THE farmer stir that claimed six lives in police firing in Mandsaur on June 5 may have petered out, but its aftereffects are still being felt in Madhya Pradesh politics and the government. Aftermath of the stir is manifest at many levels; in farmers’ smoldering anger; in the State government’s desperate attempts to buy their produce at the risk of huge loss to the exchequer; in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s damage control exercise; in resurgence of the faction-ridden Congress. In sum, the farmers’ fury has set the tone for contest between the two major political rivals for the assembly election due in November 2018.
More significantly, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has brought upon himself arguably the biggest crisis of his political career by shoddy handling of the agitation. Overnight, as it were, the narrative in Madhya Pradesh seems to have changed from pro-farmer to anti-farmer Chief Minister. The change is most glaringly visible in extensive reporting of debt-ridden farmer suicides in the wake of the agitation. In two weeks since the farmer agitation ended on June 10, as many as 24 farmers committed suicide. All these incidents were widely reported in media.
Farmers had been committing suicides earlier too. But these incidents would largely go unnoticed. Between 2001 and 2015, as many as 19,768 farmers ended their lives due to agrarian crisis, according to the National Crime Record Bureau. At least, 400 farmers and farm labourers committed suicide in the State in last five months of this year, according to State Crime Record Bureau.
Although shocking, the farmer suicides in the past would not get due public attention. It was largely because the media seemed to be too enamoured of the Chief Minister’s “highest agriculture growth in the world” refrain to investigate the miserable agrarian distress. The State government richly rewards the media in Madhya Pradesh for hiding the true plight of the farmers through generous release of advertisements.
However, the media cannot afford to ignore the farmers’ woes any more. The Mandsaur police firing has bought the Madhya Pradesh farmers’ problems on the national stage. No matter howsoever obliged by the government, MP’s media is compelled to shift focus on the farmers for the sake of credibility.
As a result, newspapers and TV channels are prominently reporting the government’s woefully inadequate arrangements for buying onion from farmers. While the monsoon has arrived, thousands of onion-laden trucks are on the roads, waiting for government purchase. Onion worth several hundred crores of rupees has rotten due to moisture. Although the government is purchasing onion at Rs. 8 per kilogram, inadequate storage facility has posed a big crisis before it. Last year too, the government suffered loss to the tune of Rs. 200 crore on account of sale of the procured onion.
The crisis is likely to exacerbate when the government will start buying Moong, Tuar and soyabean at the minimum support price (MSP), which it has enhanced following the agitation.
This is a major cause of worry for the Chief Minister. His government never got so much bad publicity as it did during the agitation and afterwards, especially when the Chief Minister sat on fast on June 10. Rattled by the crisis, the Chief Minister was forced to cancel his scheduled Russia visit last month.
A senior IAS officer succinctly sums up the consequences of the agitation: “Ten stormy days of agitation blew off an edifice of farmer-friendly regime that Chief Minister Shivraj Singh had assiduously reinforced over the last 10 years through emotional rhetoric, statistical jugglery and an overdose of misplaced sops to the State’s farmers. Now the ruling BJP is trying hard to reassemble the shattered edifice by reaching out to distressed farmers who comprise three-fourth of the State’s over 10 crore population.”
The farmers stir, which claimed six lives in police firing and caused widespread destruction to properties in western Madhya Pradesh, has done seemingly irreparable damage to Chouhan’s diligently cultivated pro-farmer image. Worse, even his party’s senior leaders are reported to be unhappy with the way he handled the agitation.
ON June 21, BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav secretly landed in Bhopal. He avoided meeting State’s party leaders. Considered BJP president Amit Shah’s troubleshooter, Ram Madhav had parleys with the Director-General of Police, RK Shukla, and Chief Minister’s secretary, Vivek Aggarwal, at the circuit house in Bhopal. Later he flew back with the Chief Minister to New Delhi. Madhav’s secret visit followed reports that Amit Shah was angry over the Chief Minister’s 28-hour long fast on June 10. The BJP top boss is also reported to be upset by Chouhan’s announcement of an unheard of Rs. 1 crore ex-gratia to the families of those killed in police firing in Mandsaur. They feel it has set a bad precedent.
