Kheda/Panchmahal/Mahisagar/Mehsana (Gujarat): Rural distress in north and central Gujarat and Saurashtra, has become a challenge for the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in its bid for a fifth consecutive term.

“The government is busy with developing big cities and business centres, there is no development in villages. The government has not helped us after the failure of our cotton crop and we are not getting enough price to sustain ourselves through agriculture. The government didn’t listen and even God is not listening to us," said Babubhai Parmar, a 48-year-old farmer in Shehra constituency in Panchmahal district.

As many as 92 seats in the 182-member Gujarat assembly fall in rural areas. Worryingly, in 2012, the Congress outdid the BJP, albeit marginally, in rural Gujarat. According to data provided by the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), in the 2012 Gujarat elections, Congress won 49 of the 98 rural assembly seats with 42.1% vote share, while BJP which won 44 seats with 42.9% votes.

The government is busy with developing big cities and business centres, there is no development in villages. The government has not helped us after the failure of our cotton crop and we are not getting enough price to sustain ourselves through agriculture. The government didn’t listen and even God is not listening to us- Babubhai Parmar, farmer in Shehra constituency in Panchmahal district

Not surprisingly, the Congress is playing to the galleries. Its manifesto promises a farm loan waiver, 16 hours of electricity during the day for farmers and free water for irrigation, and revamped crop insurance. The BJP has responded similarly, promising doubling of farm income, interest-free farm loans, cheaper fertilizers and seeds as well as crop insurance and better minimum support prices (MSPs).

“People who have jobs in big cities lead a comfortable life, the problem is with people who live in rural areas and work in fields because there is not much income in agriculture," said 51-year-old Kokilaben in Lunawada constituency. “Agriculture has become expensive and the government is increasing the price of diesel which increases our cost. We are looking at government for help," she added.

Agriculture employs 49.6% of Gujarat’s working population. However, the 3.9 million agricultural households in Gujarat were barely able to keep their heads above water, data from the NSSO situation assessment survey from 2014 reveals. Compared to an average monthly income of Rs7,926 these households incurred expenses of Rs7,672. Not surprisingly, 43% of these households were indebted.

In 2012 Gujarat elections, Congress won 49 of the 98 rural seats with 42.1% vote share, while BJP which won 44 seats with 42.9% votes

“We are not even getting good price for maize, bajra and cauliflower. Government has so much money, why doesn’t it help farmers who have lost their crop?" said Narendra Sinh Jhala, a 39-year-old farmer in Balasinor in the Mahisagar district .

Farmers in Gujarat, a major grower of commercial crops like cotton and groundnut, have suffered due to falling crop prices following the harvest of kharif crops in October. While groundnut prices plunged to Rs3,000 per quintal compared to the government’s MSP of Rs4,250 per quintal, wholesale rates for cotton hovered just below MSP, prompting the state government to announce a bonus of Rs500 per quintal in October. The fall in returns came after consecutive years of deficit rains in 2014 and 2015.

While farmers are struggling in rural areas, traders associated with wholesale markets or agriculture produce market committee (APMC) have been hit by demonetisation and rollout of the goods and services tax (GST).

“We continue to face a lot of problems because of demonetisation and GST. Farmers do not accept cheques, they want ready cash. We didn’t have cash when demonetisation happened and there was no business for several months," said Jatin Patel, a 28-year-old cumin seed trader at an APMC market in Unjha constituency of Mehsana district.

Another cause for worry for the BJP is that the rural distress is overlapping the social unrest in the Patel community.

We continue to face a lot of problems because of demonetisation and GST. Farmers do not accept cheques, they want ready cash. We didn’t have cash when demonetisation happened and there was no business for several months- Jatin Patel, cumin seed trader at an APMC market in Unjha, Mehsana

“Price rise is a major issue in rural areas because while there has been an increase in prices of all commodities, the income of farmers has not increased. Not all members of the Patel community are rich. Is development only for ministers and not for common people?" said Chetan Patel, a 41-year-old farmer in Unjha.

In districts of Saurashtra, polling for which took place on Saturday, farmers echo the view. “The farmers are most upset. If poor monsoon and loss of cash crops like cotton and groundnut was not enough, the money for crop insurance has not reached us. The government feels they have done a lot for us and so complacency has seeped in," said Jayeshbhai Jayantbhai Patel, a farmer and trader at an APMC market on the outskirts of Rajkot.

Ahmedabad-based political analyst Mahashweta Jani, who is also the state coordinator for CSDS, said, “The state government has not been able to meet the aspirations and demands of the people. The problem is not limited to rural distress or farmers not getting prices for their produce, it is also related to livestock issues. The state government has not been able to provide compensation to the farmers for their agriculture produce and losses due to livestock."

Anuja contributed to this story.

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