When state and national elections loom in the not-too-distant horizon, the UPA government’s farm loan waiver scheme has predictably triggered a wave of competitive populism across the political spectrum. Regional parties and rival formations have been forced to step up their aam aadmi rhetoric to not appear out of step with the UPA’s largesse to the country’s farmers. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati took out a full-page ad in which she criticised the Union Budget for not providing loan waivers for other segments of agricultural India, including landless people, artisans, weavers, among others.
The BJP has now joined the bandwagon by asking the Centre to demonstrate its commitment to farmers by preparing a 10-year action plan for the revival of the agricultural sector. But what sort of commitment did the BJP-led NDA government display for farmers when it was in power from 1998-2004? In the back and frothing going on between the two political formations, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh forcefully told Parliament that the farm loan waiver was nothing more than picking up the unpaid distress bills left behind by the NDA government.
This solicitude for farmers is welcome, although it happens to surface only at election time. But do these parties have any serious ideas to revitalise crisis-ridden Indian agriculture? The UPA government thinks that its farm loan waiver scheme is well intentioned. But is it well designed? The cut-off of two hectares for categorising small farmers regardless of agro-climatic variations might well result in the scheme not benefiting the intended beneficiaries. Ms Mayawati is hopping mad that this scheme will not benefit the backward region of Bundelkhand where the size of land holdings is bigger. Sadly, the BJP has not come up with any new ideas either to rejuvenate agriculture beyond platitudes that it will lower interest rates if voted to power. The last word here really belongs to farmer leader Sharad Joshi who points out that farmers don’t really need a free lunch but equal access to the market. Is the political class listening?