Driven To The Brink

Farmers are on the boil again. They are demanding waivers on farm loans and higher prices for their crops. There have been increasing protests by farmers in one state after another. As many as 187 farmer organisations have come under one umbrella for a joint protest in the capital. The response of governments – states as well as central – has been equally inconsiderate. Farmers are demanding freedom from debt but their demands have been met by silence and apathy. Much work needs to be done for marginal farmers, writes PRAMOD KUMAR

We are born under debt, keep languishing under it, and then die under the burden of same debt,” said frail old Shankar Singh, a farmer from Bundelkhand in Uttar Pradesh, who’s in Delhi to participate in the Kisan Panchayat. For a moment there, not only the farmers, but some scribes got emotional too. Delhi’s Parliament Street is full of agitating marginal farmers these days who have come from various corners of India. They complain of apathy. Singh’s bleak statement finds resonance with them. They are here for several days now but the government has failed to send any representative to talk to them. Many have already started to leave. Many were pessimistic. Others went back with the resolve that if Parliament representatives don’t come to them, they will need to send farmers to the Parliament.
VM Singh, convener of the Kisan Panchayat, says, “This is not a show of strength. But this is a clear signal that as many as 187 farmer organisations have come on a single platform. And if the government continues to ignore us and our interest, it won’t be surprising if we dominate the next Lok Sabha.”

Farmers from 187 bodies assembled at Delhi to raise their demand, but the government failed to send a representative to hear them out

Swabhimani Paksh’s Raju Shetti insists that the Modi government does not give two hoots about farmers, and this is strengthening the resolve among the farmers that if they want their concerns to be addressed, they need to come and sit inside the Parliament, rather than on the Parliament Street. “Time has come for the parties to stop treating farmers like vote banks. Farmers also need to rise above the concerns of caste and creed and vote for those who take up their cause,” he added in good measure.
This idea has started finding traction. Farmers are now seriously discussing plans to send their representatives to the 2019 Lok Sabha. However, this is still an exercise in its infancy. While as many as 187 farmer groups participated in this Panchayat, there was no consensus on the name of the leader.

: Vandana Singh holds demonetisation responsible for the mess

Vandana Singh, spokesperson of the Samajwadi Party, raises this concern. “Had this Panchayat has a leader like Tikait or Anna Hazare, the mobilisation would have been easier. It could have been possible then to fill up 2019 Lok Sabha with their representative.”
On the other hand, senior Congress leader  insists that the Congress party has always stood with the farmers. “Dr Singh’s government waived off loans to the tune of Rs 40,000 crore. Rahul Gandhi was instrumental in giving the justice to the farmers of Bhatta Parsaul. He also raised the issue facing farmers of Kerala. We stand with all those sections who are marginalised.”

While as many as 187 farmer groups participated in the Kisan Panchayat at Parliament Street in Delhi, there was no consensus on the name of the leader

Talking about the agrarian crisis, it is the marginal farmers who have been pushed to the edge. They are facing the double whammy of having to see their land-holding shrink because of population growth, on top of having the income dwindle. According to a census in 2010, as many as 67 per cent of the arable land in India is with marginal and poor farmers. The average size of this landholding is less than 1.15 hectare. And this is shrinking further. Of these, 45 per cent of the landholding falls under ‘Irrigated Land’ classification. This means that a big section of landholdings under marginal and poor farmers is still devoid of proper irrigation mechanism. This coupled with complete absence of pre- and post-harvest facilities have driven them to the edge. This has spiked the instances of stress and depression among the farmers, leading to a sharp jump in suicide rate.
Demonetisation further aggravated their pathetic condition. Take for example soybean farmers in Maharashtra. It was the harvest season when demonetisation struck them. Local moneylenders waylaid these farmers, and took away with their harvest itself. The farmers now had no money, as well as no harvest.
Demonetisation and GST also hit the industries hard. Several thousands of workers returned to their native villages in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh from Gujarat. This has put an unbearable stress on the agriculture. Says sociologist P K Mohanty, “These workers who have returned from the city are now completely dependent on the agriculture back home. This has put an unprecedented burden on every family. This is leading to crimes on one hand and depression on the other. The third option is to agree to work on minimum labour.”
According to the government records, as many as 3,25,000 farmers have committed suicide between 1995 and 2016. The primary driving factor here is inability to pay back loans. These loans are taken up for various social and economic reasons, only one of which is the input cost of farming. These farmers depend on a bumper harvest to get out of this cycle. However, more often than not the crop fails, adding further loans and interests. In the villages, moneylenders are the biggest providers of loans. But they do so at a very steep interest rate.
This is why the Swaminathan Commission had recommended that MSP for a crop should be fixed at a minimum of 50 per cent above the input cost. Other recommendations included providing loans at very marginal interest rates. It was also recommended that loan recovery should be made humane to the point where farmers should not be forced to pay up before they are in the condition to do so. Other recommendations included setting up of Agriculture Relief Fund and provision of a fixed income so that farmers manage to break the vicious cycle of debt.

