Indian farmers protest in Mumbai in March. Thousands of farmers walked more than 100km to demand better crop prices and land rights. Photo: AFP / Indranil Mukherjee
Indian farmers protest in Mumbai in March. Thousands of farmers walked more than 100km to demand better crop prices and land rights. Photo: AFP / Indranil Mukherjee

Low crop prices and distressed farmers could hurt the prospects of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the upcoming key state elections.

A massive joint protest by farmers and aggrieved army veterans heading for the national capital New Delhi on November 29-30 will set the stage for elections in two BJP-ruled states in the Hindi heartland – Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Voters will go to the polls on November 28 and December 7, respectively, and the results will likely be emblematic of voter sentiment ahead of national-level elections in 2019.

The joint action comes ahead of a nationwide call for protest on December 2 in Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan. While the army veterans are asking for the long-due implementation of One Rank, One Pension (OROP), the demands of the farmers include a blanket loan waiver, crop subsidies and the mandatory procurement of crops by the government.

One of the key demands of the farmers is New Delhi’s acceptance of the C2+50% formula for assessing the Minimum Support Price  (MSP) of crops, at which the government buys produce from the farmers. The formula gives a 50% return over C2, which measures the imputed value of the rent on leased land,  labor expenses, interest on the value of owned capital assets, and other farm inputs.

Volatility in crop prices, trade policies, and climate change-induced distress have pushed farmers to the wall. On August 9, farmers across India, under the leadership of various organizations, conducted a Bharat Bandh (all-India strike), with solidarity from other sections of Indian society. In March, they created a storm by marching to Mumbai, India’s financial capital, asking for loan waivers and a better MSP under the leadership of All India Kisan Sabha.

Government’s anti-farmer stance

The farmers’ movement across India gained wider support and momentum due to the government’s violent tactics. During the last two years of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), there have been several cases of police firing on farmers. Many have been killed in confrontations: six farmers died in Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh; seven in Jharkhand; and 13 in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu. The police have not been held accountable.

So, there is widespread disquiet in the Indian farming community. More than half of India’s population is dependent on agriculture, which feeds the country of 1.3 billion people. But over 400,000 farmers have committed suicide over the past 25 years, according to government records.

Both the BJP-led central government and several state governments have failed to honor their electoral promises to farmers. The same happened in Madhya Pradesh, and the killing in Mandsaur fuelled farmer protests across the state. This has become a huge political setback for the ruling BJP.

The last two years have been particularly terrible for the farming community because of the BJP government’s decision to demonetize Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes and the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax regime; both affected farmers’ income, which is mostly in cash.

Still, the federal government refused to grant a blanket farm loan waiver and adopt the demanded MSP structure. Many cattle cultivators, belonging to the agrarian community, have also lost out due to a notification restricting the cattle trade. This is over and above the scourge of mob lynchings by gau rakshaks (cow vigilantes).

Limited MSP and land grabs 

The MSP announced by the BJP government appears to be a fraud perpetrated against the peasantry. It is as per the limited A2+FL formula and not the comprehensive C2+50% formula recommended by the MS Swaminathan Commission. The A2+FL formula takes into account the actual cost plus the imputed value of family labor in the production of a crop. For example, the MSP for paddy is announced as Rs 1750, which would have been Rs 2340 per quintal as per the C2 formula.

The prime minister had promised to implement the C2 formula at more than 400 public meetings during his 2014 election tour across the country. The BJP election manifesto promises the same. And yet, in February 2015, just eight months after coming to power, the same BJP government submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court saying that it could not implement its promise because it would “distort the market.”

Moreover, farmers have continuously been displaced from their lands in the name of “development.” They are fighting valiantly against forced land acquisition by the government for several development projects such as the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, other proposed industrial corridors and dedicated freight corridors, along with the Mumbai-Ahmedabad Bullet Train corridor, several Special Economic Zones, and so on.

Even the Japanese government has raised concerns about the eviction of farmers without satisfactory compensation for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project, in which Japan is a partner.

N0 farm  loan waiver

With over 400,000 peasant suicides across India and with a 42% rise in the number of farmers taking their own lives over the last four years under the Modi regime, there is just no alternative to a one-time blanket loan waiver for the peasantry. Legislation to ensure a remunerative price as per the C2+50% formula is also needed. These two steps are desperately needed to save farmers, save agriculture and ultimately save the country.

The Modi regime keeps silent while top businessmen like Vijay Mallya, Mehul Choksi, Nirav Modi and Lalit Modi fleece the banks of thousands of billions of rupees and flee the country. It officially wrote-off more than Rs 300 billion in loans taken out by a handful of corporate houses. The corporates have over Rs 1100 billion NPAs (mon-performing assets) pending with the banks, and no action whatsoever is being taken against them.

And it is the same government which says that loan waivers are bad for the economy and therefore refuses to grant them to the peasantry.

The way forward

A radical change in agrarian policies across the board is the need of the hour if agriculture, farmers and farm laborers are to be saved.

The first prerequisite is radical land reforms and distribution of government and illegal land holdings to the landless agricultural workers and the marginal peasants. Secondly, the government must massively hike public investment in farming infrastructure in areas including agriculture,  power, storage, transport, marketing, and social welfare. Thirdly, import-export policies must be tailored to help the farmers, not Indian corporate houses and multinational corporations.

As things stand today, after the state assembly polls are concluded, the farmers’ agitation is going to be a major thorn in the flesh of the BJP’s ruling coalition.

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