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Kannauj: It is difficult to miss the heavy, barbed wire fencing of potato farms in Kannauj.
As you drive through the villages of one of the greenest belts of Uttar Pradesh, men and women guarding their fields is a common sight. Dotted with vast stretches of lush-green farms and numerous cold storages, Kannauj and adjoining areas, also known as the potato belt, is one of the most prosperous regions of the state. But the meticulous fencing of farms makes you wonder what farmers in the region are living in fear of.
“Saand ka darr (fear of the bull),” said Ratilal Dubey, a potato farmer in a village near Tirwa town.
Stray cattle have been the biggest worry for farmers of the region. The Adityanath-led Bharatiya Janata Party state government decision to ban cow slaughter has impacted cattle trade drastically. Fear of vigilante groups has prevented cattle traders from conducting their businesses as usual, and as a result, farmers say that they have been forced to abandon their cattle.
“Our earnings are too meagre to even feed our families properly. Farming is not an enticing profession anymore. We barely save enough to survive through the year. In such a scenario, maintaining old cows and buffaloes has become really difficult,” said Dubey.
“Farmers can afford to maintain cattle unless they are milk producing or can be used in farming activities. After they become old, they become a liability for us,” he said. Bulls, he added, are a problem in any scenario because they have no use except to reproduce.
“Awara pashu”, the term that farmers use to describe abandoned cattle, have become a menace for farmers. Looking for food, stray cattle often break into farms to graze on the crop even before it is harvested, leaving farmers in distress.
“Most farmers in UP have no peace of mind until they sell their crop. Such is the fear of abandoned cattle that most of us have built a small shed in our farms to guard our crops at night. The problem has even ruined our family lives,” said Arvind Kumar who grows potatoes in around three acres of land.
“The cattle usually dig up the soil to eat unripe potatoes, and in the process much of our land is destroyed. Sometimes we also grow mustard seeds and vegetables. Even that is ruined if cattle enters our field,” added Kumar.
“Earlier we could sell the old cattle in our local cattle market. But since the ban was imposed on slaughter, cattle traders are hesitant to buy even old buffaloes,” said Kumar.
“Aren’t there gaushalas (‘cow shelters’),” this reporter asked. While imposing a ban on cow slaughter, the chief minister had also announced creation of cattle sheds across the state to support non-productive cows.
Kumar burst into laughter. “Do you not know how they operate? Most of the funds that come from the state government to support the gaushalas are siphoned off by the administrative officials and village pradhans,” he said.
Kumar’s assertion is however only a half-truth. While most farmers believe that the gaushala funds are being largely misused, it is also true that the number of cow sheds built after the ban is highly inadequate to accommodate the large number of abandoned cattle. For instance, in Tirwa assembly constituency, farmers spoke of only three gaushalas in the vicinity. “Since they are overburdened, they refuse to take any more cattle,” said Kumar.
A political plank
The problem of abandoned cattle has become so huge that the Samajwadi Party, which is attempting to oust the BJP government in the state, has made the issue as one of its main campaign planks.
Akhilesh Yadav, the Samajwadi Party president, invokes the problem in most of his press briefings, speeches, and roadshows. “This government has placed bulls in our farms, in our houses, and even on roads. This is what the government has achieved,” Akhilesh had said in his recent speech at Gonda where The Wire was present, drawing a huge applause from the crowd.
Ahead of the elections, most farmers, even those supporting the ruling party, talk about the problem of abandoned cattle. Yet, to assume that such a resentment will surely translate into votes for the opposition will be hasty.
Kannauj serves as an apt example to understand the complicated nature of voting. Unlike in a sugarcane belt like Lakhimpur Kheri, where farming communities appeared to have galvanised against BJP on a range of issues like delay in sugarcane payments, recent farm law agitations, abandoned cattle, and bureaucratic insouciance, potato-growing regions in the state still seem to be divided on caste and community lines despite similar problems.
For instance, Dubey, a Brahmin, and Kumar, a Lodh Rajput belonging to the Other Backward Classes, indicated that they would still like a BJP government in the state. “During Akhilesh (Yadav, chief of the Samajwadi Party), this region saw a lot of development. A medical and a paramedical college came up. Roads were constructed. An agriculture mandi also came up. But we feel more secure during the BJP government. We don’t have to be scared of Yadav and Muslims,” said Dubey.
Similarly, towing the BJP line, Kumar said, “Police extortion has come down quite drastically now. Earlier, police used to run an extortion racket. Only if you belonged to the Yadav community could you escape police brutality. Now there is peace. Goondas (‘thugs’) don’t run the show anymore.”
Members of Kurmi, Badhai, Kashyap and Paasi – all of whom belong to non-Yadav OBC and non-Jatav Dalit communities – spoke about their preference for BJP, although they agreed that some of them may vote for the SP this time because of mahangai (‘price rise’), unemployment, and general lack of any development work. “Kuch tootega is baar (Some from our community may vote against BJP this time),” said Kumar.
Some of these communities also said that if SP nominates a good candidate then they may also think of voting against BJP whose local legislators faced a good degree of anti-incumbency.
“None of the BJP MLAs showed their faces to us for the last five years. They remained inaccessible even when we went to them with a request,” said Raman Verma, belonging to the Kurmi community who have been voting for the “phool” (BJP’s lotus flower symbol) for the last few elections.
‘Babaji’ and tough times
BJP’s social base of upper caste groups, non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits appear to be cracking but whether the SP would gain from it remains unclear. However, what is clear is that SP’s social base has definitely expanded beyond the Muslim-Yadav communities as Akhilesh has attempted to forge a coalition with non-Yadav OBC communities. In Kannauj, Muslims and Yadavs swore by the SP, while a significant section of Valmikis and Kori Dalits also spoke about their inclination to change the government in the upcoming polls.
“Our situation has become bad to worse during Babaji (as Adityanath is fondly called in UP). We do not have work, no savings. It has become difficult to survive,” said Ramesh Kumar, a sanitation worker in Kannauj who belongs to the Valmiki community.
Roop, who belongs to the Kori community, said that BJP has given them izzat or respect by appointing Ram Nath Kovind, a caste member, as the president of India but “has left them helpless in the times of the pandemic.”
“The rations that we are getting during the pandemic are not enough for our family. We need to earn and we are not able to do that,” he said.
In the potato belt of UP, farmers’ economic concerns are not likely to dominate voting preferences. Here, the political party which manages to consolidate a majority of caste groups will emerge as the winner. A significant difference between the sugarcane-growing regions and potato belt of the state is that the latter are entirely dependent on market prices of their crop (potato is not procured by the government; it is sold directly in the market), while sugarcane prices are fixed by the state government.
The potato crop is selling at Rs 400 a quintal currently, a huge drop from Rs 1500-2000 last year. The drop has made farmers’ lives miserable but unlike the sugarcane farmers who hold the state government responsible for not increasing the prices according to the inflation, the potato farmers do not blame the government for their distress.
However, farmers believe that the government should still mediate the purchase of potatoes in some or other way. “The government should ensure that the price of potatoes does not drop beyond a point. That way we may at least stem some of our losses,” said Raman Verma.
Economic distress, the problem of abandoned cattle, and an inequitable procurement system unites farmers across UP. However, as most political parties bank on consolidating caste groups in their favour, they have either ignored or merely paid lip service to these existential concerns of farmers.