On Monday, farmers from over 21 states gathered in Delhi for a “kisan sansad”, or farmers’ parliament. They were part of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, an umbrella body of 178 farm organisations and unions. Their objective was to draw attention to the ongoing crisis in agriculture while demanding freedom from debt and an assurance from the government of fair prices for their produce.
One of the main leaders of the protest was Raju Shetti, a Lok Sabha member from Maharashtra. Shettti is part of the political party Swabhimani Paksha and previously worked with well-known farmer leader Sharad Joshi. Shetti contested the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party. But he quit the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in August, blaming the Union government’s “anti-farmer policies” for the decision.
Scroll.in spoke to Shetti to understand why so many farmers congregated in Delhi on Monday.
Excerpts from the interview:
Why is there so much farmer distress today?
There are many reasons for this. One of them is natural calamities, which have become more frequent nowadays. These cause great losses to the farmer. After the Green Revolution and with the entry of technology, farmers started investing a lot of capital in farming. Hence, when natural calamities occur, the farmer loses his entire investment. The farmer, of course, has no control over this. But the losses are borne by the farmer and the farmer alone. He alone is punished.
Earlier, natural calamities came once in a while. So, if the farmer received low prices for his produce for one year, he would adjust it against the other years. But now the farmer is confronted with two problems at once. One is that the frequency of natural calamities has increased. On the other hand, the government undertakes repeated market interventions to suppress prices.
In the past 50 years, the percentage of income a common man would spend on food has decreased. This means that the common man’s food intake has not increased in these 50 years. Income spent on food should have gone up. Spending on education, housing and transport is going up. But expenditure on food has gone down. This means crop prices have not kept up with inflation.
Under the Essential Commodities Act, 1955, the government got the right to intervene in the market. Using this, it has repeatedly suppressed prices [of agricultural produce].
Give us an example of how this is done.
If, say, prices of wheat start to rise, then the government buys wheat from abroad and dumps it in the market, which depresses prices. If our crops get good prices abroad, then the Indian government bans export.
This is how the government controls the market so that the common man remains happy. The government tells him it is controlling inflation. This is done to distract him from rising prices in other sectors like education and health.
See, earlier the government was responsible for things like roti, kapda and makaan [food, clothes and housing]. It would spend on health and education. But today, this has all been privatised. So the common man’s expenses in these areas have gone up. And to prevent him from realising this, the government ensures he gets cheap food.
So did the 1991 economic liberalisation have a role to play in this development?
After the reforms, food was made even cheaper and the prices of education and healthcare raised.
We have a tradition in our country. If we want to please the gods, we need to make a sacrificial offering. What is sacrificed? Chickens, cattle and goats are sacrificed. Have you ever heard of a tiger being offered as sacrifice? Why not? This is because a tiger will fight back. So sacrificing the weak to please the gods is an old tradition of ours.
Similarly, to please the common man, the government made the farmer a sacrificial offering. It suppressed farm prices as part of its policy. As a result of this, the prices offered were even less than the cost of inputs the farmer used.
As a result, the farmer did not benefit from the Green Revolution. His productivity went up but not his income. And he slipped further into the red.
To reduce his losses, he first mortgaged his fields, then his house. In the meanwhile, his family grew and his land was divided into smaller parcels. His costs went up and he was soon drowning in debt. He had no way to escape this debt trap. This is why farmer suicides are on the rise.
After 1989, there were two other developments. Till then, politics in India was based on issues. But the BJP started talking about the Ram temple [in Ayodhya], and then Mandal politics [over reservations for Other Backward Classes] came up. As a result, we were split on the lines of caste and religion. In rural areas, the focus lifted from the main issue of poverty and farmer income. This continued for 20 years to 25 years. The support [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi got [in the 2014 general elections] was not to build a Ram temple, nor did it have anything to do with the Mandal matter. The people voted him in so that he could develop the economy, usher in “acche din” [good times, the BJP’s election slogan].
Whatever Modi’s caste or religion may be, it does not matter. He promised to bring acche din and that is why people voted for him. But that promise has not been fulfilled.
What were your main demands to the government at the kisan sansad?
There are people with varying ideologies in our coalition. Someone is a Leftist, some are Rightists, some Centrists. Someone is an organic farmer, others do farming with mechanisation. We have all shades of farmer leaders.
Thus, we decided to have a general agreement on two demands. First, all farmers across India should have their loans waived off. This includes loans from village moneylenders, not just formal bank credit.
