Agriculture

Loan Waivers Have Become A Fashion, Says Venkaiah Naidu

Naidu’s statements come at a time when a spate of farmers suicides have rocked Indian polity and a number of agitations led by farmers are underway across various parts of the country.

Union minister of information and broadcasting M. Venkaiah Naidu. Credit: PTI/Files

Union minister of information and broadcasting M. Venkaiah Naidu. Credit: PTI/Files

New Delhi: Days after Punjab and Karnataka – both Congress-ruled states – decided to waive off a part of institutional farms loans, M. Venkaiah Naidu, the union urban development minister, said loan waivers “have become fashion now.”

Criticising such social expenditure as unnecessary government’s interference in the business of farming, Naidu, while addressing a gathering at the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) on 22 June, said waiving off loans is not a “final solution” and should be done only in extreme situations.

However, he added, “We (the government) have to take care of farmers”, leaving it up to the audience to interpret why farm loan waivers are not part of the same and why he thinks the looming agrarian crisis does not befit an “extreme situation.”

Naidu’s statements come at a time when a spate of farmers suicides have rocked Indian polity and a number of agitations led by farmers are underway across various parts of India.

Around 45 farmers have reportedly killed themselves under mounting pressure of debts only in the month of June. While Madhya Pradesh has seen more than 20 farmer suicides; Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab, and Tamil Nadu have seen a series of similar deaths owing to crop losses.

Interestingly, BJP-ruled Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, which have seen the maximum farmer deaths in the last few months, were the first to announce farm loan waivers, followed by the Punjab and Karnataka.

The decisions have largely been cheered by agricultural economists as a welcome relief for farmers although they believe that the government needs to increase its expenditure on farming sector. The saffron party, too, had been promising farm loan waivers in its various election manifestos. One of the first decisions that Yogi Adityanath took after taking oath as the chief minister of UP was to waive off a part of the crop loans. The BJP leadership, too, has hailed such decisions in the past.

However, with the cabinet minister Naidu’s statements suggesting the opposite, BJP has displayed a perceptible ambiguity in its position on farm loans waivers.

In the last few months, the party has shown an inconsistent viewpoint on issues of social expenditure –praising farm loan waiver when announced by its own party leaders and slamming it when done by the opposition.

Himanshu, an associate professor at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, School of Social Sciences of Jawaharlal Nehru University, believes that political compulsions more than economic rationale has steered the BJP until now. Speaking to Livemint, he said that while waivers work as immediate relief for farmers, “the real question that needs to be answered is why the farmers fall in debt trap year after year. This is a systemic issue and needs resolution at larger level.”

Naidu’s statements came in front of the BSE gathering which has always believed that the governments should not interfere in businesses, farming, too, being one of them.

Not surprisingly, Naidu added a point to his criticism of farm loan waiver, “See what happened to Air India, government has no business to be in business. It needs to focus on healthcare, administration, education and basic amenities.”

Political parties have reacted strongly to Naidu’s comments. “36,000-40,000 farmers have committed suicide in the last three years. Calling loan waiver fashionable is a disrespect to our annadaata,” CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury said.

In the same vein, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Clyde Crasto said, “Such statements by ministers on farm loan waiver show their attitude towards poor farmers. This remark is an insult to them.”

Opposition that may hurt the government the most was of BJP’s ally, Shiv Sena, which, in the wake of nation-wide farmers’ agitations, has been advocating greater farm loan waivers and expansion of the minimum support price (MSP) system.

“BJP leaders are now showing their true colours after coming to power. In the recent past, we have seen how BJP state president made a remark against farmers and now it’s Venkaiah Naidu. It’s sad to see such statements coming from these senior BJP leaders.” said Manisha Kayande of the Shiv Sena.

While political parties tussle against each other, intellectuals see it as a moral crisis within the BJP. “Any support from the government to farmers will be held as interference by the pro-market ideologues, who fail to take into account the vulnerabilities faced by the farmers. Naidu’s statements show while the BJP claims it is pro-poor, it will always go the extra mile to appease the privileged. Calling farm loan waiver as fashionable is nothing but ridiculing the poor,” Uma Gupta, a University of Delhi faculty told The Wire. 

Indeed, Naidu’s statements may well be an indication of what the union government has been thinking on extending its support to agriculture and farmers. The union finance minister Arun Jaitley has already made it clear that it will stick to its fiscal targets and had ruled out the possibility of any farm loan waiver from the centre.

As a tactical shot at the BJP, therefore, the Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah, while announcing a waiver of Rs 8165 crore through state exchequer, had urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to waive off farm loans taken from commercial and nationalised banks as well, putting the ball back to the centre’s court.