May 03, 2015

Resist Modi Govt’s Anti-farmer Policies

THE tragic suicide of a kisan during the Aam Aadmi Party rally in New Delhi last week sharply brought out the real face of the deep agrarian distress that has gripped our country. Though these columns were highlighting this growing crisis and distress in Indian agriculture periodically, the depth of what this means to India in general and rural India in particular came under sharp focus with this suicide. Official governmental records show that nearly three lakh farmers have been driven to distress suicides during the last two decades. Many many more fall outside the ambit of such official statistical recording.

Such warning bells emanating from Indian agriculture, growing louder in recent years, have been successively ignored in the past. The Left parties insistence for the implementation of a rural employment guarantee scheme finally saw the light of the day during the last year of the UPA-I government. To some extent this provided some succor but did little to change the systemic ground realities plaguing Indian agriculture.

In the recent period, soon after the Modi government assumed office, drought like situation developed which saw a decline in the absolute amounts of cultivated land for the first time since India’s independence. This kharif season warning was ignored and sought to be explained as a one off consequence of a bad monsoon. This however was a reflection of a deeper malaise where the kisans were being forced to abandon agricultural activities because these were no longer providing them even with a basic livelihood at the subsistence level.

Some relief for such a drought stricken situation was delayed by this Modi government and even before this could reach the farmers, came the unseasonal rains and hailstorms that destroyed the standing crop in over 18 crore hectares, mainly across Northern India. The consequent ruination of the peasantry strengthened the vicious cycle of the debt trap which is pushing larger number of kisans towards distress suicides.

The Modi government is yet to decide on any relief package that would be offered to the affected kisans. Even the barest minimum assistance required to keep them alive has not been announced in any substantial manner. Eventually, by the time such much needed assistance would reach the kisan, however meager this may be, the metrological department is already forecasting a weak monsoon in the coming months. This would deepen the agrarian distress immeasurably.

Even after six decades of independence sixty five percent of India’s agriculture is rain dependent. The past few decades, particularly since the onset of the neo-liberal economic policy trajectory, the agricultural sector has continuously received lesser and lesser attention and lower public spending on investments. The public spending in the agricultural sector dwindled over the years from a healthy one-third to half of our GDP to a mere 14.7 per cent during the last year. It is indeed a criminal irony that during agricultural season there is dearth of water for irrigation while soon after lakhs of people lose their livelihood in our recurrent annual floods. Despite all plans drawn up for minor irrigation projects, nothing substantial has been done so far.

The situation threatens to turn even worse. During the last three years of the UPA-II government, the then union agriculture minister admitted in the parliament that though the UPA government has consistently increased the minimum support price (MSP) to our kisans, the rate of such increase has fallen short of the rate of increase in the cost of production as calculated by the National Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP). Clearly, the peasantry was just not able to make both ends meet. Further, the debt that they would incur to conduct agricultural operations could never be repaid as their earnings from agricultural activity was too meager even for their own survival. It is little wonder therefore that the rate of distress suicides has escalated.

In this backdrop, the BJP was often seen supporting the Left parties in parliament in demanding that the MSP be substantially increased. The BJP then as the principal opposition party would echo the Left parties attack on the UPA government that they are not implementing the Swaminathan Commission’s recommendations of pegging the MSP at levels that are at least 50 per cent more than the officially calculated costs of production. In fact the BJP’s 2014 election manifesto says “Agriculture is the engine of India’s economic growth and the largest employer, and BJP commits highest priority to agricultural growth, increase in farmers income and rural development.” It further pledged to “take steps to enhance the profitability in agriculture by ensuring a minimum of 50 per cent profits over the cost of production, cheaper agriculture inputs and credits, latest technologies for farming and high yielding seeds and linking MGNREGA to agriculture”.

That these were mere promises to fool the people into voting for them became clear when in both 2014-15 and 2015-16 the increases in MSP were lower than those given by the earlier UPA government. The Modi government went further. In one of its first directives to the state governments it called upon them to discontinue the practice of offering a support price higher than the MSP fixed by the centre for wheat and rice on the ground that they distorted “the markets”. The 2015 budget outlay for agriculture was reduced by 10.4 per cent from the previous year. The same was the trend under the heads of animal husbandry, major and medium irrigation projects. The subsidies to farmers under various heads for agricultural operations like fertilizers, diesel etc were substantially reduced. The centrally sponsored scheme called Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana saw a lower allocation by the centre of Rs 5500 crores. The Modi government’s attitude towards agriculture has been one of deepening the crisis and intensifying agrarian distress.

As far as the MGNREGA is concerned, a recent survey has shown that the work generated in 2014-15 was much less than the previous two years. This has worsened during the first three months of the current financial year. For instance, for January-March 2015, 347 million person/days of work were provided which is less than half of what was provided in 2014 and less by over 60 per cent of what was provided in 2013, for the same period. The budgetary allocation for the scheme was drastically reduced in the Modi government’s first full budget for the year 2015-16.

This comes at a time when the World Bank country director in India has publicly stated that the MGNREGA, “is the only insurance (scheme) India has”. Notwithstanding all the disputes over wages and the number of days for which jobs are offered, the actual ground reality is that this Modi government is virtually dismantling this guarantee of rural employment.

On top of all this, has now come the desperate urgency with which this Modi government is seeking to bulldoze the Indian parliament into legislating the BJP’s new law on land acquisition. We have discussed this issue as being not only anti-farmer but as being anti-India in our columns in the recent period. This new legislation, seen from any angle, will only destroy Indian agriculture adding to the woes of the Indian farmer. This new land acquisition Bill continues to be subjected to a near rejection by all the major opposition parties in the parliament. Yet, this Modi government seems to be most eager in having this legislation passed. This will ensure that a larger section of our people will drop out of agricultural operations, substantially widening the hiatus between the rich and the poor in our country.

Unless such policies are reversed neither can we protect the livelihood of our kisans - our annadatas – or ensure food security of our country. The people of our country must rise with greater enthusiasm and vigour to stop such retrograde new laws that this Modi government is bent upon legislating which will further the ruin of Indian agriculture.

(April 29, 2015)