It is rabi sowing season in Madhya Pradesh’s Mandsaur district and Jagdish Patidar, 62, has been preparing the six hectares of farmland he and his brothers own to grow wheat, garlic, gram and mustard. On October 27, the farmer was working in his field, along with his wife and the couple of labourers he had hired, when he was told of visitors at his home in Chillod Pipliya village in Malhargarh tehsil. He jumped on his motorcycle. He found former sarpanch Ashok Patidar and some other villagers waiting in his courtyard. They had come to talk about the state’s Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana for the soybean crop the villagers had recently harvested.

Jagdish Patidar said he had already sold his produce since waiting for procurement under the Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana would have delayed sowing. The visitors said they had done the same. The scheme, they all agreed, was a disappointment.

Across Mandsaur, found that farmers were angry with the Bharatiya Janata Party government for failing to arrest falling crop prices and employing “temporary fixes” such as the Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana to tackle the problem. This does not bode well for the ruling party, given the Assembly election is barely a month away.

The Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana was announced by Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan to contain the violent protests over falling crop prices in June 2017. Amidst the protests, six Mandsaur farmers were shot dead by the police. Four of the farmers were from Malhargarh. Among them was Kanhaiyalal Patidar, Jagdish Patidar’s younger brother. Kanhaiyalal Patidar’s family has since left the village, making Jagdish Patidar responsible for working their land. He has now become an influential voice as Malhargarh’s farmers have rallied against the state government as well as traders whom the farmers have accused of forming a cartel to keep the prices low.

All this seems to have fed into an anti-BJP sentiment, with many farmers spoke with saying it was time for change. “It has to be the Congress,” said Ashok Patidar. “We did a great disservice to the nation and the state by voting for the BJP in the past. My vote will go to the Congress. They will sweep this election if Jyotiraditya Scindia is named the chief ministerial candidate.”

Dheeraj Patidar, a BJP leader in Mandsaur’s Budha village, agreed that his party was in a difficult position. “I will never vote for Congress, but other BJP supporters might do so,” said the young man who described himself as a “hardcore supporter” of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s hardline ideological parent. “I think the people are bored of this government, the chief minister and the MLAs. These faces have been around for way too long.”

More worryingly for the BJP, most of Mandsaur’s farmers are members of the Patidar community, which led last year’s protests and has traditionally bankrolled the ruling party.

Mandsaur comprises eight Assembly constituencies, all but one of which were won by the BJP in the 2013 Madhya Pradesh election. Dheeraj Patidar, the BJP leader, feared the anger would “reverse” this election.

A memorial to Kanhaiyalal Patidar, one of the six farmers killed during last year's agitation, in Chillod Pipliya. Photo credit: Akash Bisht

‘Who will pay us if Shivraj loses?’

The Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana is a complicated scheme, said Jagdish Patidar. The farmers must register on the scheme’s website, following which state officials conduct an onsite verification of their sown area. They then get text messages informing when they must take their produce for sale at the local market. If the day’s average market rate is less than the Minimum Support Price fixed by the Centre, the state will pay the difference. On October 27, for example, the average sale price of soybean at the Pipliya mandi was Rs 2,900 a quintal as against the Minimum Support Price of Rs 3,399. Farmers who sold their produce that day will get a “bonus” of Rs 500 per quintal. But the money would be credited into their bank accounts only later. This would leave the farmers strapped for cash just when they have to sow the rabi crops.

On top of this, the farmers complained, the scheme was only rolled out on October 20, quite late for this year’s soyabean crop, .

“Had I waited till October 20 to sell, I wouldn’t have been able to sow for the next season in time which would have brought down my yield,” said Govind Patidar, a farmer in Chillod Pipliya. “Timing is everything in farming. Look around the village, do you see any farmer home? They are all working in the fields. That is why we sold our produce before the scheme even began.”

In this region, the farmers have a limited window to sow rabi crops before the soil loses the moisture from the monsoon. Missing the window would mean that farm yields would suffer.

Most of the farmers spoke with in Chillod Pipliya and neighbouring villages said they did not know anyone who had registered for the Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana.

At the Pipliya mandi, farmers and traders said the scheme had started disastrously. The farmers who brought their produce for sale on October 20 were told they could not sell because the Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana website was not working. AL Pandey, Mandsaur’s chief marketing officer who oversees the scheme’s implementation, confirmed that the portal was down until October 23.

The farmers claimed the scheme was suspended for a while earlier this year after they protested against the traders cutting prices as well as big farmers colluding with government officials and traders to illegally claim money. “A farmer or trader would fudge the records to show a particular piece of land was under Bhavantar,” said Bhagat Patidar from Rainara village. “They would then produce a receipt from the trader showing the crop had been sold under the scheme and take the money.”

