Rahul Gandhi seems to have clearly got under the skin of the ruling dispensation in the country. The latest in this series of contretemps between the Congress president and the BJP is the rebuttal by Arun Jaitley, currently union minister without portfolio, who felt compelled to take on Rahul in a Facebook post a day after he got home from hospital following a kidney transplant.
But Jaitley’s rhetoric “How much does he know?” in response to Rahul’s charges that the Centre had waived off several lakh crores of rupees owed by industrialists while denying farmers loan waivers, attempted to paint Rahul as an ignoramus rather than addressing the core issues he had raised. It was surprising that the former finance minister should feel the need to mock Rahul in this manner but, taking his response seriously, it is obvious the Centre is worried about its falling stock with farmers who have been having a rough time for the past few years.
When several Kisan organisations began their 10-day strike from June 1 and stopped the supply of milk and vegetables to various parts of the country, Union Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh termed it as a publicity stunt by farmers. A case has been filed against him in a court in Bihar for hurting the sentiments of farmers. That comment revealed a complete lack of understanding that the farmer, our food giver, is at the bottom of the food chain and often has nowhere to go when he is let down by both the climate and the government.
There is a lot of resentment among urban citizens about loan waivers to farmers but what they fail to comprehend is that farmers do not really want loan waivers. What they are looking for is a minimum support price (MSP) for their produce. It is only when governments fail to provide them this MSP that they are unable to pay off their loans and end up as defaulters. Under pressure from banks to pay off loans, which amount to as little as `1 lakh or less, they are left with no alternative but to commit suicide. What do they care if they make headlines after hanging themselves from trees on their farms?
The failure to pay MSP is not specific to any government—all dispensations since the early 1990s have been guilty of ignoring the effect of globalisation on our farmers. Farmers in France, Germany and the UK had fought bitterly against the domination by the US during negotiations towards the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs in the 1990s and compelled their governments to secure them a good deal to combat US subsidies to their own farmers. India didn’t. Our farmers are ever since having to pay a price for that—anything they grow can today be secured from other nations at competitive prices be it wheat, pulses, onions, tomatoes or apples. Consumers naturally prefer cheap imports to costlier home-grown produce.
Look at the case of toor or arhar dal (pigeon pea), the prices of which at one time had risen to over `200 per kilo. Farmers were encouraged to grow more toor dal and there was a bumper harvest the next year. But meanwhile, in the face of consumer ire, the government panicked and placed a five-year order of import of toor dal with Mozambique.
Professor Ghanshyam Darne, a social economist working with farmers in Yavatmal, the most suicide-prone district of the country situated in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, says ruefully, “Here the farmer was loading sackfuls of toor dal onto trucks to take them to the agricultural produce market committees and in Mumbai, at the same time, ships were offloading containers upon containers of toor dal that had already been paid for. Naturally the government had no resources to buy this bumper harvest of toor from our own farmers. Where do they go then except to the well to drown themselves? They have not been able to recover even costs each year.”
It does not take much to understand this simple arithmetic and this is what Rahul has grasped, not just with his mind but also with both hands. Last year, farmers protesting in Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh were fired upon by cops and some were killed in the firing. Rahul was stopped from visiting their families then but this year he made good on that deficit by promising them a supply chain that will take care of their produce from farm to consumer and minimise their losses.
Farmers today are grasping at straws and are genuinely angered not just by industrialists and entrepreneurs running away with public money but also by the attempts by banks to write off their NPAs amounting to crores while these banks have not even a few lakhs to lend to farmers or waive off in times of distress. Most farmers depend on co-operative banks for their loans and these banks continue to suffer a credit crunch post-demonetisation. Under the circumstances anyone who lends farmers a sympathetic ear now would have the advantage in 2019.
Sadly, the Centre has not come up with any convincing scheme for farmers. Rather, when UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis decided to waive off loans of farmers in their states last year, the union finance ministry had told them in no uncertain terms that they were on their own on this one and could not expect the Centre to subsidise their adventure. While many farmers in UP got loan waivers of as little as `1, in Maharashtra many eligible farmers are still waiting for their waivers as the state government faces a credit crunch on account of overspending on that score.
So Rahul’s promise to waive loans of farmers within 10 days of coming to power in MP (where would the government find the money, though?) and the assurance of a farm to factory enterprise in every district is sure to attract their attention. Whether Rahul and the Congress will be able to deliver on the promise is for the future to decide. For the moment they seem to know and know well that farmers are in distress all across the country and whoever throws them even a straw to stop them from drowning, runs away with their vote.