Agriculture distress in MP could be the clincher in these elections

  • The agriculture sector is the backbone of Madhya Pradesh’s economy as it contributes for nearly three-fourth of the employment in the state. But farmers are angry with the MP government for failing to address their concerns and apathy towards them.
  • Mongabay-India travelled for over 1,000 kilometres across the state to ascertain the issues on the ground and found that agriculture is the single biggest issue in the state elections this time.
  • Both BJP and Congress have heavily focused on agriculture sector and farmers in their manifestos with over 100 promises each. But farmer groups are openly voicing their displeasure against the MP government and are voicing support for Congress.
  • However, the path for Congress will not be filled with roses if they win as farmers have warned that Congress’s failure to fulfil promises made in its manifesto will result in them withdrawing their support during the 2019 general elections.

This is the second article in a three-part series on the role of environment in the upcoming elections in Madhya Pradesh. Part One examines the priority given to environmental issues like pollution and human-wildlife conflict in the election manifestos of two main political parties in the state elections. Part Three is an on-ground report from India’s power capital, Singrauli.

If there is one issue that touches the lives of the majority of Madhya Pradesh’s population, it is agriculture. But that is also exactly the area where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Madhya Pradesh government has failed in addressing the crisis.

The crisis in the agricultural sector and problems faced by farmers in the state, which started gaining ground last year, has now escalated to a point where it has become the single biggest issue during the state elections that are scheduled for next week. Congress’s effort to maintain a thrust on agriculture and farmers in its campaign has only added to the woes of the Shivraj Singh Chouhan-led MP government.

Along with Chhattisgarh, Telangana, Rajasthan and Mizoram, Madhya Pradesh is going to polls in November and December this year. The polls for the 230 seats of the Madhya Pradesh legislative assembly on November 28 will seal the future of over 72 million people of the state.

The polls are significant for Shivraj Singh Chouhan who is eyeing a fourth term as the chief minister while he battles 15 years of anti-incumbency. They are also important for BJP as the state sends 29 parliamentarians to the Parliament of India in the general elections scheduled for the first half of 2019. The results of these polls will help BJP in ascertaining the mood of the voters to at least some extent.

Agriculture is often called the backbone of the Indian economy and similar is the case for Madhya Pradesh, which is India’s second largest state. The agriculture sector in Madhya Pradesh (MP) contributes almost one-fourth of the gross state domestic product (GSDP). It is also estimated to be the main source of employment for nearly three-fourth of the state’s population and constitutes for about two-thirds of the rural income.

Agriculture is the keyword

In such a scenario it is no surprise that agriculture has become the main issue in the MP elections this year and all parties are making promises to gain support from farmers. The farmers’ issues in MP were just waiting to come in the limelight but what pushed them to the centre stage was the Mandsaur incident last year.

The 2017 farmer agitation in Mandsaur was the turning point for farmers in MP. Photo by Suyash Dwivedi/Wikimedia Commons.

In June 2017, farmers in Mandsaur went on a strike to highlight issues like the collapse in crop prices. But when the MP government ignored their protest, the protestors burnt some shops and vehicles. The police fired at the protestors and during that several farmers died.

It was the same time when farmers in Maharashtra had launched a strike and cut off supplies of vegetables and other farm supplies. The strike in Maharashtra had ended after Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis haddeclared a Rs. 340 billion (Rs. 34,000 crore) farm loan waiver.

The firing in Mandsaur increased tempers and soon farmers across the state were up against the government highlighting issues that were plaguing them for years. It all went downhill for BJP government since then and the issues remain unresolved under the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government.

Mongabay-India travelled for over 1,000 kilometres across the state to understand the farmer issues and ascertain their impact on 2018 state elections. It revealed that farmer issues have become the central theme of the elections this year and if Congress comes back to power in the state after 15 years it will be riding on the anger of the farming community.

Probably that is why both the BJP and the principal opposition party, Congress, have gone all out to woo the influential voter group – farmers. A simple analysis of BJP’s 74-page ‘Drashti Patra (vision document)’ and Congress’s exhaustive 116-page ‘Vachan Patra (promise document)’ reveals that agriculture and farmers were on top of their lists.

Both the parties have made over 100 promises related to agriculture as a sector, farmers and irrigation facilities.

For instance, among the main promises made by BJP in its manifesto for the agriculture sector and farmers, there are efforts to improve soil quality, launch of a Rs. one billion (Rs 100 crore) agriculture start-up fund, efforts to properly procure crops and improve agriculture markets, steps to get geographical-indicator tag for Sharbati grains, launch a farmer prosperity corridor, increase milk production, efforts to ensure Rs. 500 billion (Rs. 50,000 crore) private sector investment in agriculture and allied sectors and a series of measures to improve irrigation facilities.

Both BJP and Congress heavily focuses on agriculture in their manifestos. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India.

BJP, in the section on farmers and agriculture in its manifesto, highlighted that the state during their rule achieved a record growth rate of 24 percent in the agriculture sector, that 3.35 million farmers got about Rs. 60 billion (Rs. 6,000 crore) as bonus for their crops and that government connected about 65 percent of the agricultural land to irrigation facilities. It also stressed that their target is to ensure that about eight million hectare area is irrigated in future compared to four million hectares at present.

