The throne of Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan seems to be rocking following the farmers’ agitation in the state. The stir took an ugly turn following the killing of six agitating farmers in police action. Properties worth crores were destroyed in arson and rioting. Five of the six farmers who lost their lives in the agitation from June 1 to 10 were killed in police firing on June 6, while the sixth one, who was struck on the head with a baton, succumbed in a hospital three days later. The demand for the resignation of Chief Minister Chouhan following the loss of six lives of farmers may gain ground in the coming days not only from the Opposition parties but even from within the party wherein the dissident group may stamp its foot. The farmers’ fury was for loan waiver and increase in the minimum support price (MSP) in the state. The BJP Govt had turned MP into a police state by reportedly deploying over 1,00,000 police and paramilitary forces in the affected areas.
The Opposition parties alleged that Chouhan’s mishandling of the situation claimed six lives in Mandsaur district. Social Democratic Party of India, (SDPI) demanded that the policemen who killed the five farmers in Madhya Pradesh should be declared terrorists and arrested while the Chief Minister should immediately step down with grace. Following the police action the farmers went on rampage and indulged in large- scale arson and rioting which has resulted into loss of more than Rs 400 crore of properties. Besides the deaths of farmers, more than 100 police personnel sustained injuries in the violence, six of them are critical. As many as 197 buses, 127 government vehicles and scores of two wheelers were set on fire and a number of show-rooms were ransacked by the mob.
The farmers’ doubts linger, mostly because the Madhya Pradesh government is yet to fulfil many promises which the BJP had made in its 2013 assembly election manifesto. The promises include the constitution of a loan relief commission, provident fund scheme for farmers, cattle ambulances, agro-polytechnic colleges, distribution of land among the landless, loan advisory centres, and a regulatory authority to compensate for substandard seeds, amongst others. The party had also promised to implement the Swaminathan Committee’s formula under which the MSP would be the total cost of production plus 50% of the weighted average. But, it didn’t happen. The government doesn’t have the budget to buy produce from farmers; resultantly, traders and middlemen have been exploiting the farmers.
With three more farmers committing suicide within 24 hours on June 14, the number of farmers ending their lives since last five days in the state has reached to eight. They all committed suicide due to heavy debts to banks and private money lenders and were finding it impossible to repay it. The Attachment and auction of their farmland and other assets were looming large over their heads. Two debt-ridden farmers committed suicide on June 6, one on June 5 and two on June 8, in the state. Two farmers end their lives on June 6 – one Makhan Lal (68) at Hoshangabad by hanging and one Hari Singh Jatav (40) at Vidisha by consuming poisonous tablets. Makhan Lal had a debt of Rs 7 lakh which he had taken from local money lenders and had also sold nearly seven acres of land in past two years to repay the interests.
Madhya Pradesh Agriculture Minister Gaurishankar Bisen commenting on these suicides wryly said: “The times are stressful and so the farmers are committing suicide. What can we do about it?” Meanwhile, about one-tenth of the farmer suicides in the past 16 years in Madhya Pradesh took place between February 2016 and 2017, telling a distressing story about farm despair in the state where agriculture growth had clocked 20% since 2014-15. From February 2016 to mid-February 2017, 1,982 farmers and farm labourers reportedly have committed suicide, whereas total 21,000 farmers have taken their lives in the past 16 years in the state. The National Crime Record Bureau, (NCRB), has recorded 11,000 farmer suicides in MP since 2008, many of them in Hoshangabad district. One of the recent ones was that of 45-year-old Laxman Mehra, who killed himself in his farmland after a cash-starved bank was unable to honour his withdrawal slip in the aftermath of demonetisation. The NCRB attributed the reasons to crop failure, failure to sell produce, inability to repay loans, and other non-agriculture factors such as poverty and property disputes.
