â€œCommon sense is, after all, very uncommon.â€
- Mark Twain
With the 2004 General Election results, the kisans (farmers) of
There has been abundant reflection on the results of the elections. Although most analysts and observers seem to read a variety of political messages in the outcome, the main lesson is actually eminently simple. Read in the long-term perspective of the results of the past half a dozen Indian elections, the writing on the wall is that any government â€“ led by the BJP, the Congress or any other â€“ which fails to enable ordinary people, especially the rural poor, in meeting their basic needs, does not stand a chance of keeping its hold on the seat of power in New Delhi.
Times donâ€™t change so easily. During the past 15 years
However, in West Bengal, belying nation-wide trends, the Communist government has retained power for the past 27 years, while 10 different Prime Ministers have been in and out of
There is an obvious answer to the rise of the anti-incumbency factor during the past decade and a half. In a significant break from the world-view of his mother, grounded as it was in the realities of the electoral arithmetic (and rhetoric), dominated by rural
In terms of electoral arithmetic, as has become obvious after the latest shock for the BJP, ruling parties and coalitions in New Delhi have been consistently neglecting (since Rajiv Gandhi in the 1989 elections) the central concerns of at least two-thirds of the electorate. Should the anti-incumbency factor or the recent â€œupsetâ€ of the BJP have surprised anyone? On the contrary, what should have been a matter of some surprise is how every political party concerned could ever have imagined that those on the receiving end of unfair policies would overlook their neglect of the interests of the vast majority of people and vote them back to power! Only pie-in-the-sky, self-delusional optimism could lead any politician or analyst to sanguinely arrive at such a conclusion. And yet, given the shock they expressed at the results, this is precisely what the vast majority of the Indian intelligentsia, with some honorable exceptions, seemed to have believed!
By now, based on elementary electoral arithmetic, it is safe to predict that every government which fails to bring clearly noticeable improvement in the lives of the rural poor stands absolutely no chance of being voted back to power. Two-thirds of
The simple reality that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has to face is that if he sidesteps the interests of the less than 2% of â€œshiningâ€ Indians whose fortunes are directly affected by the movements of the stock market (which involves a mere 4% of national savings) he does not risk his partyâ€™s tenure in office nearly as much as if he does not give due priority to the concerns of the two-thirds of India whose fate rests on the well-being of agriculture. If this elementary lesson is lost on the Congress and its allies, one can rest assured that the dark days of saffron rule will return to haunt
The Congress enjoyed its share of good fortune in the 2004 elections. By ignoring virtually three-quarters of the country (if we also take note of urban slum and pavement-dwellers), their opponents brought themselves down, leaving plenty of â€œdefaultâ€ votes for the Congress. This is not something the Congress can rely on as an electoral strategy for the future. The shoe will tend to be on the other foot next time.
More than a vote for the Congress it has been a vote against the BJP and, in fact, for good governance and the basic needs of the poor. The Congress already knows this. In the era of multi-party coalition politics â€“ and this is the first time in its long history that the Congress is heading a coalition government â€“ there is nothing holy and sacrosanct about it or any other party. Indian democracy is not a stage-managed, two-party system, like the American one. Unlike in many parts of the Western world, where voter apathy is rife and democratic systems are yielding cynically predictable outcomes, the underlying vitality of the democratic ethos in
However, in the rough and tumble of everyday politics it is easy to forget the lessons of the past. The Congress-led UPA government must keep up the wise restraint that Sonia Gandhi showed in not responding to the everyday barbs directed at her by the Sangh Parivar (nobly denying the post of Prime Minister too), and instead focus on an achievable set of goals for rural development, generation of employment and the elimination of poverty in addition to maintaining a secular peace. It just has to stay loyal to such a minimalist agenda â€“ enunciated lavishly in the recently announced Common Minimum Programme â€“ and the votes will come in the next elections. The Congress needs to avoid like the plague the provocations that the bankrupt BJP-led opposition is bound to send in its direction. But they will have to get defensive if their programmes are not working in the countryside and the urban slums.
