It began as a promise made in BJP's election manifesto for the Uttar Pradesh elections. But when the party went on to honour its promise to waive the loans of distressed farmers, the tragedy that unfolded left not just the farmers but many others dumbfounded.
A cruel joke has been cracked on the farmers of the country's most populous state. Under the farm loan waiver scheme, a farmer has been handed over a waiver of a paltry one paisa. It gets worse. The certificate handed over to the farmer has photos of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and chief minister Yogi Adityanath beaming ear to ear.
With PM's photo on the letter, UP govt issues 1 paisa loan waiver to farmer. This is bound to hurt Modi's image? pic.twitter.com/gv9jiKpBrX— M K Venu (@mkvenu1) 19 September 2017
According to a NDTV report, Chiddhi, the farmer in question, owns a few bighas of land. He had reportedly taken a farm loan of Rs 1.55 lakh from the Punjab National Bank about six years ago. He says he is eligible for a Rs 1 lakh waiver under the scheme.
Worse still, it is not an isolated case. Several farmers have reported that they have been handed over waiver certificates worth 19 paisa and 50 paisa.
Worst of all, before one could have dismissed the incidents as cases of typos or simple calculation errors that would be rectified, Yogi Adityanath has clarified it is not a mistake. "There was no mistake. Truth is those who got a waiver of Rs 1 or Rs 1 lakh, both are farmers," he told Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar.
The case Adityanath has made suggests that since some got Rs 1 lakh, it is okay for others to get Re 1. Take it to mean what you would.
One interpretation is that if it's not a mistake, it is at best a classic case of brazenness enacted by a government high on power. But the rule with democracy is that brazenness doesn't go unpunished.
When one is high on power, one tends to show scant regard for realities, even those manifested in the form of facts. Nothing else explains why the incumbent powers think they can get away by ignoring (bordering on insulting) 90 million families, or 54.6 per cent of India's 1.2 billion people (according to the 2011 census) that depend on farming for survival. That would translate into a vote base, the BJP can choose not to care about at its own peril.
Over the years, the agriculture sector has witnessed near total neglect from governments.
Truth be told, the government has done little for the farm sector apart from, of course, saying that agricultural growth is its main focus.
Though Modi introduced demonetisation touting it as a crackdown on the corrupt who hoard black money, one of the hardest hit were the farmers, who found their cash turned to scrap just before the Rabi season, leading to huge despair among the already distressed farmers. The farmers were left with no money to buy seeds, fertilisers and diesel for the next crop. The rich, of course, got to park all their cash (even the black one) in the banks.
Despite the cash crunch, good monsoon rains, after successive drought years, and timely onset of winter, considered conducive for germination of seeds, motivated farmers to sow, even if that involved begging and borrowing.
Demonetisation, however, once again hit the farmers when the harvest season arrived. An economy reeling under cash crunch and negative investor sentiments failed to get farmers the right prices for their produce. Anger mounted and then spilt over the roads. Farmers in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra rose in protest.
Five farmers were killed in Madhya Pradesh's Mandsaur in police firing because the state knows no other way of crowd control than the use of brute force. Corporate honchos can, of course, get a one-on-one with the finance minister or the prime minister, depending on their choice to discuss matters related business or otherwise.
But supply and demand fluctuations have plagued the farm sector for ages. In the absence of enough and technologically advanced cold storages, farmers are forced to sell their produce failing to get the right price for crops every season. The government meanwhile is busy laying tracks for bullet trains, whose economic and structural viability, is under question.
It has been estimated that about 30 per cent of horticultural output goes waste in India due to a lack of cold storages. Way back in 1992, the then government had announced an ambitious policy to encourage large-scale private sector investments in cold storages. Governments have come and gone, the promises have remained.
Reports of farmers despairing over the possibility of their crops rotting in the absence of cold storages are routine.
Over the years, the agriculture sector has witnessed near total neglect from governments. The farmer interests clearly do not figure in Modi's "Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikaas" slogan.
Rural distress has been heightened by the fact that the government's deregulation has increased the costs of inputs such as fertilisers for farming. Fiscal control has ensured that government expenditure made for irrigation and flood control programmes has shrunk.
In a situation where the crop yields and prices have not matched the rise in input cost, it is not hard to imagine how farmers in India are faring. A government that promised a 50 per cent profit to farmers over the cost of production is no longer talking about it. The tune has changed to doubling farmers' incomes in five years.
Governments often find it easy to be seen to be doing something about the big issues rather than actually doing something. Policy changes take time to get noticed and talked about. Loan waivers make instant headlines. So the governments of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh announced loan waivers. Just how ill-thought the move was started showing when governments failed to explain how they would arrange the money for the waivers.
Ill-thought moves can only lead to poor executions. Uttar Pradesh is a case in point.
To hand out a one paisa loan waiver to a farmer battered on almost all other fronts is not a sound policy. It is risking the wrath of the poor.