The beleaguered Chief Minister’s panicky reactions to the stir have facilitated the otherwise moribund Congress to gain ground. For first four days of the agitation, the Congress was nowhere in the scene. On June 4, the Chief Minister announced end of the stir and said those still persisting with the agitation are anti-socials being supported by the Congress. Next, his government denied permission to Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi to enter Mandsaur after the police firing. The denial only helped the Congress to come on the centrestage of the stir as media relentlessly highlighted the Rahul’s histrionics outside Mandsaur.
As the BJP leaders from top to bottom kept blaming the Congress for the violence, the opposition party’s space in the media kept growing. What was essentially a farmer unions’ joint agitation for loan waiver and better price for their crops, got metamorphosed into a political battle between the BJP and the Congress. And Congress leaders were only too happy with the Chief Minister’s gaffes that allowed them to hijack the stir.
FOR a charging up Congress, the Chief Minister provided a real shot in the arm as he sat on fast on June 10. His ‘five-star’ fast lasted for 28 hours. Relatives of those killed in the Mandsaur police firing were brought surreptitiously by BJP leaders at the fast venue. They had been duly tutored to urge the Chief Minister to end the fast. That everything was pre-scripted was later revealed in a sting operation by the ABP news channel. The “drama”, as the Congress described the fast, cost the State exchequer Rs. 2.5 crore. Chouhan employed his characteristic emotional rhetoric to the hilt in appealing farmers to trust his government during the fast, but it only ended up further angering them. For, the farmers’ real issues had been left unaddressed. The demand for loan waiver was not met. State’s 50 lakh farmers owe to the government a total of Rs. 60,000 crore as loan. So, the Chief Minister’s refusal in meeting this demand is understandable.
The farmers stir, which claimed six lives in police firing and caused widespread destruction to properties in western Madhya Pradesh, has done seemingly irreparable damage to Chouhan’s diligently cultivated pro-farmer image
To add to the Chief Minister’s embarrassment, Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia sat on a 72-hour satyagraha in Bhopal from June 14. The scion of the erstwhile Gwalior state made sure that his satyagrah showed the Chief Minister as real maharaja and himself as common man’s leader. In sharp contrast to the Chief Minister’s ‘five-star” fast, Scindia ate from ordinary thali with Congress workers, slept on a rope-woven cot and used an earthen pitcher to drink water.
It was Scindia’s sort of ‘sweet revenge’ against the Chief Minister. During the campaign for 2013 assembly election, Chouhan’s main pitch was that he is a son of humble farmer who is taking on the Congress’s feudal leaders led by Jyotiradiya Scindia. The MP from Guna was then the chief campaigner of the Congress. In the coming assembly election, the ‘fast versus satyagrah’ episode is likely to trouble the chief minister as table seems to have turned on him.
TILL May 31, the Shivraj government apparently had no idea that massive anger was brewing on the ground, particularly in western Madhya Pradesh. The ruling party has strong network across the State but that did not help the Chief Minister gauge a gathering storm which would soon erupt in the shape of farmers’ fury. Neither the party nor the government bothered to mitigate the sufferings of the farmers, who were reeling under the double whammy of demonetisation and precipitous crash of prices of their crops, such as soyabean, moong, tuar and onion. Since demonetisation, farmers were not getting ready cash for their produce in the mandis. Digitised monetisation of their crops and transaction in cheques were troubling them in selling crops. Besides, non-availability of seeds and fertilizers had been adding to their woes. Black-marketing of farming inputs coupled with soaring debts had made their lives more miserable. Anger was growing as the glut of onion and soyabean crops were not fetching even half the price they were sold for last year.
In sum, the farmers were staring at bleak future while the State government was gung ho about ‘world’s highest agriculture growth in Madhya Pradesh at over 20 per cent”. This is the Chief Minister’s constant refrain which he often buttresses with the fact that the State government has consistently won five Krishi Karman award for agriculture production from the Centre since 2010. He also doesn’t tire of reminding people that agriculture production has doubled since he became the Chief Minister while irrigation capacity too has gone up two –fold.
