The agrarian distress that India is facing today is largely due to the apathy of successive governments in the past 25 years towards farmers and their anti-peasant economic policies. One of the striking reflections of this agrarian distress has been the ever-increasing number of farmer suicides. Over three lakh farmers have committed suicide in the past decade, according to a report.
During the last five years of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government at the Centre, the condition of farmers, tenant farmers and landless agricultural workers has degraded rapidly.
During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, great promises were made to farmers by the BJP, but once in power, the government did not bother to even show their intent to help farmers come out of distress. Immediately after acquiring office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced the Land Acquisition Act, which indicated the Centre’s intent to benefit their crony capitalist friends rather than the interests of sons of the land.
Peasant organisations across the country opposed this Act unitedly, forcing the government to stall the Act. This was the beginning of a united struggle of farmers, which sprang up in various parts of the country during the past four years. The Kisan Long March in 2018, lead by the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) in Maharashtra saw thousands of farmers marching with great discipline from Nasik to Mumbai. Even the mainstream media, which is otherwise quite insensitive to farmers' issues, was compelled to cover their spirited struggle. The Kisan Long March brought the agriculture crisis to the centre of the political agenda, with other sections of the society extended solidarity to the peasants and farmers.
In this new environment, the BJP government, after facing defeat in Assembly elections in three big states -- Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh -- realised the importance of the issue. But the government becoming sensitive does not mean that there was a change in its policy trajectory. The effort of the BJP government is restricted to only taking damage control. And the party is quite an expert in this. Their packaging of policies with false claims normally creates an illusion among the masses that much is being done.
The BJP government tried to play a similar trick with farmers when it claimed that they were implementing the minimum support price (MSP), as per the recommendations of the MS Swaminathan Commission, which was a blatant lie. The government did not announce MSP of Kharif crops on the formula of C2+50 (recommended by the commission) but on the basis of A2+ FL. There is a huge difference between the two. There is no proper structure for the procurement of crops and private players are not procuring crops on the MSP prescribed by the Centre.
In the last Union Budget, the BJP came with another popular but misleading slogan for farmers and announced the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Yojna (PMKSY), which claims to ensure certain minimum income for farmers.
The understanding and politics behind PMKSY is on the lines of the popular narrative of minimum income schemes propagated by advocates of neo-liberal economic policies. The BJP and its neo-liberal allies are claiming that this scheme offers a solution to all the problems faced by farmers.
However, it is clear by now that this scheme is nothing but an effort to woo votes of the farming community in the Lok Sabha elections. Leave alone the hurdles of land records, there are other concerns regarding this scheme. It excludes tenant farmers and agricultural workers, who are cultivators, but without land ownership. The scheme offers a petty amount of Rs 500 a month for a farming family, which amounts to completely dishonouring the hard work being done by the community.
The main concern, however, is the long-term strategy of the neo-liberal regime, which, through this scheme is to withdraw state to support agriculture. The whole responsibility has been reduced to just minimum income, which cannot be sufficient to support the family of a farmer. The whole effort is to create a consciousness that the government is giving some money to peasants, say, a subsidy in the form of cash to the poor. This creates a narrative that this money being given by the government and is not a right of the people. Once such an opinion is built, it is very easy to stop even this meagre help in the name of additional burden on the economy.
We have already witnessed this kind of experience in the fields of education and health. It’s a universally accepted fact that education is a responsibility of State and right of its public. After adopting neo-liberal economic policies, the State came up with plans to cut expenditure on education and promote private education, advocating that people who can pay, can opt for private education. Subsequently, privatisation became an underlying phenomenon in the education system with continuous withdrawal of the State.
In the health sector, too, there is a complete push on insurance instead of strengthening the public health system. The structure of the public health system is deteriorating, a huge numbers of doctors are required to serve the public, but the whole emphasis of government policy is on medical insurance through private companies. This model will help only private health insurance companies, not the common person. This is proved by the experience of last two years of crop insurance where private companies are making profits of millions of rupees from public money and farmers are on the receiving end.
Agrarian distress is not only an economic question. It is more a political question and needs policy change to revive both agriculture as well as uplift the lives of farmers. The long-term solution for farmers is that they should earn their livelihood from agriculture with dignity. For this, farming has to be a profitable profession. And it can only be profitable when the cost of crop in the market is higher than the cost of production. This means government support is needed for inputs, in field support and control on market to check the fluctuation of prices (normally controlled by big capital) and a proper procurement system.
That governments are being forced to implement this scheme during elections is proof of failure of government policies that have failed our farmers.
What is needed is a shift in the policy framework both within the country and on international platforms. It is a reality that in the World Trade Organisation regime, we cannot do much domestically unless our government protects the rights of our farmers at the international level. For example, we cannot provide MSP to our farmers for most of crops above a limit due to the limits set by WTO, as we are signatories to various agreements. We need to depart from the existing trend and take a lead in mobilising other underdeveloped and developing countries against the hegemony of developed countries, led by the US, which directs us to reduce subsidy on agriculture but is supporting its own farming sector through huge subsidies.
The writer is former All India General Secretary of Students’ Federation of India and now works with the All India Agricultural Workers Union.