New Delhi: Back from a walk through drought-affected parts of the country, Yogendra Yadav, political scientist and co-founder of non-profit Swaraj Abhiyan, speaks on state compliance of Supreme Court orders, a booming private water market in Marathwada, and why farmer movements are weakest at a time when agrarian distress is at its peak. Edited excerpts from an interview:
You just came back from a trip to Bundelkhand and Marathwada. What is the situation there?
It would be trite to say that it’s shocking. In the face of a clearly unfolding tragedy, what is shocking is the business-as-usual attitude of everyone—the state, of the influential sections of society and in some ways the national media. We have cognitive tools to recognize famine and, therefore, unfortunately till it reaches that point, it doesn’t look serious enough. And there are several steps from drought to famine. And different parts that we visited are at different steps of that ladder. In terms of drinking water, there is no doubt that Marathwada (in Maharashtra) has crossed the red line. In terms of water and fodder for animals, there is no doubt that Bundelkhand (spread across Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh) has crossed the red line. Livestock are dying, in large numbers which nobody is even trying to estimate.
But if you ask me, “are human beings dying of hunger?” Perhaps not. There are isolated reports, but it would definitely be premature or sensational to say that there are starvation deaths. The question we should be asking is: should we not be doing something before we get reports of starvation deaths?
Last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met chief ministers of each drought-affected state separately. Did that translate into actions on the ground?
That really is a question. PM meeting CMs is a good idea. If you go by disaster management manuals, all these discussions should have taken place in the months of October and November (last year). I think there is insufficient recognition of the crisis we are going through. This is not the beginning of the possibility of a drought, where you can hold meetings and discuss plans. This requires nothing short of emergency war-footing response.
What can these responses be?
First of all, water! I mean, you know, it’s fine to give talks about how all of us should save water. But those in political authority have to take some unpleasant decisions—which is, no diversion of water away from the basic human and animal necessities. In Marathwada, we witnessed a flourishing water business. You get more branded bottled water in Marathwada than you would get in Delhi—all sorts of local brands, in terms of number of brands and the swiftness with which they are produced.
The question is, where is the water for this flourishing business coming from? It is not being imported, it is coming from nearby wells, which could have been taken for public purposes and supplied to people free of cost. So, firstly, no diversion of water.
Second, the extent of misuse in urban India is criminal. Why can’t we take a resolve that everyone will share at least a slice of that misfortune that rural India is going through? Why can’t we have a control over golf courses, swimming pools? Does the political leadership have the courage to talk about these things?
On sugarcane, eight months ago, we had said that the standing crop should be acquired by the government in areas where it was known and that there would be drinking water shortage. We said please pay the farmer the support price, use the standing crop as fodder for cattle, which they need anyway.
The other thing they can do even now is to use the entire country’s resources under the employment guarantee scheme for water preservation, de-siltation and creating ponds. It’s happening in some places. Since PM loves these big missions, why can’t he announce this mission?
How is government compliance of Supreme Court orders in the drought case?
There were some procedural orders, and there were substantive relief orders. The government would like to be seen to be complying with procedural orders. There were orders to hold meetings with the chief secretaries of Bihar, Haryana and Gujarat. I was told that the meetings took place but, as we see, nothing seems to have happened. The court clearly said that the centre should persuade these governments to declare drought, but clearly that persuasion has not worked. But they can put it on file and say the meeting took place. A disaster management plan has been announced by the PM.
The real question is relief orders. On free mid-day meals in schools (during summer vacations) there is compliance on paper, in the sense the governments have issued notifications on the last day of the deadline. In Maharashtra, when we were there, the orders had not reached. No school was offering meals at that time—not a single one. By the time we reached Bundelkhand, there were some reports of some schools opening.
What about the public distribution system? The court said the government cannot deny foodgrains to any family in a drought-hit area.
That is the biggest order on which compliance is zero at the moment because that really costs money. The first thing required for that would have been for the central government to issue an order. Because in effect, what the Supreme Court has done is to amend the provisions of the Food Security Act for that period. I’m told the centre wrote a letter to all the states saying, please comply with the SC’s order. The states have written back saying, thank you very much, but who is going to pay for it? I don’t have evidence. The centre seems to suggest that states will have to pick this additional quota at minimum support prices, which the states are most unwilling to do.
What we witnessed on field, even in places where the Food Security Act is running, the implementation on ground is poor and full of loopholes. In Maharashtra, which I consider to be a somewhat better governed state, in every village, we found between 10% to 25% household do not have ration cards.
