Over the last one year, India has witnessed several farmers’ protests with wide-ranging demands – remunerative prices for their produce, inclusion of more crops under the minimum support price (MSP) regime and loan-waivers. Uttar Pradesh too has seen several farmers’ agitations, where region-specific demands of timely payment of sugarcane dues and government procurement of potatoes have been added to the national demands.
The Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in UP after an aggressive campaign last year that focused heavily on farmers. As the Adityanath-led government in the state completes one year, it makes sense to examine its performance in the agricultural sector.
Timely payment of sugarcane dues
Prime Minister Narendra Modi kick-started his UP campaign from Meerut – in the heart of western UP’s sugarcane belt – and made a big promise to sugarcane farmers, knowing how crucial their votes are for his party and how significant the issue of delayed payments from sugar mills is. “My sugarcane farmer does the hard work. The sugar mill owners are fat, but my farmer has nothing to gain. My government in UP will clear dues within 14 days,” said Modi, implying that all sugarcane dues will be cleared within 14 days of the BJP government coming to power in the state. The party’s manifesto worded the promise more practically: “In the future, sugarcane farmers will be paid within 14 days of selling their crop.”
This promise was essentially a promise to uphold the law, as a provision for ensuring payments within 14 days already exists in the UP Sugarcane (Regulation of Supply and Purchase) Act of 1953.
However, it has all come to nought as farmers continue to struggle with sugarcane dues. “We are still not getting payment from the sugar mills on time. It takes at least two months for payments to reach us. This government has done nothing to change that,” said Monu Choudhary, a sugarcane farmer in Sardhana.
Figures provided by the government tell the story. For the ongoing 2017-18 season, of the Rs 23,319 crore due, sugar mills in UP are yet to pay farmers 28% (Rs 6,691 crore). If the BJP’s poll promise – or the letter of the law – was implemented, the total amount due almost six months after the crushing season began in UP would be substantially lower. Instead, even payments for the previous season, 2016-17 season, remain overdue as of today as 22% of the total amount due remains unpaid.
As The Wire has reported in the past, sugarcane farmers in UP continue to struggle for timely payments in much the same way as they have struggled under every regime.
Farm loan waivers
During the campaign, the BJP promised that crop loans of small and marginal farmers will be waived if the party is voted to power. In his book How the BJP Wins, Prashant Jha wrote that Modi was not very keen on promising a farm loan waiver because he sees himself as being different from his predecessors and believes that the poor need to be treated as “independent agents who need to be empowered and enabled enough to compete on their own.”
But surveys that external agencies had conducted on behalf of the party in UP suggested that there was substantial electoral gain to be had by promising a loan waiver, as it had the potential to swing approximately 3% of the votes in their favour. Thus, ideology was put aside for short-term electoral gain, and a farm loan waiver was promised.
Once voted to power, the Adityanath government in the state was quick to act too; it announced an allocation of Rs 36,000 crore for farm loan waivers in its first budget. The process was initiated in September 2017, when the government announced a farm loan waiver worth Rs 7,371 crore.
However, several farmers received waivers of just a few paise. According to government data, 11,000 farmers received loan waivers between Rs 1 and Rs 500.
Baliya Devi in Bijnor received a waiver of nine paise. “I did not even know that I owed that amount. If I could repay the entire one lakh, why would I not repay nine paise?” Devi told The Wire.
While waivers of this kind raised the count of farmers that ‘received’ a loan waiver, the total amount disbursed has been only slightly more than half of the initial target set in the budget. Initially, it was said that the loan waiver would cost the state exchequer Rs 36,000 crore. But, as yet, only Rs 20,596 crore worth of loans have been waived off.
Failure to deal with the potato crisis
Early on in its tenure, the BJP government in UP was faced with protests by potato farmers who were only able to fetch a price of Rs 200-250 per quintal, as against a cost of production of around Rs 500 per quintal. As a response to the crisis, the UP government announced that it will buy one lakh tonnes of potatoes from farmers at Rs 487 per quintal. The move was aimed at pushing market prices northwards.
However, within days of the announcement, farmers hit the streets again, complaining that government officials at procurement centres were being unreasonably picky with the size and shape of the potatoes that they were procuring, and that most of the produce was being turned away. Eventually, it turned out, the government only procured 13,000 tonnes of potatoes – 13% of the procurement promised and less than 1% of UP’s total potato output in the year.
The government failed to address the situation in the beginning, and as the situation worsened over the course of the year, even cold storages started dumping potatoes on the streets. Farmers store a part of their produce in cold storages to make staggered sales through the year as and when prices rise. But, in the previous year, prices never rose above Rs 300 per quintal and farmers would have had to pay a higher price for transportation and cold storage rental if they were to return to pick up their produce and transport it to a mandi for sale.
Massive hike in rural power tariffs
As farmers were reeling due to the BJP government’s inability to fulfil its election promises and deal with farm crises, the government announced a massive power tariff hike. The hike was particularly severe in rural areas, as tariffs increased by up to 150%. It remained relatively more forgiving of urban consumers and left industrial tariffs untouched. Interestingly, the consultation process for this massive power tariff hike in rural areas excluded rural folk entirely, as of the four public meetings held, none were held in rural UP.
The power tariff hike also included a massive hike in charges for tubewells meant for irrigation purposes. The fixed charges and the minimum charges have been doubled, and the variable per unit charges have been increased by 75%. Now, a ten BHP tube-well used in summer months costs the farmer Rs 950 a month on an average, instead of Rs 500 per month under the older tariffs.
As The Wire has pointed out earlier, this massive power tariff hike in rural areas would prove to be a substantial burden on farmers in the state who on an average earn Rs 5,000 a month. “Now, an average farmer will be spending 30-35% of his income on electricity. And these are average figures, the income for many households is much lower than 5,000,” Sudhir Panwar, president of the farmer organisation Kisan Jagriti Manch, had told The Wire at the time.
Stray cattle menace
One of the first administrative decisions Adityanath made as chief minister was to close down ‘illegal’ slaughterhouses and ban mechanised slaughter. As a result, most meat markets in the state shut down and thus, demand for animals for slaughter fell drastically. Gau rakshaks felt emboldened with Adityanath – a Hindutva hardliner – at the helm and increased the intensity and scale of their ‘operations’. The rural mandis – where farmers bring their cattle to sell to traders primarily for slaughter – suffered because supply fell as farmers feared gau raksha units would intercept them on the way, and demand fell as traders could no longer slaughter cattle for meat.
In the past, cattle which could no longer be used on the farm were sold by farmers at the mandis for slaughter for a sizeable sum. That no longer being an option, farmers were forced to hold on to unproductive cattle and spend on their upkeep. With farmers barely managing their own upkeep, several farmers let the cattle go, who then wandered in fields looking for food and ended up destroying standing crops.
The UP government’s overzealousness in cracking down on slaughterhouses and the impunity it granted to gau raksha units has led to a stray cattle menace which has piled on the misery of farmers already suffering from structural issues in agriculture and a government machinery unwilling to address the problems.