Following the double whammy of demonetisation and GST, several thousands of workers returned to their native villages in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh from Gujarat

Minister Radha Mohan Singh has drawn flack for setting unrealistic targets

Repeated loan waivers have its drawbacks. It started sending signals among some farmers that there was no point paying up as sooner or later government is going to waive off the loan. It in fact also rocked the confidence of those farmers who were duly paying up the interest and returning the amount. They think that their integrity has been betrayed. This started a trend where even they also started defaulting on loans. Generally one farmer ends up taking loans from several institutions to the point where he runs out of them.
This leaves private lending as the final source. These moneylenders were charging farmers interest at the rate of Rs 5 per Rs 100 per month. However, no guarantee or documents were required. A farmer’s movable and immovable property was the virtual guarantee. Reports coming from Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh suggest that the corresponding rate has been increased to Rs 8 or Rs 10. This is creating a new cycle of debt by sucking up more and more farmers. After paying up huge interests, it is simply impossible for farmers to pay up the capital amount. It won’t come as surprise if the suicide rate further spikes this year.

CPI’s Atul Anjan punctures the claims made by the Central Government

Says Atul Kumar Anjan, CPI leader and president of Kisan Sabha , “Congress pushed Swaminathan Commission report to the backburner for over six years. BJP too made tall promises in its election manifesto, none of which was fulfilled. Farmers are not getting fair price for their products while their input cost has increased exponentially. The debt crisis has spiralled out, leading to unprecedented numbers of suicides. Leave alone MSP at one and a half times of the input cost, this government has failed to even pay up the regular hike. This has dwindled to 4 per cent increase year by year. To put it in perspective the corresponding figure during Manmohan Singh’s tenure was an average of 15 per cent per year. Under the circumstances, the claim about doubling the income of farmers by 2022 is nothing but a cruel joke. Even agriculture experts don’t buy this hoopla anymore. For the income to double by 2022, the agriculture income would need to grow by 14 per cent very year. This has been less than two per cent in the last three years. In fact, nowhere in the world has agriculture income grown at this speed.”

On the issue of doubling the farmers’ income, union agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh is not ready to back down even when presented with hard crude numbers

Union agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh is not ready to back down even when presented with hard crude numbers. “We will deliver on the promise of doubling the income by 2022. We have stopped the blackmarketing of urea, and this has started to show results. Farmers are also getting MSP in accordance with their input cost,” he insisted.
Farmer bodies are especially peeved with the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices. They allege that this commission works in cahoots with the central government. They insist that it is the government that directs it to fix a certain MSP for a product, and the commission then fudges its calculations to reach on that price.
Raju Shetty says that the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices should be awarded a constitutional recognition and made an autonomous body, so that it can work independently in the interest of the farmers. He also insists that similar constitutional commissions should also be organised to recommend proper compensation for farmers whose crops have suffered from drought or flood.”
Chaudhary Pushpendra Singh of Kisan Shakti Sangh is taking the debate even further. “BJP had promised to bring down the input cost for the farmers. However, in spite of the rock-bottom price of petroleum in the international market, the benefits are not being passed on to the farmers who are buying diesel at prices akin to what it was when Crude Basket was touching $110 per barrel. Diesel is our lifeline.”

