‘Die Kisan’!

Lal Bahadur Shastri said, ‘Jai Kisan’. But where is he? In the wells? Hanging from tree trunks? Drowning in the rivers @ one farmer every 41 minutes?

By Devinder Sharma

RAMESH BASNEI, a 42-year-old debt-ridden farmer in Madhya Pradesh, committed suicide in the middle of June. He carried a debt of Rs 25,000, reports the Hindustan Times. A few weeks ago, a 21-year-old girl, Sheetal Yankat, daughter of a Maharashtra farmer, committed suicide. Unable to bear the terrible stress her father was undergoing to get her married, she ended her life by jumping into a well. 

In the suicide note she left behind, she wrote: “The financial condition of my family has worsened over five years because of the failure of crops. I am committing suicide because I don’t want my parents to come under a debt burden because of my marriage.” 

In Punjab, the food bowl of the country, the spate of farmer suicides has left everyone baffled. 

A few months back, a young farmer committed suicide. But before doing so, he tied his five-year-old son to his waist, and then jumped into the canal. In the suicide note he left behind, he explained why he killed his son along with himself.

He carried an outstanding loan of Rs 10-lakh, and knowing that even his son would not been able to repay the loan throughout his life he was taking his son along to the watery grave, he stated categorically. 

FARMING FRAILTIES

The tragedies that struck these three families symbolises the trauma of the entire farming community in India, heightened post Modi, post-demonetisation. More than 3.18 lakh farmers have committed suicide in past 21 years. Every 41 minutes a farmer commits suicide somewhere in India.

The violent farmers’ agitation that swept through the Malwa belt of Madhya Pradesh, resulting in the killing of five farmers, and which has now spread to Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh demanding better crop prices and loan waiver, is actually the outcome of an economic deprivation that prevails. Real farm income had declined for the past five years thereby aggravating farmers’ anger.    

There is no denying that farm suicides are a symptom a deeper malaise that afflicts agriculture. At a time when income levels in urban India are on an upswing, the Economic Survey 2016 tells us that the average income of a farming family in 17 states of India, which means roughly half the country, is a mere Rs 20,000 a year, I shudder to think how these farming families must be surviving. After all, it is not even possible to rear a cow in less than Rs 1,700 per month. 

But I doubt if such details, poignant tales of the grave human tragedy on the farm, mean anything to mainline economists and policy makers. With the markets crashing after every harvest, and with the government reluctant to save farmers by ensuring that they get at least the Minimum Support Price (MSP) that has been announced, farmers are pushed deeper and deeper into a never ending cycle of debt.

Even the MSP being given is often less than the cost of production. In Maharashtra, for instance, the production cost of producing tur dal has been worked out at Rs 6,240 per quintal. The MSP announced for it was Rs 5,050 per quintal, and in reality what the farmers were able to sell tur, and that too after waiting for a week or so in the mandis, was between Rs 3,500 to Rs 4,200 per quintal. 

MOUNTING LOSSES

The slump in prices was not only confined to Maharashtra. In Mahowa mandi of Uttar Pradesh, on an average farmers realised a price of Rs 3,400 for tur, thereby incurring a loss of Rs 1,600 per quintal. For moong, the loss was Rs 2,225 per quintal; for urad the loss was around Rs 1,100 per quintal; Rs 700 per quintal for Mustard; and even in case of wheat the loss was Rs 325 per quintal. The loss in wheat was essentially because UP has failed to provide a strong network of APMC regulated mandis. 

When prices crash after a bumper harvest, and with no support system in the offing, there is enough reason for farmers’ anger to spill over. 

HIS FRIENDS SAY HE WAS ALWAYS A BOOKWORM, AND WHILE THEY WOULD BE PLAYING IN THE FIELDS, KOVIND WOULD BE SITTING NEARBY READING HIS BOOKS

Take another case. A farmer in Haryana toils hard for three months, putting all his labour to reap a bountiful harvest of potato, only to find the prices crashing thereby forcing him to sell 40 quintals of potato for just 9 paise a kg. In Chhattisgarh, images of farmers throwing tomato on to the streets are quite common. 

