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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 6 New Delhi January 26, 2019 - Republic Day Special

Bringing Farmers to the Centre-stage

Monday 28 January 2019

by Suranjita Ray

The 2019 Lok Sabha elections, to be held in a few months from now, has compelled almost all the political parties not to miss the opportunity to promise fulfilling the demands of protesting farmers. Of the various demands the issue of farm loan waiver has become the most crucial for every political party across ideological and political differences as they claim to stand with the protesting farmers to fight their distress. Opposition parties from the Congress to Aam Admi Party (AAP) and the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) to Trinamool Congress have all come together to not only address the agrarian crisis but also allege the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of being ‘pro-corporate’ and ‘anti-farmer’.

We have seen an unprecedented agrarian unrest across the country in 2017-18. The recent movement—‘Delhi Chalo’—organised by the All India Kisan Sangarsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC), a confederation of 150-200 farm groups, saw the discontent and anger of thousands of small and marginal farmers, landless labourers and Adivasis from different parts of the country, march from the Ramlila Maidan to the Parliament Street on November 29-30, 2018, to register their protest against the government which they distrust. The farmers have lost confidence on the government, and contest its legitimacy for its apathy to their distress.The protest saw farmers across castes and landholdings including the landless come together to consolidate their demands. Thousands of students, artists and professionals also expressed their solidarity with the farmers and agricultural labourers under the banner called ‘Nation for Farmers’. P. Sainath, who was part of the march, asserts that this coming together was not a culmination but a historic beginning of the links between farmers and urban Indian consumers which was broken in 1991 because of the economic liberalisation. This is a historic moment in the country’s democracy, stated P. Sainath, as farmers have moved to protests to assert their rights from their demoralised mind-set to commit suicide during the last 20 years (cited in https://www.huffingtonpost.in).

Major Demands

THE farmers, who gathered in the Capital’s Parliament Street, demanded a special session of Parliament to discuss the agrarian crisis and pass two private member bills drafted by the AIKSCC—The freedom from Indebtedness Bill and The Farmers Right to Guaranteed Remunerative Minimum Support Prices for Agricultural Commodities Bill. They demanded the need to discuss the credit crisis which is much larger than just one loan waiver. While a debate in Parliament would enable an understanding of the farmers’ distress, the demand for a one-time loan waiver, raising the Minimum Support Prices (MSP) to 50 per cent above the comprehensive cost of production, making the MSP legally binding on traders who should be behind the bars for three years for not abiding, reducing prices of fertilisers, pesticides and diesel, alongside implementing the recommendations of the M.S. Swaminathan Commission Report, have been long pending. The National Commission Report on Farmers, chaired by Swaminathan and submitted to Parliament, has been lying there for the last 14 years without discussion.

In the recent past, similar demands were raised by thousands of farmers in the six-day long march from Nashik to Mumbai in March 2018. Led by the CPI-M-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Kisan Sabha, the farmers demanded a complete loan waiver, implementation of the recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission, an increase in the compensation for peasants who lost crops due to recent hailstorms and pink bollworm infestation, and settlement of their long pending claims for forest land under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act /FRA, 2006. (Ray, 2018: 11) Thousands of these farmers, agricultural workers along with the non-agricultural workers, also participated in the Majdoor Kisan Sangharsh Rally held at Parliament Street on September 5, 2018. Alongside loan waivers for small farmers and higher MSP for crops, they demanded an end to anti-worker labour reforms, ensuring a minimum wage of Rs 18,000 a month, and basic rights such as health, education, housing, and food security to all.

