Agri sector seeking new vigour, fresh leadership

In January-February, as the election campaigns in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand were picking up steam, Home Minister Rajnath Singh first broached the topic of farm loan waiver if the BJP came to power. Little had he thought that the issue would gather momentum just five months down the line and force the Narendra Modi government to consider loan waiver for small and marginal farmers.

In a way, the demands for farm loan waiver could be BJP’s own doing. Maharasthra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, who had been steadfast in his opposition to a loan waiver, admitted that he was forced to announce writing off debts of small and margi­nal farmers due to immense pressure from the farmers whose expectations had risen manifold following similar moves by Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

The Congress had already raised the pitch for farm loan waiver with vice president Rahul Gandhi undertaking a month-long ‘kisan yatra’ across Uttar Pradesh in September last year. Though the yatra did not benefit the Congress politically, it did raise expectations of the farmers. The BJP too responded by mentioning farm loan waiver for small and marginal farmers in its manifesto for Uttar Pradesh.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his election rallies, went to the extent of saying that the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh will take a decision on farm loan waiver in its first cabinet meeting. The pressure on the Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath for announcing the loan waiver was telling as he kept delaying the meeting of the cabinet that usually takes place within hours of the new government assuming office. The council of ministers met a couple of times informally as bureaucrats put together proposal for the loan write off for the cabinet to consider in its “first” meeting.
The announcement by the Uttar Pradesh government led to demands for a farm loan waiver from other states such as Maharashtra, Karnataka, Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu among others. Maharashtra bowed to the demands from farmers and declared a farm loan waiver for needy farmers. The state government put stringent conditions to exclude well-off farmers from the loan waiver scheme to limit its expenditure.

As soon as Maharashtra announced its farm loan waiver, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley made it clear that the state government will have to fund the initiative from its own resources and not expect any bailout by the Centre. The Punjab government became the third state to announce a farm loan waiver for small and marginal farmers on June 19, a promise made by the Congress during the poll campaign in the state. In a bid for political one-upmanship, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh also announced loan waiver up to Rs 2 lakh — double than what has been offered by UP and Maharashtra.

At the heart of the crisis is absence of remunerative prices for farm produce. In simpler terms, a person dependent only on agriculture as a means of livelihood finds it difficult to make both ends meet as he does not earn enough. As prices of pulses, fruits and vegetables shot up during the past two years due to drought, the government had put in place stringent curbs on exports and stockholding by traders. The same were not eased after a spell of good monsoon led to bumper production.

The glut of pulses and onions saw farmers making a beeline to market yards to sell their produce leading to a sharp reduction in procurement prices. In Maharashtra, stagnant milk prices had irked farmers who threw milk on the roads instead of selling it to dairies. In Uttar Pradesh, potato growers threw their produce on roads as wholesale prices dipped on account of better production. Similar was the case with onion growers in Madhya Pradesh.

The simmering discontent among farmers in Madhya Pradesh led to protests in Mandsaur where six farmers were killed in police firing on June 6. Things took a political turn as leaders made a beeline to Mandsaur to express solidarity with farmers.
Delicate issue
In both Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, the governments hastily reached out to a section of favourable farmer leaders, agreed to some of their demands and called off the strike. Such handling of a delicate issue further angered the farmers who looked towards leaders such as Shiv Kumar Sharma alias ‘Kakkaji’ in Madhya Pradesh and Raju Shetti in Maharashtra to take their struggle to a logical conclusion.

While Sharma heads the breakaway faction of the RSS-backed Bhartiya Kisan Sangh, Shetti leads the Swabhimani Shetkari Sangathan in Maharashtra. Sharma was thrown out of the BKS following his frequent run-ins with Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Shetti, a Lok Sabha member from Hatkanangale near Kolhapur, is part of the NDA but is increasingly disillusioned with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s farm policies.

Shetti believes that Modi has lost the script when it came to tackling the agrarian distress as the government, instead of addressing pressing issues such as remunerative prices, was busy pursuing soil health cards. His consistent demand – Modi should fulfil the poll promise of implementing the M S Swaminathan Committee Report that has recommended a 50% margin over the cost of cultivation incurred by the farmers.

Farmers were already operating on thin margins, which have dipped even further over the last three years. The poll promise on MSP has remained just that — a promise, with neither the agriculture minister nor the prime minister making any reference to it. The much-touted agri-market reforms too have floundered and so has the flagship programme to provide irrigation facilities to every farm. As many as 23 of the 99 delayed irrigation projects were to be completed by March 2017. The government has missed the deadline.

On the political front, the strain on the NDA is showing. Modi had run a tight ship since coming to power in 2014, but allies such as Shiv Sena and Shetti’s Swabhiman Paksha have been growing restless and have raised a banner of revolt. The agriculture sector is desperately seeking new vigour and fresh leadership to pull it out of the crisis.

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