New Delhi: In June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to farmers in Chhattisgarh via teleconferencing. A woman, Chandramani Kaushik from Kanker in Kanharpuri, told him that due to his policies, her income had doubled. A few days later, ABP news met the woman, and she retracted her earlier statement, saying that her income hadn’t doubled and she was tutored to say that it had. A few days after that, a Times of India (ToI) report with no author and a My Nation report with an author weighed in on the confusion.
TOI quoted ‘government sources’ who said that Kaushik’s income had doubled as a result of ‘value addition’ from sitaphal farming. The ‘government source’ called ABP’s report ‘fake news’ and also pointed – remaining anonymous all this while – TOI to a series of tweets by Union ministers Nirmala Sitharaman and Rajyavardhan Rathore. The tweets quote the My Nation report which starts by claiming that a ‘happy and prosperous farmer is an eye sore for certain sections of the intelligentsia and the media’. Then, it quotes Kaushik saying, “I had told the Prime Minister about doubling my income by processing the pulp of sitafal. They (ABP) are talking about agriculture, but I had said that pulp processing led to doubling of my income.”
After this, ABP went back to Kaushik and asked how her income had doubled from sitafal pulp processing. She claimed that she earns Rs 700 a day by processing sitafal pulp, and this income is what she was referring to when she said her income had doubled (she had mentioned the Rs 700 figure to Modi also).
The back and forth between ABP news on the one hand and Union ministers, ToI, ‘government sources’ and My Nation on the other, also contained a difference of opinion on whether Kaushik’s income from paddy had gone up or whether she grew paddy at all. But even if we ignore the paddy debate and stick to the economics of sitafal, the ‘income doubling’ claim poses certain challenges.
Kaushik mentioned to both Modi and ABP news that her income from sitafal was Rs 700 a day. But she later revealed to ABP that that amount is divided among the 12 members of her self-help group. This leaves Kaushik with an income of Rs 58 per day, or Rs 1,740 per month. That is only 25% of the minimum wage of Rs 237 per day that the Chhattisgarh government prescribes for agricultural labourers. It is less than half of the extreme poverty line set by the World Bank at $1.9, or Rs 130, per day.
It is difficult to imagine in which scenario a farmer who earns Rs 58 a day can be called a ‘happy and prosperous’ farmer. It is also baffling that Union ministers are celebrating the story of a farmer who earns a fourth of the daily minimum wage and less than half of what the World Bank describes as the extreme poverty line.
In its second report on the issue, ABP also met with some other women who are part of self-help groups in Kanker, who were confused by Kaushik’s claim that her income had doubled. “We have put in money from our pockets and in the last five years, we have not even recovered that from sitafal pulp,” one of the women said. “I don’t know what Chandramani is talking about. There is absolutely no profit,” the other woman said.
When ABP went back to Kaushik and asked her about the comments of other members of the self-help group, she was quiet.
Now, according to Rajkumar Gupta of the Chhattisgarh Pragatisheel Kisan Sangathan, Kaushik is being kept under close watch by local BJP leaders and not being allowed to meet anyone. “Our organisation went to her house to meet her. Bu, we were stopped by local BJP leaders and despite repeated attempts we were not allowed to meet her,” Gupta told The Wire. The Wire was not able to verify this claim.
It is clear that the government has identified agrarian distress as one of its main challenges leading up to the Lok Sabha polls of 2019 and the assembly elections to be held in four states, including Chhattisgarh, this year. One of the key promises of this government was to double farmers’ incomes. It has set itself a deadline of 2022, but is keen on highlighting certain success stories of farmers who have already doubled their incomes due to the efforts of the Modi-led government. Kaushik’s story, it appears, was part of that effort. However, this particular instance was poorly choreographed.
Farm incomes across India have seen a significant downward stress in the last few years. The dire state of India’s rural economy is also highlighted by a recent Reserve Bank of India study which pointed out that real wages, adjusted for inflation, have declined since November 2014. In March 2018, as compared to March 2017, the real wage growth was -0.91%, implying that real wages in rural India had declined compared to the same time last year.
Between 2013-14 and 2017-18, the gross value added in agriculture has declined in absolute terms.
For the last two years, farmers across the country have been on the streets protesting against declining incomes and demanding that the government take corrective measures. Those demands remain unmet. It would seem obvious that the government has a task on its hands and it would be better off channelling its energies towards addressing the very real crisis facing agriculture, instead of deploying ‘government sources’ to debunk news reports that it does not like.