Farmer's distress leads to agitation - A historical problem evading solution

By TN Ashok. Dated: 11/29/2018 1:38:48 PM

Most government policies have been urban centric and have ushered in an unimaginable inequality deepening the rural India's financial distress. And this has unfolded continuously over the last two decades, experts say.

Farmer's distress leading to suicides caught global attention in 90s and continues unrelented. More popularly known as the Agrarian Crisis of India is stalking every government of the day as political parties seem to be more interested in making capital out of it for capturing vote banks rather than find an amicable long term solution. An ad Hoc measure as raising Minimum Support Price (MSP) does not protect the farmers from the cycle of drought which hits them hard every once in a while.
While big loan takers and fraudsters flee the country owing millions and crore to psu banks, small and medium farmers are harassed by banks for recovery of the loans, especially when drought catches up with them and there is no crop yield, just like students who are assets to the nation are charged high interest rates (14%) for education loans and harassed for recovery.
Waiver of farm loans is a measure often resorted to by the government. Whether it's the Congress or the BJP, they have taken recourse to such a measure as a stop gap solution. No government has ever attempted to find a long term solution;it's more like symptomatic treatment for a protracted malaise affecting them. We need a surgical strike , says an agriculture expert.
Genealogically, if we look at the farmer's distress, there are several causes. Before we go into it, let's see what political parties are promising. Congress President Rahul Gandhi, who is in the last leg of hitting the campaign dirt in Rajasthan ,where elections are due on Nov 27th and where this national party seems heads up over BJP, Rahul has promised waiver of farmers' loans in just 10 days if elected to power at the local and national level. Going all out to woo farmers in Rajasthan, Congress President Rahul Gandhi told an election rally in Jaisalmer district's Pokhran Assembly constituency. Rahul made the same promise in Punjab and Karnataka elections and theyhave trumped BJP and formed the government there and waived the loans of farmers there. Rajasthan seems to be a goner to the Congress.
But this is an ad hoc solution which will only reduce the financial reserves of the government and increase Fiscal Deficit and fuel inflation which the BJP government is wary of , even as it fixed a 3% FD target for FY 2018-19 in the last budget. Its elections year next year. The farmers agitation in Maharashtra has caught not only pan India attention but also global focus on farmers problems which is universal, USA has it and so has UK and other EU nations. Agrarian subsidies have been the subject of trade wars between the developed and developing countries at fora such as the WTO.
An interesting twist to this agitation is while Karnataka Chief Minister Kumaraswamy is promising sops to sugar cane growers by raising the Minimum Support Price , Goa offers a sensational twist. Goa has taken the cosmic route. Come again what is that? Goa's agriculture minister brainwave. The Goa government is promoting a novel technique to improve crop yield: asking farmers to chant ancient Vedic 'mantra'. The state government has started advising farmers to adopt 'cosmic farming' in which they need to chant 'Vedic mantra' for 20 days in the farm for better quality and quantity of their crop, an official of the agriculture department is quoted by the media as saying. The government has been holding talks with institutions like the Shiv Yog Foundation and Brahmakumaris, who claim expertise in this field.
The farmers walked about 110 miles to Maharashtra's capital Mumbai, last week to highlight their distress. Maharashtra , Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and some other states such as even Tamil Nadu have been hit by the agrarian crisis either due to drought or floods. If we recall on March 6, about 40,000 subsistence farmers and landless peasants, many from impoverished indigenous tribes, marched to Mumbai from Nashik, a city 112 miles northeast of India's commercial capital. The sea of humanity flooding the highway to Mumbai captured national attention and focused it on the problems tormenting the marchers and tens of millions of other farmers in the country's two-decade-long agrarian crisis, an OP ED page article in New York Times says.
Most of the farmers in the protest owned less than five acres each. Many marchers who couldn't afford shoes walked barefoot in the searing heat. Some of them had wrapped their soles with sellotape to prevent blisters, the report said adding that on On March 11, without resting from their exhausting journey, they walked the last 10 miles to the venue after midnight in darkness and silence. Thousands of students in the city had their board examinations in the morning. The farmers did not wish to disturb them. "Our children write exams too, you know," some female farmers said. "We didn't want to cause roadblocks and traffic jams." They reached the protest ground hours before the kids set out for their schools.
