Mandsaur/Ujjain: A pungent smell hangs heavy in the air as one nears the gates of Piplya Mandi in Madhya Pradesh’s Mandsaur district. Close to a hundred trucks and tractor trolleys loaded with garlic are awaiting their turn to enter the market yard. Due to the heavy rush, it takes over a day for farmers to step into the market and auction their produce.

The rush to dispose off the garlic is despite the fact that farmers will lose anywhere between 12-15 on each kilogram of garlic sold. Wholesale prices have crashed to 7 per kg, with some selling their stock for as low as 2 per kg. They had waited since March in the hope that prices would recover. But that day never came. Now, the prevalent fear is that prices may collapse further.

Roughly 30 kilometres away, outside the Nayi Anaj Mandi in Mandsaur, 65-year-old Lakshman has just woken up after spending a cold November night atop his harvest of urad (black gram) stored in a minivan. He expects to sell it at less than 4,000 per quintal, about 29% lower than the federal government promised support price of 5,600 per quintal.

“Once you arrive with a dead body to the crematorium, it has to burn. There is no going back," Lakshman says in a matter-of-fact tone. The minivan had to be emptied irrespective of the price. There is no going back.

The despair in Lakshman’s voice resonates across the Malwa-Nimar region of Madhya Pradesh, where farmers have been hit hard, yet again, by an unprecedented collapse in crop prices. In June, last year, the region went up in flames after a farmer protest demanding better prices turned violent. Battalions of police marched in to quell the protests. Five farmers lost their lives in the police firing which ensued.

The violence has passed, but the anger remains. Soybean, a major oilseed grown in these parts, sells at a price lower than what it fetched in 2014. The input costs that farmers incur, however, has shot up in the other direction.

Though Madhya Pradesh is hardly the only state witnessing farm distress, the key difference is that a large chunk of the state’s gross domestic product (GDP) comes from agriculture (over 30% compared to the national average of 17%) and the dependence on farming is widespread.

Consecutive years of record food production—2016-17 and 2017-18—at the national level have brought down wholesale food prices to its lowest levels in the past four years (y-o-y wholesale food price inflation contracted for the fourth consecutive month in October). While the price crash has hit the state’s pulses and oilseeds producers, the overall deflation in farm prices is likely to take centre stage as the country hurtles towards the 2019 general elections.

Electoral map of Malwa

For the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who is battling a 15-year anti-incumbency, farmer discontent is an obvious concern. The state goes to polls on 28 November. The sprawling Malwa-Nimar region sends 66 legislators to the 230 member state assembly. In the 2013 elections, the main opposition party, Indian National Congress, won just 9 out of the 66 seats. But farm distress has provided a shot in the arm for the Congress which is eyeing a comeback.

“We are hopeful of winning at least 40 seats in Malwa-Nimar and expect to perform well in the Chambal region too, where anger among marginal farm households is simmering," said Kedar Sirohi, a young farmer leader from Harda district, who is now heading the farmers’ cell of the Congress. The party is betting on farmers like Lakshman, wooing them with a promise of 2 lakh loan waiver, a new crop insurance scheme, and bonuses over and above the federal government announced crop support prices. The question is whether farmers will fall for it. “I will not need a loan waiver if crop prices are remunerative," said Lakshman. He, however, says that unlike in 2013, he will vote for the Congress this time.

Sultan Singh, another farmer from Malhargarh in Mandsaur, says he cannot remember the last time he voted for the Congress. But many in his village will do a palti (u-turn) this time, he says. “If the Congress does not fulfil its promises, we can always go back to the BJP in the 2019 (general) elections," Singh argues.

Results from the CSDS-Lokniti opinion polls released earlier this month predict a tight contest. The BJP is likely to win in 116 seats with a vote share of 41%, leaving the Congress behind at 105 seats with a vote share of 40%, the survey showed. In the 2013 elections, the BJP had won commandingly with 165 seats, leaving the Congress far behind with just 58 seats.

A 1-2% edge (in vote share) will decide these elections, said Yatindra Singh Sisodia, a professor at the Ujjain-based Madhya Pradesh Institute of Social Science Research. He adds that unlike Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh is a predominantly rural state with just 40 urban seats and no party can hope to form a government without substantial support from rural areas.

“The electoral battle this time will be tightly fought in the rural, scheduled caste and tribal belts, where the BJP had performed well in the 2013 elections," Sisodia said.

Yet, local BJP workers are confident of a good show. “Farmers will again vote for us due to our work in increasing irrigation coverage and crop production… We need to understand that market prices are determined by demand and supply, not by governments," said Rajesh Namdeo, district media in-charge of the BJP in Mandsaur.

Photo: Sayantan Bera/Mint
Photo: Sayantan Bera/Mint

The aftermath of Mandsaur

Dilip Patidar, 42, vividly remembers the afternoon of 6 June, 2017. For five days, farmers had been on strike due to a collapse in crop prices, but no one from the state government had come to hear them out. On the sixth day, the leaderless protest, which was a spontaneous response to a strike called by farmers in Maharashtra, turned violent. Some shops in Piplya Mandi were burnt and several vehicles were torched. The police responded to the arson with bullets. Five farmers died, while one collapsed a day later in police custody.

