There is no proof required that economists commenting on farmer issues have reached an affliction point. When the counsellor one seeks advice from is as callous as saying that the farmers’ agitation was political and justifies it by citing declining farmer suicides and rising farmer prosperity (‘Just why are farmers rioting?’ by Surjit Bhalla, IE, June 10), one can’t but respond.
The decline in farmer suicides is a classic case of selectively torturing data when the same data proves farmer suicides increased by 42 per cent in 2015. After 2014, farmer suicides are enumerated separately from that of agriculture labour, so the disparity in suicide data. Many states like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Odisha have even refused to record farmer suicides and now under-report. Farmer suicide data remains unreliable; for example, land is normally registered in the name of men, so when women farmers commit suicide, they don’t get counted.
It’s a dark satire to tell a farmer that the Minimum Support Price (MSP), CPI and WPI changes reflect farmer incomes are doubling and farmer suicides are declining. The trigger for the recent farm agitation remains the depressed farm gate price. The government declaring higher MSP is not enough. For some crops, an MSP is declared, but over two-thirds of all such crops are selling below MSP or far lower than previous years — that’s what matters on the ground.
Over 80 per cent of farm produce isn’t purchased under MSP. Even vegetable prices are about half. Additionally, the BJP’s election manifesto promised the crop production cost plus 50 per cent pricing formula from the M.S. Swaminathan report, but the government quietly filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court, stating it can’t be implemented. Farmers are losing hope and faith in this government, just as they did with earlier governments which consistently broke promises.
Last year in Maharashtra, farmers were compelled to sell milk for as low as Rs 16/litre, compared to the average purchase price of Rs 35/litre in many other states. Most farmers keep cattle and were reeling from lower milk prices, impacted by policy-induced imports of butter oil (ghee). They now have to contend with the ban on cow slaughter and buffalo sale restrictions. Every farmer’s cash flow is disrupted. This has added to the pent-up frustration, which exploded.
After a decade of bad policies, the farmer agitation in Maharashtra was waiting to happen. But the agitation in Madhya Pradesh, a state where farming was supposedly progressing at an unbelievable double-digit growth rate, rattled almost all academics. Economists with “no skin in the game” who trumpeted farmer prosperity through agriculture GDP and agriculture production numbers, now try to escape the blame by branding the agitation “political”. Production increases don’t translate into income increases. Inversely, when production peaks, farmers suffer.
The farmer agitation is not just about demonetisation-induced farm deflation and poverty, it’s also about frustrations arising from unfulfilled aspirations and farmers’ understanding that other communities have progressed at their expense. By wilfully disregarding how farmers remain the primary tool for controlling inflation, academics evade the heart of the farmer distress issue.
The farmer agitation will be the defining image marking three years of the Modi regime. The mess on the farm is not a creation of the Modi regime —but expectations were high that PM Modi would solve the crisis. Now, with hopes of off-farm jobs and “ache din” evaporating, Modi is losing the moral authority to carry forward reforms and resorting to a populist agenda, like the UPA.
The larger question is not why farmers are agitating, but why agitations don’t yield long-term tangible changes to their livelihoods. The demand for a higher MSP or loan waiver does not represent all sections dependent on agriculture. The demands of agricultural labour are never raised and subsequently, farmer agitations lose steam. For the first time, educated youth participated in the farmer agitation and will eventually bring their families into the movement. Agitations not driven by politicians are a harbinger of tumultuous times. Disorganised farmers have managed to do what the combined opposition couldn’t — bring governments to their knees. More importantly, they have shown, it can be done.
Reacting with loan waivers, pandering governments cannot dispel the discontent of alienated farmers but only prolong the uncertainty and the inevitable. Depressed international commodity prices, plummeting cotton and maize prices in the coming harvest time can be the flashpoint for the next farmer agitation.