Farmers at centre of Indian politics as elections begin

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India’s farmers and the poor stand to gain the most, irrespective of who comes to power, post the general elections 2019. Going by the manifestos of these two parties, it is clear that both are wooing farmers in a big way.

At an estimated 263 million, farmers indeed form a key voting bloc in the world’s largest democracy. In the recent assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, political analysts argue that it was the discontent among the farmers of the state that nudged the ruling party, BJP, out of power in all these three states, considered to be BJP bastions.

Clearly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rhetoric of doubling farmers’ income by 2022 has been just that – rhetoric! To double the income of farmers, the agriculture sector has to grow by 18 per cent plus each year, a target that remains as Utopian as implausible.

Election manifestos by both BJP and Congress cover a range of issues – from jobs to women safety as well as national security and countering terrorism. While the Congress manifesto, titled “Congress Will Deliver” was launched on April 2, the BJP manifesto titled “Sankalpit Bharat, Sashakt Bharat (Determined India, Empowered India) was released by Modi on April 8. A cursory glance of the two manifestos indicates that the Congress manifesto is majorly focused on economic reforms while the BJP has prioritised national security.

However, both these manifestos read similar when it comes to addressing farmers. The BJP has promised 6,000 rupees-a-year in income support to some farmers, besides pension and interest-free loans. The Congress’s plan involves waiving off farm loans, besides giving 72,000 rupees-a-year to 50 million of the nation’s poorest. Increasing farmers’ income, financially supporting them and eradicating the agrarian distress seems to be one of the top promises made by both Congress and the ruling NDA-led BJP.

BJP said in its manifesto that it would work towards Modi’s vision to double farmers’ income by 2022. The document also mentioned the recently launched Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojana to ensure financial support to marginal or poor farmers who own land up to 2 hectares.

The manifesto also promised to increase the scope of PM-Kisan to financially support more farmers in the country. The BJP manifesto also mentioned the launch of a full-fledged pension scheme for all small and marginal farmers in the country in a bid to ensure social security. It also promised short-term new agriculture loans up to Rs 1 lakh at zero per cent interest rate for 1-5 years on conditions of prompt repayment of the principal amount.

Congress has gone a step ahead, promising to waive outstanding farm loans in other states, similar to how it acted after coming to power in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh after the latest round of assembly elections. “Karz mukti” or freedom from indebtedness seems to be the focal point of Congress’s plans for the agricultural sector.

The Congress party’s manifesto also promises to prevent criminal proceedings against farmers for failing to repay debt. The cherry on top in its manifesto is the a separate “kisan budget”-a step which has never been witnessed before in the country. Congress party also promised to “re-design” the BJP government’s “failed” Fasal Bima Yijana or Crop Insurance Scheme, claiming that it has only enriched the insurance companies at the cost of increasing farmers’ woes.

Congress has also promised to pass the Right to Homestead Act to provide a piece of land for every rural household that does not own a home or own land on which a house may be built. It has further promised to restore the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation, and Resettlement Act, and the Forest Rights Act in its original form.

Indeed, the farming sector in India is in deep distress. Thanks to the expansion of Green Revolution, the country’s food grain production is touching in excess of 281 million tonnes. Farming may be supporting India’s growth rate and feeding the nation, but it is no longer sufficient to support the basic needs of the majority of India’s farmers. Often neglected by the governments, the distress on the Indian farm sector is finally showing.

India is also witnessing a major exodus from rural to urban areas, thereby putting pressure on the urban infrastructure. Falling market prices of food products, the mafia of the middlemen, weather challenges, outdated methods of farming, high cost of production and often low yields and poor income have plagued the country’s farming sector. What is evident that showcase government programs have failed to help farmers on the ground.

The government apathy to this sector is unfathomable as Indian economy is hardly in a position to foot the import bill for food grains — or to accommodate this vast migration in its cities. Little wonder then that both the political parties in the fray are wooing the farmers. The billion-dollar question however continues hanging over the nation and the farmers: Are financial sops and freedom from debts the answer? 

Only time will tell.

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