Will downtrodden farmers decide Modi’s fate?

Agricultural workers in India are facing a monumental crisis. They backed Modi in the last election. The question is whether they will do so again. Nilanjana Bhowmick reports.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as he addresses an election campaign rally in Meerut in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, India, March 28, 2019. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/File Photo

On the outskirts of the village of Deora, in the drought-affected Bundelkhand region in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state with a population of over 200 million, lies a large excavation, covered with drying, overgrown vegetation.

‘This is a pond. Can you see any water? This was dug to benefit us during droughts. But it has been dry for over three years now. No one really cares. We have complained enough. Not a single engineer has come to check this out,’ says Chiranjilal, a local farmer. ‘There’s no future for farmers in this country.’

The 72-year-old says his entire family has migrated to Delhi in search of better livelihoods. But he stayed back.

‘Modi had promised to transform our lives. But look around, what transformation do you see? We are still struggling for basic amenities.’

The region of Bundelkhand, spread over 70,000 square kilometres, has been beleaguered by a series of severe droughts since 2003.

Crop failures and debt have created a national epidemic of farmer suicides, which now claims 12,000 lives a year. Villages are being emptied out as farmers leave to become wage-labourers in nearby towns and cities. The rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Modi, came to power riding on the back of tall promises to transform the lives of farmers in this region. But, on the ground, it has worked out differently.

‘The BJP representative has not visited this village even once after he got elected,’ says Balram Singh, another farmer. He adds that the government promised to install taps in the area to address the water scarcity problem, but that hasn’t happened.

Instead, farmers pay out of their pockets to water their fields, paying richer farmers from other northern states to harvest their crops with harvesters

Meddling middlemen

The conditions in these villages are not just a marker of how the farm crisis has deepened under Modi, but also his failure to address one of his major poll promises: rooting out corruption.

‘This government promised to end corruption. Come and ask us, we will tell you how corruption has swallowed us whole,’ says Chiranjilal, a resident of Deora village.

But few officials are interested in their answers. Definitely not Modi, who claimed in February: ‘[$15.38 billion] is being saved because of the money going directly in the bank accounts which was going in the pockets of some people.’

He was referring to his government’s reform of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act or the MGNREGA. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance launched the scheme in 2005, perhaps the world’s largest social security and public works programme, to provide a safety-net for farmers in times of stress. It provides up to 100 days of ‘unskilled’ work opportunities to every rural household a year.

MGNREGA workers used to be paid in cash, with various middlemen siphoning off some for themselves. In 2015, Modi’s government approved the direct transfer of MGNREGA wages into workers’ bank accounts. But middlemen found other ways to continue with the loot. Village heads are known to add the names of people who do not need to work to the rolls, make them withdraw salaries and hand it over.

‘My father was told by the village head that some money has come into his account and that he would have to go with them to withdraw it. He went, signed away the withdrawal and was paid a day’s wage. We realized what was happening but who will protest? We have to live in the village,’ Dhiran, a young resident of the nearby Kaithi village tells me.

See you at the ballots, Modi’

Agriculture forms 16 per cent of India’s $2.6 trillion economy. With 800 million out of India’s 1.3 billion population depending on agriculture for their subsistence, they are the largest group of voters and wield significant clout at the ballots, according to Bloomberg. But now, a series of high-profile demonstrations have put Modi’s relationship with rural India in question.

In April 2017, drought-hit farmers from the southern state of Tamil Nadu had demonstrated with human skulls and live mice in their mouths in a desperate bid to focus attention on the spiralling farm crisis.

Then, in November 2018, tired and frustrated by broken election pledges and government apathy, tens of thousands of farmers marched across the country, including in the capital Delhi, to highlight their plight.

Devdutt Tripathy, a farmer from Kurana in the Aligarh District, who attended the Delhi march says loan waivers were mere sops and not a permanent solution.

‘Make resources cheaper. Get us a good price for our crops. We are getting lower prices for our crops than during the UPA government. We want to know why that is,’ he says.

The sector has also been reeling from rampant corruption in the government procurement process. The Indian government sets the price and procures the crops directly from the farmers. But a skewed implementation of the procurement system has been the death knell of small farmers.

At a wholesale market for grains in Rath, a town in the Hamirpur district, small farmers speak of their harassment in these procurement centres.

‘We have to pay a bribe to get our crops weighed. Then they ask small farmers for documents and land deeds to estimate the produce. If the produce is more than the estimate then that produce is not accepted and they have to take it back,’ Ajit Singh says.

‘Small farmers will not be able to survive for long,’ he says.

The victims hit hardest by Modi’s economic regime have undoubtedly been the farmers. And it cuts deep for them because when Modi came to them with a bag full of promises in 2014, they trusted him and ‘voted for change’.

Modi has been trying to win over this huge demographic once again in the run-up to the elections, with his sights set firmly on a second mandate. And although recent polls suggest a BJP-led coalition might keep its parliamentary majority, many farmers are in no mood to humour him.

‘We will see you at the ballots, Modiji,’ a resident of Kurana village in the Aligarh district says.

Nilanjana Bhowmick is a multi-award winning independent journalist and writer based in New Delhi. She tweets @nilanjanab