High time struggling farmers are paid their due

One thing has become crystal clear. All these years, in the midst of election slogans like ‘Garibi hatao’ and ‘Yeh garibo ki sarkar hai’, it is the affluent sections of the society who have been continuously pampered. The widening gulf between the rich and the poor is an outcome of deliberate economic policies that have largely ended up benefiting the rich.  

At a time when agriculture is passing through a terrible distress, with an unprecedented spurt in farmer suicides witnessed particularly in 2015, I had expected the NDA government to rescue the beleaguered farming community with an economic package.

After all, if the industry can get an economic bailout package at the drop of a
hat, and get tax exemptions to the tune of Rs 42 lakh crore in 10 years between 2005 and 2015, I thought it was a payback time to help farmers minimise their economic hardship. But nothing like this happened. Once again, the 60 crore farmers of the country have been given the boot.

Instead, beginning New Year, 47 lakh Central government employees and another 52 lakh pensioners will get a bonanza. The Seventh Pay Commission (SPC) report, which has been accepted by the government, will entail an additional annual financial burden of Rs 1.02 lakh crore.

In reality, it will be several times more, not less than Rs 3 lakh core by a conservative estimate, when similar pay hikes have to be also given to the state government employees, autonomous bodies, universities and public sector units. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley says the additional burden on the country’s fiscal situation is ‘manageable’. He has no problems with the hike in salaries.

But the government has all kinds of problems when farmers have to be given a legitimate rise in the farm prices. Only a few months back, in an affidavit filed before the Supreme Court, Additional Solicitor General Maninder Singh had expressed government’s inability to provide 50 per cent profit over the cost of production to the farmers as recommended by the Swaminathan Committee.

He had said that “prescribing an increase of at least 50 per cent on cost may distort the market. A mechanical linkage between Minimum Support Price (MSP) and cost of production may be counter-productive in some cases.”

This was an electoral promise Prime Minister Narendra Modi had made. But soon after coming to power, the Modi government refused to give a remunerative price in the form of an enhanced MSP for paddy and wheat. At a time when dearness allowance (DA) for employees is raised by 13 per cent in a year, the price of wheat and paddy is raised by a paltry Rs 50 per quintal, which translates into an increase of 3.6 per cent, not enough to even offset the additional burden of inflation at that time.

Look at the blatant discrimination. The minimum wage of a chaprasi under the SPC has been raised from Rs 7,000 to Rs 18,000 – an increase of a whopping 260 per cent. Compare this to what an average farmer earns. You will be shocked to know that in the last 45 years, between 1970 and 2015, the basic salary plus DA of a government employee has been raised by an average of 120 to 150 times, that of professors/lecturers by 150 to 170 times whereas the MSP for wheat has been raised by only 19 times in the same period. 

Huge income disparity

Given this huge income disparity, which is deliberate, it is futile to expect younger generation to take to farming. The income disparity is glaring. While the minimum wage for an employee has now been enhanced to Rs 18,000 per month, what an average farmer family earns in a month is a paltry Rs 6,000, of which Rs 3,078 comes from farming. Nearly 58 per cent farmers have to rely on non-farming activities like MNREGA to supplement their monthly incomes.

The farm income is low because successive governments have deliberately kept farming starved of resources and denied economic price to farmers. If only farmers were to get a rise in income (in the form of MSP) in parity with other sections of the society, the wheat price, which was Rs 76 per quintal in 1970, should now have been Rs 7,600 per quintal.

Procurement price (or the market price) is the only mechanism through which a farmer is able to earn. His net return depends on the market price that he is able to fetch for his produce. There is no other source of income, including DA and emoluments that he can count on. Compare this with the government employees. Every six months they get DA, which is increasingly being merged with the basic salary.

At the same time, if the SPC is to be believed, of the 198 total allowances they used to get, 108 allowances have been retained and enhanced. This includes an allowance for hair cutting for CRPF employees, and also an allowance for family planning which basically means an allowance for buying condoms. Employees will receive an increase of 63 per cent in allowances.

If farmers were to be given at least four monthly allowances that the employees get – housing allowance, travel allowance, education allowance for children, and medical allowance – I am sure lakhs of farmer suicides could have been averted. I am not against a higher salary package for the employees. But there is no reason why an assured monthly take-home package for farmers cannot be worked out.

Till the time farmers are not given an economic bailout package to begin with, I suggest that the implementation of the SPC be kept on hold. This is exactly what the 2nd National Convention of Farmer Organisations, comprising 60 major farmer unions across the country, and under a common platform – Kisan Ekta – which met in Bengaluru recently, had demanded.

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