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 disagreeIndulekha Aravind
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.
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.”