The BJP may have won the Gujarat assembly election with a simple majority, bagging 99 of the total 182 seats, but it was the party’s lowest tally in the state in nearly two decades. A key reason for that was farmers’ discontent in the Saurashtra region and it will be a critical issue in the four major states going to the polls in 2018, three of which — Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh — are ruled by the BJP. Agrarian distress will also be one of the party’s major election planks in Karnataka, which will be the first of the four to vote, in March-April, and where the BJP is looking to dethrone the Congress. The BJP’s performance in the assembly polls will be crucial to its prospects in the 2019 general election. ET Magazine travels to these states to understand why the farmers are unhappy

Maximum Wish Minimum Support

If CM Siddaramaiah thought his crop loan waiver is enough, drought-hit farmers disagree

Lingappa is unsure of what the future holds for his family. The 53-year-old coconut farmer in Mandya in southern Karnataka couldn’t sow anything on his one-acre field this year because there was not enough water. The trees that should have been bearing fruit are stripped bare by disease. In the midst of all this, he has to find money for his younger daughter’s wedding in March. “It will be a simple wedding but I still need ₹4 lakh,” he says, worried. He has already taken loans of close to ₹2 lakh from banks and local lenders, to meet daily expenses and for his elder daughter’s wedding that cost him about ₹6 lakh.

In June, when the Siddaramaiah government announced a crop loan waiver of ₹8,165 crore — ₹50,000 per farmer — it was considered a political trump card that would help the Congress return to power when the state goes to polls next year. But that is not enough, say farmers. “Yes, ₹50,000 has been waived. But what about the rest?” asks Lingappa.

Mandya, over 150 km from Bengaluru, is part of the “old Mysuru” region and is known for growing sugarcane and paddy (both water-intensive crops) as well as ragi, coconut and maize, but the last three years of drought have hit the region hard, like the rest of the state. This has also been a stronghold of former PM Deve Gowda’s party, the Janata Dal (Secular), now helmed by his son HD Kumaraswamy.

Bitter Sugarcane

Mandya presents a paradox in that it is considered more fertile and prosperous than the northern districts and yet has been witness to a spate of farmer suicides over the past few years, reporting 118 deaths between July 2015 and June 2016, according to the state agriculture department. Nalli Krishna, a farmer who grows sugarcane and paddy and does sericulture, says they are reeling from drought. Even the rain this year came too late for the first round of sowing. “There are no other opportunities to work here. Landholding is also very fragmented so the income is limited,” says Krishna, a member of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha, a farmers’ organisation. According to the agricultural census in 2011, 49% of farmers in the state are marginal farmers, with an average holding of an acre or less. “People want to send their children to private schools, so they take loans from private financiers. When farmers are unable to repay, banks will send notices and shame them, so they feel they have no option but to commit suicide. The government has to tell us how we can continue to have a livelihood,” he says.

“If the government is serious, there should be a one-time settlement of all farmers’ loans,” says Lingappa. Another farmer in Mandya, Boraiah, who cultivates coconut, paddy and sugarcane in 14 acres, says it is the Centre that needs to pitch in and help with the loan waiver. “That’s what was done in Uttar Pradesh. Otherwise, even farmers know that this ₹50,000 waiver is an election gimmick,” says Boraiah.

They bristle at the suggestion that one reason for distress is the continuous dependence on a water-intensive crop like sugarcane, instead of diversifying into crops like ragi and other millets, something Agriculture Minister Krishna Byre Gowda has been trying to promote. “Politicians can sit in AC cabins and say all these. But this is the sugarcane and paddy belt. Our land is waterlogged and we cannot grow many other crops here,” says H Chandrashekhar who, along with his son Aditya Gowda, an ayurvedic doctor, grows plantation crops on their seven acres.

“We need a farmer politician”

What they really want, says farmer after farmer, is a support price in line with the MS Swaminathan Committee’s recommendation that it must be 50% more than the weighted average cost of production. “It costs ₹4,200 to grow a tonne of sugarcane while the government has fixed a procurement price of ₹2,300. Instead, if a proper price is set scientifically, there would be no need for other subsidies,” says Boraiah. Even giving compensation when farmers commit suicides is no solution, says Nalli Krishna. “The CM is taking out fullpage advertisements because of elections. But there is no mention of farmer suicides. No party is talking about it,” he says, suggesting that a helpline be set up for farmers.