In 2006-2007, the total foodgrains production in the State was 144.52 lakh metric tonnes, which increased more than two-fold to 321.48 lakh metric tonnes in 2015. Likewise, the irrigated area in 2006 was 65.43 lakh hectares, which went up to 103.01 lakh hectares. This rosy picture is also embellished with the claim that farmers are provided loan in the State at sub zero interest rate. “For Rs. 1 lakh loan, a farmer is required to replay only Rs. 90,000,” the Chief Minister reminds ad nauseum.
It cannot be gainsaid that agriculture production and irrigation facilities have improved considerably in the Shivraj government. But in the absence of a fair price fixation mechanism in place, the excessive production has proved to be more of a problem than an achievement. The bountiful crops needed adequate precautionary measures to ensure that farmers do not come to harm. Here the Chief Minister spectacularly failed. His failure essentially stemmed from overconfidence that all is well in the State with high agriculture growth rate.
BEFORE the farmer stir erupted, the Chief Minister was cozily entrenched in his cocoon, surrounded by favourite bureaucrats. Only a fortnight ago, he had completed his much-publicised Narmada Sewa Yatra. The 144-day political pilgrimage kept the Chief Minister too busy to assess with his officials the fallout of the excessive production of soyabean and onion in 2016, owing to good monsoon. Moreover, State’s Principal Secretary, Agriculture, Dr Rajesh Rajora, was holidaying in Europe.
From December 11 to May 15, the Chief Minister kept on hopping from place to place along the Narmada banks, performing pujas along with assorted groups of sadhus, environment activists, film and sports celebrities. His intense preoccupation with the yatra afforded him little time to focus on farmers’ issues. The grand finale of the save-river extravaganza had Prime Minister Narendra Modi as chief guest at Amarkantak on May 15.
The Chief Minister was still basking in the glory of the pilgrimage when farmers started their stir from June 1. For four days, the government was unmoved even as agitating farmers spilled milk and vegetables on the roads, disrupted traffic on highways and damaged vehicles.
On June 4, the government swung into action when stir turned violent. Reports of injuries to six police officers in mob attacks from Dhar, Sehore and Ratlam forced the Shivraj government to relent. He met a delegation of Bhartiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, at Ujjain on the same day. The same day, the BKS unilaterally announced end of the farmers stir, saying most of the farmers’ demands have been met. The next day, Chouhan echoed the BKS leaders’ sentiments and offered a slew of sops to placate the farmers. These included Rs. 1,000-crore price stabilisation fund, purchase of onion by the government at Rs. 8 per kilo and a commission to suggest fixation of prices of crops.
The unilateral deal between the BKS and the government stung other farmer unions, particularly the Bhartiya Kisan Mazdoor Sangh. Its national president, Shiv Kumar Sharma, alias Kakkaji, dubbed the government-BKS deal a betrayal of farmers and vowed to continue the stir.
The government hit back at the recalcitrant farmers by calling them as anti-socials and alleging that they are being backed by Congress goons. The Chief Minister announced that after the BKS withdrawal, only anti-social elements are persisting with the strike.
His remark angered the farmers and escalated violence in western Madhya Pradesh. On June 5, police fired on a crowd of 1,000 farmers in Mandsaur, killing five of them. In retaliation, agitating farmers wreaked widespread havoc next day, torching shops, trucks, factories and other public properties.
According to government estimate, properties worth Rs. 70 crore were destroyed in the two-day long violence that spread from Rajasthan border to the outskirts of Bhopal. Over 200 policemen were injured. Peace was restored only when additional paramilitary force was requisitioned from the Centre for deployment in the trouble-torn areas.
The State government has appointed a one-man judicial commission, headed by Justice JK Jain, to probe the police firing. Mandsaur’s collector, Swatantra Kumar, and Superintendent of Police, OP Tripathi, have been suspended.
However, the Congress alleges that the party has no hope for justice to the firing victims from the judicial commission, given the fate of such commissions in the past. Reports of a dozen judicial commissions are gathering dust for want of action by the government.