Immediate Relief 

THOUGH the farmers’ plight has caught the attention of the nation, the demand for an outright loan waiver is an immediate relief in situations of extreme distress and not a long-term solution to the farmers’ distress. While experts and policy-analysts argue that it will hit public investment in agriculture adversely and in turn will add to the agrarian crisis in the long run, political parties have promised to endorse the demand in a majority of the States that had recent elections or where elections are due. Though it will cost the exchequer a huge amount of money, and despite fiscal difficulties in implementing poll promises of waiving farm loans by the ruling Congress party in Punjab, the newly elected Chief Ministers of the Congress party in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have announced loan waivers within the promised period of 10 days. In Karnataka, the Congress-Janata Dal (S) alliance has declared completion of the process of identifying the beneficiaries of farm loan waiver. The BJP-ruled States of Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh have also gone ahead with similar announcements of farm loan waiver, which is counted as one of the farmers’ successes. In fact, the farmers’ distress, in particular the farm loan waiver, will be one of the poll planks of the political parties for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Policy-analysts argue that though the total loan waiver will amount to more than Rs 4 and 5 lakh crores, a majority of the small and marginal farmers who depend on the money lenders for loans, with a huge amount of interest, will remain excluded from the benefits. It will also not benefit farmers who have already repaid the loans. The marginal farmers with less than one hectare of land, who constitute 68.5 per cent of the peasantry, depend on the non-institutional sources for loans at higher interest rates which range from 24-36 per cent and at times even more. (Gulati and Terway, 2018: 11) Ramesh Chand, the agricultural policy expert, stated that not even 50 per cent of the farmers and in some States not even 25 per cent of farmers avail the institutional loans. (Cited in Damodaran and Verma, 2018: 2) Several studies find that the small and marginal farmers often mortgage their land and other productive assets for loans, resulting in losing them to the money lenders.

However, farm loan waiver will still benefit a large section of the farmers who depend on the institutional credit and are indebted due to huge crop loss either caused by drought, floods, pest attack, or have incurred higher cost of production because of the increasing prices of farm inputs such as fertilisers, pesticide, electricity, diesel, and the failure of the government to provide increased MSP and non-implementation of the recommendations of Swaminathan Commission.

Waiving bank loans of farmers and increase of the support prices for agricultural products are important measures taken particularly in the hours of distress. But, in the long run, without changes in the land ownership that determine relations of production, consumption, exchange, and credit, the farmers will remain vulnerable to poverty, hunger, distress, deprivation and exploitation. P. Sainath argues that the demand to pass the two private member bills regarding loan waiver and MSP are only the first steps and ‘not a comprehensive closure of the agrarian crisis’. (Cited in Nair, 2018: 6)

An agrarian crisis that saw the rampant phenomena of farmers’ suicides compels us to understand the continuum of distress beyond the period of crisis. In an agrarian economy the paradox of growth strategy is evident from the fact that 50 per cent of the farming households are indebted in the country. Several studies find that over the years, the farmers have lost the control of markets to the traders and moneylenders due to lack of access to formal credit and their inability to repay the loans and debts. (See also Sainath 2007a, 2007b; Swaminathan 2011: 10) Seven-and-a-half million people have abandoned agriculture in the last decade. What is worse is that the very policies designed to benefit the farmers, as claimed by the government, has driven the farmers out.

The persistence of farmers’ distress raises serious concerns about the nature of state’s intervention and its narrow understanding of the agrarian crisis. A more critical way of understanding the underlying causes of distress is to ask the question as to why farmers’ distress persists despite active public action resulting in the intervention of the state. Though farm loan waiver is an important step in a situation of extreme distress, a greater challenge for the policy-makers is to address the conditions which generate and perpetuate such a situation. The underlying causes of the processes of deprivations that are systemic and cumulative, are entrenched in the social, economic and political history of specific contexts. The multi-dimensional and complex enormities of experiences of distress and its coping strategies that persist despite an increasing trend in the economic growth alongside positive indices of development raise larger questions about the functioning of the developmental state. Deprivations and continuing distress amongst certain sections, make the paradoxes of development conspicuous. In fact, a long-term solution to the alarming problem of farm distress calls for structural change in an agrarian economy which demands intervention by the state in land rights and land relations.

