Yogendra Yadav has been one of the main drivers behind the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, a platform of over 180 organisations that have come together to raise two key demands concerning the country’s farming community. The first one is to make minimum support prices (MSP) for crops a statutorily-guaranteed right and the second is to create a permanent institutional mechanism to confer farmers “freedom from debt”. In an interview, he discusses the current state of farmers and the way forward.
You have done quite a bit of travelling and interacting with farmers across India. Is there a common strand among them that you would identify, especially in the current context?
Farmers are a diverse lot, whether you see it in terms of agro-climatic conditions; what crops they grow; the communities to which they belong; and also their political histories. The Punjab farmer, for instance, is more experienced in organised mobilisation than his counterpart in neighbouring Haryana. But wading though this diversity, the one thing that I can say reflects the current mood of farmers is a united sense of despair. I haven’t seen a single farmer who wants his son to be a farmer. Even the sons of farmers, owning SUVs and maintaining decent lifestyles such as those in the relatively prosperous Terai belt of Uttar Pradesh, don’t want to emulate their fathers. The second thing I have seen, which again cuts across all farmers, is anger against government. This all-round disenchantment is more so against the current government at the Centre.
But why this government?
Well, unlike the earlier Congress government, this one came in with lot of expectations. Many farmers you talk to are willing to grant latitude to Narendra Modi’s government on issues concerning national security, surgical strikes against Pakistan, etc. But if you ask what this government has done for farmers, the unanimous opinion is that “it has done nothing for us” (“hamare liye to kuch nahi kiya”). This anti-farmer perception is clearly beginning to stick.
When do you think this happened?
It has happened over time. When Modi, at the time of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, promised that his government would guarantee farmers 50 per cent return over their production cost, it was a major electoral bait. There was naturally some disappointment, then, when the new government tried to change the Land Acquisition Act, doing away with the need for obtaining farmer consent, and also forcing states such as Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh to stop giving bonuses over and above the Centre’s MSPs for wheat and paddy.
The last straw on the camel’s back, however, came when prices of all crops crashed during May-June this year. Earlier to that, we had the demonetisation decision. When I travelled through UP’s potato belt — the whole stretch from Aligarh to Agra, Mainpuri and Farrukhabad — during November-December, I saw farmers standing for 7-8 hours in long lines to withdraw cash from banks. But they did not seem to mind it. Notebandi had some kind of moral appeal. Also, that was the time just before the UP Assembly elections when Modi offered what was to be a second electoral bait: the promise of a crop loan waiver. Since UP isn’t any other state and this was virtually a national poll, farmers again took it seriously.
But as subsequent events have shown, the loan waivers were a sham. And when farmers saw prices of their crop crash in May-June, they suddenly started drawing connections with demonetisation. Here, we need to bear in mind an important point. When droughts take place, as they did in 2014 and 2015, farmers generally see it as their ill fate. But when prices crash, they invariably blame the government. And in this case, farmers were looking at a good harvest after two consecutive drought years. So, when prices crashed, it turned out to be truly a “what-the-hell” moment. The same farmers who earlier viewed notebandi as ethically and morally right have now swung to the other extreme. They are willing to believe all kinds of conspiracy theories surrounding that decision.
But hasn’t the government sought to make amends?
The MSP for wheat in the current rabi season has been significantly hiked, import duties on edible oils and pulses have been raised, export restrictions have been lifted.. It is a late and lethargic response. As the saying goes, “ab pachchtaye hot kya, chidiya chug gayi khet” (what’s the point repenting now, when the bird has already eaten the harvest).
How do you explain this recent resurgence of farmer movements?
For that, you need to understand why they seemingly died in the first place. The reason for it was fragmentation at the top and loss of credibility at the bottom. Even in their heydays, the old farm leaders like Mahendra Singh Tikait, Sharad Joshi and M D Nanjundaswamy made no sincere attempts to work together. Their own BKU (Bharatiya Kisan Union), Shetkari Sanghatana and KRRS (Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha) splintered into innumerable factions. There was also some loss of credibility, when some of them started engaging with electoral politics. There is nothing wrong per se with that, but winning elections cannot be at the expense of putting farmers’ interests first.
The new farmer leaders emerging appear to be somewhat different. I can name a few of them: Kedar Sirohi from Harda in MP, Dilip Patidar from Mandsaur (also from MP) and Raman Sandhu from Sriganganagar in Rajasthan. All of them are educated, having the experience of a rural farmer, but also with exposure to urban India.
That exposure, and knowledge of how things compare in their villages, is also what probably explains the intense sense of injustice they feel. There are many other such youngsters who have smartphones and Facebook accounts and know how to read government files/notifications and also file Right to Information applications. This is a new kind of leadership that we are seeing.