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Peasant Tense: Farmers’ march in Maharashtra is a wake-up call to the BJP

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Peasant Tense: Farmers’ march in Maharashtra is a wake-up call to the BJP

Milind Murugkar

The long march of farmers in Maharashtra should serve as a wake-up call to the BJP even more so than the by-election results in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It has raised important questions about the party’s priorities in its development agenda and has vividly brought to light the festering discontent in rural India.

It has confirmed the suspicion of many that the rural disapproval of BJP government on its home ground of Gujarat in the recent assembly elections was not a solitary phenomenon. The BJP may not be able to hold on to its majority in 2019 if rural India has been so dismayed by its performance so far.

he pictures of the farmers’ march in Maharashtra moved many. Thousands of farmers — men and women, young and old — marched 200 km to post their demands. Most of them appeared to be poor. Some walked barefoot. What were their demands? They were not just demanding loan waivers and an increase in MSP. They were also demanding an end to export bans, the formalisation of rights to the forestland they have been cultivating for decades, proper implementation of NREGA and PDS. These were demands by the poor for the poor. It gave lie to the mistaken urban notion that Indian farmers are all just freeloaders who pay no taxes and demand subsidies. In fact, a typical farmer in India is of the type that participated in that march.

The sole purpose of development (vikas) is to set in motion a process of wiping out poverty. That should be the highest goal for any government in a country like India. Most of India’s poor live in rural areas. Even urban poverty is a result of low level of opportunities in rural areas. Two-thirds of India live in rural areas and almost half the labour force makes its livelihood in agriculture.

It is self-evident that we are not going to make a dent in poverty without a significant improvement in agricultural productivity. It is often forgotten that the widely acclaimed developmental success of China and especially its record of rapid reduction of poverty was based on its ability to raise agricultural productivity in the early years of reforms (1979-86). Indian policymakers have ignored this at their own peril. The present situation is especially poignant in this context. The farm sector has been in distress for the last few years. First, agriculture in many states like Maharashtra is still very rain-dependent due to inadequate irrigation.

The demand for NREGA projects that could alleviate this situation through watershed development is often suppressed by local political leadership on the ground that this would increase wages. Second, government policy has always put the interests of urban consumers ahead of those of farmers by policies such as export bans. Third, channels such as diversification through which urban income growth could induce income growth in agricultural incomes have not received the encouragement that they deserve.

An increase in urban incomes can create demand for higher quality food items such as fruits, vegetables, eggs, poultry etc. If farmers growing food grains could shift to the cultivation of some of these newly demanded items, they could share in the national income gains. For this to happen, the government has to be more active in facilitating credit, extension services, marketing etc.

Fourth, rural infrastructure has always taken a backseat to urban infrastructure. Roads, public education and public health services in rural areas are in a shambles. No wonder two-thirds of India’s population feel that they are a forgotten class.

In 2014, the BJP came to power by chanting the mantra of vikas. It was a message of hope. It created a wave of excitement across the whole nation. Aspirations went up everywhere, in urban as well as rural areas, among the rich and the poor, albeit with a difference. The urban middle class and the rich everywhere care a great deal for national prestige associated with apparent foreign policy triumphs and acquiring symbols of modernity such as bullet trains and biometric identification that make them feel like they are living in a developed country.

The poor just aspire to a life of fewer hardships for themselves and better opportunities for their children. Despite the rhetoric about sabka saath, saabka vikas, the emphasis was on pleasing the urban middle class and the rich, on bullet trains and demonetisation. The last was enormously destructive to the entire informal sector, including agriculture.

The BJP must realise that if their policy priorities leave out two-thirds of the country, they can no longer take electoral success for granted. In an active and vibrant democracy like India, the class long forgotten is finally waking up to make sure that it is not forgotten anymore.

Murugkar writes on economic and political issues

Source: The Economic Times

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