Though demonetisation threw the cash-dependent region into turmoil at the time, it may not have a significant impact on the polls, say residents. “We had a tough time but I don’t think people will remember,” says Sunanda Jayaram, a farmer and activist in Mandya.

As in other years, the fight is largely expected to be between the Congress and the JD (S) in this area, dominated by the Vokkaliga caste which Kumaraswamy belongs to. Voting, too, is mostly along caste lines. “But it is not that we look only at caste, we also look at performance. Otherwise, (minister) Ambareesh would still be popular here,” says Nalli Krishna, referring to the actor-turned-politician, who, locals say, neglected the area once he got elected. Actor Ramya, currently in charge of the Congress’s social media cell, had also unsuccessfully contested from Mandya. “She said she would build a house and stay here but we haven’t seen her here after the elections either,” he says.

“There is not much to choose from among the parties, but Kumaraswamy is considered to be relatively more concerned about farmers in this area,” says Aditya Gowda, the ayurvedic doctor who farms along with his father, adding that when there is an issue, Kumaraswamy usually intervenes for farmers. “What we actually need is a politician who understands farmers and who can voice our concerns. We need a Hardik Patel.”

Farmer K Boraiah says a scientific minimum support price would be more helpful than other subsidies

Loan waivers are electoral gimmicks, says farmer H Chandrashekhar, who grows maize and sugarcane

MANDYA, KARNATAKA

Key Farmers’ Issues

Lack of satisfactory support price for crops

Not enough water for irrigating crops

Lack of immediate access to market for crops and storage facility

Possible Solutions

Implement the Swaminathan panel recommendation on minimum support price

Give more support and information to farmers while they are planting crops

Improve access to market, crack down on middlemen

Not in Farmers’ Debt

Madhya Pradesh, unlike its neighbours Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, is not keen on a loan waiver

Madhusudan Patidar at Barkheda Panth village sold his last crops, urad (black gram) and soybean, at below the minimum support price (MSP) and he ended 2017 with a loss. The year has been bad for the family — in June, Patidar lost his 19-year-old brother Abhishek to a police bullet after farmers’ protests broke out in Mandsaur.

The agitation, which led to the death of six farmers, made Mandsaur the epicentre of the agrarian distress in the state.

However, among the big states reporting a high number of farmer suicides, Madhya Pradesh is the only one which has said a complete no to a farm loan waiver. In the state where the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Shivraj Singh Chauhan has been at the helm for the last 12 years and will face his big test in next year’s assembly election, the trick lies in giving record interest-free loans to farmers and introducing a scheme that covers their losses if their crop ends up being procured for less than the MSP.

“Loan waiver is neither an issue nor a demand in MP,” says Sudhir Gupta, BJP’s member of Parliament from Mandsaur. “We are the state giving out interest-free loans. In other states, the farmer is charged interest. Even on fertiliser, we give a 10% interest subsidy. This is far more beneficial to the farmer and the farmer knows that.” Madhya Pradesh’s Agriculture Minister Gaurishankar Bisen, who was not available for comment, stirred the hornet’s nest last June when he said a loan waiver “was impossible” in MP, since no interest is charged from farmers in the state.

Patidar’s family begs to disagree. Alka Patidar, Abhishek’s mother, shows a patch of six bigha land (1 bigha equals 0.28 acre), next to her existing stretch of 28 bighas, that the family had to sell last year to pay back a ₹3 lakh loan. “We had no other way to wriggle out of the loan,” she says. Shiv Kumar Sharma, president of the Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangh, says the state is not willing to listen to the loan waiver demand. “The loans are rising over the years. Why (else) are so many suicides happening?”