Few Initiatives 

THE frequent protests by farmers, who also constitute large sections of the voters, have compelled the political parties across ideological divides to bring the farmers’ issue to the centre of their policy-agenda. The political party leaders of various States have not only announced several schemes to help the farmers in crisis but have also been alleging each other, defending the schemes as better solutions of the agrarian crisis. We have seen in the recent past how Telangana’s popular pro-small farmers scheme—Rythu Bandhu—which grants Rs 4000 per acre for every farmer each crop season as investment support to cultivate irrespective of what crop they grow and the market prices, has brought the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) back to power in the recent elections. The resounding win of the TRS in the State has been linked to the Rythu Bandhu Scheme as paying the political dividend. The BJP Government in Jharkhand has also announced a similar scheme to support every farmer with Rs 5000 per acre from the kharif season onwards. There are suggestions from the Chairman of the Vasantrao Naik Sethi Swavalamban Mission (VNSSM) to launch similar schemes for the farmers in the non-irrigated regions of Vidarbha, North Maharashtra, Khandesh and Marathwada as he calls loan waiver a failure. (Deshpande, 2018:4) The Finance Minister and BJP leader, Himanta Biswa Sarma, of Assam also believes that the Credit Subsidy Scheme which aims at giving 25 per cent subsidy to farmers on loan, and to make the loan interest free to ensure that farmers remain part of the banking system, is a better strategy to solve their distress.

In Odisha, ever since the Congress party has declared its commitment to waive agricultural loans and promised financial assistance for five years and free solar pumps if it is voted to power, and the BJP has also announced interest-free loans and complete waiver of existing farm loans, the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) is under political pressure to waive farm loans. (Patnaik, 2018:9) However, Naveen Patnaik, the Chief Minister of Odisha, argues that loan waiver has neither paid in the past nor will it pay in the future. (Ibid.) Announcing the Cabinet’s approval of Krushak Assistance for Livelihood and Income Augmentation (KALIA) on December 21, 2018, Naveen Patnaik claimed it as a progressive scheme for improving employment and self-employment potential of the farmers which promises benefit to all categories of farmers. The following provisions in the scheme, as reported by Sampad Patnaik, reveals that since the scheme is not linked to land ownership, it will also benefit the sharecroppers and actual cultivators, a majority of whom either own less land or are landless. Financial assistance of Rs 10,180 crores will be provided to the cultivators and landless agricultural labourers over three years till 2020-21. Each household of the small and marginal farmers will be provided with financial assistance of Rs 5000 each for cultivation in Kharif as well as in Rabi seasons for five cropping seasons between 2018-19 and 2021-22. Financial assistance will be provided to 10 lakh landless households, especially the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe families, for income generating activities such as goat-rearing, mushroom cultivation, bee-rearing, poultry-farming and fishing with a unit cost of Rs 12,500. The elderly sick and persons with disability who are unable to cultivate will be provided with financial assistance of Rs 10,000 per household annually. Life insurance cover of Rs 2 lakhs, an additional personal accident coverage of Rs 2 lakh, and crop loans up to Rs 50,000 free of interest payment will be provided for 57 lakh households. While these promises aim at improving the living conditions of the farmers, much remains to be seen only after its implementation.

The BJP Government in the last few years has also initiated several policies, which aim at helping the farmers, such as the Prime Minister’s Annadata Aay Sanrakshan Abhiyan (AASHA) that includes the Price Support Scheme, Price Delivery Payment and Private Procurement and Stockist Scheme to benefit farmers with increased MSP in situations where the government agencies fail to procure their produce, electronic National Agriculture Market (eNam) that integrates 585 Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs)/agricultural mandis (wholesale market) across 16 States into one platform for a more regulated agriculture market, Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojna (PMFBY), an insurance coverage and financial support to the farmers in the event of failure of any of the notified crop as a result of natural calamities, pests and diseases in order to stabilise the income of farmers and ensure their continuance in farming, Kisan Vikas Patra to provide safe and secure investment avenues to budding investors,Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchaii Yojna (PMKSY), which prioritised irrigation dedicating a micro-irrigation fund to be set up to achieve ‘Per Drop More Crop’ Mission, raising the corpus of the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) under a long-term irrigation fund, and its role to facilitate credit flow, promotion and development of agriculture and small scale industries, and Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs) with 100 per cent coverage of 648 KVKs in the country as new mini soil sample testing laboratories. Despite these initiatives, the ground reality reveals that a majority of the farmers not only remain deprived of the benefits of some of the schemes that are implemented but many of these schemes also remain unimplemented.