Their protests have not had much effect, though, as the traders have returned to their unscrupulous ways, the farmers alleged. “Before Bhavantar, soybean was selling at Rs 3,200 per quintal and now the price has dropped to Rs 2,900,” said Bhagat. “Why doesn’t the government address this? Why can’t they cancel the licences of traders buying below MSP? Rs 500 paid under Bhavantar is good, but when will we get it? What if Shivraj loses the election? Who will pay us then? Why can’t they give us Rs 500 at the time of the sale?”

According to The Indian Express, 68% of urad dal produced in Madhya Pradesh last year went for less than the Minimum Support Price, yet the farmers did not receive any compensation under the Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana. “In the case of soybean, the state’s prime kharif crop, the percentage of production benefiting from this scheme is even lower – only 18.5%, despite its [average sale price] being 12% below MSP. And for maize, groundnut and moong, the coverage is even poorer,” the daily reported. “In sum, [Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana] is not inclusive, covers less than 25% of the farmers’ loss, involves too much micromanagement by government officials and is prone to market manipulation.”

At the Pipliya mandi, the average sale price of soybean this week was Rs 2,900 per quintal as against the Minimum Support Price of Rs 3,399. Photo credit: Akash Bisht

‘We don’t want temporary fixes’

In Budha village, the farmers said they have no use for such “temporary fixes” as the Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana. They need long-term measures to make farming a viable livelihood option. “Instead of doling out Bhavantar like a favour, they should look for solutions that address the farm distress across India,” said Govind Patidar, a farmer.

These farmers are angry with not just their state government; they called Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise of doubling their incomes by 2022 a joke. “We don’t even recover what we invest and he is talking about doubling our incomes,” said Tulsiram Patidar, a local Congress leader who works at the Pipliya mandi.

Until a few years ago, Tulsiram Patidar claimed, farming in this region was profitable, even when they grew labour-intensive crops such as cumin, isabgol, coriander. Many farmers could take loans to fund their children’s education, invest in land or farming machinery or renovate their homes. “Because we were confident we would be able to repay the loans within the stipulated time,” he added. “However, after prices dropped drastically in the last few years, our profits dried up and our debts grew.”

Rising diesel and fertiliser prices have only worsened the situation. “I am going to give farming another year,” said Ashok Patidar. “If there is still no improvement, I will give it up and migrate to some city for work.”

Pandey, the chief marketing officer, said the rising fertiliser prices have greatly hurt the farmers. “The price of DAPMPK, a fertiliser widely used in this area, has jumped from Rs 1,200 to Rs 1,400 since March,” he said. “Prices of POTAS and MPK have witnessed a steep increase as well. There is every reason for the farmers to feel distressed.”

In the past few years, Mandsaur’s farmers have increasingly come to see farming as an untenable option, Pandey said. Those who could afford it have been sending their children to study and work in big cities, only to now realise jobs are limited. “I finished my civil engineering degree from Indore in May,” said Suraj Patidar, 24, from Budha. “My father took a loan of Rs 6 lakh for my education. But for six months now, I have been sitting at home, jobless. I can see my father’s pain. There are so many like me. In fact, from my class, not one student is employed because no company came for campus recruitment.”

Women labourers at the Mandsaur mandi. Photo credit: Akash Bisht

‘Farmers should be happy’

The Congress has been working to tap into this resentment and its supporters are confident of finally dethroning the BJP after 15 years. They speak glowingly of the “historic response” to the party chief Rahul Gandhi’s June 6 rally in Mandsaur which, they claimed, turned the tide. “I think he broke Indira Gandhi’s record by getting such a huge crowd,” said Bhagat Patidar, who claimed to have been a BJP supporter until recently. “The rally rejuvenated the party’s workers in the entire Malwa region. Then, Scindia’s rally was also attended by thousands of people. If the Congress declares him the candidate for chief minister, it will be clean sweep.”

YS Sisodia, the BJP’s sitting Mandsaur MLA, is unperturbed, insisting that talk of a “Congress wave” is overblown. As for farm distress in the region, he claimed it’s a “non-issue”. “We gave compensation and jobs to the families of victims of the firing,” he said. “Who gives Rs 1 crore compensation? Congress thinks it can win on this issue but it won’t. Our work will speak for itself. If these farmers have so much problem with our policies, why don’t they go and sell their produce in neighbouring states?”

The legislator claimed crop prices have fallen across India and the BJP should not be blamed for it.

Asked about the farming community’s complaint that the BJP government has failed to generate jobs for their children, a visibly agitated Sisodiya said they have laid new roads with toll booths that employ several youth.

Is manning a toll booth the most a highly educated youth can aspire to? “At least we are giving them something,” Sisodia replied. “They should be happy with that.”

When the legislator’s response was shared with some farmers at the Mandsaur mandi, they retorted, “Will he send his son to work at the toll booth?”