UP is a scam. UP is the worst state when it comes to food security.
Even if (chief minister) Akhilesh Yadav were to really put his heart and soul into wanting to implement some of these things, the state capacity is very low. Lekhpal (revenue officer) and kotedaar (ration shop owner) are the bosses who run the villages, in any which they like. Chief ministers come and go.
Have farmers received compensation for crop losses?
In Maharashtra, I would say it is very partial. About half the small and marginal farmers got it; among the big ones, almost nobody got it. In UP, it’s a strange system because they have lost count of which compensation is for which year because there were six crop losses in the past three years. So, now they count in numbers—the people and the local administration, nobody really knows which one is coming for which year. And the state officially admits that a large amount of compensation is due.
There is much optimism regarding the good monsoon predicted by the government forecaster. Experts say that agriculture will revive, Indian economy will get a boost—how do you see that translating into farm incomes?
Optimism is no substitute for policy and careful thinking. Let us remember that 106% rain has not happened yet, it is a forecast. That figure is an average, which includes all sorts of variations. There is a problem of geographical spread; 106% rainfall will inevitably have areas where it is less than 80%. Also, it’s time, it’s about time the farmer gets rainfall when he needs it. So, if it does not rain adequately in the first month, and if it is not evenly spread across this period, then a good average is of no help to the farmer. It’s a classic fallacy of averages. What we know is that over the last few years, the number of days when it rains has shrunk, which affects agriculture immensely. Extreme weather conditions went up, which needs to be factored in.
The agrarian crisis is because farming is increasingly an unviable proposition. That is not going to go away with one good rain. Finally, let’s also remember that food shortage is not going to go away for at least 3-4 months after rain. Because rain does not produce food the next morning and we know from various studies that the worst period for infant mortality are the rainy months. They are the hardest months for the poor. There is a need for state support at that time, till the next crop arrives.
You said the agrarian crisis is not due to monsoon failure. Otherwise, farmers won’t commit suicides in Punjab. Which brings us to the point of farm incomes. Last week, the government moderately hiked crop support prices.
The MSP (minimum support price) increase is a joke as there is no enhancement in real terms. It is actually a reduction of the farmer’s income when you compare it to the general cost of living inflation and set it off against the farm cost escalation where labour costs are rapidly going up. This is the one year where farmers needed more help, to repay loans, earn more, etc. It is much lower than the government of the bure-dins (the previous United Progressive Alliance government).
Look at the case of pulses where we have a shortfall. We import it. I’m sure we import it at a price which is at least Rs.7,000 a quintal, if not more. Why can’t we offer the same price to our own farmers? We are looking at the most farmer-unfriendly government in independent India.
In such a situation, why is it that India’s farmer movements are at such a weak point? We have many farmer activists and a weak farmer movement?
Politics is a realm where demand and supply rarely reach an equilibrium. It’s a classic situation where supply side constraints make such a difference. If there was one moment in our nation’s history when we needed farmer movements, it is today. And if there is one moment where farmer movements are the weakest and fragmented, it is today. They are fragmented on regional lines, cropping lines (sugarcane, tobacco, rubber farmers), class lines (rich farmers, agricultural labour). And people who are recognized to be farmer leaders are actually leaders of no more than one or two districts. We don’t even have a truly state-level leader of the farmers, forget a national leader.
Analytically, I can see why it has declined. For any farmer politics, you need one class of farmers who have some resources. In the 1980s, there was this section of society which was resourceful enough to be able to support a movement. Right now, those who made any money from farming have either moved out, because now, there is no rich farmer, they don’t exist. So, we don’t have that class which can take the lead.
But that’s only part of the explanation. Which is why the 1980s’ farmer politics cannot be replicated anymore. Today, it will have to be a farmer politics of all the agrarian classes, including the landless labour which now is in majority. Unfortunately, there was a limited perspective on part of the rich farmers’ movement, and the left-wing movements which saw the landed peasantry as their enemy. There were active attempts to keep them separate.
How do you think the agrarian crisis and drought have impacted the social structure of the Indian village?
The unfortunate part is that the state has failed the people, but social relations have not collapsed. There were occasional quarrels on water. In Marathwada, the area worst hit by drought, we saw numerous instances of farmers whose wells have water, giving free water to everyone. This old cultural value of ours—that offering water to people is punya (good deed)—did not break down. The profiteering is taking place through companies, but no villager is charging his neighbour for water.
Sanjana Sanghi in New Delhi contributed to this story.