Farmers across the land will doubtless be ecstatic on learning there is now one more committee - to look into debt relief. Gee, another committee. Just what we needed. Who knows, it might even do something, like form a sub-committee. But the joy might be hard to sustain. It's all part of a 'package.' That too is not a new thing. Governments in this country have handled more packages than FedEx. My all-time favourite is the Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput or KBK package, which has outlasted four Prime Ministers and seen more variations than Rubik's Cube.
Every imaginable programme for which funds already exist has been merged or purged from the KBK development package at some point. A Rs.4,750 crore package swelled to Rs.6,500 crore over a decade. Of which only Rs.360 crore actually showed up till 2004. Even from that paltry sum, money was diverted for the total literacy programme.
The 'package' declared at the end of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's trip to Vidarbha will have little or no impact on the crisis there. Neither in the short run nor in the long term. The visit's political fallout is another matter. No one can now deny a major agrarian crisis exists. Dr. Singh's journey thoroughly exposed the Maharashtra Government and the Union Agriculture Ministry. It also brought - if for a week - some media focus on the crisis. Well on the farm suicides, at least.
Yet the suicides are the effect, not the cause, of a much wider agrarian distress. The death count is not the story but a window to it. There are millions of farm households across the country that have not seen suicides but whose conditions are similar to those that have. They too are in deep trouble.
Yet the question will be asked - will farmers' suicides in Vidarbha halt now that there's a financial 'package' to bring it relief? The answer is no. The deaths do have seasonal highs and lows. But a relative decline now would have little to do with the measures announced at the end of the Prime Minister's visit. The number of suicides in the 10-day run-up to his trip: 34. The number in 10 days after he left: 34.
It was no one's case that farm suicides would end with the visit. But people wanted steps that would slow the bleeding and restore hope. That did not happen.
The first thing the Prime Minister could have done or made the State Government do, was to restore the 'advance bonus' of Rs.500 a quintal for cotton. The State withdrew this in May 2005. Appeals by growers - and even by the National Commission on Farmers (NCF) - were ignored. We knew all hell would break loose. It did. If suicide numbers were high when the price of cotton was Rs.2,250, how could things get better when it fell to Rs.1,700 a quintal? That too due to state policy? (There is also no mention in the new deal of a 'price stabilisation fund' called for by the NCF to protect farmers against the shock of plummeting prices.)
The final 'package' ignored this vital demand. Nor did it announce a debt waiver though many in power know there is no escape from such a measure. Some government of India will have to do this at some point. Sure, it would draw flak and cries of 'fiscal imprudence' from the ideologically devout. (Though, when tens of thousands of crores are written off for a handful of industrialists, that is barely reported. Unlike that pampered lot, farmers have landed where they are due to policies hostile to agriculture for over a decade.)
Had there been a waiver of debt of up to just Rs.25,000, more than 80 per cent of Vidarbha's farmers would no longer have owed the banks money. People thought that waiver would come. It didn't and the sense of being let down is great. This matters across the country, too. Indebtedness amongst farm households has almost doubled in the past decade.
The good aspect of the 'package' was, of course, the promise of crop loans to all farmers across the board. This could help many tide over the current season. But the interest waiver of Rs.712 crore mainly helps banks that have been hostile to farm lending. And some of the banks were anyway looted by the rich barons of the ruling elite, not by poor farmers. The move does not put a new rupee in the farmer's pocket. Since the principal amount has not been waived, the debt crisis will renew itself rapidly. Besides, there is no help with seed or other inputs. Not even a promise of it.
The package gives Rs.2177 crore to 82 major and medium and 442 minor irrigation projects in the six districts it covers. Much of this simply revises book entries. That is, it draws money from existing programmes. If all these schemes were completed tomorrow, they would not add three per cent of acreage to irrigated area. That, in a region where irrigated land adds up to just 11 per cent of the total. Sure, people want water. But all problems are not due to lack of irrigation. Distress suicides have occurred in irrigated parts of Punjab and Andhra Pradesh.
There was and is total silence on the Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority Act, 2005. This regressive law puts irrigation beyond the reach of all except corporate farmers. It could raise irrigation costs by thousands of rupees per acre. It also allows an unelected authority to compel farmers to use drip or sprinkler irrigation. Those unable to pay the huge rate hikes in the offing could face fines of up to ten times the new charges. They could also face six months imprisonment. And yes, farmers with more than two children pay one and a half times those rates anyway.
The new package is silent on this. It has nothing for the 85 per cent non-irrigated farmers now shut out from even the chance of having that facility. Its gift of Rs.225 crore for horticulture and Rs.87 crore for drip irrigation will touch only those who already have access to water.
There is also not a whisper of incentives for food crops in the 'package.' The rebirth of jowar would have helped farmer, soil, and food security. Suicides are far higher among cash crop farmers than among food crop growers here. It would also have seen the revival of livestock - jowar is where the fodder comes from. Instead, there is Rs.180 crore for "seed replacement." This sounds like gifting big bucks to people pushing Bt and other exotic seed that would further ruin farmers here. The same sum could have been used for an incentive of Rs.1000 per acre for growing jowar. Instead, we got notions like gifting a thousand high yielding cows to farmers in each of six districts here. For those with no access to fodder and struggling to feed their families, these cows will eat them out of hearth and home.
Meanwhile, the Maharashtra Government has raised its own 'relief package' for Vidarbha farmers from Rs.1075 crore to over Rs.1300 crore. Since no one ever took this deal seriously, it matters little. The first commissioner in charge of this 'package' left after weeks, disbursing nothing. He was never given the money to do so. His replacement had barely unpacked his bags when he went off to do poll duty in Tamilnadu. So months passed with nothing happening. Except, of course, the suicides. Those kept happening.
Meanwhile, the Union Agriculture Ministry, feeling left out, kept threatening its own 'package' for some months. Then it said it had drawn up one that the Prime Minister would announce in Vidarbha. Like the Prime Minister was its postman or PRO. Still, it meant there was one more 'package' in the running.
None of these has a word on the strengthening of cotton procurement by the state machinery. With big corporations now free to directly buy and sell in any quantities they wish, prices will be steadily pushed down by cartels. The media focus, of course, is on the initial 'higher price' they seem to offer. So it's barely noticed that the price takes a dive very soon after.
Sadly, what might have been a useful short-term remedy was drowned in flawed national policy that remains anti-farmer. Dragged down by double standards on 'fiscal imprudence.' Never allowed to meet people's real needs. The 'Vidarbha package' also ran aground on the rocky shores of State politics. Who would get the 'credit' for bringing relief? Who would land the blame for years of neglect? Not a single top leader of Maharashtra had entered a grieving household prior to the Prime Minister's visit. So his doing so would be a real problem, disgracing them in the public eye. That saw a gang-up to undermine the tour and its agenda. Dr. Singh's visit to a village like Koljhari in Yavatmal was scuttled for reasons plainly false.
Ultimately, though, you cannot have a 'package' going one way while policy moves in the reverse direction. Vidarbha's farmers sought urgent relief. They find themselves left only with packaging.