RPN Singh also punctures government’s tall claims on urea. “International price of  DAP has gone down to $371 per tonne from the historic high of $650 per tonne. However, the government is not passing on the benefits to the farmers. On top of it, the subsidy has also been decreased to Rs 8,937 crore from Rs 19,763 crore only some years back. Consequently DAP’s 50 kg pack is being sold for Rs 1,200 like in the past. While the prices in the international market of that same pack have halved. The corresponding figure for urea has come down from $473 per tonne to $208 per tonne. Once again the benefit has not been passed on to the consumers. The same holds true for other fertilisers as well,” he said.
Pushpendra Singh, a farmer leader, says, “Government’s import-export policy is instrumental for our pitiful condition. Take for example wheat. In the year 2016-17 a record 980 lakh tonnes of wheat were produced. Yet the government imported 55 lakh tonnes of wheat. The situation of pulses was even worse. Sixty-six lakh tonnes were imported when the production hit the high of 230 lakh tonnes. This brought the MSP by Rs 1,500-2,000 per quintal. There is no method in this madness.”
“Year 2016-17 saw bumper harvest of foodgrain of around 27.6 crore tonnes, and yet an additional 65,000 crore worth of foodgrain was imported as compared to 2013-15. On top of it, the export of similar value was banned, leading to collapse of price. It appears at times as if the government is concerned more about farmers from other countries than its own farmers.”

Year 2016-17 saw bumper harvest of foodgrain of around 27.6 crore tonnes, and yet an additional 65,000 crore worth of foodgrain was imported to India

The pathetic condition has further been aggravated by the lawlessness spread by cow vigilantes, as well as government’s own contrived laws with respect to buying and selling of animals. Farmers were recovering half of their total investment in animal husbandry by selling off the old cattle. This has seen a massive setback recently. In absence of buyers, the old cattle are fetching pittance. The villages are flooded with old and barren cattle. They are harming the crops too. This has adversely affected that Rs 26,000 crore worth of meat export and Rs 86,000 crore of leather industry. The government is actually enjoying the distress of Muslims and Dalits who are majorly involved in this trade.
Minister Radha Mohan Singh is on the defensive, and some of the draconian laws have been withdrawn. However, the damage has already been done and it is severe.
The issue of storage is another key area where the government is slipping. Says farmer leader P Singh, “Pre- and post-harvest storage is a key issue holding us back. BJP had made tall promises in this regard but nothing has been done till now. The wastage in absence of proper storage facility is in the tune of Rs one lakh crore.”


Chaudhary Pushpendra Singh, President, Kisan Shakti Sangh, talks about the plight of the potato farmers of Uttar Pradesh

