Last week, tens of thousands of farmers reached Delhi for a two-day Kisan Mukti Morcha and held the country’s attention. They sought a special 21-day Parliament session to discuss the crisis in India’s agrarian economy. Their key demands included an unqualified loan waiver to mitigate indebtedness levels in farm households and better remuneration for their produce instead of promises on paper of high minimum support prices. These broad demands sum up the precarious livelihood of a majority of farmers who work on small, fragmented land holdings. This is certainly not the first distress call from the farm sector to Parliament and policymakers; several such stirs have taken place across States over the past year alone. In March, when around 30,000 farmers and tribals from Maharashtra walked for days to Mumbai, they drew appreciation for their restrained conduct compared to the usually unruly protesters. And, they secured assurances from Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis of tangible action on their demands over the next six months. Finding little movement on those promises, many of those who had marched to Mumbai joined the rally in Delhi, which was by far the biggest such gathering. Galvanised by the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, it reportedly had participation from 200-plus organisations, with farmers from 24 States.
With rural distress palpable, elections for five State Assemblies under way, and the Lok Sabha election just about six months later, farmers’ issues are bound to further dominate politics. Official data released last Friday show that the agriculture sector clocked a growth of just 3.8% (on a gross value added basis) in the second quarter of this fiscal, compared to the 5.3% recorded in the preceding quarter. To put that in perspective, farm sector output was growing strongly in the first three quarters of 2016-17, before imploding in the aftermath of the demonetisation exercise. The latest number suggests that the semblance of recovery seen in the previous two quarters has dimmed too. The government has done an about-turn on its responses to a parliamentary panel that farmers were hit hard by the note ban, and sought to reassure farmers by reiterating its own initiatives for the sector. The Opposition, in turn, is using the farmers’ platform to take jibes at the BJP-led government at the Centre and in many States. Unfortunately, neither has focussed on the big picture strategy needed to reboot India’s hugely state-controlled farm sector. The Centre exhibits an aversion to inconvenient facts. And the Opposition’s attempts to tap into their angst with breezy promises of loan waivers (with both the Congress and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi promising them in State election pitches) that over-simplify the crisis. Farmers are not just vote banks, but also critical economic actors who aspire to live without handouts. Till that is clearly recognised, paying lip service to the humble farmer will continue to distort the discourse.