Mumbai responded to the marching farmers with heartening warmth. Middle-class employees and workers - many themselves poor - offered packets of food and water. These acts of sympathy and solidarity stood out in sharp relief against the callousness of India's governments and elites to the deepening rural distress, the New York times report said. Policy-driven agrarian distress is very real. India's last national census , conducted every decade - in 2011 recorded nearly 15 million fewer farmers than there were in 1991; that's a dropout rate of about 2,040 every 24 hours.
In the western Indian state of Maharashtra, where the farmers marched last week, India's National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (Nabard) allocated over 50 percent of its projected credit flow in 2017 to Mumbai and its suburbs. The two most devastated farming regions of the state, Vidarbha and Marathwada, got less than 16 percent.Public-sector banks have turned away from small and marginal farmers since the late 1990s, forcing them to borrow from lenders, who charge upward of 60 percent annual interest. For loans that the banks still gave small farmers, the terms grew adverse. Farmer'sindebtedness has simply jumped.
Waiver of the farmers bank loans would cost the state Rs 366 billion ($5.23 billion) - about Rs 53,000($758) for eachof the 6.9 million farmers. How is the government gong to raise this amount, even if it dipped into its treasury to retain power, it would cause distress to other communities with inflation. That could cause disruption in vote bank calculations.
Sainath, who is credited with research works on agriculture, says many farmers want a fair Minimum Support Price (MSP) their produce at levels that governments have long promised. Prices received by farmers have seen repeated collapses.
The census in 2011 showed that for the first time since Indian independence in 1947, urban India added more people to its population than rural India did. Millions have left their villages for other villages, small towns and cities in search of jobs that are not there. As many male farmers moved out of their villages, the burdens of female farmers rose in ways numbers cannot capture. Between 1995 and 2015, the National Crime Records Bureau logged over 300,000 farmer suicides, Sainath claims.
The Corporate sector seems to have hijacked the agriculture sector allegedly with the connivance of successive governments handing over profits to a chosen few over millions of farmers livelihoods. The farm sector was also badly hit when Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his earnestness to root out corruption and ferret out black money resorted to demonetisation. Cash disappeared from the farm sector and no amount of Jan Dhan Yojana opening rural accounts helped them. The ban on cow slaughter also dealt a blow to the farming community whose livelihood depended on buying and selling cattle, collateral damage.
Most government policies have been urban centric and have ushered in an unimaginable inequality deepening the rural India's financial distress. And this has unfolded continuously over the last two decades, experts say. A farm household consists of five members on the average and the National Sample Survey Organization, a federal data collection agency, claimed an average monthly income of Rs 7,000 ($99) in 2013. Five years hence this has not changed dramatically or to the farmers satisfaction.
Accroding to information posted on the wikepedia, farmers' suicides in India, from 1990 to the present been exacerbated by their inability to repay growing debt, often taken from local moneylenders and microcredit banks to pay for high priced high yield seeds marketed by MNCs .From 1998 to 2018, it has resulted in the suicides of 300,000 farmers in the country, often by drinking pesticides themselves.
India is basically an agrarian country with around 70% of its people depending directly or indirectly on the farm sector for their livelihood. Farmer suicides account for 11.2% of all suicides in India. Activists and scholars have offered a number of conflicting reasons for farmer suicides, such as monsoon failure, high debt burdens, government policies, public mental health, personal issues and family problems. There is also accusation of states manipulating the data on farmer suicides.
Starting in the 1990s, agriculture in India has declined at a devastating rate. This has had a calamitous impact on the livelihoods associated with agriculture. Symptoms of this agrarian distress, unprecedented in post-Independent India, are a high rate of suicides amongst farmers. The crisis is characterised by low institutionalised credit to small farmers, wiki sources say.
As per official government figures, between 1995 and 2014, nearly 3 lakh (296,438) farmers have committed suicide in India. Information from agriculturists in India suggest that real figures are nearly 10 times higher.
On an average, 3,685 farmers in Maharashtra state took their lives every year between 2003 to 2014. The agrarian crisis is far more serious than it appears and waiver of farm loans is not the solution because lot of farmers borrow from usurious money lenders, MNCs sell seeds at unaffordable rates as the farm sector has been hijacked by the corporate sector, mass migration of farmers or farm labour to urban areas. In cash driven economy, where 70% of the people depend on farm sector for money, the government of today or tomorrow needs to find a permanent solution. Otherwise farmers' woes would only continue to compound with devastating consequences for the Indian economy.
T N Ashok is a Corporate Consultant, Resident Editor and Writer of Economic Affairs.
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