Farmers from across the country have gathered in the national capital to highlight the crisis in agriculture. On Friday, leaders of almost all major Opposition parties addressed the gathering, mobilised mostly by non-party groups. Among the issues raised by the farmers are better and more accessible minimum support prices, loan waivers and implementation of the Swaminathan Commission report, which proposed ameliorative measures for farm distress. Protestors have also asked for a special session of Parliament to discuss the agrarian crisis. The government must heed their demands.
Over recent months, protests by farmers have become more visible, more frequent. Most have been disciplined, non-violent shows of strength, meant to be a wake-up call to urban India that all is not well with those who feed the nation. Earlier this year, thousands of farmers marched from Nashik to submit their charter of demands to the state government in Mumbai. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis accepted their demands and promised immediate action. Disappointed with the lack of progress on the government’s promise, however, the farmers returned to the streets last week. Elsewhere — in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, West Bengal, Haryana, Tamil Nadu — their anger is palpable. In some places, for instance, in Mandsaur, MP, protests turned violent, leading to police firing and the loss of lives. The main issues, everywhere, are similar: Farmers need better prices, protection from drought and floods, timely delivery of compensation, less corruption in the lower rungs of bureaucracy. If suicides headlined the farm distress story a decade ago, the farmer protests now may show that despondency is making way for rage. The government needs to tune in to these voices of despair and anger urgently.
So far, political parties have been unimaginative in their response to farm distress. Election manifestoes in poll-bound states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh do speak about the agrarian crisis, but loan waivers top the chart while structural issues are ignored. In June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to double the income of farmers by 2022. Infusion of funds to augment irrigation and extension works is needed for these ambitious proclamations to deliver on the ground. With the deepening of faultlines of religion, caste, and ethnicity, occupational identities like that of the farmer seem to have become less and less influential in electoral politics. This could change, if the campaign talk in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan — states that saw major farmer unrest in recent months — is any indication. There are clear signals that parties will now need to engage with rural distress more attentively in days to come.