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Mainstream, VOL LV No 26 New Delhi June 17, 2017

Agrarian Crisis, Darjeeling Unrest, Rising Intolerance

Saturday 17 June 2017, by SC


The agrarian crisis across the country, that was highlighted in these columns last week, has further accentuated with another farmer taking his life in Madhya Pradesh’s Hoshangabad district this morning. This is the seventh case of farmers’ suicide in seven days in a region which has witnessed violent farmer protests over the rapidly declining crop prices.

On June 6 Madhya Pradesh shot into national prominence when five farmers were shot dead in police firing during demonstrations demanding loan waiver and better crop prices. Thereafter seven deaths were reported from the State while angry farmers torched vehicles and ransacked property even as Madhya Pradesh CM gave some assurances and promised a partial loan waiver.

But the agrarian crisis is not limited to Madhya Pradesh. It has affected several other States—Maha-rashtra, Karnataka, Rajasthan, to name a few. Magni-fying the nature of the crisis, The Times of India notes:

Agriculture contributes about 17 per cent of GDP but employs around 50 per cent of the country’s workforce. This is simply unsustainable.... A young mob increasingly short of work even in harvesting and sowing seasons portends more rancourous protests in the future.

However, in today’s context one has to take into account certain new developments that have gripped the economy. As former member of the erstwhile Planning Commission Mihir Shah explains,

While many cumulative factors have taken a toll on farmers over decades, more proximate factors explain the outbreak of extreme violence. Speaking to farmers and traders, it appears that demonetisation squeezed so much liquidity out of the system that traders did not have requisite cash to buy the farmers’ produce. Farmers also feel that persisting with imports, even after clear signs of a bumper harvest, further depressed prices. Having lived in remote rural Madhya Pradesh for the last three decades, I do not recall a crash in prices as dramatic as this year’s, that too in the peak of summer. In Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka, prices of tuar, gram, soybean, grapes, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, milk, garlic, cumin, coriander and fenugreek are at historical lows. And when this happens in crops with high costs of cultivation and inadequate government support, the impact is catastrophic, leading to what the Reserve Bank of India has called “fire sales”. Which has also created apprehensions about kharif sowing. No wonder the farmers are upset.

Meanwhile, the situation in the Darjeeling Hills is turning from bad to worse. Violence has affected large parts of the Darjeeling district and a media vehicle was set on fire today after the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) called for an indefinite complete shutdown in the hills following a police raid on its President Bimal Gurung’s residence that led to the recovery of a large consignment of arms even though the GJM asserted that these were traditional weapons which every Gorkha possesses. The situation has come to such a pass due to what the GJM and its current mentor, the BJP, allege: the ruling Trinamul Congress chief and West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee’s imposition of the Bengali language on the Gorkhas. Actually Mamata has explained that there was no move to make Bengali compulsory in the hills and it would continue to be an optional subject in schools. But the GJM, egged on by the BJP, is unwilling to accept this clarification. The CM has said she was not ready for talks till the GJM withdraws its agitation unconditionally. But there is no denying that the BJP is trying to fish in troubled waters there.

In the meantime isolated before the public due to the depredations of the cow vigilantes, the Union Government has told the Supreme Court today that its notification regarding the sale and purchase of cattle at animal markets for slaughter was miscons-trued and “we will reach out to any person who has a heartburn on this issue,” as Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan assured in the Apex Court.

What is significant in this context is that sixtyfive retired officials of IAS/IFS rank have, in an open letter, decried the mounting intolerance, “rising authorita-rianism and majoritarianism, which do not allow for reasoned debate, discussion and dissent” and appealed to all public authorities, public institutions and constitutional bodies to heed the disturbing trends and take corrective action. They have assailed the “growing hyper-nationalism that reduces any critique to a binary: if you are not with the government, you are anti-national”, adding: “Those in authority should not be questioned—that is the clear message.” They conclude the letter with a call to “reclaim and defend the spirit of the Constitution of India, as envisaged by the founding fathers”.

June 15 s.c.

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