Govt indifferent towards farmers
How serious is the Madhya Pradesh Government in tackling the farmers’ issues can be gauged by the fact that in five years the authorities have failed to implement majority of the 144 recommendations made for welfare of farmers and to curb farmers suicide in MP. In 2012, Madhya Pradesh Human Rights Commission, (MPHRC), had constituted a committee of experts, including former agriculture director GS Kaushal and former sugarcane commissioner Sadhuram Sharma to suggest measures to stop farmers’ suicide in the state. The committee members who visited different parts of the state in January 2012 made 144 recommendations to address the farmers’ problem. The report was submitted to the state government. However, a reality check of recommendations implemented by the government brings to light that a majority of them are yet to be taken note of by the state government. In March 2012, a 13-member parliamentary committee visited the state to address farmers’ suicide issue. It concluded that mounting debts, besides non-availability of fertilizers and delay in timely payments, were among the main reasons that forced farmers to end their lives in Madhya Pradesh.
Demonetisation is the culprit
In Mandsaur, where four days of rioting resulted in the deaths of five farmers and the destruction of crops, farms, shops, and vehicles, the policy’s effects are visible: demonetisation has disrupted every aspect of the rural economy – land markets, credit networks, procurement, and crop prices. Trader credit had dried up as well, reducing each trader’s purchasing power. Anil Gore, a soybean trader, rued that “Notebandi” (demonetisation) has destroyed the trust between farmer and trader. It has finished off our market. A farmer sells when he needs cash immediately – for a wedding, a funeral, to pay a loan etc but after “Notebandi”, traders at the government-run markets only pay by cheque. Dinesh Patidar, whose son Abhishek was killed in police firing said the traders exploited them. The traders knew the farmers were desperate for cash. However, the Modi government insists the economy has weathered the shock of demonetisation of 86% of India’s currency on November 8 last year, even as evidence to the contrary piles up and economists say they lack the tools to isolate its effects.
PIL on farmers’ protest in HC
A PIL on the farmers’ protest has been filed in the Madhya Pradesh High Court. The petition alleges that the farmers strike was illegal and seeks recovery for loss of public property. A division bench of high court comprising Justice SK Gangele and Justice R Mahajan will decide whether the petition is admissible or not. Petitioner Anwar Hussain has alleged that due to violent protests in western Madhya Pradesh, highways were blocked and buses were torched, milk and vegetables were thrown on roads, causing immense suffering to the people. “Protests like these were declared illegal by the Supreme Court of India in the past. Strict action should be initiated against those who fuelled violence and the loss to public property should be recovered from the accused”, the petition added.
Govt constitutes probe panel
The Madhya Pradesh Government has constituted a single-member probe commission for probe into the incident of death of five persons due to use of force over agitators on June 6, 2017 in Mandsaur district. The single-member probe commission by Retired High Court Judge JK Jain will complete its inquiry within three months and present its report to the state government. The Probe Commission will investigate five points – (1) Circumstances under which the incident took place; (2) Whether the force used by police was reasonable under prevailing circumstances or not? If not who is responsible for it? (3) Whether district and police administration had taken proper, timely and appropriate steps during the then prevailing circumstances and incidents; (4) Suggestion to stop repetition of such incident in future; & (5) Such other matters which are incidental to inquiry.
‘Krishi Karman’ awards
The farmers’ agitation has brought the Madhya Pradesh government under the scanner, with detractors questioning the rosy agricultural picture Chouhan had been painting for many years now. Chouhan has been tom-tomming about farm sector success claiming five national “Krishi Karman” awards, ignoring farmers crying hoarse over poor remunerative prices for their crop and increasing stranglehold of commission agents. Farmers are angry because the government neither made arrangements to procure the crop on time nor intervened to ensure a reasonable price. They threw onions on roads given the prices of the vegetables plummeted to as low as Re 1 to Rs 2 per kg in certain markets, especially in the Malwa region, last year. This year too, farmers had to sell their winter crop tomato and potato at throwaway prices, bearing heavy loss.
Meanwhile, Madhya Pradesh Agriculture Minister Bisen entered into a controversy after he raised questions over the state government’s decision to procure onion at Rs 8 per kg, without having requisite storage facilities. The minister pointed out that the government’s decision would result in a financial loss of Rs 200 crore to the state exchequer. He said that last year, the government procured onion at Rs 6 per kg and incurred a loss of Rs 103 crore, whereas this year the minimum support price for onion has been kept at Rs 8 per kg, which would result in a greater loss. Notably, the loss is also attributed to the government’s decision to sell onions through public distribution system at Rs 2 per kg, resulting in a loss of Rs 6 in every kilogram of onion sold.
