06/08/2017, 16.19

Indian farmers protest against debt-related suicides

Nalini R Mohanty

Five farmers died in clashes with the police in Madhya Pradesh. Farmers’ action began in Maharashtra. Both states are governed by the BJP. Overproduction has led to the collapse of prices. Protesters throw milk, onions and potatoes in the streets. “[W]hat the agriculture sector today needs are the long-term policy measures”.

New Delhi (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Millions of farmers have halted production in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Their reasons for doing so range from drought, lack of monsoon rains and climate change that cause food shortages to irrigation facilities that have led to overproduction, low prices, and excess debt that drive some to suicide.

In Maharashtra, many took to the streets on 1st June to demand the government cancel farm loan debts. In a desperate attempt to put the spotlight on their tragic conditions, they destroyed the product of their hard work in the fields, throwing onions, potatoes and milk in the streets. From there, the protest spread to Madhya Pradesh, where five people died in clashes with the police.

If at the beginning, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan said that that farmers’ demands had already been met, he recently took a step back saying that he would look into cancelling the interest on agricultural loans.

Politics is now playing games with farmers’ lives as suicide wreaks havoc among their ranks. Political parties see tremendous potential in terms of votes as farmers' champions. For this reason, some leaders, like Rahul Gandhi are riding the wave of discontent in an attempt to attract the public's favour.

Today the Congress Party vice president travelled to Mandsaur district (Madhya Pradesh), scene of deadly clashes, to lead protests. The latest reports note that he was in police custody when he tried to enter the state.

After all is said and done, millions of farmers represent more than half of the country’s workforce. To avoid escalating tensions across the country, long-term policies are needed. “Otherwise, rural distress and farmer suicide would remain the recurring feature of Indian reality.”

What follows is an analysis by Indian journalist Nalini R Mohanty that appeared on Firstpost, an Indian English-language newspaper.

After Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh has now been rocked by farmer unrest. At least six farmers were killed and eight others were critically injured on Tuesday when the police resorted to firing to subdue the protesting farmers in Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh.

In both Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, the farmers’ demands are almost similar: they want complete farm loan waiver as a short-term palliative and secondly, institutionalised mechanism for getting better prices for agricultural produce.

Incidentally, both the states are ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); in Maharashtra, it is an alliance government with Shiv Sena, the latter, however, is a junior partner. It is therefore alarming for the BJP, which also rules at the Centre, to face the farmers’ wrath as the ruling party has made the ambitious plan to double the farmers’ income in the next five years.

It is all the more disturbing for the BJP as Madhya Pradesh under Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s stewardship has been hailed as the biggest success story for agriculture in the recent decades.

Barely a month ago, Ashok Gulati, an eminent agriculture expert, wrote in The Indian Express: "Several of these steps (like farm loan waiver, government purchase of wheat and potatoes and notice to sugar meals for clearing farmer dues, etc) highlight the Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s concern for farmers who have been getting a raw deal for years. Should he intend to be in for the long haul, Adityanath would be better off taking a leaf from what we call the Shiv mantra. The mantra derives its name from Shivraj Singh Chauhan, who is in his third term as the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh."

Gulati then goes on to state the achievements of the Shivraj government that created the golden era for agriculture in Madhya Pradesh. He gives the statistics for it: "Madhya Pradesh’s agri – gross state domestic product (agri-GSDP) grew at 9.7 percent per annum – the highest ever achieved by any state – between 2005-06 and 2014-15. All-India agri-GDP growth during this period was 3.5 percent.”

Why then have things gone so horribly wrong in Madhya Pradesh where farmers are out on the streets in thousands demanding justice? Chouhan has also tried to do what his Maharashtra counterpart attempted a couple of days ago – to break the unity of the farmers by inviting one farmer union group for talks to the exclusion of the other.

Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis conceded the farm loan waiver for the small and marginal farmers in his meeting with a farmers’ union which in turn announced the withdrawal of the strike. But other farmers’ unions were enraged at their exclusion from negotiations and vowed to continue the protest.

The same scenario was repeated in Madhya Pradesh when Chouhan called the leaders of one organisation for negotiations, which ended with those leaders calling off the strike, but other union leaders have refused to toe the line until Madhya Pradesh government declares a complete farm loan waiver.

Why has Gulati’s ‘golden state of agriculture’ turned into a farmers’ graveyard? It is not as if agricultural pot started boiling last week. The official data presents a dismal picture over a longer period. The Madhya Pradesh government also admitted on the floor of the legislature that between 1 July, 2016 and 15 November, 2016, 531 farmers had committed suicide in the state.

The home minister of the Madhya Pradesh government had to also put on record that between 16 November, 2016 and 27 February, 2017, 106 farmers and 181 farm labourers have committed suicide.

he official data for farmer suicide in Maharashtra is starker. The data compiled by the relief and rehabilitation department of the Maharashtra government has admitted that 639 farmers committed suicide in just three months, between 1 January and 31 March of this year. Last year, in 2016, on official count confirmed that at least 3,052 farmers committed suicide in the state.

This is a cause for worry for the BJP as Madhya Pradesh goes for election next year and Maharashtra is due for its next election the year after. No party can hope to win an election in a state by incurring the wrath of the rural community, especially the farmers. By a conservative estimate, more than 50 percent of Indian population are employed – or if you like, underemployed – in agricultural activity. A ruling party cannot afford to ignore their concerns.

What then ails Indian agriculture? And what can the government do to alleviate the conditions?

For quite some time, the common idea that was held was that agriculture in India faced a crisis because farmers were over-dependent on monsoons in the absence of adequate irrigation facilities. When the monsoon failed or was below normal, the drought condition prevailed and agricultural production took a hit.

So the states which wanted to take care of its farmers, prioritised irrigation facilities. Madhya Pradesh took the lead in this regard. "Between 2009 and 2014, over 1,400 minor irrigation projects were completed in MP, increasing the state’s irrigated area by 4.8 lakh hectares… The irrigated area in MP, thus, increased from 30 percent of the cropped area in 2005-06 to 41.2 percent of such area in 2014-15."

The relatively good monsoon last year added to the bountiful production of food crops. Why is it then that the farmers in Madhya Pradesh are distressed?

The agricultural distress has turned on its head there. Food scarcity is no more the issue in the state. What plagues the farmer there is over-production. The Madhya Pradesh government, in its over enthusiasm, had implemented a policy of 10 percent bonus over and above the Centre’s minimum support price (MSP) during 2007-08 and 2014-15. It resulted in a glut – Madhya Pradesh’s share of wheat production rose from 8.6 per cent in 2005-06 to almost 20 per cent in 2014-15.

The state has had to deal with the consequent problem of over-production. The state did not have the wherewithal to store the food grains in the warehouses. It did not make economic sense for the state to create additional warehouses to preserve the food grains only to rot.

When the state government tried to give away the food grains free to the people below the poverty line, the central government raised a red flag saying it would distort the market economy.

The rural distress today is largely on account of the falling prices. Madhya Pradesh today faces a glut in onion production. The MP government has announced the decision to buy onion from farmers at Rs 8 and sell at Rs 2 through the public distribution system. The Shivraj Singh government has also created Rs 1000 crore stabilisation fund to ride over the immediate crisis.

But clearly, these short-term measures have not assuaged the sentiment of the farmers. They are demanding complete bank loan waiver to get back on their feet. Even if the MP government concedes this demand – just as the Maharashtra government has partially done – it would be another short-term palliative.

The writing on the wall is clear: what the agriculture sector today needs are the long-term policy measures to shield the farmer from the consequences of both over-production and under-production of agricultural goods. Otherwise, rural distress and farmer suicide would remain the recurring feature of Indian reality.


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