In 1916 at the 31st Session of the Indian National Congress Pandit Rajkumar Shukla was the first to represent the peasants on the agrarian crisis that gripped Champaran. He pleaded for immediate help for the indigo farmers exploited by the British planters. Shukla later wrote to Gandhi ji and invited him to Champaran to espouse the cause of the hapless farmers. Gandhi ji reached Champaran on 9th April,1917 and defied the British who denied him entry into Motihari. What followed was the historic and successful Sathyagraha which brought succor to the indigo farmers and catapulted Gandhi ji as the Mahatma who became the undisputed leader of the country’s freedom struggle. This is a great example of how to handle issues of farm distress.
The Centenary of the Champaran Satyagraha organized by the present Bharatiya Janata Party Government was an almost Congress-mukt affair spearheaded by the Champaran M P and the incumbent Union Agriculture minister. The popular Prime Minister’s address was a recorded video one. There were visits by the Minister,[ a look alike of the Mahatma in loin clothes, lathi , his trade mark fob or pocket watch and a Bhagawat Gita in his hand] Tara Gandhi, the granddaughter of Gandhi ji and an enthusiastic B J P leaders and foot soldiers, reenacting of the historic venues where Gandhi ji had been in Champaran, a century ago. The party seems to be keen on claiming every national heritage like the legacy of Sathyagraha of the Mahatma. Not to be outdone and to make good for their absence for the B J P celebrations in Champaran[ it is not sure whether the Bihar Government was invited], a couple of days later, Nitish Kumar, the Chief Minister of Bihar, organized another state ceremony presided over by the President of India in Patna.
As the heat and dust of the Champaran Sathyagraha centenary celebrations were settling down, a major agrarian crisis was brewing in Northern India. The first signs were seen in Maharashtra with farmers agitating by unloading onions and other vegetables and pouring out cans of milk in market places and highways. It appears, these ominous signals were not taken seriously by the nearby B J P ruled state of Madhya Pradesh.It is paradoxical that a bumper crop has led to farmers’ suicide in Madhya Pradesh. The state was being showcased as a model for tremendous strides in agriculture. The chief Minister Shivrajsingh Chauhan had boasted how the state had won five National Krishi Karman Awards. In fact, the advertising blitz in almost all national dailies and channels projecting the progress of the state would have caused the exchequer a bomb. Perhaps that money would have been sufficient to provide funds for increased price for agricultural products through government procurement .
Farmers in 15 districts of the Malwa-Nimad region were the worst affected in the second year of a bumper crops of onion, potato and tomato. Obviously the state government failed to see the writing on the wall and take remedial measures. The agitation by farmers in Madhya Pradesh slowly gained
momentum and was supported by the Congress and other opposition parties. Instead of alleviating the situation the ruling party went on accusing the Congress and other opposition parties for fishing in troubled waters. Came June 6 and the agitating farmers were fired at and killed five of them by the police. One prominent state government functionary even denied that the agitating farmers who died had not fallen to police bullets, a comment that proved to be absolutely baseless.
The glut in the market had led to prices crashing with prices of onion, potato and tomato being sold for a rupee a kilo! What would the poor farmers do strangled by lending agencies including traditional money lenders. Suicides were already in vogue if statistics are anything to go by. On December 7,2016, the state government had disclosed that a total 3469 suicides were reported between July I,2016 and November 15, 2016 - 531 farmers and farm labourers and 281 students . According to another statement, between November 2016 and February 27, 2017, a total of 1761 suicide cases have been registered of which 106 were farmers and 181 were farm laborers. By the time the agitations started in the beginning of June there was a steady increase in suicide cases. The Home Minister of Madhya Pradesh Bhupender Singh in an interview on June 13 said that the reason for farmers’ suicide in the state was not because of debts in agriculture but were due to family disputes!
Whatever may be the statistics and excuses, it may be surmised that there were suicides by farmers and the State government did not take it seriously and failed to take remedial measures. The government also appeared complacent because of two consecutive bumper crops and that led to the distress in the farm sector.
It took many days for the Chief Minister to visit the victims of police firing and no opposition leader was allowed in Mandsaur. He of course announced crores of compensation and went on a Sathyagraha, seemingly a tribute to the Mahatma in the centenary year of the Champaran Sathyagraha! The agitation by farmers now is snowballing. After Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh agitation has spread to B J P ruled Chattisgarh blocked highways demanding loan waiver.
It was after the Bihar electoral debacle that the Modi government woke up to the ground reality that it's image was that of a 'suit boot ki sarkar". The government attempted a course correction to get a new image of being farmer friendly. New promises and schemes were announced; it seemed a new era had dawned. The ruling party did reap electoral gains in the ensuing hustings. However after the demonetization and landslide victory in UP there was some backsliding and stories about farmer's suicides appeared almost daily in the media from all across the country. These reports were not taken up seriously and even the agitation in front of Jantar Mantar by hapless Tamil Nadu farmers were ignored. They spent day and night braving the scorching Delhi summer,naked, holding the skulls of their near as dear ones who committed suicide on account of crop failure and harassment by lending agencies. The government woke up only when farmers agitated in Maharashtra and the Hindi belt.
Loan waivers have now been announced both in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. The union Finance Minister has said that the respective state governments should pay from their own resources and should not expect the central government. Financial institutions too have cautioned the state government on the negative impact of huge loan waiver on the national economy. Urjit Patel, Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, in a recent statement to the media said that the ‘farm loan waivers can lead to fiscal slippages, and undo work on fiscal deficit done over last two years.’ This is a clear indication of how populist measures would damage the economy. Look at the states that have resorted to agricultural loan waiver. Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu are being joined in the loan waiver move by Madhya Pradesh and Yogi Adityanath , Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh has waived Rs.36,359 crore taken by 94 lakh small and marginal farmers. Ask the farmers what are the reasons for this terrible plight of the Indian farmers. Many of them blamed demonetization which disrupted their traditional economy. With all the gains of the Green Revolution and the tremendous strides in new improved methods, seeds and yield, Indian agriculture continues to be a gamble in the monsoon. A progressive farmer A.R. Patil from Gokak in Karnataka says that in his area it had not rained almost 3 years in succession and finally it rained this month. Patil points out how the small farmers who took loans were harassed by even the nationalized banks for nonpayment of loans and interests are accumulating. Many of such farmers consider suicide as an option to get deliverance from their miserable plight.
Another farmer points out that seed prices have gone up manifold. For example the price of maze seeds charged by foreign companies like Monsanto or their Indian counterparts is four times more. Similarly fertilizer prizes too have seen a steep increase. The educated among the farmers even understand the damage done by fertilizers, quoting a Dutch saying which goes like this: ‘Fertilizer is good for the father and bad for the sons’. He pointed out quoting a scientific paper that ‘for all its ecological baggage synthetic nitrogen does one good deed for the environment - it helps build carbon in soil. At least that is what scientists have assumed for decades. That is no longer relevant according to this farmer as carbon emission will increase while plants grow faster and bigger. This shows how knowledgeable the gen next farmers are. But if the government does not provide them the required help, support and security .The farm sector probably has the least economic security. In the final analysis it is not just loan waiver that is the solution for farm distress but a comprehensive policy that can give pride to our farmers. Temporary reliefs would only confound the situation and make our farmers prone to suicides.
Prof.T K Thomas is a broadcaster, columnist and academic. Left A I R as station director in 1987 and his last assignment was with the Sikkim Central University as visiting Fellow.