BJP confident farm crisis won’t dent prospects in Maharashtra assembly poll
In its five-year rule, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Maharashtra faced three droughts that wreaked havoc on farm produce, brought thousands of farmers on the streets and depressed incomes. Over the past three years, agricultural growth in the state was negative or negligible, and the government spent roughly Rs 7,000 crore since November 2018 to provide relief after a prolonged period of drought that hit about 28,000 or 64% of the state’s villages.
A combination of these circumstances in a state where more than 50% of the population lives in rural areas and about 60% are directly or indirectly dependent on agriculture would ordinarily hurt the incumbent party’s prospects in assembly elections.
But the agricultural downturn may not have a big impact on the poll prospects of the Devendra Fadnavis-led government in the October 21 elections, experts say.
There are two main reasons for this.
One, that the state government has ensured that a large amount of money - about Rs 30,000 crore in the past three years – was credited directly in the accounts of farmers through state and centrally funded schemes. This money has undercut some of the adverse impact of the drought and farm produce slump.
Two, a divided Opposition that is still reeling from its drubbing in the May general elections – it could win just seven of the 48 seats in the state – has been unable to galvanise farmers and instil confidence among the agricultural community that a strong alternative exists. In the face of the BJP’s strong nationalism pitch that is shriller in rural areas, the Opposition has failed to find a unifying message.
“The government has failed to understand fundamental need of agriculture sector to increase the growth,” said farm expert Vijay Jawandhia.
In its 2014 assembly election manifesto, the BJP had promised to reach double digit agricultural growth. In reality, the agricultural sector contracted by 8.3% in 2017-18 and grew by 0.4% in 2018-19. The production of foodgrain during the Kharif (summer) season dropped by 11% in 2018-19. The corresponding figure for the Rabi (winter) crop was 63%.
The floods and delayed rainfall this year are unlikely to help the crop. The sugarcane crop in at least 150,000 hectares was damaged in the floods in Sangli, Kolhapur and Pune districts. Experts estimate this damage may result in a 25% drop in sugarcane production this year.
For two consecutive years, thousands of farmers marched from Nashik to Mumbai for demands ranging from a complete loan waiver to land deeds under the forest rights act, catapulting agricultural distress to the headlines. Though BJP government could not extend the blanket waiver, it did expanded scope of the loan waiver. The process of handing over land rights to tribal farmers has been expedited.
Farmer suicide rates have gone up from 1600-1700 per year between 2009-14 to 2600-2800 per year during 2014-2019. As many as 1799 farmers have committed suicides till August 31 this year, according to the data released by the relief and rehabilitation department of the state.
Moreover, farmers hit by the pink bollworm attack in 2017 are still to get the compensation from the seed and the insurance companies.
“The payout against the crop insurance is very less against the crop loss. The government officials harass us like anything for the payout as they have connivance with the insurance company officials. But this government has at least brought most of the schemes online bringing great amount of transparency,” said Raghunath Golde, farmer from Ravegaon in Jalna district.
Many other farmers say the payout from the annual crop insurance has not been sufficient, a demand taken up by BJP ally Shiv Sena. Workers from the Sena hit the streets two months ago and warned crop insurance companies to ‘put their act together’ over alleged discrepancies in calculation of crop loss.
“The direct benefit transfer could be the measure of poverty alleviation and does not attempt the fundamental issues related to the agriculture. Though the government has put money directly into the accounts of farmers under various state and central schemes, the farmers are sustaining losses due to government’s policies on import-export and minimum support prices. The farmers end up losing much more due to this against the money credited into their accounts. This has led to the rise in the farmer suicides,” said Ajit Nawale, a leader from the Communist Party of India who was one of the organizers of the farmers’ march to Mumbai two years ago. Nawale said the BJP was driving a nationalist agenda but opposition parties were not been able to expose the administration.
Vidarbha-based farm activist Vijay Jawandhia said, “Central schemes like the doubling of income of farmers in the next five years do not seem like coming to reality. This has led to the rise in the distress among farmers.”
The ruling alliance dismisses the allegations and has focused on its relief measures, such as the direct transfer of money into the accounts of farmers.
According to the government, more than Rs 6500 crore has been spent in drought relief work; the accounts of more than 6.1 million farmers credited with one or two four-monthly instalments of money under the PM-Sanman Nidhi scheme, which ensures an annual cash subsidy of Rs 6,000 to farmers.
This amounts to the cash subsidy of about Rs 2,000 crore credited directly into their accounts.
The government also says it has credited Rs 18, 761 crore in the accounts of 4.4 million farmers as loan waiver in the last two years. Additionally, the government data shows farmers have received Rs 3,300 crore as compensation of crop loss; a majority of beneficiaries of the scheme were from the backward Marathwada region.
“It is true that infrastructure development in the sector took backseat, but with more than Rs 30,000 crore credited into the accounts of the farmers, we think the farmers are happy with the government,” said a senior BJP leader requesting anonymity.
State agriculture minister Anil Bonde said the government invested Rs 1.25 lakh crore in agriculture in the last five years to push for sustainable development of the agriculture. “We have done huge investment to ensure infrastructural development, including the completion of irrigation projects, development of food processing sector and allied development. With assured and protected irrigation in backward areas of Marathwada and Vidarbha, we will be able to increase the income of the farmers and reduce suicides,” he said.
He attributed the negative agricultural growth to crop losses in the rain-fed areas of the state. “Our efforts of sustainable development will reap fruits in next few years. The farmers and voters in the rural areas have realised this and are standing firmly behind us this election,” he added.
His colleague and water resources minister Girish Mahajan claimed that the government brought 5 lakh hectares under irrigation by completing more than 160 projects. “Farmers have realised about positive efforts and it will help us in winning a second term,” he added.
The government also gains confidence from the results of the general elections, which happened in the height of the summer when the drought was most acute. The BJP-Sena alliance not only won 41 of the 48 seats in the state – a virtual repeat of its 2014 haul of 42 seats – but also bagged seven of the eight Lok Sabha seats in the arid and backward Marathwada region. The Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) alliance drew a blank while one seat was won by the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen.
Congress and NCP, in their joint manifesto released on Monday have accused the Fadnavis government of lacking in understanding the root cause of the agrarian crisis. The manifesto has announced blanket loan waiver to the farmers if elected to the power. “The farmers are in worst ever distress due to the failed policies of the government,” said Maharashtra Congress chief Balasaheb Thorat.