The foot-march of over 35,000 farmers from Nashik to Mumbai in March this year attracted a lot of national attention and succeeded in highlighting the problems of the farmers. The numerous suicides by farmers earlier or the killing of six farmers in police firing in Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh in June last year did not attract as much attention. Nor did the farmers' agitations in other parts of the country like Rajasthan, western Uttar Pradesh or by the Tamil Nadu farmers in Delhi. My own agitation with the farmers in Akola in Maharashtra or Narshingpur in Madhya Pradesh created a local splash but failed to make news at the national level. But these agitations and movements did succeed in sending the message that something is seriously wrong with agriculture in our country.
Now, 110 farmers' organizations in India have come together to launch an unusual countrywide protest for their cause in June. Representatives of these farmer organizations had called a press conference in Delhi on April 30 to announce the launch of this unique protest from June 1. Unfortunately, even this press conference, though held at the Constitution Club in Delhi, failed to enthuse the media which remains largely indifferent to their cause. I am not surprised. As Finance Minister, I used to invite farmers first for pre-budget consultations. It failed, year after year, to attract the media and the lone photographer on such occasions used to be from Doordarshan. But when corporates came for such meetings, the media was all over the place. This attitude only represents the general lack of concern for the problems the farmers face.
But let us return to the announcement made by farmers' representatives in the press conference of April 30. They announced that they would observe a countrywide village 'bandh' for 10 days from June 1 to June 10. This would mean that the daily supplies of fruits and vegetables and milk and grains from villages to towns and cities would remain interrupted during these 10 days. The villagers would also not visit the towns and cities for purchasing their own needs during this period.
The frustration of farmers is understandable. In its election manifesto, the BJP had had made nine promises which are listed below:
1) Increase public investment in agriculture and rural development; take steps to enhance profitability in agriculture by ensuring a minimum of 50% profits over the cost of production, cheaper agriculture inputs and credit; introduce latest technologies for farming and high yielding seeds and linking MGNREGA to agriculture.
2) Put in place welfare measures for farmers above 60 years in age, small and marginal farmers and farm labour.
3) Introduce and promote low water-consuming irrigation techniques and optimum utilization of water resources.
4) Introduce soil assessment-based crop-planning and set up mobile soil-testing labs.
5) Re-orient pest management and control programmes. Implement and incentivize the setting up of the food-processing industry.
6) Set up the "Organic Farming and Fertilizer Corporation of India" to promote organic farming and fertilizers, and provide incentives and support for marketing organic produce; introduce rotation farming for herbal products based on geographical mapping to enhance the income of farmers.
7) Implement a farm insurance scheme to take care of crop loss due to unforeseen natural calamities. Strengthen and expand rural credit facilities.
As far as the progress under irrigation projects under the "Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana" is concerned, a recent analysis would show that it has been confined to just five states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu which accounted for 78% of the irrigated area expansion during 2017-18. Bihar was able to add just 86 hectares. The main reason appears to be the failure on the part of the laggard states to finance 40% of the cost which is to borne by them. I had recommended that a flagship scheme like the "Krishi Sinchai Yojana" should be financed 100% by the government of India. The adverse impact of the 60-40 financing formula is quite clear.
Sugar mills in UP are yet to pay over 11,000 crores cane dues to farmers but the UP government has yet to come up with any solution. According to a newspaper report, a farmer of Saharanpur attempted suicide after the local bank issued him a recovery notice. Is this a government of farmers?
Another cause for the increasing rural depress is the slowdown in government spending in the rural areas. According to a study, while the average employment provided as a percentage of the households which demanded it has come down to 87 in 2017-18 compared to 97 in 2012-13, the average number of days of employment provided per household has declined from 50 days to 39 days during this period. Can a household survive for a whole year on MGNREGS wages of only 39 days in a year?
Similarly, under the "Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojna", the road length completed as a percentage of targets has come down to 57 in 2017-18 compared to the peak of 137 achieved in 2010-11. The percentage of habitations connected as against targets has come down from a peak of 272 in 2013-14 to only 47 in 2017-18. The annual growth rate of rural wages has declined from 8.48% in 2012 to only 1.14% in 2017.
Rural distress is writ large all over the countryside. It is a time bomb which is slowly ticking away. When and where the bomb will go off is difficult to predict. I only hope and pray that it will not happen during the village 'bandh' from June 1 to 10.
Yashwant Sinha, former BJP leader, was Minister of Finance (1998-2002) and Minister of External Affairs (2002-2004)
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