Farmers still out in cold

The BJP may have thought that sops could pacify the aggrieved lot but their reactions proved otherwise

That you cannot hoodwink the voter by granting what you think is suitable largesse was proved by farmers’ reaction on the very day the Modi government’s interim budget promised Rs 6,000 to them annually in direct cash transfers. Some farmers blocked the crucial Delhi-Noida Link Road claiming that their land was acquired for infrastructure development without uniform compensation and that the latest farm crisis had meant that the requisite compensation be paid to them promptly as retrospective justice. Meanwhile, sugarcane farmers rejected the assisted income scheme saying they would rather be happier with a policy that would hold defaulter sugar mill owners guilty before the law in case of delay in payment of dues. The package would not rescue them from a debt trap considering they were in the deep end of the ocean, having spent a fortune on raising a crop, transporting it to mills and still awaiting returns. In both cases, the farmers don’t want patronising grants, they want recovery of their receivables.

The arithmetic clearly doesn’t work for the beneficiaries under the direct cash transfer scheme of Rs 6,000 per year to those owning less than two hectares of land. This translates to approximately Rs 17 per day, too paltry to meet sustenance demands, leave aside using for farm inputs. Rough estimates show that a farmer invests at least Rs 10,000 in one cropping season on at least two hectares of land, given the steep prices of fertilisers, seeds and hired labour. The government’s announcement, no matter how well-intentioned, means that technically it can dole out just about a quarter’s grant, that is between December 2018 and March 2019. So each farmer family could get Rs 2,000 before the elections, literally peanuts. Besides, the government scheme leaves out the tenant and landless farmers, who are at the lowest rung of the distress scale. While grants for fisheries and cow-rearing are welcome, most farmers had expected concessions on fencing and allied infrastructure that would help them tame the stray cattle menace, another reason for crop damage.

The government may claim that the Opposition was just being a windbag and had no workable plan but fact is at least three Opposition-run states have fared better in handling the farm crisis. Even the Modi government referred to these templates but clearly has not been able to match their on-ground effectiveness. The Telangana government’s Rythu Bandhu scheme provisions an income support of Rs 8,000 per year, paying 50-50 during the kharif and rabi seasons. The Odisha government provides an income support of Rs 10,000 per family for both tenant farmers as well as landholders for five cropping seasons. The Bengal government has pledged Rs 5,000 per acre before two sowing seasons. Little wonder then that Trinamool Congress leader and Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee described the NDA’s farm relief plan as heavily borrowed. The Modi government clearly finds itself with hands tied as it was forced to even increase allocations for MNREGA, the Congress’ rural job guarantee scheme, an acknowledgement of something that it has consistently run down since 2014. India’s agriculture crisis is as real as joblessness and needs a turnaround model that is beyond politics. We cannot afford more farmer suicides driven by bankruptcy, the figure of which keeps spiralling. More than half of the agricultural households in India are in debt. Revising MSP isn’t enough for the farmers to attempt a recovery from the trough. With improved cold chains, use of technology and unsold yields, progress is only pushing up farmers’ anxieties. Agriculture makes up 15 per cent of the GDP but more than 50 per cent of the population is still dependent on it. Which is why sustainability options have to be worked out, even skilling the younger generation to make good with a Plan B of non-farming alternatives. No matter which political party champions the cause of farmers’ rights, fact is nobody can selectively tom-tom agenda points at face value. Not in an election year. Rescuing the agricultural economy must be a national revival mission now.