Chauhan promised ₹1 crore and a government job to each of the six families whose kin died in the police firing. Sandeep, another brother of Abhishek Patidar’s, says he no longer wants to work in the fields as it is not profitable. He wants the job promised by the CM but says the district collector has informed him that the proposal is still to be cleared by the cabinet.

“The ₹1 crore we got is lying in the bank as we wish to build a house rather than buy more land. There is nothing left in agriculture. I sowed soybean this year which got sold for ₹3,050 per quintal, (which is) below the MSP. Given the inputs I put in, including fertiliser, I needed at least ₹5,000 per quintal to make a profit,” Sandeep says. A quintal equals 100 kilograms.

To get around the MSP issue, the state government has started a first-of-its-kind Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana (price-deficit financing scheme) to make good the farmer’s loss if his crop is sold for less than the MSP. However, Shiv Kumar Sharma of the Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangh says the scheme only covers up the fraud being committed at farmers’ markets to not adhere to the MSP.

The recent protests in those markets in Bhopal, Narsinghpur, Harda and Shahdol have only exposed farmers’ anger on the MSP issue. A blanket farm loan waiver could cost the state government ₹83,000 crore, though no official estimates are available. This could wreak havoc on the state’s economy, given that neighbouring Uttar Pradesh is fiscally stressed after a ₹36,500 crore loan waiver.

With Maharashtra, another neighbour, also waiving farm loans, the demand for the same is escalating in the border areas in MP. Recent incidents like the one in Mandsaur, protesting farmers’ stripping in Tikamgarh and farmers’ being lathi-charged in Badrawas have been raised by the Congress to put the MP government in the dock. Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia has been addressing kisan akrosh (farmers’ anger) rallies across MP.

A recent pointer to the tough electoral road ahead for the BJP was evident in a bypoll in Chitrakoot, in which the BJP lost to the Congress despite Chauhan camping there for days. Chauhan, however, has consistently claimed that the state’s agrarian model is the best and cited MP winning the Krishi Karman awards five times in the last six years, the highest award given by the Central government for agriculture. “In helping the state win the Krishi Karman award, year after year, by using the best inputs of fertilisers and seeds but not getting returns or profits on their crops, farmers have suffered,” says Sandeep Patidar.

Madhusudan (left) and Sandeep Patidar lost their brother, Abhishek, in the police firing at the farmers’ protest in Mandsaur

Alka Patidar, Abhishek’s mother, says her family had to sell a part of their land to pay back a ₹3 lakh loan

MANDSAUR, MADHYA PRADESH

Government Response

Farmers being given interest-free loans

Farmers are compensated when they sell below MSP

Families of five farmers who died in police firing at the Mandsaur protest given ₹ 1 crore each by the state government

Key Farmers’ Issues

Loan waiver demand has gathered momentum after MP’s neighbours, Maharashtra and UP, announced it

Repeated incidents of violence against protesting farmers

Crops like oil seeds and pulses not procured on MSP

Hinterland Headache

The BJP government can ill-afford to ignore the problems faced by farmers in Chhattisgarh, a predominantly rural and tribal state

After several failed attempts to get a government job, Roman Lal Sahu is now convinced that spending quality time on his eight-acre paddy field gives him at least a sense of satisfaction if not a good income. His village, Chatoud, falls in Dhamtari district, called the rice bowl of Chhattisgarh as it produces 930 tonnes of rice every year apart from housing 192 large rice mills and exporting 2.5 tonnes of parboiled rice.

Sahu, like most Dhamtari farmers, faces a bigger challenge this year, as his tehsil is among the 96 (of the total 150) the state government has declared drought-hit. “Drought or no drought, the bottom line is you can’t make any profit in paddy cultivation though the government buys your rice and occasionally pays bonuses. I somehow supplement my income with some computer work and driving our tractor for transporting goods,” says the 28-year-old graduate and a trained computer operator.

ET Magazine travelled through the district, covering all the three sub-divisions Dhamtari, Kurud and Nagri-Sihawa, and sensed a simmering discontent among farmers, who complain of an inadequate MSP (under which the government pays ₹1,550 or ₹1,590 per quintal of rice, depending on the quality, up to 15 quintals in an acre), irregular payment of bonuses (₹300 per quintal above the MSP, given twice in the last four years) and the difficulty in insurance claims when the crop fails. They have in the past hit the streets to protest against the state government, but unlike in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, farmers’ agitations here lack vigour and remain sporadic.

