The Marie Antoinettes of Maharashtra

The remarks of Shankersinh Vaghela and Vilasrao Deshmukh on Maharashtra farmers capture the elite mindset. Those doing badly are in trouble because of their own laziness. Killing themselves in large numbers only proves how lazy they are.



In the good old days, a Minister or Governor getting out of something he had said simply denied it. “I was misquoted.” Or it was “a total fabrication.” Television complicates things. Cures for foot-in-the mouth-disease get messy when you’ve goofed up on camera. The ruling etiquette now is: “My words were taken out of context.” Only, we are seldom told what that “context” is.


And so it was in Maharashtra this week. First, Union Textiles Minister Shankersinh Vaghela appeared to be fighting the coming Gujarat elections in Maharashtra. That too, at a meeting of the Cotton Brokers’ Association in Akola district. He extolled the farmers of his home State and batted for Gujarati pride. Which is fine. His own people, both farmers and non-farmers, are very hard-working. But then he added that the problem with farmers in Maharashtra was that they “just sit around and don’t go to their farms.” He wanted them to learn about hard work from his own State. “You must emulate the farmers of Gujarat. Come there and see for yourselves,” he said.


That these homilies were delivered in Vidharbha — a region seeing countless farm suicides — was bad enough. But there was more to follow. The guardian of the destinies of 100 million people in Maharashtra took the mike and rubbed it in. “There is some truth in what he has hinted … we must keep it in mind,” said Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh.


And then — in a shot at humour — “Our farmers here, too, are ‘innovative.’ They sprinkle water on cotton, add stones to it, to increase the weight of their yield when they bring it to market.” And still more: “A farmer here is also innovative in increasing his cotton sowing area on paper, to seek government aid. Vidharbha farmers don’t lag behind in innovation.”


The Chief Minister has since said his words were taken out of context. Which sort of obliges him to explain — what was the context? Did he say such things at all, in any context? His response to a channel that carried his speech: “Nothing was said in Akola that was insulting to the farmers. Using specific parts of the speech, the opposition is now making a mountain out of a molehill. The speech has been used in such a way that it appears to be insulting the farmers. Being a farmer myself I know of the hardships faced by them. Implementing programmes for their benefit is primary for me.” Which “specific parts?” Obviously, the Chief Minister said things he would like to distance himself from. But it is very difficult to do that when those “specific parts” are on camera and are repeatedly being telecast. The subsequent exercise seems to result more in damage expansion than damage control.


The fallout has been most damaging. It was barely a month ago that Mr. Deshmukh’s own party in the State gave in a report to its Central leadership, slamming his failures on the farm front. In Vidharbha region, his own party workers see this speech as a blunder that will cost them dearly. And party leaders in Delhi seem quite annoyed.


Meanwhile, a seed industry lobby has just advanced claims of stunning success for the Vidharbha farmer with Bt cotton. Yet this presents the leaders with a dilemma. The timing of the industry’s claims is odd. It comes when the State is struggling to polish its image on the Vidharbha front. The claim is that the farmer in the region actually earned thousands of crores of rupees more last year. For one thing: how did “lazy” farmers end up doing so well? For another, that was the same year in which the State government’s own survey declared that over three fourths of farm households there were in distress. Of course, the State survey studied 17.64 lakh farm households or millions of people. The industry’s ‘sample’ was less than 350 farmers in the region.


More vital, though, is how the whole drama captures the elite mindset. Those doing badly are in trouble because of their own laziness. If they were hard-working, there would be no problem. Killing themselves in large numbers only proves how lazy they are. Most top leaders of the State have not visited a single distressed farm household of their own accord through all this period of crisis. The same leaders always have time for Bollywood functions. Maharashtra‘s top bosses met families of suicide victims — most reluctantly — for the first time in 2006. That’s because they had to tag along with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on his trip to Vidharbha last year.


It’s curious how Maharashtra, with its “lazy” farmers, led the country for three or more decades in cotton and sugar production before running into trouble. According to this government, the last season saw a gigantic “bumper crop” of almost 350 lakh quintals of cotton. And now industry says the next crop will exceed even that by 100 lakh quintals. Not bad for a bunch of lazy farmers fighting floods, pest, rising input costs, falling prices, chikangunya and their own government.


Well over 90 per cent of the State’s cotton is produced in rain-fed regions. For farmers in Vidharbha to produce the quality they do with no irrigation is a huge achievement. More so when the State itself is plugging inputs like Bt seed that demand more and more water. This hardly squares with their being lazy.


Above all, the farmers of the region the two leaders were mocking have had to contend with a government that came to power on a promise of Rs. 2700 per quintal of cotton — then betrayed that promise at once. So who is the cheat? The mythical little guy wetting his cotton to make it heavier? Or a government whose ruthless gutting of a poll promise destroyed so many lives? Or was the Congress party’s manifesto quoted “out of context?”


Yet all this is like a re-run of a very bad movie. It is what the elite like to believe of the poor. In 2003-04, as reports on the Andhra Pradesh suicides grew in number, many well-read persons in Maharashtra asked in wide-eyed innocence: “what is it with these Andhra Pradesh farmers? What’s wrong with them? How come we don’t have those suicides here in Maharashtra?”


Three years on, we all know better. But Mr. Vaghela, apparently, does not. He also overlooked the “advantage” that Gujarat enjoys in two respects. It has the biggest “parallel” or chor Bt seed industry. Some farmers claim that the ‘desi’ Bt coming out of Gujarat works better than Monsanto’s product. So many cotton growers in Gujarat don’t pay the gigantic royalties per bag that they would to the multinational were they forced to use its brand. In Maharashtra, a government agency is the distributor for the most expensive Bt seed of the MNC. That’s why farmers in Vidharbha in fact try to buy the Gujarati version. Some even respectfully call it “non-royalty Bt.”


Farmers in Gujarat also have up to 40 per cent irrigation, in one estimate. Which dwarfs Vidharbha’s three per cent. There is another “advantage” no less risky. All the States going through the crisis have seen cycles of large-scale, new generation chemical use. Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Vidharbha went into those cycles before Gujarat did. (And they too saw initial gains.) The rest, we know, is history. And Mr. Vaghela, at least, ought to learn from it. There are huge problems ahead.


Whether Mr. Deshmukh will learn is another question altogether. There have been two years in which Vidharbha could have been turned around quite a bit. But the laziness that came in the way was not that of the farmer. The laziness in forgetting what your manifesto promised was also not that of the farmer. Nor is the laziness involved in going to the region many times without visiting the affected households. Something real leaders ought to do.


Mr. Deshmukh’s own government has made one major contribution. It carried out the largest survey ever of its kind on farm households in the region. Its own survey says close to 75 per cent of farm households — or nearly seven million people — there are in distress. In just six districts. It confirms that people were and are working harder and harder to earn less and less. That some two million people are in what the survey calls “maximum distress.”


Brushing aside your own findings and holding forth on the failings of the farmers invites public outrage. And that outrage has come, leading to the “clarifications.” The causes of farm distress have been documented many times over both in Vidharbha and in other regions. To push the kind of reasons Mr. Vaghela and Mr. Deshmukh have advanced is to emulate the French Queen at the time of the 1789 Revolution who wanted to know why, if the hungry masses did not have bread, they could not eat cake instead. Current wisdom is that she never really said this. (Perhaps, like Mr. Deshmukh’s, her words were “taken out of context.”) Either way, Marie Antoinette would have felt at home in Maharashtra. Here we destroy the masses, not royalty.




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