The farmer’s ‘mann ki baat’

farmer oped
The father of a farmer in Haryana, Bijender Mor, who committed suicide, holds up the picture of the son with his wife. Picture credit: Vidya Venkat (The Hindu)

[First published in The Hindu dated May 13, 2015]

Everybody has an opinion on farmers these days. Be it politicians, policymakers, editors or economists. In fact, ever since the Parliament reconvened for the Budget session on April 20, the deteriorating condition of farmers has clearly dominated discussions. But even as the issue of agrarian crisis, farmer suicides (especially after >Gajendra Singh’s suicide in a New Delhi rally) and the controversial land Bill rocked Parliament, one question nobody asked was: what did the farmer have to say?

As the >Budget session was on, during a visit to Haryana this correspondent noticed how farmers had a strong sense of pride; the shame and guilt attached to the act of taking one’s own life meant they would rather die in the privacy of their fields. One such case was that of Bijender Mor, a Jat farmer, all of 27 years, from Baroda village in Sonepat district. Unlike Gajendra Singh, he consumed pesticide in his field and left no suicide note behind. Mounds of wheat piled up in the corner by the wall greeted my eyes when I entered his house. “It is of no use to anyone. This year’s harvest is of such low quality, that we cannot even use the grains to feed ourselves, forget selling it in the mandi,” his mother said. On March 9, Bijender went to check whether his 20-acre wheat field had not been destroyed by the rains, which arrived unexpectedly. He went late in the afternoon and never returned. And this is not the only instance of farmers dying across the country, either by committing suicide or from heart attacks following the shock of rabi crop loss.

Modi’s ‘Mann Ki Baat’

Yet in his radio address ‘Mann Ki Baat’, aimed at farmers and aired on March 22, Prime Minister Narendra Modi >dedicated a majority of the 30-minute broadcast to convincing the nation’s farmers on the merits of the proposed land Bill. There was no talk of steps taken to address farmer’s livelihood concerns or relief measures to address crop damage. Mr. Modi said that he had asked his ministers to take a situational review of the agrarian crisis around the country and State governments would take steps to address this. But two months since his radio talk, very little progress has been made so far as relief and compensation goes. This is in contrast to the >alacrity shown by the government in its response to the earthquake in Nepal.

Even as reports about farmer deaths started appearing in the press, Haryana’s agriculture minister O.P. Dhankar, the BJP’s former Kisan Morcha leader, >accused farmers who attempted suicide of being cowardly criminals undeserving of government aid. In 2012, when the State of Gujarat saw a rise in the phenomenon of farmer’s suicides, R.C. Faldu, BJP’s Gujarat president, had also made a similar remark blaming farmers for their fate when their crops failed.

What farmers say

In his radio address Mann ki Baat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told farmers that the amendments to the 2013 land law favoured the farming community as it guaranteed compensation up to four times the nominal rate to rural farmers.

At one of the “ hookah pe charcha” gathering of farmers in Haryana, Saab Singh from Sevli village retorted: “Suppose I do not want to give my land at all and want to continue farming. What then? Why should I accept any amount of money, however high, if I fundamentally disagree with the logic of acquiring farmland?”

With regards to consent, Mr. Modi was fairly clear in his radio address that consent-seeking and conduct of social impact assessments led to considerable delays in the acquisition process and was therefore not desirable. Mr. Modi also promised jobs to those who lose their lands to development projects. In the Bill passed by Lok Sabha on March 10, the amendment to section 31, sec (2) clause (h) says that after the words “affected families”, the words “compulsory employment to at least one member of such affected family of a farm labourer” must be inserted.

Rajpal Sevli, leader of the Bhoomi Adigrahan Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti in Haryana says that such a provision would undoubtedly lead to clashes between land-owning farmers and labourers. “If a farm owner loses his land, he loses his source of income. What is he supposed to do after that? The way the bill has been framed, it will only lead to conflict between various sections of farmers who will either lose land or livelihood or both following acquisition.

Raj Kumar from Juan village, Haryana, says, “In my house, 12 people, from three families of relatives, work on a four-acre field in which two acres belong to us, and the rest is taken on rent. Now if this land is acquired and only one person of a family gets a job, what are the rest of us supposed to do?” “Zameen ke badle zameen do,” (give us cultivable land in return for land acquired) he says, but no such provision exists in the new land Bill.

What happens when a farmer goes to court when land is acquired without consent? Rajpal says that most of the times when the government acquires land citing “public purpose” the court’s ruling is in favour of the government. In Haryana, where pressures of urbanisation have resulted in the large-scale acquisition of farmland, such instances are too many. In 2005, farmers from eight villages – Asawarpur, Sevli, Pattla, Jakholi, Badhkhalsa, Badhmalik, Khevra, and Bahalgad – lost their land to the Haryana Urban Development Authority under the 1894 Act. Despite appealing to the Punjab and Haryana High Court, the farmers who lost land have neither received full compensation nor have they received any alternative employment. “Many of these lands are simply lying unused,” Rajpal says.

Rohtas, one such farmer who lost land in Asawarpur, Sonepat, had travelled all the way to Jantar Mantar in 2012 to demand that the United Progressive Alliance government allow land lying unused for more than five years to be returned to farmers. “After a great struggle, we managed to get that one line included in the 2013 Act, but even before we could enjoy its benefits, the provisions are sought to be changed,” he said.

Cheap labour for industry

In the NDA government’s scheme of things, farmers and farm labourers must eventually be absorbed into industry as cheap labour, a vision recently articulated by NITI Aayog vice-chairman Arvind Panagariya. Forty-eight percent of India’s total workforce is employed in agriculture and allied services. The million-dollar question is whether the government can engineer such an economic transition without hurting the interests of the farming community which is likely to bear its brunt the most.

The NDA government presently enjoys the might of majority in Lok Sabha. But as it doesn’t have a majority in the Rajya Sabha, the Bill has now been referred to a joint panel of the Parliament headed by senior BJP leader S.S. Ahluwalia. The decision followed resistance to its passage by the Opposition in both Houses of Parliament. For all we know, the government might even succeed in passing the proposed amendments to the 2013 land Bill in a future parliamentary session, if held jointly. But should that happen, the NDA should not forget the summer of 2004 when the country was riding on high economic growth rate to the tune of 8 percent. Farmers reeling under the impact of drought got no support from the Centre. Food grains lay rotting undistributed in Food Corporation of India godowns. That year, despite hard selling its dream of ‘development’ through the ‘India Shining’ campaign, the BJP-led NDA suffered a humiliating defeat in the polls. That is what happens when angry farmers wield the only weapon they can — their vote.

Published by Vidya Venkat

Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at SOAS, London. Formerly, journalist at The Hindu, Chennai.

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