India

Farmers’ protest puts BJP on back foot

shubham sharma
[ June 08, 2017 ] The killing of five farmers in police firing in Madhya Pradesh is bad news for Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, 14 years after the Bhararitya Janata Party (BJP) swept to power. The state goes to polls next year and analysts and political commentators feel the current turmoil might turn the farming community against the ruling party. A nervous state government initially attempted to deny the complicity of the police after news broke that farmers agitating for better crop prices had been fired on in Mandsaur. It was only after taking measures that the local media took note of the farmers’ anger. When the protests took a violent turn, BJP leaders said that they were anti-social elements who passed off as farmers. The spontaneous protests (that began after similar protests in Maharashtra), were not led by a single union, whose office-bearers could have been called and made to say good things like ‘after assurances we are ending stir’. The farmers who are agitating for fair prices for the produce have gotten the impression that the state government was not serious. In fact, party leaders openly advocated strong police action against the agitators. The fire of farmers anguish cannot be doused merely by making promises. Monday"s Maharashtra bandh was a challenge to the government. If appropriate lessons are not learnt by the government, the lava of farmers" pain will create havoc for it. No one can deny that a huge amount of money is spent in conducting elections in India, both by the candidates themselves and political parties as well as the government (the Election Commission of India). India experiences the process of election almost every year whether State assembly elections or any by -election. Every election season, the flood of the freebies also begins. The real flood may fail but this flood never does. The people are suddenly swamped by a flood of promises. During election campaign, suddenly all the political parties irrespective of their ideologies remember the common man poor whose problems must be met urgently. Promises were made such as poverty eradication, employment generation and curbing corruption, free power and water, cheap food grain, farm loans, laptops and smart phones. Majority of the times their promises are unrealistic and irresponsible, though manifestoes are perfectly legal. The Election Commission is not question these. The matter had gone to the Supreme Court which also found itself faced with a great dilemma. In its judgment of July 5, 2013, it accepted that the manifesto promises cannot be construed as “corrupt practices” under the Representation of the People Act though they do “influence” the people and “shake the roots of free and fair elections”. It directed the EC to frame guidelines with regard to the content of manifestoes in consultation with all the recognized political parties. In deference to the SC directions, the EC issued guidelines for political parties to state the rationale for the promises in the manifestoes and the ways and means to meet the financial requirement for them. These guidelines were added to the model code of conduct as Part VIII. Now days, the most common election manifesto is waving of farmers loan. Recently, the UP government waived farmer’s loans which lead to dramatic protests by the farmers of Tamil Nadu , Maharashtra , Madhya Pradesh etc and a warning from the RBI Governor against loan waivers have once again brought farm loan write offs under public glare. Farm loans may be crop loans or investment loans taken to buy equipment. Both farmers and banks reap a good harvest when all is well. Farmers may be unable to repay loans only when there is a poor monsoon or natural calamity. Essentially, the Centre or States take over the liability of farmers and repay the banks. Waivers are usually selective — only certain loan types, categories of farmers or loan sources may qualify. For instance, in 2008, crop loans and investment loans were waived for marginal and small farmers (those with less than 2 hectares of land ownership); other farmers were only given a 25 per cent reduction. The recent waiver in UP is also a selective one. The Madras High Court has directed Tamil Nadu to offer a waiver to all farmers in the State. Agriculture in India has been facing many issues — fragmented land holding, depleting water table levels, deteriorating soil quality, rising input costs, low productivity. Add to this an unexpected and inexplicable change of the monsoon. Output prices may not be remunerative. Farmers are often forced to borrow to manage expenses. Also, many small farmers not eligible for bank credit borrow at unreasonably high interest rates from private sources. We have to work for making agriculture sustainable by reducing inefficiencies, increasing income, reducing costs and providing protection through insurance schemes. On the other hand, loan waivers cost tax payers. For instance, about 25 billion was spent on the loan waiver of 2008, as per the International Council for Research on International Economic Relations. The larger worry is that these costs may not be one-off, as politicians may wave this carrot to win elections.