Farmer interest groups predict that unless the government corrects its agricultural pricing and procurement policy, it will face a political blowback, notes Aditi Phadnis.
Sometime in June this year, farmer activist and Shetkari Sanghatana founder member Vijay Jawandhia wrote Prime Minister Narendra Modi a letter.
The handwritten missive in Hindi should have warned the PM about what to expect in the local body (urban and rural) elections in Gujarat, which got over recently.
Jawandhia, after two days of consultations with farmers in Gujarat, urged Modi to do as kings of yore used to: don a disguise and tour the state.
“That’s when you will know what farmers are saying about your government. As chief minister you promised 24-hour power. What farmers get is less than eight hours of uninterrupted power. The crisis faced by farmers in Gujarat is the same as that faced by farmers elsewhere in the country,” Jawandhia said, reminding Modi about his speech at the National Executive of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Bengaluru.
“You asked a question in your speech at the National Executive. You said: ‘Farmers are ready to sell their land so that their sons can become a peon in an office. Why?’ We would like you to think about your statement.”
Jawandhia did not get a reply. He is not even sure his letter reached Modi. But the farmers of Gujarat have hit back.
The BJP has been trounced in the local body elections in rural Gujarat. This is all the more stark because the same elections conducted in 2010-11 saw a clean sweep by the BJP - whether it was Rajkot, Surendranagar or Sabarkantha. In the elections to 208 taluka panchayats, the BJP got 48.51 per cent of the votes; the Congress got 42 per cent.
Only in Tapi district the Congress’ vote percentage surpassed the BJP’s.
The BJP won 30 out of 31 district panchayats and 150 out of 231 taluka panchayats. That was in 2010.
How things change. Although the full results of the 2015 local body elections in Gujarat have not yet come out, the BJP has been able to win in just about six district panchayats against the Congress’ victory in 24.
Preliminary results suggest victory for the BJP in 67 taluka panchayats compared to the Congress’ score of 134.
The percentage data will take time to calculate. But the indications are clear. Farmers are turning their back on the BJP.
Not that this should be construed as a vote in favour of the Congress: the party’s structure in the state is still rickety.
But what the results tell us unambiguously is that rural India is suffering: and it is putting the blame for its pain on the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by the BJP.
The resounding cry of the farming community is: do what you promised. The BJP manifesto promised to pay 1.5 times minimum support price (MSP) to farmers.
This would not have been an issue if farmers could export their crops. But global commodity prices have crashed and the more a farmer produces, the deeper his losses.
Gujarat is the second-largest producer of cotton in India after Maharashtra.
Today, the international price of raw cotton ranges from 60 to 70 US cents a pound depending on its quality. So a farmer gets a price of around Rs 4,000 a quintal.
The BJP government has increased cotton MSP by Rs 50, a year since it came to power: so around Rs 4,100 a quintal is what a farmer is getting from the government today.
His cost, including seeds, power and pesticides, works out to around Rs 6,500-6,700 per quintal.
The cost per pound of cotton internationally is around 47 cents. So he has to compete with even cheaper cotton in the international market.
Experts say MSP is the price on paper. So deep is the crisis that farmers are selling cotton even at Rs 2,500 a quintal in the open market.
Jawandhia is clear: “We can’t leave our farmers to the mercy of global price movements. When the rest of the world cushions its farmers by giving subsidies and imposing trade curbs, why shouldn’t India do the same?”
China has discontinued cotton production altogether: when cheap cotton is available internationally why should Chinese farmers waste their time growing it?
The result is, in Gujarat, the Patels are demanding reservations in government jobs. They are overwhelmingly a farming community.
This is not restricted to Gujarat. Procurement agencies for cotton are yet to intervene aggressively in the market. Adverse farm conditions have been reported from all over India in other agri-commodities as well.
Farmer interest groups predict that unless the government corrects its agricultural pricing and procurement policy, it will face a political blowback.
The NDA needs to address rural distress on a priority basis.