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India's farmers rise against mounting rural distress

Months after Kisan’s Long March in Maharashtra that took the country by storm, yet another march reached the capital.

By Lekshmi Parameswaran Dec 3, 2018
Months after Kisan’s Long March in Maharashtra that took the country by storm, yet another march reached the capital. Farmers from across the country thronged New Delhi as part of Kisan Mukti March demanding their rights from an administration has long neglected their demands. Faced with agrarian crisis the farmers demanded for a 21-day Parliament session which would lead to the passage of Farmers' Freedom from Indebtedness Bill, 2018, and The Farmers' Right to Guaranteed Remunerative Minimum Support Prices for Agricultural Commodities Bill, 2018.
 
Farmers from 24 states came to New Delhi on 29 November to participate in the two-day farmers' march for freedom. A sea of people converged at Ramlila Maidan in the evening. The next day they began a march to Parliament to present their demands but were stopped by the police. Farmers, young and old, took part with colourful posters and banners. There were women, too, whose husbands had committed suicide in despair. Students and theatre groups rallied behind the farmers.      
 
While the opposition parties joined the farmers and expressed their solidarity, the hypocrisy of the move was hard to miss – for India’s agrarian crisis is not just the result of the incumbent government’s policies but years and years of neglect by all the governments that were in power. It is estimated that in the past 21 years, more than 320,000 farmers have taken their lives due to increasing debt burden.  The flawed economic policies that have not taken into account the ground realities of Indian agriculture are to be blamed for the miseries that Indian farmers are faced with at present.
 
A report by CRISIL, a global analytical company has pointed out that the major reason behind the current agrarian crisis is the denial of rightful income to farmers.  It needs to be noted that Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) which works out the Minimum Support Price (MSP) in addition to providing an assured price to farmers is also tasked with keeping the inflationary pressures low. This means that the farmers are often unable to recover even their cost of production. The high-level Shanta Kumar Committee report had noted that crops with MSP account for only 28 per cent of the total value of agricultural output.
 
The rising inputs costs in terms of increasing fuel prices and fertilizer prices are also not taken into account. According to a report in Down to Earth, the share of fuel in the cost of cultivation per acre is between 10 per cent and 25 per cent and the rise in diesel price will significantly increase the input cost of paddy and other crops. Also, since the prices of fertilizers are decontrolled which means any depreciation is rupee value will make the imports costlier and  prove to be a heavy burden on farmers.
 
The much touted Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, the crop insurance scheme, has also not proved to be a success. Apart from the scheme benefiting insurance companies than farmers, the government has not been able to put a mechanism in place where there is proper coordination with the state governments and where all non-loanee farmers are also encouraged to join the scheme. The total area insured under the scheme decreased by 13.27 per cent from 2017-18 to 2016-17.  The enrolment of farmers has drastically reduced in the last two years with three-fourth of total claims and three fourth of total premium concentrated in only 25 per cent of the districts.
 
Adding to the woes is a new manual on drought management issued by the Union Ministry of Agriculture in December 2016 which states that the government will only provide funds to state governments in case of "severe" drought, not "mild". Such a yardstick makes it difficult for the farmers to even lead a hand to mouth existence.
 
Perhaps, some of these problems can be solved if the federal as well as the state governments join together to strengthen the agricultural market. At present India has only 8,900 markets regulated through various government agencies for selling of farmers’ produces. This means that at an average each village has a market within a radius of 12 km whereas the ideal situation should have been a market within a 5 km radius. In a country where connectivity and storage remain the biggest issues,  accessibility is the key. Agricultural markets are urgently in need of public sector investments and local bodies like panchayats should be involved in the functioning of weekly haats which at present operate without the required infrastructure.
 
The time has come for the authorities to wake up to the realities and hear the voices of Indian farmers loud and clear.
    
(The author is a Researcher with the Society for Policy Studies (SPS), New Delhi)

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