“Don’t sell your paddy just yet,” Mahesh Chandrakar advised fellow farmers at Chandrakuri village in Chhattisgarh’s Durg. “Wait for another month. You may get a higher minimum support price, even a loan waiver if the Congress wins as they have promised in their manifesto. And there is a strong possibility the Congress will come to power.”
Chandrakar, speaking three days before Chhattisgarh voted on November 20, was echoing the popular sentiment in these parts: the Bharatiya Janata Party, after ruling for 15 years, was on its way out.
“There is still some moisture in the soil and we can afford to wait until December 11,” Chandrakar continued, referring to the date the result of the Assembly election will be declared. “And even if the BJP comes back to power, we will still get the price we are getting now.”
His audience nodded in approval. Not that they needed much convincing. In recent weeks, reports have suggested that Chhattisgarh’s farmers are delaying selling their crops in the hope that the Congress will win and pay them more remunerative prices. The Times of India reported on November 19 that paddy procurement in the state has dropped by around 50% compared to last year. Only 4,67,438 metric tonnes of the crop was procured in the first 19 days of this season, which began on November 1, compared to 10,47,454 metric tonnes last year.
This is in large part due to Rahul Gandhi announcing that his party, if voted to power, would write off farm loans within 10 days and raise the minimum support price for paddy to Rs 2,500. At a rally in Mahasamund on November 13, the Congress president accused Chief Minister Rama Singh of betraying farmers by not keeping his promise to provide a minimum support price of Rs 2,100 for paddy. “He promised Rs 2,100 and gave only Rs 1,750,” Gandhi said. “This government can waive a debt of Rs 3,50,000 crore of 15 people, but not of the farmers of Chhattisgarh and India. Is this right?”
It won’t be an easy promise to keep. Raj Kumar Gupt of the Chhattisgarh Pragatishil Kisan Sangathan, a farmers’ organisation, said that a party can’t just “assume office and immediately announce a new MSP since there is a long process involved”. Moreover, a revised price is unlikely to benefit farmers who have already sold their produce.
“But the Congress, if it takes power, will have to waive off farm loans within 10 days as promised and that will directly benefit farmers,” Gupt said.
It’s a good bet for farmers to make, he said. “Chhattisgarh’s farmers get loans from Primary Agricultural Credit Societies that also procure their produce,” Gupt said. “So while paying them for the produce, the creditors deduct the loan amount and pay them the rest. We are telling farmers that if they hold on to the produce for a while longer, they might not have to pay back the loan. So it is worth the risk.”
But not so for small and marginal farmers who cannot afford to delay selling until mid-December. For them in particular, farming has already became a “loss-making enterprise” with high production costs and low returns, Gupt said. According to IndiaSpend, around 70% of Chhattisgarh’s population of 2.55 crore is engaged in agriculture, and nearly 46% of them have small and marginal landholdings. So severe is the agrarian distress that, according to the state government, at least 1,344 farmers committed suicide between April 2015 and October 2017.
‘They think we are fools’
In fact, farmers from across Durg, Mahasamund, Janjgir-Champa and Raigarh districts told hom Scroll.in spoke with complained about the ever-increasing costs of fertilisers, farming equipment, labour, diesel, electricity as well as the state government’s failure to successfully implement schemes such as the central crop insurance scheme Pradhan Mantri Bima Suraksha Yojana.
“There has been a drought-like situation in Mahasamund for four years now but it hasn’t bother the government at all,” said Sant Ram Dhruv, a farmer in Mahasamund’s Mungasher village.
In 2017, nearly 50,000 farmers held a rally in Rajnandgaon, Raman Singh’s constituency, demanding that the BJP government fulfil its 2013 campaign promises to farmers. They then decided to organise a Kisan Sankalp Yatra from Rajanandgaon to Raipur. “Scared of the consequences, the government immediately imposed Section 144 in eight districts and arrested prominent farmer leaders to crush our movement,” recalled Sudesh Tikam, a farmer leader who was among those arrested in the “unprecedented crackdown”.
To mollify the restive farmers, the BJP government announced a “bonus of Rs 300 per quintal” above the minimum support price for paddy this season. “They think we are fools who won’t understand why they announced the bonus scheme just two months before the election,” said Anil Kumar Sonwani, a farmer from Murlidi village in Janjgir-Champa. “This is an election strategy and we will not fall for it. It’s time to bring down this government and elect a new one. It is time for change.”
‘They are devoted to middlemen’
It is not just paddy farmers who are suffering. Those growing chickpea have been complaining about the government procuring their produce at way less than the minimum support price. Chhattisgarh produces around 4,00,000 tonnes of chickpea per year. “The Centre has announced Rs 4,400 as MSP for chickpea but it’s procured at Rs 2,900 to Rs 3,400,” said Tikam. “This is being done to benefit the middlemen who later sell it to the government for Rs 5,500 under the Chhattisgarh Swadisht Chana Vitran Yojana. They procure 60,000 tonnes of chickpea from middlemen at the rate of Rs 5,500. Why can’t they give the same price to farmers? Farmers are aware that this is all being done to benefit the middlemen.”
Swadisht Chana Vitran Yojana is a scheme for distributing 2 kg chickpea to each priority ration card holder across the state’s 85 Scheduled Caste blocks.
Such is the BJP government’s devotion to the middlemen, Tikam alleged, that it even threatened farmers in Dhantari region to stop sowing paddy twice a year and grow chickpea instead. “They were told their electricity and water supply would be cut off if they grew paddy twice,” he said. “Instead, they were asked to grow chickpea so as to help middlemen.”
In Mahasamund, farmers are also angry with the Raman Singh government for implementing Pradhan Mantri Bima Suraksha Yojana improperly. Lakshman Thakur, a resident of Jhalap village, said he has been trying for weeks to get the authorities implementing the central insurance scheme to assess the damage to his paddy crop. “They never responded to my request for some relief under the scheme but they regularly take the premium amount,” he said. “Why are they taking my money if they cannot help me now. I just hope the next government is more sympathetic to farmers.”
Suresh Mahakal, a farmer in Mahasamund’s Bagdua village, said all the BJP’s schemes have become liabilities. “They have given free mobile phones but who will pay for recharge?” he asked. “They have provided free scooters but who will pay for the fuel? They opened a bank account for me but I have to always keep Rs 1,000 in it so that it remains operational. They gave me a cheap gas cylinder but now want me to pay Rs 1,000 to fill it. Where will I get the money? They can’t even pay me back what I invest in my farm and then give all these sops to get my vote. I will no longer fall for their schemes.”
In any case, Mahakal claimed, the schemes are not designed to benefit people like him but “big industrialists”.
The farmers’ anger is not confined to Chief Minister Raman Singh. They hold Prime Minister Narendra Modi equally responsible for the “mess that his party has created in our state”. “Modi’s promises remind me of Rakhi in Karan Arjun who kept repeating ‘mere Karan Arjun aayenge’ [my Karan and Arjun will come] throughout the film but they don’t for years,” remarked a farmer at Hanoda village, while speaking about the prime minister’s promise to double farmers’ incomes by 2022. “Don’t expect his promises to materialise anytime soon.”