Even as Uttar Pradesh and Punjab are gearing up for the assembly elections, there is a serious and lingering crisis stalking the village landscape and agricultural fields of these two states, with demonetisation adding up to their woes. Farmers from these states and Haryana, which borders western UP and Punjab, arrived in Delhi this week to speak out their angst while claiming that the current BJP regime is simply refusing to even talk to them. Indeed, the sudden waiver of import duty on wheat, reportedly at the behest of international monetary and big business lobbies, will hit the farmers really hard even as this crop season is fast turning into a massive man-made tragedy across the rural landscape.
Farmers are staging protest actions across the two states. They plan to hold a huge rally in March in Delhi, especially because the farmers in South India are currently not able to participate due to compelling local issues. With the code of conduct to be enacted soon in UP and Punjab by the Election Commission, the farmers are adamant that they will continue to fight and protest in this election season. “We don’t belong to a political party. However, we will vote against those who are hell-bent on destroying the farmers, especially small farmers,” said Yudhvir Singh, leader of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU).
Thousands of farmers are unable to sell their produce due to the financial crisis as a result of demonetisation and cash crunch, with sugar cane farmers severely hit in UP, even as big corporations and factories refuse to buy their produce. In western UP, in Shamli, Saharanpur, Muzaffarnagar and Baghpat, which are politically very important regions, this season and the month of November-December is crucial for the farmers in terms of harvesting, sowing seeds for the new crops and marriages. Digital economy or plastic money is all but absent in this green revolution belt. Farmers need daily cash for their daily expenses in this hectic season; for harvesting, transportation, tractor loads, animal fodder, maintenance, seeds and fertilisers, apart from the compulsions of the marriage season.
“With the cooperative banking system having collapsed after demonitisation, and no other source of money, we have been stabbed in the back in full public view with no justice in sight,” said a farmer. “With the waiver of import duty on wheat favouring foreign lobbies, they have twisted the knife further into our bodies. This is like murder in broad daylight.”
Thousands of handloom workers have lost their jobs because the market is not accepting their produce an their employers are not able to pay them. Starvation stalks the poor workers in many parts of western UP.
Many of them are being forced to go for distress sale at abysmally low prices, even as the central government’s betrayal on the minimum support price has been widely condemned across the rural India. Sugarcane and wheat prices have gone down below the 50 percent mark in many places. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had, in several speeches before the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, made promises concerning the minimum support price. After the elections, farmers contend, that he has not uttered the word even once, even while choosing to look the other way every time the farmers have raised the issue. “He is not even ready to talk to us,” said Yudhvir Singh, leader of the Bharatiya Kisan Union. “Farmers have always been crushed and they have always suffered under all regimes. But this government is not even ready to talk to us.”
He said that during the UPA regime, when the government was trying to import wheat at a higher price, the then prime minister, Manmohan Singh, invited the farmers for a dialogue, and raised the price of wheat as per their demand. The UPA government also waived off the farm loan worth thousands of crores which directly benefited farmers across the country. However, this government is out to destroy the agriculture sector at the behest of big business lobbies.
While the last government did make progressive pro-farmer changers in the Land Acquisition Act, the first thing the Modi regime did after coming to power was to introduce draconian amendments in the Act so as to benefit big business and destroy the agriculture sector and farmers, by forcibly acquiring their land for special economic zones and tax havens for big industrialists,Yudhvir Singh
Rakesh Tikait of the BKU, who leads the farmers in western UP, said, “The government has given tax concessions to industries and waived loans worth hundreds of crores for industrialists. We demand a farm loan waiver of Rs 100,000 crore.” The BKU is demanding that drought affected farmers of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra must be compensated at the rate of Rs 25,000 per acre.
Due to the ban on beef and slaughter of cattle, thousands of farmers and traders, across the caste and religion divide in Maharashtra, have been pushed to the wall. Even distress sale of cattle is not possible in the current circumstances, while cow vigilante groups hound the cattle traders.
