Elections 2014 are around the corner. And when elections draw nearer, the Government suddenly wakes up and thinks of its duties towards the people. This year is no exception. Whether it is the one-rank-one-pension for the retired defence personnel or the legal monthly entitlement of 5kg of wheat/rice/millet for poor households under the national Food Security Act or the announcement of a 7th Pay Commission along with a DA instalment for the central government employees or reservation for Jats, the list is endless. It is an election bonanza time.
The more organised you are, and the bigger the vote base, the bigger is the largesse. But for some strange reasons I find the farmers, comprising the largest chunk of the population, have remained largely ignored. With a 54 per cent share in the total population, and forming the biggest vote bank considering there are 60 crore farmers and landless farm workers, the farming community has not received anything more than lip sympathy.
Not only the ruling UPA, even major political parties have refrained from spelling out any economic measure to mitigate the terrible agrarian crisis that the country is faced with. Although the election manifestos of political parties are still to be made public, the fact remains that farmers are not on the electoral radar of any political outfits. I have seen Narendra Modi talking about a higher sugarcane price when he addressed a political rally in Meerut; and at times talk of a Rs5,000-crore intervention fund that he believes will ensure that farmers get adequate market prices for their crops.
He has also been talking of cash crops, and replicating the Gujarat model of agriculture. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has barely acknowledged the presence of farmers in his speeches. He talks of the youth and the women but I have rarely seen him devote a major part of his speech to agriculture and farmers. In Punjab, Parkash Singh Badal has refused to tone down agricultural subsidies. Knowing well that farmers constitute nearly half of the 1.92 crore voters, he has released 7,200 tubewell connections pending for over a decade.
In addition, he has also agreed to pay pending compensation to the families of farmers who had committed suicide. This, too, happened after the farmers staged a massive sit-in for a week or so. In Madhya Pradesh, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan sat on a dharna demanding Rs5,000-crore relief from the Centre for the crop losses suffered by farmers due to hailstorms and incessant rains. Similarly, some other state governments have been announcing timely relief measures to keep the farming flock satisfied with the amount of compensation.
But for a long-term sustainability and overcoming the income inequality in agriculture, nothing is on the cards. Although comprising nearly half of the country's roughly 82-crore voters, farmers have failed to make a difference. It is because as a community they remain divided, and prefer voting on political grounds rather than as a unified farming force, no political party takes them seriously.
Much of the fault also lies with the current leadership of farmer unions and organisations. Most of them are aspiring for Lok Sabha tickets and have been queuing up before the political leaders. In other words, it's the farmers' leaders who have failed the farming communities. They must accept responsibility for the failure of the farming population to emerge as a major political force. At a time when the average monthly income of a farming family has been computed at a paltry Rs2,115, and when close to 2,500 farmers are quitting agriculture every day, all political parties should have seen the urgent need to revitalise agriculture.
All the talk of making the country a superpower in the next few years sounds hollow if two-thirds of the population lives in poverty and hunger. According to some recent studies, about 60 per cent of farmers in India go to bed hungry. A farmer sleeping hungry is a reflection of the terrible crisis that afflicts agriculture. All is not lost yet. It is high time farmers' unions across the country come together and chart out a unified plan before the elections.
They should make it abundantly clear that farmers will only vote for those political parties which promise to support, endorse and put into action their major demands if voted to power. They should refrain from coming out with a 20-point charter of demand and instead narrow down their priorities that need immediate focus. Let me point to some of the priority areas they need to draw attention to.
Farmers need a National Farmers Income Commission: When WTO is challenging minimum support price being paid to farmers, also considering the fact that MSP benefits only 30 per cent of India's farmers, the time has come when farmers need to be given a monthly assured take-home income package. If Mayawati can provide a minimum monthly salary of Rs18,500 for the safai karamcharis in UP, there is no reason why farmers should not get an assured income, DA, health and medical allowances and benefits of pension. Drawing from the experience of Punjab which has a wide network of mandis/markets and link roads, and, thereby, is able to provide farmers with procurement prices, a similar programme needs to be launched across the country for building mandis where farmers can sell their produce at a remunerative price.
In Bihar for instance, in the absence of mandis, farmers are duped and fleeced by trade year after year. Excessive use and abuse of chemical pesticides and fertilisers have not only ruined soil fertility, destroyed the natural resource base and polluted the groundwater, the industrial farming systems have also contaminated the food supply thereby creating health problems and lifestyle diseases.
It is, therefore, time to launch a nationwide mission for sustainable farming based on what has been achieved in Andhra Pradesh. Over 35 lakh acres in AP is now under non-pesticides management, and farmers do not apply chemical fertilisers in 20 lakh hectares. Production is going up. No agricultural land should be allowed to be diverted for non-agricultural purposes. In India, massive land acquisition is underway on the false premise of growth through urbanisation. Even foreign companies are being asked to acquire farmland. Some 31 such ventures/deals are underway.
Given the requirements of a growing population, this will be catastrophic in the years to come. Even China is now rectifying the mistake it made in acquiring farmlands. Agriculture should be made economically viable and sustainable in the long-term to ensure that farming remains the biggest employer. Killing jobs in agriculture and creating menial jobs in cities is not economic growth.
The author is a food and agriculture policy analyst