In late November 2018, amid rising agrarian distress, thousands of farmers from nearly 200 organisations across the country marched to Delhi to demand a special session of Parliament to address issues including higher and guaranteed government purchase price for their produce and freedom from indebtedness, including a total loan waiver.
The share of agriculture in India’s economy dropped over five percentage points to 12.2% over 12 years till 2016-’17, Livemint reported on December 3. In over four decades till 2015-’16, the size of an average farm plot fell 53% to 1.08 hectares, making farming less remunerative, the article added.
Farmers need a comprehensive, protective legislation given the distress caused by inefficient agriculture policies, severe indebtedness, impact of demonetisation, and price fall caused by a glut in agricultural production, among other issues, believes Yogendra Yadav, president of the Swaraj India party, national convener of Jai Kisan Andolan, a farmers’ rights movement launched by the party, and psephologist. Yadav, 55, led one of four contingents of farmers, from Bijwasan on the Delhi-Haryana border, to parliament during the recent farmers march.
Yadav is also a working group member of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, an alliance of farmer organisations, under whose banner the march was organised. The Committee developed the Kisan Mukti [farmer freedom] bills addressing farm indebtedness and guaranteed remunerative government purchase price after long deliberations over major issues affecting farmers across the country.
In April 2015, Yadav was expelled from the Aam Aadmi Party along with three other members, but soon after, co-founded the Swaraj India party in October 2016. The party is preparing to fight its first general election in 2019, an “extraordinary and unique” election and one that will determine the future of the republic, said Yadav.
In an interview with IndiaSpend, Yadav speaks about the challenges faced by farmers, the impact of the current round of state assembly elections on the upcoming parliamentary election, and the future for Swaraj India as it prepares to offer an alternative political vision.
One of Swaraj India’s objectives is to establish democratic governance that is transparent, accountable, participatory and decentralised. How does a young party like Swaraj India plan to achieve this vision, given the reluctance of politicians and bureaucrats to devolve power to local governments? We have already witnessed how this can play out, in Delhi.
This requires creating a political constituency for decentralisation of political power. While presence of various opposition parties and regionalisation of politics since the 1990s ensured political pressure, this was not comprehensive. There was concentration [of power] at the state government level, but the challenge of centralisation remains at the district and lower levels. We are engaged in politics of social movements, most of which are localised. This is a long-term project and one must not expect any overnight success.
What mistakes did the Aam Aadmi Party make? How would you avoid these with Swaraj India?
We have systematically avoided personality cult in the party, created an ideological policy document and created an organisation with internal democracy and transparency. We are the only political party that welcomes Right to Information and imposed it on ourselves before anyone else did. People can turn around and ask us if we have been successful even though we have followed these principles, and the fact remains that we have not achieved that sort of [electoral] viability.
It is only when we can achieve a modicum of [electoral] success in the eyes of the people, along with maintaining these principles, that we can make a true claim of offering an alternative. We are many steps away from that.
What is Swaraj India’s plan for the general election in 2019?
Although this happens to be the first general election for Swaraj India, it is an extraordinary and unique election because the challenge today is to save the republic. If we approach this election as a regular election where every political party is concerned about the market share it would grab, then we would be losing sight of the larger historic challenge.
We, as a party, have decided that we will put all our energy into the larger objective of defending the republic even if it means leaving our own electoral interest behind. We are coming out with an agenda of the real issues that must be raised and we would raise a volunteer force for it. They will not be just at the service of the party but at the service of defending the republic.
So, are you open to working with other opposition parties in a coalition, considering the massive task you have set for yourselves?
In our understanding, the mahagathbandhan [grand coalition of Opposition parties] is not an answer to the Bharatiya Janata Party. If it was, then the mahagathbandhan’s size would take care of the republic. Only reason why we need to step in is that while the mahagathbandhan has numbers, they do not have an alternative [vision] for the country that can generate hope. While the Narendra Modi-led BJP government must go, the mahagathbandhan must also be kept in check. So, there is a dual objective. We are not a part of the mahagathbandhan in any sense.
Despite widespread farmer distress, a recent survey showed that more farmers plan to vote for the BJP than the Congress in Madhya Pradesh (BJP 43%, Congress 39%) and Chhattisgarh (BJP 42%, Congress 36%). What, in your view, may prompt farmers to vote for the BJP, the incumbent for several terms in these states?