Despite its promises of doubling the farmers’ income by 2022, the Economic Survey 2018 acknowledges that the real income of the farmers has remained stagnant during the last few years. The 1.9 per cent income growth for the farmers over four years has exposed the elusive achche din. The development policies have not only failed to benefit the marginalised and deprived, but have also increasingly threatened their sources of livelihood. Though the fear of losing the verdict of its citizens to get re-elected has compelled the state actors to make promises to the poor, deprived, and excluded, many a time such promises remain rhetorical.

Ground Reality 

A survey report by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in March 2018 states that only 10 per cent of the poor and small farmers have benefited from the government schemes and subsidies, 62 per cent of the interviewed farmers were unaware of the MSP, and only 10 per cent of the projects taken up under the watershed development component of the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana (PMKSY) have been completed so far. (Cited in Sinha, 2018:5)

The persistence of farmers’ distress must be seen as morally outrageous and politically unacceptable in the context of the democratic transformations that have seen an unprecedented expansion of the social welfare state and its constitutional responsibilities to secure basic rights to the people. Despite a series of schemes to ensure such basic rights as the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana for cheap housing facilities, Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana (Saubhagya Scheme) to provide energy access to all by last mile connectivity and electricity connections to all the remaining un-electrified households in rural as well as urban areas to achieve the universal household electrification in the country, Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana for disbursal of LPG cylinders replacing the unclean cooking fuels mostly used in rural India, Ayushman Bharat for the health insurance scheme under the National Health Protection Scheme (NHPS) to provide government-sponsored insurance to roughly 500 million people or nearly 40 per cent of India’s population, Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, a National Mission for financial inclusion which targets people who are below the poverty line and people who don’t have a bank account to open an account to ensure access to financial services, Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojna initiated to provide funds to the non-corporate small business sector,large sections of the societyin large parts of the country continue to remain vulnerable to processes of deprivation, exclusion, marginalisation and impoverishment.

Unfortunately despite an agrarian economy, agrarian distress and its coping strategies are not a one-time phenomenon but are systematic experiences of the farmers across the country. Farmers are a distressed lot, and their distress is not an aberration but constant in terms of deprivations and denial of the right to basic resources of livelihood. The narratives of the farmers about their everyday experience of agony and struggle to survive unfold issues that are central to their distress which are sites of continuous oppression, conflict, and paradox.

The agrarian economy characterised by abysmal poverty, landlessness, increasing alienation of land, disentitlement to forest and water for the marginalised, increasing control over the productive resources by the dominant class, and consistent decline in the proportion of cultivators and the corresponding increase in agricultural labours, has resulted in the persistence of distress for certain sections of the farmers. In fact, there has been no radical change in agriculture.

Though a majority of the farmers who are landless peasants, tenant farmers, share-holders, in particular Mahila Kisans (women farrmers), Dalit Kisans and Adivasi Kisans are the worst victims of denial of land rights and are vulnerable to processes of marginalisation, distress, deprivation, exploitation, none of the political parties prioritises structural changes such as land redistribution as a measure to address farmers’ distress. Instead the last few decades have seen the shift in the land reforms discourse from land distribution to land management focusing on higher growth. The emphasis on land market serves the interest of the large farmers, non-agriculturists and corporate houses. An agriculture policy that facilitates greater mechanisation, commerciali-sation of agriculture, and entry of the big corporations through contract farming will further deprive the small and marginal farmers leading to increasing alienation of land, and landlessness. Flaws in the implementation of the MSP, increasing informal loans and distress sale of paddy, procurement of labour in exchange for subsistence, transfer of land, and productive as well as non-productive assets to the money-lenders and landowners, remain a regular practice. Experiencing distress is largely associated with the decline in control over productive resources due to the development policies of the state. The debilitating impact of demonetisation, Goods and Services Tax (GST) and rural inflation has intensified the farmers’ distress. This has resulted in aggravating the agrarian crisis and consequently increasing farmers’ suicides in the recent past.