The ever notorious BJP’s IT cell distributed a rather heavily, and mischievously, edited video of Rahul Gandhi that went instantly viral. In the edited video, Rahul Gandhi is seen telling farmers in Gujarat during the election campaign, “Will set up such a machine that the moment you pour potatoes from one side, you’ll get gold from the other…” Naturally, people were quick to dismiss it as one of those gaffes Rahul Gandhi is supposed to make every now and then. Or at the best it was an election “Jumla”, the kind of which has come from the stable of BJP in the past. However, on careful observation, one sees that the original unedited video had Rahul Gandhi telling the audience that it was not him who made that ludicrous claim, but PM Modi. At this point it is difficult to judge how much impact this video shall have on the elections, but what is clear is that by saying what he said, Prime Minister Modi has aggravated the anguish of potato farmers of this country.
Following the demonetisation last year, I have been touring the potato belt of south-west Uttar Pradesh comprising Aligarh, Hathras, Mathura, Agra, Firozabad, Etah, Etawah, Mainpuri, Kannauj and Farrukhabad, in order to interact with potato farmers and understand their problems. This region accounts for a total of 20 per cent of India’s entire potato production. And potato forms the primary crop of over 80 per cent of the farmers in these districts. Although uncertainty in market price is not uncommon for potato farmers, they are unanimous in saying that the tribulation that had to go through post-demonetisation is unprecedented. Farmers were selling potato for Rs 10-12 per kilo prior to demonetisation, which plunged to Rs 5-6 per kilo immediately after the ill-advised move. As if this was not enough, the moment the fresh harvest came to the market in February this year, the price further dipped to Rs 3-4 per kilo. Now that sowing season is over, the situation is so bad that farmers left as much as 30 per cent of their potatoes in the cold storage simply because the cost of cold storage was more than what they would have received for the potatoes they left. The best quality potato is fetching Rs 50 for an entire 100-kilo sack, while the cold storage charges come to about Rs 120 for the same sack.
And this pathetic condition is not limited to the potato farmers of Uttar Pradesh. The situation is equally bad in other parts of India. The current sowing season got over in midNovember, where input cost calculates to around Rs 5 per kilo. The crop gets ready for harvest by February. Of the harvest, around 10 per cent is sold instantaneously while the rest 90 per cent is packed and shipped to cold storage to be sold later. Packing and shipping to cold storage cost around Rs 2 per Kilo. Add the cold storage charges to that and the total input cost comes to around Rs 9-10 per kilo. This potato is sold March through October. Farmers try to get at least Rs 10 per kilo for their product. However, last two crops were destroyed because of the demonetisation. Potato farmers, needless to say, are weeping blood. The entire harvest of February was sold to pittance in order to pay for the rents of the cold storages. The farmers, at the most, managed to recover Rs 2 per kilo this year, suffering a net loss of at least Rs 8 per kilo of potatoes. The Yogi government in Uttar Pradesh had promised to pay farmers at least Rs 487 per quintal, but this promise never took off from the papers it was written on. In fact, Uttar Pradesh government has not procured any potato at all this season.
Cold storage owners say that the middlemen who used to buy potatoes and ship it to metropolises across India didn’t even care to buy this season citing overall cash-strapped environment following the triple-whammy of demonetisation, GST and ban on cash purchase. The orders since demonetisation last year have plunged to an unprecedented level. Consequently, cold storage owners are left with little choice. Of the potatoes unclaimed by farmers, cold storage owners are classifying potatoes in three sizes. The smaller and medium size ones have no takers even for free. That’s why they are being thrown away rather instantly. The best sized ones are being sold in order to recover enough money to pay the electricity and other bills of the cold storages.
The failure of two crops means that farmers had to take loans in the current sowing season. However, farmers are afraid that if the current harvest also fails because of the situation created by GST and demonetisation, there will be little options left than committing suicide. These farmers are demanding that the government must fulfil its promise of paying a Minimum Support Price that is one and half times that of their input cost. These farmers are demanding that the government must buy their next harvest at the rate of Rs 1,500 per quintal. Also, they want BJP to deliver on the promise of loan waiver. Failing which, a stark situation awaits.

The Prime Minister Crop Insurance Scheme is also lurching towards inefficiency. The insurance companies are not being able to help farmers. For the year 2016-17, in both Rabi and Kharif season, insurance companies collected a combined premium of Rs 22,345 crore from farmers and government, and covered around two hundred and fifty lakh farmers. Farmers presented loss claims to the tune of Rs 15,000 crore. Out of which only claims worth Rs 9,447 crore were passed. Out of which only Rs 7,000 crore were paid to the claimants. Needless to say the insurance companies are making a neat profit of Rs 12,900 crore.

RPN Singh alleges that the government failed to pass on the benefits of the collapse in international prices of fertilizer

Samajwadi Party spokesperson Vandana Singh says, “Farmers who had suffered two bad harvest years of 2014 and 2015 were happy that 2016 saw a bumper production. However, everything was lost in the maddening demonetisation drive. The harvest is lost to low prices. Farmers are agitating from Maharashtra to Madhya Pradesh, and getting killed by police’s bullets. Now the rains have been below normal this year, and the distribution is skewed. This will affect production. The cycle of misery has only intensified. This will push farmers towards suicide. At this point farming in India has become even more dangerous than the infamous ‘Blue-Whale’ suicide game.”
Agriculture can no more afford to depend on god’s grace. It needs better infrastructure and more facilities. Better availability of affordable loans, irrigation facility, expansion of animal husbandry activities, better storage facilities, meaningful training and access to education.
We also need to integrate technology where better satellites that can predict accurate weather pattern needs to be launched. Accurate data on sowing trends can do away with the problem of overproduction. But more than anything else, there is a need to expand the know-how about the modern, viable means of agriculture. More and more agro-colleges need to be opened in the rural areas where farmers actually live and work.
Much work needs to be done for marginal farmers who are the worst affected. Only 6 per cent of the total farmers are getting the fair price for their products, while the majority of marginal farmers have been pushed to the edge. This is a travesty at the minimum and a tragedy at the maximum. A correction is long overdue.