In March this year, when over 30,000 farmers and tribals marched from Nashik to Mumbai, the commercial capital of India, it was a turning point in farmers’ protests. Ashok Dhawale, the president of All India Kisan Sabha, led the agitation. “The agrarian crisis and how to resolve it has come to the fore of the national agenda... farmers and labourers cannot be ignored,” Dhawale told DH’s Mrityunjay Bose in an interview. Excerpts:
The BJP has been defeated in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. The Congress came back to power and announced loan waivers in all three states.
There is tremendous agrarian distress across the country. Farmers are suffering, and the election results reflect it. The agrarian crisis has been brought to the national agenda. The government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi needs to look into the issue deeply.
What is the gravity of the problem?
Farmers’ suicides are increasing. However, the statistics are not reflecting it. After 2016, the NCRB has stopped publishing data related to farmers’ suicides. In a two-decade period from 1995-2016, as many as 3.1 lakh farmers have committed suicide. The problem is serious and compounding. In Adivasi and Dalit areas, there is hunger and malnutrition, and deaths of children have been reported.
Can loan waivers solve the problem?
Merely loan waiver will not solve the problem, but it is the starting point. During the 2014 campaign, Modi promised loan waiver. But once the BJP-led NDA assumed power, there is not a single word on it. On the contrary, the government, through an affidavit, told the Supreme Court in February 2015 that loan waiver cannot be done as it would distort the market. States like Maharashtra, Karnataka and Punjab among others announced loan waiver. The loan waiver of Uttar Pradesh government was a farce. What we need is a comprehensive loan waiver by the Centre covering various aspects. The UPA government had come out with a loan waiver but made a condition of up to five acres. Dryland farmers in Vidarbha and Marathwada did not get the expected relief.
What are the other steps that need to be taken?
Mere loan waiver will not solve the problem. That is not our case. But you have to do it. The recommendations of the MS Swaminathan-headed National Commission on Farmers need to be implemented. The ‘C2 plus 50%’ formula needs to be implemented. Recently, I was in Gulbarga, where the main crop is Tur dal. The Modi government gave an MSP of Rs 5,675 per quintal, the Swaminathan Commission recommends Rs 7,500 per quintal, the farmer actually gets between Rs 3,500 to 4,500 per quintal. For rice, the MSP is Rs 1,430 per quintal, the Swaminathan Commission recommends Rs 2,500 per quintal, the farmer actually gets between Rs 800 to Rs 1,000 per quintal. We all know about the onion crisis of Maharashtra. Remunerative price is a big issue.
What more can be done?
You can have a special session for GST, so why not one for farmers’ issues to address the agrarian distress. We need to look at the import-export policy, implementation of Forest Rights Act, increase outlay of employment guarantee scheme. Besides, forced land acquisition -- like for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project – must stop. Landlessness has to end.
Is the impact of demonetisation still being felt in the rural economy?
In one line, it has broken the backbone of peasants.
Farmers also face natural calamities -- and drought is an issue currently in several parts of the country.
Drought, floods, hailstorms happen. We are under threat of natural calamities. Crop insurance schemes need to cover all these.
Finance and credit are major issues. How to address them?
In the neo-liberal era, this is an issue. Farmers do not get institutional loans. Private money lenders charge a bomb. Farmers get into debt trap.
Do you feel the government has turned a blind eye to farmers’ problems?
Loans amounting to Rs 3.5 lakh crore of 15 corporates have been wiped off. The non-performing assets of the banks and the interest accumulated amount to Rs 11.5 lakh crore. Totally, Rs 15 lakh crore is gone. Why cannot we have a planned loan waiver and address farmers’ other issues.
The Modi government is the most anti-farmer, anti-people, anti-worker, pro-corporate and communal government. Farmers’ voice will be a deciding factor in the Lok Sabha elections. Look at the farmers’ march to Mumbai in March, jail bharo in August and protest in New Delhi in November.
The media has started taking note of the issue. Earlier, when farmers protested, the news that used to appear was how the traffic in Mumbai or Delhi was affected. I must say, real issues of farmers are getting highlighted now.