Was the prime minister’s standing ovation for farmers a cruel joke?
In July 2014, barely 60 days into his new role as the prime minister of India, Narendra Modi was addressing a group of agricultural researchers and scientists in New Delhi on the occasion of the 86th foundation day of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. It was also his first public event as a newly-elected prime minister.
In a speech that was nothing more than politically correct rhetoric, Modi called for a standing ovation for India’s farmers. He even took a dig at the scientists, reportedly telling them that it is not enough to spend time in five-star seminar rooms analysing why things cannot be done, but also important to think about how these problems can be overcome.
Modi was evidently scoring a point over his predecessor, who was often accused of turning a blind eye to India’s farm force. He wanted to craft an image of a farmers’ leader. Amidst the many things he said, he also coined a new punchline, ‘per drop, more crop’,which was splashed across newspapers at the time.
Two years on, I am sitting in my farm in Gattawady village, Erode, Tamil Nadu, filled with mixed feelings. Here is why.
Low budget allocation
That dig at scientists notwithstanding, the budget allocation for agricultural research is despicably low. There are some indigenous drought resistant varieties of crops, but Indian universities and institutions remain heavily underfunded and unable to make any serious research interventions on that front. A little bit of a push from the government to promote indigenous research could go a long way in addressing the climate-induced distress that we are witnessing of late. Instead, what we are seeing is a systemic weakening of public sector research and institutions, and attempts to serve the interests of transnational corporations.
No visits during drought
While the country has been under the grip of one of the most severe droughts of recent times, the prime minister, between his hectic foreign trips and election sloganeering, could not find time to visit any of these parched pockets, including mine. It is one thing to be occupied with delivering monologues on public radio and quite another to actually pay heed to the concerns of people on the ground. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court of India had to remind the government that rural distress needs urgent attention.
Inadequate increase in MSP and low farm incomes
The most important of these points for me is that one of the poll promises of the Bharatiya Janata Party was to increase the minimum support price (MSP) to 50% above costs. A few days ago, they made a joke of that promise by increasing the MSP of rice by 4.5%.
How does the government decide on the MSP? The answer lies with the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP). They conduct national MSP calculations, which apply only to 25 crops. The methodology is opaque and questionable, especially when the same MSP is declared for all states, irrespective of the varying labour and input costs in each region. Or to borrow the prime minister’s words, a group of people who sit in air-conditioned seminar rooms decide on the MSP for paddy while completely neglecting the reality on the ground. The functioning of the CACP is always to satisfy the government’s treasury rather than farmers. This is evident from the announced MSP for rice as well.
There is a reason why a farmer produces paddy or wheat despite low prices. It is because she or he is assured that the produce will be procured by the government at the MSP. However, oilseeds and pulses are most often sold in open markets and there is no assured procurement from the state. If someone says that this was done to motivate farmers to produce pulses (thereby reducing the import burden), that argument farthest from reality.
What is unimaginably hurtful is the fact that on one hand they talk about doubling farm income, while on the other we see a dead end for the MSP. It also makes you think: the average farm income in this country hovers around Rs 6,000 per month. By 2022, even if by some wave of a magic wand the government doubles this, it still amounts to the pitiable sum of Rs 12,000.
Apart from qualifying as a good headline, what use does the promise of doubling farm income serve? Was Modi’s standing ovation for farmers a cruel joke?
Kannaiyan is a farmer, General Secretary of the South Indian Coordination Committee of Farmers Movements (SICCFM) and associated with La Via Campesina, a global peasant movement. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org