Rs 2.3 cr spent on Chouhan’s Gandhigiri
Chief Minister Chouhan’s indefinite fast to restore peace in violence-hit western Madhya Pradesh lasted only 28 hours. The opposition Congress has alleged that Chouhan spent Rs 2.3 crore of public money on his fast, apart from causing inconvenience to common man. The Congress spokesperson KK Mishra made the allegation following a discussion with an unidentified officer in the government. He alleged the money was spent on facilities provided to the CM at the fast venue. Mishra also termed CM’s fast as a ‘Nautanki’ (drama). Meanwhile, two previous fasts that Chouhan undergone are evidence that no other BJP leader understands the usefulness of the Gandhian weapon of fasting better than he does. These fasts allowed him to successfully deflect the fire he faced because of the plight of farmers in his state. In 2011, two years before Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal went on a two-week-long fast to protest against alleged inflated water and electricity bills in Delhi, Chouhan started a hunger strike to highlight the United Progressive Alliance-led Union government’s alleged discrimination against Madhya Pradesh farmers. At that time, Chouhan was under tremendous pressure from the main Opposition Congress and farmers’ bodies in the state to provide a relief package to farmers whose crops had been damaged by frost. He needed a way out. Chouhan blamed the plight of farmers on the Central Government, and announced a fast against the Manmohan Singh government. However, Chouhan called off his intended indefinite fast within minutes of starting it following an assurance given to him by the then Prime Minister. The week-long build-up to that fast, however, brought him nation-wide publicity. It bolstered his image as a pro-farmer chief minister even though he had done little to assuage the woes of farmers. The same tactic came handy in 2014, when Chouhan started another fast against the Centre on March 5. The four-hour-long fast, held two months ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, was part of a state-wide bandh that the BJP had called to protest against the Union government’s alleged indifferent attitude towards Madhya Pradesh’s farmers who had been hit by unseasonal rains and hailstorm. At that time, Chouhan had appealed to the Union government to provide the state with a special package of Rs 5,000 crore to help it deal with the crisis. Then too, the chief minister succeeded in deflecting onto the Centre the heat he faced regarding the plight of farmers. In the subsequent elections, the BJP won 27 out of 29 parliamentary seats in Madhya Pradesh. Meanwhile, Leader of the Opposition in the state Assembly Ajay Singh has termed the fast as a “Kejriwal drama”, which, he alleged, would involve an expenditure of crores of rupees.
Congress 72-hour ‘Satyagraha’
To counter Chief Minister Chouhan’s fast protest, in Bhopal, the Congress on June 14 started its 72-hour “Satyagraha” amid slogans of “Jai Jawan Jai Kisan” to protest the June 6 Mandsaur police firing and death of six farmers. A large crowd of farmers from various districts along with Congress workers gathered in Bhopal for the launch of the protest. Launching a scathing attack on the BJP, the Congress’ chief whip in the Lok Sabha, Jyotiraditya Scindia said: “I believe that politics in our country is a reality. But does politics no longer have any humanity or sympathies left? Do we no longer have respect for life because what happened in Mandsaur is not just shameful for Madhya Pradesh but for the entire nation. This is not a BJP-Congress issue, this is a question of the 7.5 crore people of the state. What right does a government have to take the lives of farmers?”
CM visits Mandsaur to assuage kin of killed farmers
Seeking to douse the smouldering embers of the farmers’ unrest, chief minister Chouhan on June 14 visited Mandsaur where six people were killed in police action, and presented Rs 1 crore to the kin of three of the deceased. The state government on June 13 had sanctioned financial aid of Rs 1 crore each to the families of the six killed farmers in the peasants’ stir. In a gesture loaded with symbolism, Chouhan, along with his wife Sadhna, visited the families of the slain farmers and promised action against those responsible for their bereavement. Chouhan, who has been facing a firestorm of political protests following the killing of farmers, reached Mandsaur on a special plane and headed straight to Badwan village to the family of Ghanshyam Dhakad. Later in the day he visited the kin of other victims and tried to assuage their feelings. Though Chouhan was in the area for eight hours, he spent only between 2-11 minutes each with the family members of those killed in the stir. Meanwhile, the Congress heavyweight from Madhya Pradesh Jyotiraditya Scindia, was on June 13 detained amid dramatic scenes and prevented by district administration from visiting Mandsaur to be with families of those killed in the stir, citing prohibitory orders that barred assembly of more than four people is in force. Prior to this Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi too was arrested and debarred on June 8 from visiting the homes of farmers who were killed in police firing on June 6 in the midst of melodrama. The Congress leader, accompanied by state leaders Digvijaya Singh and Kamal Nath and JD (U)’s Sharad Yadav, was put on a bus and sent to a guesthouse in Neemuch.