Farmers in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan had to even dump onions on the streets as the insensitive government continued to look the other way. 

The shock a farmer gets when prices crash often turns fatal. But the fact remains the government has rarely come to his rescue. Compare this with the fall in stock markets, and the Finance Minister promises to monitor the crisis on an hourly basis, holding a press conference to assuage the investors.

Have we ever seen the Finance Minister or the Agriculture Minister monitoring the deplorable condition when farm prices crash?  The poor farmer is left to live in indebtedness, which keeps on aggravating with every passing year. The economic crisis farmers are facing is compounded by the denial of a rightful income for his produce. To keep food inflation under control it is the farmers who have paid the price, a dire price. 

Over the past three decades, successive governments have deliberately kept agriculture impoverished. While policy makers knew that farmers were being penalised to grow food, they kept on harping on the need to strengthen the markets. No real attempt was made to bail out the distressed farming community. 

An estimated 58 per cent of the farmers go to bed hungry every night. I have always been saying that in reality, it is farmers who have been subsidising the nation all these years. 

WAIVER WAVES

After Yogi Adityanath announced a farm loan waiver of Rs 36,359-crore, which will benefit 92 lakh small and marginal farmers when implemented, Maharashtra has announced a loan waiver of Rs 30,500-crore. Punjab is expected to take over at least Rs 30,000-crore of the farm bad loans. And farmer protests are now spreading to Haryana, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh demanding loan waivers. 

As if the farmers’ woes were not enough, uncharitable statements by Urjit Patel, the Reserve Bank of India and Arundhati Bhattarcharya of the State Bank of India, opposing the farm loan waivers added salt to the wounds of the farming community. 

To call farm loan waivers as a ‘moral hazard’ and blame farmers for ‘fiscal slippage’ was certainly not expected. More so at a time when the banks are seeking Rs 4-lakh crore bail out for the telecom sector and Rs 1.8 lakh crore for the steel majors. It only shows the banks’a bias against the way farm loans are structured. 

In fact, Arvind Subramanian, Chief Economic Advisor went a step further, justifying the need to strike out Rs 4-lkah crore of bank NPAs saying ‘this is how capitalism works’. If this is true, I wonder why capitalism doesn’t work the same way for farmers.   

I have always said that farm loan waiver is not only good politics but also good economics. Add all these figures and the total farm loan waiver due according to India Spends is Rs 3.1 lakh crore. This still does not equal Rs 4-lakh crore bailout package that the telecom industry alone is seeking. 

Often, I hear that two wrongs don’t make a right. But how come the corporate loan waiver or write-off has always been accepted without any question? It’s only when farm loan waiver became a hot political issue that corporate bad debt has come into the picture. Otherwise, the RBI had no problem with it.

THERE IS DOUBT THAT SUCH POIGNANT TALES OF THE GRAVE HUMAN TRAGEDY IN THE FARMLANDS MEAN ANYTHING AT ALL TO OUR MAINLINE POLICY MAKERS

I agree that loan waiver is a temporary relief. The loan waiver must be followed by comprehensive set of policies that ensure loans don’t pile up again. For this, it is absolutely necessary to take steps which ensure economic security to farmers: 

The Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, which works out the MSP for crops, should be directed to factor in 4 allowances in the MSP being paid to farmers – House allowance, Medical allowance, Educational allowance and Travel allowance. So far, the MSP only covers the cost of production. 

 Since MSP benefits only 6 per cent farmers, it needs to be understood that the demand for providing 50 per cent profit over MSP will benefit only these 6 per cent farmers. For the remaining 94 per cent farmers, who are dependent on the exploitative markets, the need is to setup a National Farmers Income Commission, with the mandate to provide a minimum assured monthly income package of Rs 18,000 to a farmer’s family.

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