Summing Up

ONE needs to move beyond the immediate causes of agrarian distress. The policies should ensure right to access, ownership and control over the livelihood resources to secure the farmers a certain normality of livelihood, and the right to live with dignity.Therefore, the increasing trend towards landlessness, alienation of land rights, and disentitlement to the livelihood resources should be arrested to eradicate the intensification of farmers’ distress. An alternative agricultural development strategy should prioritise redistribution of land and the means to cultivate land, along with promoting the diversified rural livelihood opportunities. The small and marginal farmers need to be included in the institutional credit so that they can avail loans at reasonable interest rates which will save them from the exploitation by the moneylenders, landlords, middlemen and traders. The credit system must be revised, failing which the farmers will be back in the same situation and will take to the streets year after year. Despite the fact that ownership and control over land has major implications for the living conditions in an agrarian economy, land rights continue to remain neglected in the policy reforms. The relief measures such as farm loan waiver, even though urgently necessary, are never adequate to mitigate or reverse the processes of impoverishment and destitution.

Thus, the distress of farmers has to be understood as social, economic, and political processes that generate and accelerate the destitution of the most deprived, vulnerable, marginal, and least powerful groups in a community to a point, making it impossible to sustain their lives and livelihood. It is critical to understand that distress as everyday experiences not only threaten one’s life, but also are the consequential effects of continuous failure to generate sufficient livelihood. It is important to place agriculture on the path of a sustainable high growth which requires structural reforms to ensure a sustained income support for farmers in the long run. The farmers’ movements have to play a critical role in making the state more responsible and accountable to secure conditions that empower them to exercise their rights.

REFERENCES 

Damodaran, Harish and Sunny Verma (2018): ‘Politics over Economics of Farm Loans: My Waiver Vs Your Waiver’ in The Indian Express, December 20, p. 2.

Deshpande, Alok (2018):‘Government Body Chief Calls Loan Waiver a Failure’ in The Hindu, December 27, p. 4.

Gulati, Ashok and Prerna Terway (2018): ‘If You Want to Help Farmers’ in The Indian Express, December 24, p. 11.

Nair, Shalini (2018): ‘Seeking End to Crisis in the Farms, Thousands March through City’s Streets’ in The Indian Express, November 30, Page 6.

Patnaik, Sampad (2018): ‘The Odisha CM Skips Loan Waiver, Declares Financial Aid for Farmers’ in The Indian Express, December 22, p. 9.

Ray, Suranjita (2018): ‘Alienation of Rights to Forest’ in Mainstream, Vol. LVI, No. 30, July 14.

Sainath, P. (2007a): ‘Farm Suicides Rising in Four States’ Funds’, The Hindu, November 12.

—————— (2007b): ‘One Farmer’s Suicide Every 30 Minutes’, The Hindu, November 14.

—————— (2018): ‘Farmers are Moving From Suicide to Active Protest, This is a Historic Beginning’ in https://www.huffingtonpost.in visited on December 29, 2018.

Sinha, Yashwant (2018): ‘A New Deal for the Farmer’ in The Indian Express, December 5, p. 13.

Swaminathan, M. S. (2011): ‘Banks Should Lead the War on Poverty’ inThe Hindu, November 10, p. 10.

Suranjita Ray teaches Political Science in Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi and can be contacted at: suranjitaray_66[at]yahoo.co.in

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