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With Indians and all political parties are gearing up for Lok Sabha elections, many questions have been raised related to scams, national security, economy, etc. But the poor Indian farmer has rarely become a national issue before elections and for them, it must be a pleasant surprise this year. This year the politicians have raked up the issue of farmers’ distress.

In the past few years, we have seen several farmers’ protests nationwide, with a few turning violent. In these protests, farmer groups came together from Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, and Telangana. These protests highlighted the plight of farmers and the extent of agrarian distress. The agricultural distress and farmer angst kept on boiling as the promises made by the state governments remained unfulfilled. The first and foremost problem to farmers plight is that farming remains a state subject so most central governments do not think much about their problems unless the rains have failed, and rural consumption is down or something similar. The other problem is that, in terms of vote banks, even in most states, politicians woo specific castes instead of the farming / agricultural community as a whole.

The agriculture sector is characterised by instability in incomes because of various types of risks involved in production, market, and prices. The National Commission of Farmers (2006), chaired by M.S. Swaminathan, had pointed out that something “very serious and terribly wrong is happening in the countryside.” The agriculture growth rates have been unsteady in the recent past. While it was 1.5% in 2012-13, it rose to 5.6% in 2013-14. In 2014-15, the rate dipped to (-) 0.2%, while in 2015-16 it was 0.7%. The provisional estimate puts it at 4.9% in 2016-17. The trend reflects the distress in the agriculture sector.

The unsteady agriculture growth rates gave rise to farmer suicides. India is an agrarian country with around 70% of its people depending directly or indirectly upon agriculture. But farmers’ suicides in India is worrying. As per the Central Government despite a multi-pronged approach to improving income and social security of farmers, over 12,000 suicides were reported in the agricultural sector every year since 2013. Farmer suicides account for approximately 10% of all suicides in India.

Farmer suicides in Maharashtra have virtually doubled during 2015-2018, under the tenure of Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, compared to the period 2011-2014, an RTI reply has revealed. According to the data received by RTI activist Jeetendra Ghadge, compared to 6,268 cases of farmers suicides recorded between 2011-2014 during the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party rule, under the present Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena regime, it has almost doubled to 11,995 between 2015-2018.

But it’s just not the agriculture growth rate numbers that have also led to a rise in distress amongst farmers. Two successive years of drought (2014, 2015) have taken a toll on the farm sector. The government has allocated significant funds for the sector but the slow implementation of projects has not eased the pain. Drought in Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Karnataka have also added to farmers’ woes.

The Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana was launched in 2016 to provide insurance and financial support to farmers in the event of failure of any crops due to natural calamities, pests, and diseases. But it failed to gain the attention of the farmers and saw a lower number of enrolments due to its high premium and lack of innovation by the insurance companies.

Problems in Indian farming can be solved only when the Centre and the states come together in a show of cooperative federalism as they did for GST. The other steps all require lots of political will, as most of them go against entrenched interests.

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