Around 50,000 farmers from across India marched on the country’s national capital New Delhi on Friday, demanding loan waivers and more remunerative prices for their crops. The farmers’ march to the Parliament, under the aegis of a joint front of 2o8 organizations, has stirred up a political storm ahead of general elections in 2019.
With the elections coming in six months, opposition leaders have finally woken up to the brewing agrarian crisis in rural India and tried to take the opportunity to corner the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In a country that prides itself on being agriculturally driven, the farmer vote bank is a key factor.
Top opposition leaders including Indian National Congress president Rahul Gandhi, Delhi Chief Minister and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Arvind Kejriwal, Loktantrik Janata Dal president Sharad Yadav, Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury and National Conference president Farooq Abdullah were seen on the stage at the protest site, hand in hand in solidarity with the farmers.
Representatives from the Samajwadi Party (Uttar Pradesh), Trinamool Congress (West Bengal) and Rashtriya Lok Dal (western Uttar Pradesh) also spoke. However, key organizers such as Yogendra Yadav, Vijoo Krishnan and P Sainath took a back seat.
Farmers came to Delhi from more than 100 districts across India, led by the joint front All India KisanSangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC). They demanded a special session of Parliament to discuss farmer-related issues – primarily loan waivers and fixing of minimum support prices (MSPs) at which they sell their farm produce.
The farmers’ original plan was to surround the Parliament and block it until the government agreed to their demands. Delhi police refused to allow that for security reasons. So a compromise was reached. The protesters were allowed to gather at the Jantar Mantar street near the Parliament and voice their demands, which underline India’s multi-layered agricultural crisis.
Debt and farmer suicides
Since 1995 around 300,000 farmers have committed suicide in India, the People’s Archive of Rural India estimates. In most cases, it was because of the financial burdens on the farmers after their crops failed. There are multiple reasons for crop failure – from lack of proper irrigation to insect attacks, from irregular monsoons to bad agricultural practices.
The agrarian crisis is not just limited to land-owning farmers but also affects landless ones, as well as daily-wage earners. An average farm household in rural India has a debt of 104,602 rupees (US$1,485) and makes only 43% of its income from agriculture.
The role of the government is important for multiple factors, most important being fixing the MSP and loan waivers.
Nemchand, a 52-year-old farmer from Pilibhit district in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, was one of the protesters who came to Delhi. He took loans from two banks – one for 75,000 rupees and the other for 27,000 rupees – which he is unable to pay back.
In March 2017, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in Uttar Pradesh with a promise of waiving farmer loans. A scheme was implemented but it never fully helped the likes of Nemchand in the state. “I have taken two loans. The government only allows [waiving] for one,” he said. “How do I pay the rest?”
The Hindustan Times has reported that the Uttar Pradesh loan-waiver program, which was initially supposed to help 7 million farmers, ended up benefiting only half of that number. Some beneficiaries got as low as 1 rupee as a loan waiver.
Chandrashekhar Sriram, a farmer who traveled from Yavatmal district of Maharashtra, about 1,200 kilometers from Delhi, pointed out how the entire process of applying for a loan waiver had moved online.
“I belong to a tribal district where there is no proper Internet coverage. To apply for any loan, farmers from 42 villages have to travel to one place to fill the forms online,” he said.
Sriram added that loan waivers in Maharashtra were limited to one person in a family. “What about loans taken by others in the family?” he asked.
The Maharashtra government claims that it has transferred 12.3 billion rupees to bank accounts of 3 million farmers. Despite this, official data suggest seven farmers are committing suicide per day in the state.
“Last year our cotton crops were destroyed by insects and this year there is not enough rain,” Sriram said.
Low crop prices
Another major demand of farmers is for the government to fix a suitable MSP for various crops. This is the cost at which farmers sell their produce to wholesalers, who in turn sell it to retailers. Farmers often get less than one-fourth of the price that an ordinary person on the street pays to buy an agricultural product. According to a pamphlet distributed at the protest, a farmer gets 5 rupees per kilogram of tomatoes, whereas in Delhi, the same is sold for 30 rupees by retailers.
Farmers have long been asking for the implementation of the M S Swaminathan Report on agriculture. The report recommends that farmers should get paid an MSP that is at least 50% more than the weighted average cost of production. None of the state governments have accepted this recommendation.
One farmer, on the condition of anonymity, said he planned to boycott the next general elections. “I am from Bhatinda [in the state of Punjab]. Before 2014, Modi told us in Bhatinda that if he becomes the prime minister, he will waive off farmers’ loans. After coming to power, he has completely forgotten us,” he said.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi attacked the Modi government for not doing enough for the farmers and siding with the industrialists. AAP leader and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was more specific and forceful than the Nehru-Gandhi scion. He demanded the implementation of the Swaminathan Report on MSPs and gave an example of how he deals with farmer issues in Delhi. Once Kejriwal completed his speech, opposition leaders stood together holding each other’s hands on the stage.
Nemchand, like many other farmers, was unsure if anyone would actually deliver on their promises: “I do not know. Even Modi made so many promises before the last election and yet we had to march to Delhi for our basic rights.”
P Sainath, a journalist and one of the event organizers, told the media: “This is just the beginning, not a culmination. Ten of thousands of them made it to Delhi. We need to appreciate their spirit.” He also pointed out that major political parties – except the BJP – had publicly supported the farmers.
“It is certainly one of the key issues [for next year’s elections]. How important this issue is you can see from the fact that [the] BJP has remembered Bhagwan Ram precisely at the moment [the] farm movement becomes strong,” he said.
Sainath was referring to the Ram Mandir dispute, which has previously led to communal disharmony between Hindus and Muslims and culminated in the demolition of the 16th-century Babri Mosque. The BJP, which started the Ram Mandir movement, has for long cashed in on the issue for political gain and had stirred it up again recently.
Dubbing the Ram Mandir issue as a “distraction” from real problems affecting the farmers, the sons of the soil raised the slogan “Ayodhya nahi, Karza maaf chahiye” – “We don’t want Ayodhya but loan waivers.”