The new government has to anchor its priorities in rural
The re-prioritization of a devastated agriculture
For all the industrialization, and the growth in the service economy, it is most unlikely that
When you contemplate the catastrophe that has been brought upon the Indian countryside by the agricultural policies of the BJP government, it is in fact surprising that the electoral verdict was not even more severe. As the journalist P.Sainath has noted, only a deluded mass media obsessed with consumerist fantasies could fail to notice the banal realities of the Indian countryside. While city journalists fastened their attention on the fashion parades and the beauty contests, droughts ravaged the villages, growing millions went hungry and across India thousands of farmers drank pesticides and committed suicide in order to draw the attention of the government to their plight in the wake of agricultural policies influenced heavily by a desire to please the World Trade Organization (WTO).
The UPA, in its Common Minimum Programme (CMP) speaks of â€œspreading and deepening rural prosperity.â€ But where is the â€œrural prosperityâ€ it is promising to spread and deepen? Indian agriculture has recently suffered from willful, cruel neglect and, in the wake of the Neo-liberal reforms, has had its most disastrous decade since independence. It has recorded its lowest rates of growth since 1947. The annualized rate of growth in agriculture has slipped from 3.7% to 2.3% within a decade. The Government of Indiaâ€™s Economic Survey for 2002 reports that capital investment in agriculture (involving key expenditures on areas like irrigation and electrification), as a proportion of GDP, has fallen from an already meagre 1.6% to 1.3% over the first decade after the reforms were introduced. Not surprisingly, as a result, the rate of growth of agricultural productivity has fallen from an annual 3% to a dismal 1.2%. Agriculture used to contribute about a third of the GDP around the time that the BJP alliance took power in 1998. Today it contributes a little under a fourth of the GDP, thanks to the declines that have taken place in rural incomes and the declining prices that agricultural producers have been receiving for their crops. (Even the share of industry in
The BJP, in its â€œIndia Shiningâ€/â€œFeel Goodâ€ electoral campaign was claiming that national foodgrain production had never done better, growing at over 8% per annum. Its great deception lay in its concealment of the fact that the figure appears so high since 2002-03 was a drought year, when the Monsoon failed (and the rate of agricultural growth in that year was â€“3.7% over the previous year!). Agricultural economist Utsa Patnaik has pointed out that the output of foodgrains in 2003-04 is still 14 million tons below the high level reached in 2000-01, and is only comparable to the volume produced 7 years ago. During these past 7 years
(Research done by Abhijit Sen of Jawaharlal Nehru University shows that over the decade 1989-90 to 1999-00, while the overall consumption of the top 20% of the urban population grew by 40%, and that of the top 20% of the rural population by 20%, the consumption of the bottom 80% of the rural population actually declined! Moreover, it is worth keeping in view the fact that the data cover only the period till 2000, and the implementation of WTO-led policies in Indian agriculture has intensified in the past half-decade. One can legitimately speculate that inequalities have grown further by now.)
Utsa Patnaik computes that per capita availability of food has declined for the first time since the 1960s. This has happened not just because of growing population in a time of stagnant production (which could be compensated by increased imports if people had the necessary purchasing power to buy them), but also because more grain is being used as fodder for animals (whose meat is being exported abroad) and because more land than ever before is being devoted to the production of cash crops (including such items as prawns and flowers for export), instead of towards foodgrains for domestic consumption (area under coarse grains â€“ a staple with the poor â€“ declined by a shocking 7 million hectares during the 1990s). The rate of absorption of foodgrains per head of the population has dropped to the same level of 150 kilograms per year that it was in 1950-51, after peaking at 174 kilograms in 1997-98. Such a drop has not taken place in
The accumulating stocks of food in public godowns (overflowing with more than 60 million tons of foodgrains) bear witness to the hard work of
There were two motivations behind the reduction of food subsidies. One was to address, in part, the issue of the budget deficit, in turn directed by the IMF-dictated structural adjustment austerity policies which routinely call for balanced budgets (though only in Third World countries), which are, additionally, deflationary in their effect on the economy. The more serious motivation was to allow cheap (heavily subsidized) grain from the
Thus, the BJP government was faced with a problem of its own making: what to do with the growing public stock of foodgrains, particularly since the costs of storage were a drain on the exchequer? It was this which led some people in the government to ask for shutting down the Food Corporation of India and reducing, if not putting an end to state procurement of food from farmers, an age-old policy which, coupled with the PDS, has been instrumental in ensuring, at once, stable agricultural prices and incomes to vulnerable farmers, as much as in providing cheap food to the poor.
