An Indian farmer. (AFP)
An Indian farmer. (AFP)

Opinion | Will the indian farmer be the kingmaker in the 17th Lok Sabha election

Farmers are still largest section of voters...no political party can ignore crisis in agriculture

The lead-up to the 17th Lok Sabha has begun with the announcement of the schedule of the general election. As in any election, this one too will be fought on several issues. But one issue which will remain the focus is the crisis in agriculture. The depth of the crisis this time is unprecedented and it has only intensified in the last two years. The breadth of it has also widened, with all sub-sectors of the agrarian sector affected by it— be it the food grain economy, horticulture, cash crops or the livestock economy. While the reasons for each of these are separate, it has led to a situation where large parts of the agrarian economy have actually seen a decline in real incomes.

But the crisis, although driven by the crisis in agriculture, is no longer restricted to agriculture—the most recent estimates of wages in rural India confirm that the crisis is also of the rural non-farm economy which has come to a grinding halt in the last six months. The deceleration in wage rates is the worst in the last three decades, marking the longest spell of low wage growth. Clearly, the declining incomes in agriculture and stagnant wages have contributed to rural demand decline which is now threatening to affect the larger economy. Data from automobile sales and sale of durables has confirmed the slowdown in demand in recent months.

The crisis in agriculture is now not a matter of speculation but is already evident on the streets with several protests in different parts of the country. The fact that it cannot be ignored politically is evident from the last round of state legislative assembly elections in November-December 2018. Anger among farmers was one of the prominent reasons for the defeat of the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. On the other hand, the political dole-out of 4,000 per acre to farmers as part of the Rythu Bandhu scheme catapulted the incumbent Telangana Rashtra Samithi back to power in Telangana.

Because farmers are still the largest section of voters, no political party can ignore the crisis in agriculture. While there is recognition of the crisis, there is no solution to the crisis in the near future. Most states have already implemented loan waivers in states where elections have been held in the last two years. It has certainly not reduced the intensity of the crisis.

Although the main opposition Congress party has already promised a nationwide loan waiver, there is limited incremental gain to the farmer in states where loan waivers have already been implemented. Similarly, higher minimum support prices in line with the Swaminathan Committee recommendations are unlikely to be promised by political parties given the difficulty in implementing it.

The new mantra is the promise of cash transfers which has already been announced by the states going for polls in the next six months and also by the central government. But none of these have had any impact on prices of agricultural commodities, which continue to remain low, or on overall rural demand which continues to remain depressed.

While the income transfer may benefit farmers in the short run and may even have some impact on rural demand in the medium to long run, it is unlikely to assuage the feeling of neglect and indifference among farmers.

Will these short-term palliatives douse farmers’ anger? Unlikely—given the nature of the crisis. But it is certain that the issue of agrarian crisis is going to be a major issue.

Himanshu is associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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