Farmers are amongst the lowest earning class, with an average family income of Rs 3,000 per month.
At least four times during the day, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley addressed the media last Monday to allay any fears arising from the crash of the stock markets, perhaps the biggest fall in seven years. By evening, the nation was informed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was personally keeping a watch on the volatile situation.
Some called it heartbreak, others termed it as mayhem. As the Sensex plunged 1,624 points, panic spread, and I heard a number of TV anchors calling it a ‘bloodbath’. When asked to comment, I said: “The real bloodbath is happening on the farm. As of date, 3.05 lakh farmers have committed suicide in the past 20 years and I have never seen any Prime Minister, or even a Finance Minister, expressing concern at the continuing serial death dance on the farm.”
Only one per cent of India’s population invests in stock markets. And look at the shock that the media – both print and electronic – were expressing. Look at the way the mandarins in the Finance Ministry got into a huddle to find ways to tide over the crisis, and repeatedly assure the country that all is well. Every hour, two farmers commit suicide somewhere, and while the death toll has continued to rise over the years, neither the media nor mainline economists and planners have ever shown any remote concern.
This dichotomy in thinking – where 99 per cent are ignored at the cost of the privileged one per cent – is what brought leaders of 40 farmer organisations across the country for a three-day intense deliberation at Chandigarh last week.
They came from as far as Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar to share and understand the real causes behind the continuing agrarian crisis, and more importantly on how to put agriculture back on the national agenda. The underlying objective focused on how to restore the voice of 60-crore farmers and at the same time bring back the pride in farming.
Agriculture has disappeared from the economic radar screen of the country. Over the past few decades, farmers are increasingly being pushed out of farming. This is exactly what the World Bank had wanted India to do way back in 1996. It had directed the country to move 40-crore people out of rural areas and into the cities, by 2015. This is what worries the farming community.
Farmers know that conditions are being created by successive governments – both by way of economic policies and by bringing in legislations like the land bill – to force them out of the villages.
“Farmers are only a political raw material and all political parties have used them time and again for their political gains, only to be dumped again,” says Balbir Singh Rajewal, leading a faction of the Bharti Kisan Union.
Uttar Pradesh farm leader, V M Singh puts it more succinctly when he says it is an ‘aar par ki ladai’. “Political parties lead us across the frontier only to later make money by trading our interests”. While farmers continue to produce food for the country year after year, they have been sliding into debt, which has been mounting with each passing year.
Farmers realise that they are deliberately not being paid for what they produce. “The Minimum Support Price (MSP) we get is not what we deserve but what will keep consumers and the industry happy,” lamented Pachhe Nanjudaswamy of the Karnataka Rajya Ryot Sangha.
Over the years, farmer leaders too have lost credibility among their communities. These leaders, too, realise that farmers are increasingly losing faith among themselves. They are divided on lines of ideology, caste, class egos and political affiliations. Many believe that farm unions today are explicitly divided on caste lines.
The reservation movement in several parts of the country– Patels in Gujarat, Gurjars in Rajasthan, and Jats in Haryana and UP – actually comprise farmers who have been divided on majority caste basis. While a large part of these agitations draw strength from the farming community of a particular class, farm issues have been pushed to the background.
Tiding over the internal problems that farmers’ movement across the country faces is one hurdle for the leaders, but it is the discriminatory economic policies being perpetuated over the years that angers the farming community most.
Farmers are amongst the lowest earning class in the country with the average income per family from farming operations not exceeding Rs 3,000 per month. This is because the procurement price has been deliberately kept low.
Cotton farmers, for instance, have been paid 20 per cent less than the market prices, simply to keep the textile industry viable. Wheat and rice procurement price were increased by only Rs 50 per quintal this year, which is roughly an increase of 3.25 per cent, simply to ensure that food inflation remains in control.
In other words, the burden of keeping food prices low and to ensure cheaper raw material for the industry lies on the farmers. So, how then to raise farm incomes is becoming a rallying point for farmer organisations across the country.