Lala Ram Chandrakar, district secretary of RSSaffiliated Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, says Chhattisgarh has seen 27 farmers’ protests since 2014. “Unless the government gives a guarantee to buy the entire paddy stock and that too at a reasonably high MSP, how will the farmers survive? The BJP has recently faced a defeat in rural Gujarat because people no longer buy Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pro-poor chaiwallah image.”

He adds that the Kisan Sangh’s links to the RSS, the ideological parent of the BJP, do not necessarily mean it will support the BJP. “If the BJP does not mend its ways, we are going to oppose the party in the next year’s election,” says Chandrakar, who owns 20 acres of rice fields and a cycle shop in Kurud town.

Had there been an election now, the ruling BJP in the state would have perhaps faced a major jolt, mainly from the farmers. And that is not something the ruling party can afford to ignore, considering the state’s demography — unlike highly urbanised Gujarat, threefourths of Chhattisgarh’s population are rural and they elect 74 of the state’s 90 legislators.

However, Chief Minister Raman Singh, who has held the post since December 2003, finds no reason to worry. “Yes, every election is a challenge, but there’s no anti-incumbency in Chhattisgarh because every day we neutralise the factors that crop up against our government. In a way, we neutralise antiincumbency on a regular basis. We hold public meetings and resolve people’s problems then and there,” Raman Singh told ET Magazine in Raipur (See “Rural Chhattisgarh is Main Support Base of Our Party…”).

It appears that the government will address some of the farmers’ concerns closer to the assembly polls scheduled in late 2018, the most likely being a substantial hike in the bonuses and their timely release. But the party will also try to stem the widening urban-rural divide and attempt to position itself as a pro-tribal party, thereby offsetting some losses that may arise out of the agrarian crisis. As high as 40% people in the state are tribals, with 29 of 90 seats being reserved for Scheduled Tribes.

Whether it is bringing road and internet connectivity to the remote and tribal Bastar or doling out a special bonus for tendu leaf collectors, or even issuing land rights to indigenous communities, tribal welfare will likely emerge as the key thrust area. Some tribals have of late taken up double-cropping to enhance their income.

Preetam Markam of Nagri block’s Bandha village explains how his income increased by ₹25,000 per acre when he started growing maize after rice since last year, with the help of an irrigation pump and discounted electricity. Presently, the state has 24 lakh acres of double-cropped area out of a total net cropped area of 1.14 crore acres.

Chhattisgarh Congress chief Bhupesh Baghel argues that his party has an upper hand in the next election owing to the growing discontent in rural Chhattisgarh and the fact that there was only a 0.7 percentage point difference in vote share between the two main parties in 2013, when the Congress came within a whisker of wresting the state. “And don’t discount us in urban areas. Five of 13 nagar nigams in the state are with us; two others are held by independents,” Baghel adds. Yet, next year’s real poll battles in the state may not be fought in urban pockets. As the election nears, the Congress is likely to weave its campaign around farm distress whereas the BJP will aggressively play a pro-tribal card.

Preetam Markam says doublecropping has increased his income by ₹25,000 per acre

Farmers like Phul Singh Sahu don’t find paddy cultivation profitable

“Rural Chhattisgarh is suffering because the BJP as a party does not care much about rural India. The Centre is only curtailing benefits that the UPA had given, MNREGA being the classic example.”

Bhupesh Baghel,

Congress chief, Chhattisgarh

DHAMTARI, CHHATTISGARH

Possible Solutions

A significant jump in the MSP and a raise in bonus

Incentivising farmers to practise double-cropping

Devising a mechanism to supplement farmers’ income through allied activities

Key Farmers’ Issues

Minimum support prices of ₹1,550 and ₹1,590 for rice are considered inadequate

Bonus at the rate of300 per quintal of rice is paid irregularly

Problems in insurance claims after this year’s drought

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