Farmers shout slogans against the government at a rally organized by All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) in Mumbai, India, on March 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Danish Siddiqui

The 50,000-strong farmers’ march to India’s financial capital ended well for the petitioners as the BJP government caved in and accepted all their demands on March 13. Their triumph may be illusory, however: India continues to stare at a massive agrarian crisis, and it has become worse in the last four years.

Maharashtra, one of India’s most prosperous states, also has the dubious distinction of having some of the highest suicide rates by farmers. Matters have drawn into sharp focus thanks to failure of the state’s BJP-led coalition government to implement poll promises. Organized by a communist party affiliate, the farmers marched 200 kilometers in the blazing heat to be heard by in Mumbai.

United under the banner of All India Kisan Sabha, a farmers’ outfit backed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), they won hearts and found a groundswell of support as they neared the city. People came out to feed them voluntarily, and their decision to march through the night so that commuters in Mumbai were not inconvenienced was greeted with massive cheers.

As pictures of blisters, bleeding toes and broken slippers emerged on social media, support for their cause grew exponentially, forcing the state government to accept all their demands. That the BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, also rules nationally, exacerbated the political implications of the protest.

A key demand of the farmers was the waiving of crippling farm loans. The policy was promised by the BJP before state elections in 2014. However, up until now, only one-third of farmers in the state had been given waivers. The marchers also sought adequate compensation for failed crops; this had been pledged by the government in January but not delivered. They were also angry about forcible land acquisitions, and sought the immediate implementation of the Swaminathan Commission’s recommendations of fair and remunerative prices. Moreover, they demanded individual and community land rights for forest dwellers. Over 100,000 applications are pending for disposal.

Protesting Indian farmers at a rally in Mumbai sustain themselves on meagre Indian breads and pickle on March 13. Photo: Priyamvada Kowshik / Instagram

Problems aplenty

Agriculture accounts for less than 15% of India’s gross domestic product (GDP) but it is still the main source of livelihood for nearly half of the country’s population. The fundamental root of the agrarian crisis is the intense pressure of population on land. Over 80% of Maharashtra’s 13 million farmers work small and marginal farms, meaning they have landholdings of less than one hectare, as per the state’s own 2017-18 Economic Survey. Less than 0.25 % of rural households own more than 10 hectares of land and a minuscule 0.01% own over 20 hectares.

There has been a reduction in the average size of landholdings from  4.28 hectares in 1971 to 1.44 hectares now, thanks to division of plots among male children. These tiny plots of land can no longer sustain  whole families. Rural households earn Rs3,000 (US$46) a month by farming. Worryingly, the Economic Survey – conducted by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) – pegs the minimum cost of living for the average Indian farm household at Rs6,426 per month.

NSSO data also reveals that a farm household needs to have at least one
hectare of land to make ends meet every month. But four out of five farmers in Maharashtra, and two out of three in India, own less than that. The shortage of cash and credit is a major issue in rural households. Landless or marginal farmers lack the resources to either buy or lease more land or invest in farm infrastructure such as irrigation, power and farm machinery.

At the same time, farmers need money for the education of children, marriage of daughters and healthcare. They borrow funds, mainly from money lenders. Any default on a payment forces them into a vicious cycle of poverty and often suicide.

Monsoons, pests and prices

A farmer is constantly exposed to multiple risks. The first major risk is the weather. In Maharashtra, over 80% of farmers are dependent on the rains. A weak monsoon or even a delayed monsoon — timing really matters — means a significant loss of output. And some experts say a well-placed irrigation system hardly makes any difference. “Punjab has 98% irrigated land but farm suicides have risen. Farmers are distressed as they failed to get adequate return,” says Devinder Sharma, an agriculture policy analyst.

Another risk is from pests and plant diseases. Most districts in Maharashtra have seen 30-70% devastation of cotton crops due to pink worm attacks this year – despite having using genetically modified Bt cotton seeds for over 15 years. “Maharashtra is the major cotton producer but failure of Bt cotton is a hush-hush affair at the behest of multinational companies,” alleges Kishore Tiwari, a prominent activist  and chairman of the Maharashtra government’s committee on farmers’ distress.

The third risk is price. The better the crop, the lower the price. Farmers in the states of Maharashtra, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh threw their vegetables on roads last year as prices dipped under one rupee per kilogram. Government procurement of foodgrains at the minimum support price (MSP) is supposed to protect farmers.

However, this actually only benefits the large traders who sell grain to the government. Over 94% farmers have no other option but to sell their produce locally for less than the MSP, according to a report by a committee led by Shanta Kumar that was set up by the Modi government in 2015. The MSP is applicable only on 26 commodities, out of which only rice and paddy are generally procured by the government.

For other crops, Agricultural Produce Market Committees are supposed to protect the farmers – but cartels ensure they don’t. Ashok Gulati, a former chairman of the Agricultural Prices Commission, claims the farmers usually get as little as 25% of the price that consumers finally pay. The central government set up e-NAM (National Agriculture Market) in April 2016 to allow farmers to trade their produce online. “Over 67 lakh (7.6 million) farmers have registered on it so far,” said  Union Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh in a written reply to India’s Upper House last December. This is only 5% of a total 130 million farmers in India.

Low MSP growth

No government has ever addressed the core issue behind India’s agrarian crisis. Devinder Sharma, agriculture policy analyst, says: “From 1970 to 2015, the MSP of wheat grew from Rs76 per quintal to  Rs1,450 per quintal. This is a 19-fold rise. In the same period, salaries of government employees and teachers in India grew between 120 to 150 fold and 280 to 320-fold respectively. This explains the plight of farmers and the reasons behind rising numbers of farm suicides.”

MSPs are deliberately kept low to keep inflation in check and force distressed farmers to quit farming and migrate to cities, claims Devinder Sharma, adding: “The rural to urban migration helps make cheap labour available for infrastructure work as desired by the private sector. Discussions around corporate farming are part of the same design.”

A professor from the Dr Punjabrao agricultural university, Akola, in Maharashtra, echoes Sharma’s views. He also points out that “while  successive governments have offered Rs5,500 billion as tax rebates to industries since 2004, the seventh pay commission will further dent the exchequer by Rs4,080 billion just [to reward] 1% of the population. There is hardly opposition for such a step. But when it comes to farm waiver or food prices rises, everyone is concerned.”

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