As of now, I would not conclude that BJP is ahead as these are pre-election surveys. The post-poll survey will provide a more robust picture. For me, the correct way is not to measure if the BJP is ahead of the Congress or not. We need to look at the swing away from the BJP compared to the situation in the last election, or two years ago, among the farmers and the general population.
I would not assume that the farmers are with the BJP. Based on my travels, there is enormous resentment against the BJP. We should await the post-poll survey, and of course, the election results to assess the situation.
Due to cow vigilantism and slaughter bans in several states, farmers have been reluctant or unable to sell their livestock, releasing them in the open instead. This causes them economic hardship and has also lead to stray cattle damaging standing crops. Demonetisation also affected farmers badly, admitted an agriculture ministry report recently [the ministry withdrew the report later]. Are these big election issues? What are the other issues that affect farmers?
When I travel to some of these regions to speak to farmers, one of the biggest problems is lack of remunerative prices. In Madhya Pradesh, the Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana [price deficiency payment scheme] has been a disaster from a policy planning perspective. Due to the inefficient implementation of the scheme, traders manipulated the market and brought prices down artificially. The result was that farmers received less than what they were supposed to even without this scheme. The government tried to compensate through a complicated method of difference between modal price [average price prevailing in the market] and government purchase price.
In the case of soyabean, the Bhavantar scheme led to farmers receiving less than the market rate, which made them furious. The compensation is still arriving eight or 10 months later.
Then there is the related issue of inadequate compensation for crop loss during drought. The Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana [Prime Minister’s crop insurance scheme] system and information base is so poor that while on paper they can show that a certain amount was paid to the farmer as compensation, in reality the recipients are not those who were affected. PMFBY [Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana] has flopped.
During my interactions, farmers mention that stray animals are destroying crops. Everyone believes that it is a micro-phenomenon, however it is a major macro phenomena that Indian agriculture is currently facing. In Rajasthan’s Sikar district, there are areas where farmers have stopped farming because of stray animals. The choice is between the entire family spending the night protecting the field or investing in a barb-wire fence, which is expensive for an average farmer. There is no official survey of the problem, but if someone were to conduct a survey, the results would be astonishing. We are dealing with a very big problem.
Now, cattle trade has come to a standstill due to which market price of livestock has dropped, leading to a fall in the value of a farmer’s wealth. This has been accompanied by a drop in milk prices.
As far as demonetisation is concerned, farmers say that ‘notebandi ke baad abhi tak kamar seedhi nahi hui hai’ [demonetisation has broken our back]. The local trader was unable to buy [produce from farmers due to lower reserves of cash] as usual, making life much tougher. November was the worst time for the farmer to bear a burden like demonetisation. It is a time when farmers are trying to sell their crops, it’s the wedding and sowing season. The government hurt the farmer by implementing demonetisation at this time.
Insurance companies across the country earned Rs 15,795 crore as profit in two years to 2017-’18 from the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana. Senior editor P Sainath has called it a bigger “scam” than the Rafale deal. What are your views on insurance schemes, since there is no denying that farmers are at the mercy of droughts, pests and disease? What are the alternatives to the scheme?
You cannot deny that farmers need protection against natural calamities, which are quite frequent and likely to be more so with climate change. The only question is what sort of protection should it be. Should be it one where the government assesses and compensates loss, or should it be a premium-based insurance model? Sadly, the previous crop loss model was very bureaucratic, and returns were arbitrary. I am not against an insurance model, although there are many farmers’ movements that are against it.
What must be asked is ‘who pays the premium, how much it is, and who insures’ under the PMFBY. Crop insurance is a three-decade old scheme with nearly five revisions already. Prime Minister Modi’s announcement is probably the sixth edition of the scheme. The problem is that he made the announcement look like he reinvented the wheel.
Although the PMFBY was an improvement from the previous version, it did not address the major issues. No insurance scheme provides universal coverage to the farmer. The previous scheme had a coverage of around 24%. When PMFBY was announced, it claimed to increase the coverage from 30% in the first year, 40% in the second, and 50% by the third year. In reality it jumped from 24% to 28%, and then dropped to 24%, essentially [falling] back to where it started.
But during this time, government expenditure has increased more than four times to nearly Rs 15,000 crore, which means this is profit going to insurance companies. There is a significant participation of private companies in PMFBY. Areas where private companies are providing crop insurance should not be affected any less by calamities. But it can be seen that there is a 10-percentage-point difference between claims paid by government-owned and private [insurance] companies. The private companies made more profit.
On ground, due to lack of improvement in the mechanism of identification of loss, the affected farmers did not benefit. The government argues that companies should make a profit in a normal year and overcompensate during a year when a natural disaster occurs. But this is a spurious argument.