Not only has the BJP governmentâ€™s failure to use the food surplus to feed the hungry and the undernourished been spectacular, its agricultural policies have all but neutralized within a mere 6 years the immense gains made by Indian agriculture over the decades since independence. From a point of self-sufficiency in the production of food,
The demands of global agri-businesses, pushed through the WTO, and heeded gladly by the BJP government, have all but undone the finely balanced system of food procurement and distribution that
It is obvious that the largest Multinational corporations engaged in the food business have been eyeing
From the point of view of Indian farmers however, this has meant a threat to the procurement system for the purchase of food, something which has traditionally assured them of stable prices. (As students of elementary Microeconomics know very well, agricultural prices in the best of times, thanks to production decisions lagging behind market demand, tend to wobble in cobweb-like fashion and the only protection against this is the purchase of crops and the accumulation of temporary buffer stocks by the state.)
The immense unfairness in the prevailing WTO rules for trade in agricultural produce is obvious. They overlook massive dumping of cheap, heavily subsidized food in the poor countries by giant Western agribusinesses. They permit the OECD countries to subsidize their agriculture to the tune of a billion dollars a day (compared to Indian farmers who receive a billion dollars of government support a year). But they have forced poor countries, including
Rising agricultural subsidies in the
Why have costs of agricultural production been rising? Partly as measures to address the fiscal deficit (again, driven by IMF prescriptions of austerity budgets) and to a greater extent in order to please the WTO, the BJP government slashed agricultural input subsidies during its tenure in office. Farmers now have to pay significantly higher prices for power, water, seeds, pesticides and fertilizers. The cost of Urea, for instance, rose by over 30% between 1998 and 2004. (During 2002-03 the BJP government slashed fertilizer subsidies precisely during the worst drought in 15 years!) The price of diesel, critically needed for running tube-wells and tractors, more than doubled between 1998 and 2004.
Further, thanks to gene patenting and Trade-related intellectual property rights (TRIPS), enforced by the WTO on Developing countries, farmers now often have to buy costly seeds from corporations (which they could earlier freely replenish from their own stocks).
However, most catastrophically for the small and marginal farmers of
Over the past 6 years, agriculture credit became a low priority with the government. Some committees even suggested withdrawal of all credit support to farmers. The priorities of the BJP government can be judged from the fact that in addition to their under-spending last yearâ€™s earmarked budget for agriculture by 14% (including in irrigation), there was a widely noticeable easing of credit for consumer purchases in urban areas (part of the â€œshiningâ€
Thus, small and marginal farmers have had to take recourse to private sources of lending. As many as 60 per cent of them have been borrowing from private moneylenders. Poorer farmers have had to pay even higher rates of interest, ranging from 100 to as high as 460% in some of the arid districts of the country, the worst stories being reported from Orissa, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh. Thousands of farmers have even been sent to jail for their inability to pay back small loans. Many, many small and marginal farmers have actually lost their land over the past decade and turned into landless laborers after not being able to get out of the debt trap. According to the governmentâ€™s own estimates the number of small and marginal farmers who are ending up losing their land and becoming landless laborers has been over 2 million every year since 1998! In states like Tamil Nadu, the government has had to offer one meal a day for free to small farmers and their families, together with the free meals offered to unemployed landless laborers.
These rude realities, added to the increased exposure of the Indian peasantry to international markets and the continued dependence on the Monsoons, have made agriculture increasingly unviable for any barring the rich peasantry (who have plenty of land and abundant access to cheap credit), and underlie the over 20,000 suicides by farmers reported from across the country. It needs to be noted that for every suicide committed there were reportedly scores of farmers on the brink of it. Even areas like
The governments of various concerned states, as much as the BJP government itself, have been keen to connect the suicides with alcoholism among farmers, rooted allegedly in psychological causes to do with loss of swabhiman (self-respect). However, studies done by the governments themselves (as in the case of Karnataka), have shown a nearly perfect correlation between suicides and high debts. Death was often the only way for the afflicted farmers to redeem themselves and their families from a humiliating predicament, stemming from material hopelessness.
Log-jammed between adverse market conditions, on account of unfairly low prices induced by the WTO-led agricultural policies of the BJP government, and sharply rising costs of inputs in a time of extremely cruel credit conditions, Indiaâ€™s small and marginal farmers (especially in the dry districts of the country) have been all but wiped out by government policies which have not merely been insensitive but, as the election results show abundantly, in the end, politically suicidal for the ruling coalition.
It is one of the many shames of the BJPâ€™s rule in