Meanwhile, the mandi traders who had announced an indefinite strike to protest against the government’s decision that would make them face criminal charges on buying farm produce at less than minimum support price (MSP), have postponed their strike till June 30 after a meeting with Chief Minister Chouhan. According to MP Vyapari Mahasangh president Gopal Agrawal, a delegation of the Mahasangh met Chief Minister Chouhan and apprised him of the issues related to sale of agriculture commodities of fair average quality (FAQ) below the MSP. The Chief Minister backtracking his earlier decision assured that no criminal case would be registered against the traders as the government would specify centres for selling agriculture commodities below MSP. In areas where such centres are not declared, purchase will be done as per previous arrangements. A day after Chief Minister Chouhan called off his 28-hours fast with the promise that purchase of farm produce below the MSP will be considered a criminal offence; it all seemed to have forgotten a day later. He had also said that all types of farm produce will be procured at the MSP.
Chouhan alleges Congressmen incitement
Chief Minister Chouhan has alleged that the farmers had been incited by Congressmen who have been supporting the farmers’ agitation and that the anti-social elements, and not the farmers, had fired upon the agitators. There was utter confusion prevailing as the BJP state chief Nandkumar Singh Chouhan contradicted the government saying that he saw shots being fired by the administration. While Congress mischief may be behind the agitation, the Chouhan government cannot escape responsibility for mismanaging the agitation first triggered by the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU). While the farmers in the State as in Maharashtra have been facing hardships, there is no denying that timely action would have helped defuse the agitation. It is now incumbent on the Chouhan government to listen to the farmers’ representatives and to devise a viable solution.
Meanwhile, cornered by the Congress on death of six farmers in Mandsaur, the BJP leaders including Union Minister Venkaiah Naidu and party’s national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya were prompt to remind the former about the death of 24 farmers in Multai when it was in power. Incidentally, the then Congress government had blamed the BJP for the Multai violence. In a role reversal, the BJP is now accusing the Congress of inciting the violence. Rattled by the violence, Chouhan perhaps felt the need to shift the blame again. However, this time, his own BJP is heading the Union government, so blaming the Centre was not an option. Instead, the narrative changed from the Centre’s discrimination against farmers to the Congress party’s instigation of farmers as the main cause for the widespread unrest. Chouhan’s latest fast was carefully scripted. It started on the last day of the 10-day-long stir, when leaders of different farmer unions from the state were in New Delhi to chalk out strategies to expand the agitation across the country. The family members of four of the five farmers killed in the Mandsaur police firing were brought to the fasting site, and Chouhan met them late on Saturday evening. Following that meeting, Chouhan told the media that he had assured the grieving family members that those responsible for the police firing would be punished, and that the families had asked him to discontinue his fast.
Search for influential Kisan leader
Meanwhile, the ruling BJP is in search of an influential Kisan leader, who has the charisma to placate to agitating peasants so that rival political parties could not reap benefits from the issue during Assembly polls in 2018. Moreover, the party leaders believe that the state needs a long-term agrarian policy and a mechanism for getting better prices for the farm produce, as promised by Chouhan during his indefinite fast on Sunday. Party considers Chouhan as the most influential farmer leader, who can focus on tribals, Dalits and backwards too. For the party, the major concern is the role of disgruntled leaders who silently supported the violent agitation, especially in Malwa region, where the BJP had won 48 seats of the total 54 assembly constituencies in 2013. Opposition Congress won only six seats. BJP also has 25 MLAs of the total 27 seats in five districts of Indore, Ujjain, Ratlam, Mandsaur and Neemuch which were the epicentre of the farmers’ violent protests. The Congress has only two members, one Jitu Patwari from Rau (Indore) and another Hardeep Singh Dang from Suwasra (Mandsaur). In December 2010, farmers had laid an unprece-dented siege of the state capital under the banner of RSS-backed Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), for their 183 pending demands. The city was virtually crippled as thousands of farmers had gathered near chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s official residence. The agitation was led by Shivkumar Sharma, aka Kakkaji. But, farmer leaders who had been active in dousing the flames in 2010 have now gone into oblivion. During the 2010 agitation, party’s Kisan Morcha leaders like Bansilal Gurjar and Tej Singh Sendhav had played a major role in pacifying the farmers. However, now they have been discarded by their own state leadership. None of them were given party ticket for last assembly or Lok Sabha elections.
