan of 4 April 1936: "I have found that the town dweller has generally exploited the villager, in fact, he has lived on the poor villagers' subsistence". 

In consequence, agriculture and "allied activities" (dairying, fisheries, forestry) continue to occupy 60 per cent of our people but secures for them less than 14% of GDP. It is, says the Mahatma's grandson, such "endemic neglect and wrong-doing (that) have made India a theatre of crises". Rajesh Mahapatra in The Hindustan Times, observes India has "scripted a story of economic transformation that (has) left the farmer out". Harish Damodaran points out that since the weightage given to "food and non-alcoholic beverages" in India's Wholesale Price Index is 45.86%, when RBI targets inflation, "it inherently incentivizes policy actions against agriculture that depress farm prices". We impose a variety of controls when prices rise, he says, "while doing nothing when producer realizations hit rock bottom".

It is this structural discrimination against agriculture that must end. We have squeezed the farmer and khet mazdoor to provide the wherewithal for political stability in our towns and cities and for off-farm development. There are numerous technical steps to be taken, particularly as itemized by the five-volume Swaminathan Committee report released between 2004 and 2006 (but too detailed to be spelt out in this already excessively long Opinion piece). These reports must be discussed in a special session of parliament to show we are really concerned as a nation by acute agrarian distress in the midst of apparent economic success. Parliament's Standing Committee on Agriculture must call in farmers' representatives to make their voice the national voice. Else, we will have tumult and turbulence all over rural India on our hands.

We need nothing less than a revolution in the Indian political mind-set that will respond as we used to do in the four decades from Nehru to Rajiv: "Everything can wait, but not agriculture". We are stoking the death of our democracy by failing to do so.

(Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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