Indeed, the buffalo meat processing industry in UP has been hit so badly that around 20,000 workers might lose their jobs, even as unit after unit is shutting down due to demonetisation. Most workers in these units, which largely belong to the Muslim community, are Dalits, who constitute the most marginalised section in the state. UP is one of the biggest buffalo meat suppliers along with Punjab, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. However, the meat processing industry is currently in dire straits, hitting both Muslims and Dalits involved in the industry.
In Punjab, the flourishing textile industry finds itself collapsing after demonetisation. According to reports, 30 textile processing units have shut down in Amritsar due to the cash crunch, while others are running at just about 25 percent capacity. These units are the main source of economic infrastructure for around 800 other textile units involved in embroidery, spinning, weaving and warp-knitting.
This government has turned India into a dumping yard of cheap agricultural imports. As a result of cheap dumping, Indian small farmers are not receiving a fair price for their produce and are forced to sell at a fraction of their actual cost. The pressure of debt is piling up on Indian farmers forcing them to commit suicide. The recent decision to remove import duty on wheat is another example of complete disregard for India’s small farmers. This decision, taken at a time when farmers have more or less completed their sowing, is cruel and will lead to distress sale during the harvest season.Ajmer Singh Lakhoval, President BKU Punjab unit
“The government has reckoned wheat production at 93.5 million tonnes. Now, even if this falls, it is still sufficient to meet the national consumption demand of 87.0 million tonnes. Hence, this removal of import duty does not make sense, apart from benefitting the Australian Wheat Board. The rationale of a fall in international prices of wheat due to record harvest must be understood beyond the optics. It is not that farmers abroad are producing and selling at a cheaper rate. The reality is that those governments are providing massive subsidies to their farmers and providing them social security benefits. We have no such safety net for our farmers,” he said.
Import duties have a direct impact on local production, according to the farmers. Lower import duties increase foreign dependency and hampers the country’s self sufficiency and food security. For instance, the BKU contends, that the lower import duty on edible oil has given a blow to local sunflower, mustard and coconut oil production and has rendered edible oil production unviable for local farmers.
Agriculture experts argue that the impact of two decades of neo-liberal policies promoting free trade and liberalisation, while favouring foreign companies, have been devastating on farmers who have been growing oil seeds and pulses. The uncontrolled import of palm oil and soya oil since 1994 has destroyed the backbone of the farming community and small farmers. Tragedy has thereby come to stalk the farming sector when it comes to pulses, oil seeds and sugar. Now, wheat growers are going to face the brunt of the waiving of import duty.
With UP and Punjab elections round the corner, farmers are bound to vote against the BJP. The Jats of Haryana took up a violent agitation seeking reservation; they are angry at the BJP government which “betrayed them” in Haryana. This state borders western UP and Punjab with a dominant Jat population.
During the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP had successfully done communal polarisation due to the Muzaffarnagar riots, thereby winning most seats in western UP where it had no political presence earlier. “This time communal politics will not work here,” said Jitender Hooda, BKU leader from Muzaffarnagar. “Jats have seen through the BJP’s game. They have been used and discarded. The agriculture crisis has hit them so hard that the communal agenda will not work. If Ajit Singh’s party, the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Congress are able to make an alliance, they will sweep the polls. Even the Bahujan Samaj Party will not be able to make a breakthrough if the alliance comes through.”
Significantly, a huge farmers’ rally was held this week in the area in which Sharad Yadav of Janata Dal (U), Sharad Pawar of the NCP and Ajit Singh participated, among other politicians. Observers feel that politicians are closely watching the shifting scenario and feel that the local pulse has drastically turned against Modi. Western UP has traditionally been a RLD stronghold since the time of Charan Singh, with a sizeable presence of the Congress in the Saharanpur and Shamli districts. The Samajwadi Party and BJP never had a strong presence in this region. Apart from Jats and Dalits, Muslims constitute a huge electoral base here.
Indeed, with the farm crisis and demonetisation having hit the farmers where it hurts, the rules of the game might change in Punjab and UP. With farmers up in arms, and farmer agitations stalking the landscape, this might spell bad news for the BJP, especially Modi, who is leading the fight in UP with no chief ministerial candidate being projected.