New Delhi: Chana: 12 quintal; Dhaniya: 45 quintal; Methi: 50 quintal; Soybean: 60 quintal; Masoor: 10 quintal; Kalonji: 8 quintal; Khas Khas: 7 quintal; Ajwain: 4 quintal. This is a laundry list of what Dilip Patidar, a farmer from Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh, is unable to sell since mid-2016 when farm gate prices began to fall.

“I have been waiting for prices to rise at least to a level I can make some profit," Patidar said over the phone. It never did. He stored the spices, pulses and oilseeds in five rooms inside his sprawling house, which is shared by the extended family. To step into Patidar’s house is like setting foot inside a spice box—a thick aroma hangs heavy in the air—Mint had found during a trip to his village in September , 2017. Things have only worsened since then. For instance, Patidar held on to Dhaniya (coriander seeds) for three years and saw wholesale prices plunge from 12,000 to 4,000 per quintal.

Mandsaur, an erstwhile agriculturally prosperous district in Madhya Pradesh growing about 45 different types of cash crops, erupted in protests over falling prices in June last year. What was unusual about these protests was the fact that they were spontaneous, without a leader or even a farmer organization driving it. The result was widespread arson on the streets which led to police firing and death of five farmers on 6 June. The discontent has grown since then.

At least two other agriculturally and electorally important states—Rajasthan and Chattisgarh—will go to polls later this year and, in all three, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in power. With challenger the Congress taking up the issue of rural distress aggressively in all three poll-bound states and the BJP trying to project itself as a pro-farmers party by taking a slew of policy decisions, it is a key electoral issue. Remember, rural distress has been an important factor in the assembly elections in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka and Bihar.

Rural distress

Benchmark rural indicators also paint a grim picture. Growth in rural wages, adjusted for inflation, fell to -0.9% in March, after registering a steady fall every month since November last year. The most challenging part about the discontent among farmers is that it is fairly widespread, from sugarcane farmers in Uttar Pradesh to cotton and dairy farmers in Maharashtra. There have been many extreme images, from farmers in Karnataka dumping their tomatoes by the roadside and a farmer in Maharashtra’s Marathwada killing himself and blaming the government for false promises, to those in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh dying while waiting in a queue to sell their produce.

On 4 July, the federal government raised the minimum support price (MSP) for 14 Kharif crops significantly, the largest during its term since May 2014. While the MSP for paddy was raised by 13% year-on-year, for oilseeds and pulses the hikes were between 10-28%. But this may not be enough to pacify the angry farmers.

“Political compulsions have forced governments to acknowledge the distress among farmers...so we are seeing desperate attempts like higher MSP announcements and states announcing loan waivers," said Ashok Gulati, agriculture chair professor at the Delhi-based Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations.

“These measures may not lead to much...the problem arising out of plenty in crops like sugarcane, pulses and milk is here to stay for a few years."

Electoral fault lines

In March this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a meeting in New Delhi with all the chief ministers of the BJP-ruled states in which he categorically pointed out that rural distress or the problems being faced by farmers should be addressed at the earliest. There is a sense within the BJP that the problem of rural distress or anger among farmers could adversely affect the party’s poll prospects.

The impact of growing anger in the farm sector was also visible during the recent bypoll defeat of ruling BJP in Kairana, Uttar Pradesh. The sugarcane dues of about 770 crore became a rallying point for the voters and opposition parties. That’s why the government announced a package of 7,500 crore to help sugar mills clear pending payments to sugarcane farmers.

“Farm distress would be the single largest issue across the country and the opposition parties want to take it up against the ruling BJP in a big way. This issue would be taken up both inside and outside the Parliament. This government has not fulfilled its promises and the time has come to make them answerable for it," said Sudhir Panwar, senior leader of Samajwadi Party (SP) based in Lucknow.

The severity of the crisis and its immediate political fallout has forced the BJP leadership to announce farm loan waiver in all election-bound states in the last one year. But experts remain sceptical about the impact on the ground. “The BJP is trying to project itself as a pro-poor, pro-farmer party. For instance, in Madhya Pradesh they have announced a number of farm-related incentives, but what is happening on the ground is there is no infrastructure for smooth procurement or transfer of money to bank accounts," said Yatindra Singh Sisodia, director of Ujjain-based Madhya Pradesh Institute of Social Science Research.

The opposition’s outreach

Last month, Congress president Rahul Gandhi visited Mandsaur to mark one year of police firing on protesting farmers. Gandhi was quick to announce that if his party came to power it will waive off farm loans within 10 days of attaining office. The Congress has also announced its intent to provide interest-free loans to cover input costs to tenant farmers, sharecroppers and farmers owning and cultivating up to two hectares of land. It had also made rural distress a key issue in Punjab elections last year.

“There is no one to talk about the rights of farmers in Jaipur. The agriculture minister says that farmer suicide is because of family dispute and land issues…government announces MSP, now procurement agencies join hands with black marketers, so farmers are forced to sell their produce at lower prices," Sachin Pilot, chief of Congress’ Rajasthan unit, told Mint last week.

The alliance partners of the BJP, especially Janata Dal (United) or JDU, and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) have also raised questions on how the government plans to deliver on its decisions. “We want to take it up with the BJP leaders. The question is how the government would ensure that farmers get the MSP. Sometimes farmers are forced to sell at lower prices than MSP because of middlemen. The decision is good, but we have our concerns about the delivery," said a senior JDU leader on the condition of anonymity.

Defending its decision on MSP, the BJP leaders argue that the NDA has consistently taken pro-farmer policy decisions. “India has seen record food production in the last couple of years, but farm prices consistently became an issue," said G.V.L. Narsimha Rao, national spokesperson of the BJP.

Meanwhile, farmer organizations are now planning to keep up the pressure. The All India Kisan Sabha, the farmer’s wing of the Communist Party on India (Marxist), is busy laying the groundwork to gather at least 300,000 farmers and workers to Delhi on 5 September. Clearly, this issue is going to heat up further as the elections draw closer.

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