If you look at states [where disasters occurred] like Uttar Pradesh (in 2016), Bihar (in 2017) and Tamil Nadu (in 2017), TN is the only exception where the claims paid under PMFBY were more than the premium paid. In some countries like the United States, in a year of natural disaster, insurance companies may go out of business. In TN, insurers paid one-third of the sum assured at a time of the worst drought in 140 years.
In the cases of UP and Bihar, affected by drought and flood, respectively, insurance companies have made a profit. Under such circumstances, Sainath is right. It is a scam.
Farmers across the country are demanding debt relief and guaranteed government purchase price of 50% above the cost of production. Although the government has increased the government purchase price for kharif and rabi, it is not translating to an increase in income for farmers. Often, limits on procurement force farmers to sell to private traders. What are the challenges that the government and farmers face in terms of income growth in agriculture?
In the bills that we [All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee] have drafted, we have provided details. Providing farmers better prices is not merely about hiking government purchase price; it is about fixing it at an appropriate level, ensuring wider procurement, sufficiently funded market intervention for crops that the government cannot and should not procure, import-export policy based on farmers’ need rather than traders’ profit, crop loss compensation on a universal basis, and direct income support wherever necessary. It is a bouquet of policies which enables assured income for farmers.
We are not simply asking for a loan waiver. With the proposed bill, we have principally addressed the issue of private money lenders, from whom much of the loans are taken. The one-time loan waiver is necessary not as a solution, but as a supplementary measure to increase farmers’ incomes. It would be a waste of public money if the loans are waived without supplementing farmers’ income. But without such a waiver, the farmers will not benefit. Both of these must happen to provide farmers with a clean slate. We also need a permanent mechanism through which farmers can be protected from indebtedness.
Is it possible to unify farmers across the country to vote on issues of common concern as a block, given the widespread farm crisis? Do farmers finally vote by factors like caste and religion rather than on farm distress?
Creating a political block of Indian farmers has been a historic challenge. It is the biggest political project in contemporary India. According to classical Marxist theory, there is a difference between a class in itself and a class for itself; farmers are a class in itself. Currently they are divided by region, crops, climate, class, caste, religion and political ideologies.
It took us [All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee] time to think about the demands that unify the farmer, and arrived at these two [government purchase price and debt relief]. The challenge was to find a few core issues, simplify communication, provide a common platform like AIKSCC for organisations representing different groups like landless and land-owning farmers. There has not been a case before when there has been a front for farmers where organisations of agriculture labour and land-owning farmers have both been represented. Although these are not sufficient, it is a step in the right direction to organise farmers as a political block.
In September 2018, you were detained in Chengam, Tamil Nadu while going to meet farmers protesting a proposed expressway. In response, you said that “Gandhian disobedience is the only way out, it seems.” But, given that marching farmers were tear-gassed and doused with water cannons in New Delhi on October 2, do you believe that a meaningful engagement with governments across India is possible?
There is a possibility because unlike many countries, farmers have strength in numbers in India. In a democracy, with an overwhelmingly large group in terms of numbers, the only aspect to think about is to convert this sleeping majority into an awakened majority. It is here that Gandhi ji was right. Non-violence is not merely a moral principle, it is the best pragmatism. It is only when the farmers can assert their strength in a non-violent way, that they can continue with agitation and gently assert their weight. The real challenge then is to organise farmers into a political constituency.
Given that the general election in 2019 closely follows assembly elections in major BJP-ruled states such as Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, do you believe the two elections will be fought on different issues? Do you expect different results from the Assembly and Parliament elections?
There is this spurious metaphor of a semi-final that is going around. To assume that somehow these select representative states will mirror national outcome has no basis in evidence. But these three states are critical in that they will give a glimpse into what will happen in the Hindi heartland. In 2014, the entire Hindi belt voted one way. The BJP with allies won 203 out of the 226 seats. Within these three states, they won 62 out 65 seats. So, the limited question that can be asked is will the assembly election results foreshadow the parliamentary election result in these three states? The answer is yes.
The election outcome of these three states can give a broad sense of whether the Modi wave is continuing or has ebbed, specifically the popularity of the BJP in the Hindi belt. In electoral calculus, the rest of India does not matter this time, as the BJP may gain in the East and lose out in the West and South, in the non-Hindi areas, which may not make any difference [to the tally]. The extent of their losses in the Hindi belt will be their national loss in the [general] elections.
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.