In the meanwhile, the Congress party has promised to fulfil all the demands made by protestors last year at Mandsaur and thereafter. For instance, Congress promised to waive off all the loans taken by farmers from co-operative sector banks and nationalised banks up to Rs. 200,000, to implement recommendations of the Swaminathan Committee report which will ensure that farmers get bonus for wheat, maize, paddy, cotton and soyabean, a new policy for crop insurance, life and health insurance of farmers, promise to provide the crop insurance claim on the recommendation of gram sabha and implementation of the land acquisition Act 2013.

It also promised to withdraw all “false criminal cases registered against farmers during the farmers’ agitations” and a judicial enquiry by a sitting judge of the high court into the case regarding police firing on farmers in Mandsaur, loans at subsidised rate of interest to farmers for constructing ponds to maintain groundwater level and increase in subsidy for creating new irrigation facilities.

War of words

Congress, in its manifesto, alleged that due to the “continuous hard labour of farmers, agricultural production has been increasing each year but still they are not getting the benefit from this increase in production.”

“Increase in the cost of inputs like seeds, diesel, fertilizers, insecticides, pesticides, etc. have increased production costs. We have seen suicides of farmers due to agri-loans but the government has not given serious thought to the conditions of the farmers,” alleged the Congress.

Farmers in MP are miffed with BJP for ignoring their demands. Photo by Yann Forget/ Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA-3.0.

“There is no way we are going to vote for BJP this time. Congress has promised to fulfil all our major demands and we will ensure our support to them,” said a farmer Ram Vilas from Jabalpur area.

How far Congress has gone to attract farmers to its fold can be gauged from the fact that influential and young farmer leader Kedar Sirohi joined the Congress party in September 2018 and was subsequently made the head of the party’s farmer cell. He emphasised that agriculture is a statewide issue and said on about 175 seats of the total 230 seats in the elections, “agriculture is the main issue”.

“Agriculture is the backbone of MP’s economy but BJP has infected it with cancer. If MP government is highlighting the awards won in the sector we also have about 16,000 farmer suicides in the state. We are showing a high growth rate in the agriculture sector but the state is under heavy debt,” Sirohi told Mongabay-India while stressing that migration from villages has also become a huge issue.

The high suicide rate among farmers

According to information provided by central government to Parliament, in 2016, MP witnessed 1321 farmer suicides which were highest in the state since 2013. The government admitted that while farmer suicides dropped by upto 10 percent in other parts of the nation, in MP they witnessed an increase between 2014 and 2016.

Sirohi said that “for farmers who sold their crops at half the prices, stood in the queue for days at agricultural markets to sell their produce and got severely impacted during demonetisation, there is no issue beyond agriculture in this election.”

He stressed that the farmer community is coming out to support Congress without any prodding as the party has promised to fulfil all the major demands. “What will a farmer do whose garlic crop which used to be sold for Rs. 25,000 per quintal is now being sold at Rs. 2,000? Soyabean crop is being sold at Rs. 3,000 per quintal compared to the promised price of Rs. 6,000. Diesel prices have skyrocketed, cost of urea has doubled, farmers are being charged for electricity – the farmer of the state is seeking justice on all these issues,” Sirohi added.

Farmer groups are openly voicing their support for Congress. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India.

As per the central government’s information, MP recorded over 6,000 farmer suicides between 2011 and 2016. This is when the MP government has won ‘Krishi Karman’ award for five years for its performance in the agricultural sector. The latest award was given to MP for its record production of wheat, even higher than states like Punjab and Haryana.

Dr. Sunilam, a former legislator and a leader of the Kisan Sangharsh Samiti, said, last year the rate of a truckload of cabbage was about Rs. 300,000 and today it has dropped down to Rs 8,000 a truck. “Examples like these explain the condition of farmers in the state. On an average, four farmers are committing suicide every day in the state. Farmers have clearly decided to vote against BJP this time,” he added.

However, BJP defended its performance in the agriculture sector and highlighted the awards won by the state.

“MP won awards for its performance in the agriculture sector even during the rule of Congress government at the centre (federal level). It was because of our high growth rate in the sector – which is highest in the world not just in India,” said BJP’s Hidayat Ullah Sheikh while claiming that he himself is a farmer.  

Farmers support to Congress comes with a warning sign

However,  the farmers’ overwhelming support to Congress comes with its own set of problems as expectations will be of too much action as soon as possible. Farmer groups have warned that in case Congress fails to fulfil the promises after coming to power in MP they will return to supporting BJP in 2019 elections scheduled a few months later.

Farmers have warned to withdraw support from Congress in 2019 elections in case it fails to fulfil promises. Photo by Yann Forget/ Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA-3.0.

Dilip Patidar, a farmer leader from Mandsaur area, said there is “clear overwhelming support in favour of Congress” but they will have to perform.

“Congress is expected to win all eight seats in Mandsaur area. BJP leaders have not even entered our villages. But we have said clearly to Congress that in case they fail to fulfil the promises mentioned in their manifesto we won’t support them in the 2019 elections,” Dilip Patidar told Mongabay-India.

Banner Image: Farmers protesting against the MP government. Photo by Yann Forget/ Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA-3.0.

Continue reading:

Part 1: Can election promises fix India’s ailing heart?

Part 3: Singrauli, India’s energy hub, fails to power lives of its people

#EnvironmentAndElections: A series which examines the role of environment in the elections

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