Our second demand: in the 2014 elections, Modiji promised farmers a sales price that was one and a half times his input cost. We want that implemented. This is something the Swaminathan Commission had also recommended.
How will the government implement this 1.5X formula?
The government measures input costs. Thus, we need a minimum support price that takes this into account for all crops.
Now you are thinking 50% profit is too much. This is a calculation done by Sharad Joshiji. He said the farmer makes a loss once every three years. This is either due to natural calamities or a market downturn. But this is a massive loss, the farmer is wiped out. Traders also incur losses because of markets slumps, but they benefit from high volumes and prices at other times. So, they earn a profit at these times and prepare themselves for the slump. But for farmers, no one helps him during a slump. And when the market rises, then – as I explained – the government intervenes to keep prices down. He does not gain even when the market is up. So, he breaks even in a good year but incurs heavy losses in a bad year. To make up for this, the farmer needs this 50% profit during the years he has a good crop.
If this minimum support price is fixed, then the farmer’s income gets fixed. Once this happens, he will never face a loss.
But does the government have the capacity to fix a minimum support price and buy each crop?
Maybe not. But if they want to leave the kisan at the mercy of the market, then no matter how high the prices rise, the government should not intervene. But the government cannot do that. Because it has to think of the common man.
Therefore, let the government set a minimum support price. Let the farmer sell his crop in the open market. Let the government pay the difference [between the minimum support price and the market price] to the farmer. You [Modi] talk of direct transfer all the time. Isn’t this better than the large number of subsidies people are sitting on?
Your second demand is a loan waiver…
We only want a one-time loan waiver. Then you set up a system where the farmer gets one and a half times his input cost. You need to do both together to help the farmer. If you give a loan waiver but do not fix prices, the farmer will accrue debt again. If you fix the price but do not give him a loan waiver, then all the farmer’s profits will be spent paying off his debt. That is why you need to do both at the same time.
But isn’t a loan waiver problematic? Will this not help big farmers more? Small farmers do not have much debt to begin with.
We have heard this language many times. Who is the big farmer? You accept that farming is making a loss. Then, the bigger your land holding, the greater your loss. Less land means less loss. These big farmers that you hear of are not farmers at all. They are just investing their black money in farming. Some are traders, others are politicians or industrialists. They use farming to hide their illicit earnings. So, to catch them we need to concentrate on their industries [not their farming]. If no black money is created, it will not come to farming. These people are tarring the farming profession.
Won’t the loan waiver set a bad precedent? Won’t the farmer then be incentivised to not pay back loans?
You have to warn the farmer, that you will not get another loan waiver if you go into debt again. We are fixing your income, after this there will be no more help.
But this does not help the landless farmer at all. He does not have any debt.
If he is a landless farmer, then he is taking someone’s land on a sharecropping basis. But we are including the sharecropper in this system too. He takes loans from the village moneylender. That is why we are of the opinion that even loans from moneylenders should be waived off.
Today, the farm labourer’s wages are low. Why? Because farms are running at a loss. If farming starts to turn a profit, his wages will naturally rise. The farmer-labourer relationship is like that between a cow and a calf. If the cow gives 20 litres of milk, the calf gets a litre to drink. But if the cow only gives two litres, then how will that be distributed between the calf and the owner of the cow?
The Swaminathan Commission has recommended land reforms. Why haven’t you also demanded that?
Not all of the Swaminathan Commission’s recommendations are correct.
But don’t you think land reforms will benefit a larger number of people? Especially landless farmers?
How? Land reforms are very difficult to bring about. Nothing will come of it. Only litigation will increase.
Like I said, as long as farming is in the red, large farmers suffer even greater losses. Land reforms will solve nothing.
But didn’t states that implemented land reforms benefit?
Like what? Some land reforms happened in Maharashtra and the state is suffering the most. Maharashtra has the highest number of farmer suicides. Western Uttar Pradesh also saw some land reforms. But even there, the situation is grave.
If more than 50% of Indians are involved in farming, then why does Indian democracy continue to ignore the farmer?
Farming is directly connected to food and everyone wants their food to be cheap. The problems of farmers are being ignored because the loot that is happening is benefiting everyone. For example, if a fruit truck overturns on the highway, everyone walks off with some fruit. No one stops to think of the loss the truck owner will suffer. This is the situation with farming.
Everyone benefits from the government keeping food prices low. So why would anyone oppose the government on this count?
This is a translation of an interview conducted in Hindi. The text has been edited lightly for clarity.