Meanwhile, the BJP has opened a Pandora’s box by declaring farmer’s loan waiver before UP assembly elections without considering pros and cons of this decision which has now spread violence all over the country. This is wrong precedent set up by the BJP leaders to win UP assembly elections which will have serious implications in future. The banks cannot recover loans given to farmers since people will wait for waiver of loan till elections. It has very serious implications in future, as increase of bad debts in banks would force them to stop all loans to farmers. The govt must find out permanent solution to the problems of farmers by setting up agriculture markets in subdivisions and districts which will eliminate middle man. Demands for loan write-offs being stonewalled by the government seems to be the primary reason driving the country’s farm folk to protests that are periodically degenerating into violence. Additionally, the governments’ unwillingness to increase the minimum support price (MSP) to check food-induced inflation that would impact voters, too, could be a factor. While UP government’s decision on April 12 to announce loan waiver for the state’s three crore farmers may have triggered the protests elsewhere, the fact is that demands for such relief have only grown in recent weeks. The write-off would cost UP a staggering Rs 36,389 crore, and the waiver is far from materialising. But farmers across the country have been protesting: in Maharashtra, UP, Gujarat, Haryana, Punjab and Tamil Nadu, demanding debt relief and better price for their produce.
The agrarian crises keep repeating because successive governments have been treating agriculture as a source of votes and not an engine of growth. The cardinal malaise lies in successive governments treating agriculture as a source of votes and not an engine of growth. That kept the rural-urban wage gap wide at 45%, almost four times that of China, and shrunk the share of farming in GDP to under 14%, although more than half of India’s 1.25 billion people still depend on it. The use of technology is patchy and only one-tenth of every rupee the government spends on rural areas goes to improving productivity which is why farmers in India grow 46% less rice an acre than their Chinese counterparts. Unless the rural economy is unshackled from a time and policy warp our dream of double-digit economic growth will remain unfulfilled. Dismantle the Agricultural Produce Market Committee, (APMCs), which is a marketing board established by a state government in India, in one bold stroke, not tinkering around the margins, is low hanging fruit. Next should be the entry of corporates, including foreign firms, to procure directly from farmers, often on long term contracts. If this round of farm loan waivers goes through, that will be the end of credit discipline. Then don’t set ambitious priority sector targets for banks to lend to agriculture. As of March 31, 2017, around Rs 13,000 crore had been loaned to 26 lakh farmers by cooperative banks in MP at 0% interest. The interest is subsidized partially by NABARD and partially by the state government. Officials say that such a huge amount cannot be waived as it would cripple the finances of the cash-strapped government. Madhya Pradesh claims agriculture growth above 20%, which happens to be a world record. Ironically, it is a glut in production that has led prices to crash. No other country has a farmer to consumer ratio of that of India. Worldwide 3 hands feed 10 mouths. In India 3 hands feeds 2 mouths. Now the mouths have to pay for the hands to feed. This is where the problem lies. The Indian farmer can comfortably feed all of Asia pacific if they get as efficient as in Egypt if not Israel. Loan waver is not going to help. Why only loans of farmers are waived? What about other small loan borrowers like pushcart vegetable sellers, small shop owners and auto-rickshaw owners? They also face distress because of their business failure. A state government waives off 30-50 thousand crores worth of farm loans in one go. It is done every 2-3 years and many state governments do it. Ultimately it is the taxpayers who pay off these loans. What is the use of paying taxes if it is distributed as freebies to farmers in the form of loan waiver, free electricity, subsidies on farm equipment and subsidies on farm inputs? All these freebies are in addition to no income tax on farmers. There is no problem if they receive these freebies provided similar freebies are also offered to other low income groups.
*views expressed in the article are authors own.