“Bharat vs India”, a phrase coined by Charan Singh to describe the conflict between villages and cities, remains relevant. This is evident from the Kisan Sansad (farmers’ parliament) that met in Delhi last month. More than 40,000 peasants belonging to 180 farmers’ organisations came together to form the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC).
Rural India has lagged behind the cities since the 1991 economic reforms. According to the National Sample Survey, the average Monthly Per Capita Expenditure (MPCE) in 1993-94 was Rs 281 in rural India and Rs 458 in urban India. It rose to Rs 772 (up 174 per cent) and Rs 1,472 (up 221 per cent) for rural and urban India respectively in 2007-08, which means that the gap between rural and urban jumped from 63 to 91 percentage points. The gap diminished somewhat between 2007-08 and 2011-12, with rural MPCE reaching Rs 1,430 (up 85 per cent) as an average and the urban rising to 2,630 (up 79 per cent), but it remained more than 20 percentage points higher than what it was in 1993-94 at 84 percentage points.
This is partly due to the slow growth of agriculture over the last decade. Between the years 2005-06 and 2011-12, the average annual growth rate of industry at constant 2004-05 prices has been 7.5 per cent, while services grew at an ever-quicker pace, 9.95 per cent. However, agriculture lagged behind at 3.8 per cent. In the following three years, 2012-2015, the average agricultural GDP growth rate was 1.7 per cent. In 2014-15, the growth rate of agriculture was negative at – 0.2 per cent. It was only 1.1 per cent in 2015-16 and, thanks to a good monsoon, about 4 per cent in 2016-17, the growth rate the five-year plan considered as necessary to ensure food security.
Different factors are responsible for these changes. First, the size of holdings has shrunk over the years: The average land owned by peasants fell from 0.725 ha to 0.592 ha between 2002-03 and 2012-13. As a result, the proportion of those owning less than one ha increased from 79.7 per cent to 82.8 per cent. Since a farm household needs at least 1 hectare of land to make ends meet, over half of the farmers are in debt: The average loan amount for a farm household in India today is Rs 47,000. Second, irrigation has stagnated with less than half of Indian farmland irrigated, partly because of the groundwater crisis: Water tables fell by 65 per cent in 10 years. Third, peasants suffer from one obsession of the government: The price of food. To neutralise any risk of inflation on that front, the growth rate of rural wages has been limited — in 2015, it was the lowest in 10 years (and lower than the inflation rate). That was related to the squeezing of the MGNREGA programme, which was blamed for rising rural wages. But more than wages, food prices were targeted. To spare urban consumers, they were kept low and the government even precipitated food prices deflation by allowing imports. Soyabean is a case in point, when this year market was flooded with cheap soyabean oil imports. Though the government can impose duty up to 45 per cent, but it kept the rate at 12.5 per cent.
In 2017 summer, farmers across India started agitating for better prices. They wanted the M.S. Swaminathan Commission report, which recommended minimum support prices, to be implemented. Maharashtra farmers demanded better prices for onions and other pulses; in Himachal Pradesh, it was for tomatoes; in Punjab and Haryana, it was potatoes and maize; in Rajasthan, garlic; in Gujarat, groundnuts; in Madhya Pradesh, soyabean; in Andhra, Telangana and Karnataka, chilli and so on. In June, when Maharashtra farmers, who were on strike, took out a march to Mumbai, the BJP government agreed to a Rs 30,000-crore loan waiver. The protest spread to Madhya Pradesh, where five people were killed in Mandsaur district in police firing. Farmers mobilised also because of demonetisation, which badly affected rural India.
Though the agitation fit the traditional pattern of kisan politics, the mobilisations, unlike in the previous decades, achieved little. Loans were waived for peasants, mainly in Maharashtra and UP. However, this measure didn’t help much. The procedure to receive reimbursement is bureaucratic and the amount waived is sometimes minimal (Rs 10 to Rs 500). Besides, only a third of the small and marginal farmers have access to institutional credit: Banks do not lend money to the poor. The others turn to money lenders, who do not waive loans. Besides, loan waiver is only a temporary relief.
Why did the peasant mobilisations achieve so little? The reason could be the “urban consumer bias” of the BJP, the new political hegemon. The party has turned its back to the Gandhian dimension of Deendayal Upadhyaya’s Jana Sangh and is focussed on urban development, as evident from the smart cities flagship programme. It sees industrialisation as the best way to modernise India and create jobs. More urban dwellers supported the party than villagers in the 2014 election — by 10 percentage points, according to the CSDS-Lokniti survey. The urban bias of the government was obvious in its attempt to amend the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2015 in favour of industrialists. When the Opposition forced the government to backtrack, Prime Minister Modi invited the states to reform and the BJP-ruled states were the first to change the law.
Budget cuts have reduced the spending on the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana and the Integrated Watershed Management Programme and Accelerated Irrigation Benefits and Flood Management Programme. In this context, it isn’t surprising that 40 per cent of Indian farmers do not like to farm any more. Hence the demand among young Patels, Marathas, Jats and Kapus for reservations in the (urban) public sector.