In the first year of graduation in 1960 we had a paper on India’s economic problems. Those were days of severe droughts and food shortage. The situation was so bad that the country had to seek food from the United States under what was known as PL 480 or Public Law 480 in the mid 1950s. Even the early years of the next decade also had to suffer then what we called the ignominious PL 480.
As undergraduate students, we enjoyed the lectures at least some of us were saddened that ours was indeed a poor country thirteen years after independence and exactly ten years after we became a Sovereign Democratic Republic. We were concerned that in a predominantly agricultural country the farmers who toiled round the year were really poor and had a miserable existence. We were familiarized with an old cliché’ that the average Indian farmer, ”was born in debt, lived in debt and died in debt”.
Our teacher also pointed out that Indian agriculture was ”a gamble in the monsoons”; how in many parts of the country the farmers looked at the sky to see whether it would rain, after the sowing was over. He also mentioned how rice and sugarcane cultivation was water intensive and if the rains failed the crops failed. Frequent droughts, excess rain and floods added to their misery and uncertain future.
If the crops failed and once their stock of grains in their indigenous granaries started running out abject poverty stared at them. They had to borrow money for sustenance and for sowing the next crop. Obviously the money came from traditional money lenders who were essentially loan sharks who charged exorbitant interests. Our professor gave the example of petty money lenders who would sit with a small bag of money in the bi weekly small town market. Some cashless traders would borrow, say a hundred rupees in the morning and do some sort of retail business in fruits and vegetables. By the evening he would earn at the most 120 rupees. He then would return the principal sum of hundred and a “small” interest of just ten rupees. “What is the interest rate?” the teacher would ask, It just worked out to be an unbelievable rate of interest! The main traditional money lenders who “served” the hapless farmers charged exorbitant interest rates. No wonder the poor farmers lived in eternal debt trap and perpetual poverty.
When the principal sums and interest rates skyrocketed the money lender who already had taken the poor farmers land deeds and titles as guarantee would evict the farmer from his property; the farmer thus would become landless laborer or in some parts of the country bonded laborers.
Well, our professor who often got emotional would sometimes speak in a choked voice while highlighting the plight of farmers. He however was an incorrigible optimist who said that we shall overcome all problems and in another decade we would become self sufficient in food and our farmers would be emancipated from perpetual debt. Looking back with the voice of our teacher still reverberating in one’s mind, one wonders how without chest thumping and boasting about reforms, our first Prime Minister had ushered in planned economy through Five Year Plans, major irrigation projects, fertilizer production, and seminal agricultural research programmes which ultimately ushered in the Green Revolution which made India self sufficient in food. By 1970 there was perceptible improvement in food production due to the Green Revolution spearheaded by Dr. M.S Swaminathan and Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug.
The second Prime Minister with the slogan ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ not only boosted the morale of the Jawans and farmers but also improved the income of the farmers through the establishment of National Dairy Development Board and the milk or White Revolution.
When one hears about farmers’ distress and suicide today almost sixty years later in our country, projected as the third largest economy in the world, one is again saddened that the incorrigible optimism of our old professor turned out to be misplaced. Somewhere down the years despite slogans like ‘Garibi Hattao’ the farm sector was neglected and the average farmers became victims of governmental[ central and state governments of almost all political parties and coalitions] neglect, exploitation by middlemen and money lenders- even the cooperative, private and public sector banks.
Last Thursday [December 20] the not so friendly [to the NDA government] NDTV had a whole day programme entirely dedicated to agriculture. The participants were drawn from across the political spectrum, activists and a few experts raised all issues and concerns of the farming community and debated. Many of the participants pointed out that one of the main reasons for the debacle of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in the three Hindi heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan was the neglect of the farm sector. This was contested by the ruling party spokespersons who blamed the previous Congress and UPA governments for the agrarian crisis. The fact is that none of the political parties or dispensations can escape the blame for letting down the farmers.
There was a claim that farmers’ suicides have come down. An activist was quick to point out that the Union Agriculture Minister Radhamohan Singh told parliament a few days back that the National Crime Record Bureau which collects such data, has not published figures of farmer suicides since 2016.
Despite the long marches organized by poverty stricken farmers in Maharashtra and later in the national capital the government failed to take proactive steps to address the real problems of the farmers. Instead they were given empty promises to ward off the “nuisance’ of the marching farmers who were disciplined and peaceful.
While activists espousing the cause of the farmers in the day long programmes on NDTV called the bluff of ruling parties that the Swaminathan committee report was only partly implemented. Following farmers’ agitations all over the country, the central government with the usual fanfare had announced in the first week of July increase in the Minimum Support Price of various Kharif crops as per the Swaminathan Committee formula. The catch however was the calculation of the cost of production [COP]. The farmers have been demanding one and a half times of the cost of production. But according to the increased MSP determination norms by the government the actual formula of including all the components of cost like seed, labour [human, animal and machine] fertilizer, manure insecticides, and other miscellaneous costs referred to as A2 and family labour [FL] and rent and interest on land owned by the farmer were considered incorrect by many experts. The farmers and experts claim that the government has not been fair in the calculation of MSP applying A2+FL and instead should have followed what Dr, M S Swaminathan himself said, “MSP should be C2+ 50% with procurement, storage and distribution agri policies must base on conservation, cultivation, consumption, commerce.”[@msswaminathan] September 28, 2017.
During the election campaign to the five State Assemblies the Congress president Rahul Gandhi had used the agrarian crisis as a major electoral issue. He announced that if his party was elected, within ten days all farmers’ loans would be waived. The party won and the promise was implemented by the newly formed Congress governments in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in the first few days of government formation. One considers this as a populist short term move. Few months back, when in Karnataka the post poll alliance of the congress and JD[S] formed the government, a complete loan waiver to farmers was announced. Surprisingly the scheme is still a “work in progress” even after six months. Not to be outdone, the BJP ruled states are also loosening their purse strings by coming out with populist moves like loan waivers and other largesses. The BJP government in Gujarat for example a day after the newly elected Congress governments in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh waived farmers’ loans, waived off Rs 625 crore energy bill dues of rural users! Such populist moves are detrimental to the Indian economy as a whole.
Many activists and experts point out that instead of short term moves like loan waiver, what is needed is to provide farmers all the help and assistance like realistic minimum support price, elimination of middlemen and loan sharks, proper warehousing facilities, marketing networks, timely and permanent irrigation facilities. It was indeed pathetic to see potato and onion farmers getting a pittance for their produce and many even throwing out their onions and potatoes. The irony is that at the same time consumers were paying exorbitant prices.
There are reports about banks displaying the pictures on notice boards of defaulting farmers who would have taken loans worth a few thousands or lakhs like police stations displaying the photographs of wanted criminals. But banks do not display the pictures of the high and mighty politicians and business tycoons who owe crores. Even the names of major economic offenders, despite a Supreme Court order are not revealed! Do they not take loans to do more business and make more profits while the poor farmers take loans to feed us?