“Instead of understanding why farmers were protesting, the administration marked the entire movement as one driven by afim taskars (illegal opium dealers) and slapped cases on farmers," said Patidar. Mandsaur, which grows 45 different types of cash crops is also the hub of licensed opium cultivation in India—a winter crop used to make essential drugs like morphine. Patidar, who held on to stocks of spices and pulses for more than two years in the hope that prices may recover says: “We have run out of patience. This time we will do a patiya ullar (change the government)."

Following the Mandsaur clashes, the state government moved fast to assuage farmer anger. It gave 1 crore each to the families who lost a member in the police firing. By October 2017, it had launched a new price support scheme, the Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana, which promised to pay farmers the difference between the actual sale price and the government mandated minimum support price (MSP).

Price fixing by traders began almost immediately. The state government spent close to 2,000 crore on the scheme and abandoned it a year later, following allegations of collusion by a cartel of traders who engineered a price drop since the government was anyway paying out the difference.

“I have seen instances where poor quality urad was sold under Bhavantar scheme for ridiculously low prices of 6 per kg," said Avinash Kishore, a fellow at the Delhi office of the International Food Policy Research Institute. “That the scheme benefited traders who had a far greater bargaining power than farmers is not surprising… that’s a basic learning from public economics," he added.

After the failed tryst with the price support scheme, the state government announced a bonus scheme on 5 October—just in time before the election commission’s model code of conduct came into force. Growers of soybean and maize will receive a flat 500 per quintal, irrespective of market prices. But the catch is that the actual procurement and payment will happen only in January, well after a newly elected government is in office. It was a last-ditch attempt by the BJP to win back any lost ground.

“Madhya Pradesh is also partly a victim of its own success," said Siraj Hussain, former agriculture secretary and a visiting fellow at the Delhi-based Indian Council for Research in International Economic Relations. “The states’ farm sector grew at over 14% annually between 2009-10 and 2014-15 due to improved access to irrigation and higher crop production," he added. As the supply rose, crop prices fell.

A desolate government-run purchase centre for pulses, where only registered farmers are allowed to sell their produce at MSP. Photo: Sayantan Bera/Mint
A desolate government-run purchase centre for pulses, where only registered farmers are allowed to sell their produce at MSP. Photo: Sayantan Bera/Mint

Shivraj vs Modi

In the villages of Malwa, chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan remains popular for the work he did in providing irrigation facilities and regularizing electricity supply for farmers. The discontent is more recent, due to the unintended consequence of the botched Bhavantar scheme which further fuelled a price crash of farm goods, which was already underway.

The ire of the farmers is also directed towards the federal government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Contrary to the much-publicized promise of 50% returns over the cost of production, prices have instead nosedived in the last few years. A new scheme named PM-AASHA which promised direct procurement of pulses and oilseeds has so far failed to come to the aid of farmers.

BJP-sponsored jingles on FM radio stations also tell a story of apparent nervousness. Reminding voters of the pro-poor and farmer-friendly schemes of Shivraj Singh Chouhan, an exasperated campaigner is heard saying “Maaf karo Maharaj, hamara neta to Shivraj (pardon us chief, our leader is Shivraj)" at the end of each jingle. There is no mention of central schemes or the Prime Minister himself.

In Mandsaur’s Sabakheda village, Yashwant Patidar, who was once an avid BJP supporter is blunt. “There was a time when farmers from my village earned crores by selling onions, but today they are struggling. At this rate, we will not even have money to buy clothes. When onion prices rose to 40 per kg (in retail) last month, the centre called a meeting in Delhi to control prices… now that we are selling our onion and garlic at a loss, we see no action," he said.

In the aftermath of demonetization, even the non-remunerative prices paid out by the mandis have moved into the “less cash" realm. Farmers are paid a mere 10,000 in cash per transaction and have to wait more than a week for a bank transfer of the remaining amount, resulting in much griping. Another central government failure, according to farmers, is the indiscriminate import of pulses and oilseeds, which was aimed at keeping food inflation low for urban consumers.

“In 2014, we were fooled by Modi… I sold soybean for 4,000 per quintal then and today the market price is 3,200," said Bikram Singh, a farmer who had brought his oilseed harvest to the anaj mandi in Ujjain.

The auction begins as Singh finishes talking. A motley group of traders arrive with market officials, who announce the initial bid and jot down the final price. The traders visit each trolley loaded with oilseeds, pick up a fistful of the yellow soybeans, bite a bean or two, and spit it out. As they quote a price, they throw the beans carelessly on the ground before moving on to the next trolley. It’s all over in a few seconds. The farmers run behind them to pick up the grain strewn on the floor and put it back in the trolley.

“See, see, how quickly our fate gets sealed," a farmer sighed as the auction ended.

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