The farmers’ long march to further distress
RN Bhaskar — Nov 22, 2018
The chickens are finally coming home to roost. Thousands of farmers in Maharashtra have started a long march from Thane to Azad Maidan in Mumbai. Included in this march are farmers and tribals from North Maharashtra, Vidarbha, Ahmednagar and other parts of the state.
Their demands include
- Implementation of the Swaminathan Committee Report
- Complete farm loan waiver
- Drought compensation
Of the three listed above, only the third makes immense sense. The first two may find widespread support, but could end up destroying the farmers and tribals in much the same way that excessive drinking of liquor does. But more on that later.
Take the most reasonable of demands first. Maharashtra’s policymakers deserve to be put on trial. There are many legal grounds for doing so.
Look at the last column. Maharashtra is easily the worst performing state in terms of irrigation of total cultivable land. It could offer irrigation to just 18% of its arable land compared to higher numbers for every other state.
The reason for this isn’t hard to find. If one analyses the areas where irrigation reaches, it is usually those where (politican-favoured) sugarcane and cotton are grown. Somehow to protect the interests of sugarcane and cotton farmers, the state has allowed two crimes to take place.
First, it did not allow irrigation to reach other areas. When one set of people usurp the rights of tohers, it becomes a criminal offence. And when farmers commit suicide, it is tantamount to abetting murder.
The second crime is encouragement of tubewells and the pumping out of groundwater. Wherever cotton (and sugarcane) is grown outside of irrigated areas, it is usually by drawing copious amounts of water through tubewells. Both crops are water guzzlers. In other words, the state has abetted depletion of groundwater resources as well. That in turn makes other regions drought prone, leaving little water for drinking as well. If that is not criminality, someone will have to try extremely hard to redefine the definition of the word.
The farmers are right to demand compensation for drought. But the organizers should take care to exclude those farmers who have the benefit of irrigation. Else, the agitation leaders will be allowing the favoured farmers to get a second favour – getting drought relief even when they are not eligible for it.
The agitation leaders should also file criminal charges against the state’s policymkaers who have governed (or otherwise) this state for the past six decades. Otherwise the agitation will not be significantly relevant. Compensation for a year against penury of a lifetime is too insignificant a redressal.
The other two demands
The other two demands are too short-sighted.
Consider the figures given out by Nabard in its latest report on agricultural earnings. Average income from cultivation for farmers was only Rs.3,140 per month. In many states, farmers got less than one third this amount.
The moment you allow bureaucrats to work out the costs of cultivation, they will disallow several costs. Then even if you promise the farmers 150% of costs, the farmers will get almost nothing. What the agitation leaders should be asking for is 50% of the market price of the agricultural produce. That means removing the stranglehold of middlemen. Even if you double farm incomes, getting double these pathetic amounts will amount to nothing. It should be 50% of market prices at least. That is what Verghese Kurien of the milk revolution demanded and got. This is what all farmers of all crops should get.
Then take the third demand – total waiver of all agricultural loans. That may sound nice, and may enjoy widespread appeal. But the moment the farmers get this, you can be sure that banks will stop lending to farmers from next year. That will put them into the clutches of moneylenders again. It will be leaping off the frying pan into the fire.
The farmers deserve sympathy. They need to be supported by sensible policies. Unfortunately, the agitation leaders have made more demands of the type that will harm farmers, and less of the type that will protect farmers in the years to come. The less said about the state’s policymakers, the better.