Who Will Dry Radha’s Tears?

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It was almost this time of the year. April 2015. The farmers were deeply disturbed and distressed with the complete collapse of their crops due to unseasonal rains. The damage was so devastating that no government compensation could repair the situation. I decided to travel through western Uttar Pradesh, starting from Mathura and right up to the ravines of Chambal via Agra, Tundla, Ferozabad and Etawah. And all through the story that travelled with me was that of Radha. The images of Radha with three little children in a house in shambles continues to haunt me.

These images tell the story of our farmers. Their death leaves their families, just like Radha’s, in the lurch with nothing to look forward to except the local community and a corrupt system. In Radha’s case, it was worse as there was no compensation on the way. It’s the classic story about Indian ‘feudalism’. Her husband, a contract labourer who worked for a landowner, had taken money from the local lender to cultivate wheat. His entire crop was destroyed by the unseasonal rain. And there was no way he could repay the sahukar. Locals said he died of a heart attack. But since it was not a ‘legal’ suicide, Radha could not even claim compensation.

Radha’s story capsules the story of ‘Landless India’. These moving waves of farm labour, who till the soil for the landowners, don’t exist. They never find their way into the government records, so there are no benefits for them from the big government schemes. Radha’s story was reported by me on 22 April 2015 from Harnaul village in Mathura, the constituency that returned the high profile but hardly visible MP and actor Hema Malini. She was mobbed during a rally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Mathura by angry locals demanding to know why she was indifferent to their plight.

These stories reflect the agrarian crisis of today. Even as every politician swears to solve the problems faced by farmers, the country’s agricultural sector sinks deeper into a quagmire. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi completing two years in office on 26 May, has Radha’s story changed? Initially, it seemed Modi’s grand revival plan did not put the rural economy at the centre stage. All the talk was around big ticket investments, promises from the foreign leaders, multi-billion-dollar projects and pushing India as an attractive investment destination. Then came the big defeats for the BJP in Delhi and Bihar elections.

Travelling through poll-bound Bihar it was clear to me that the rural voter had moved away from Modi and the BJP. Far worse for the ruling party’s image was the drubbing it got for trying to revise the UPA Land Act. It made the government look anti-farmer and gave the opposition a fair chance to call this government suit-boot ki sarkaar. Modi was attacked for being pro-industrialist.

Therefore, there was a serious course correction in the last budget. Prime Minister Modi too has been extremely vocal about the plight of farmers in recent months. Finance Minister Arun Jaitely’s last budget was a front-foot effort to woo rural India back to the saffron combine. Sample this: Rs 35,984 crores for welfare of farmers; Rs 20,000 crores for irrigation; Rs 5,500 crores for the Prime Minister’s Fasal Bima Yojna; a separate allocation for Krishi Sinchai Yojna. It was a desperate attempt to grab pro-farmer headlines. These are big numbers but the biggest challenge lies in the execution, especially where state governments have a crucial role to play. The rural economy, however, continues to play truant. Scanty rainfall, absence or inadequate irrigation options (the ongoing drought in Maharashtra is a stark example of this problem) and low productivity continues to haunt the countryside while indebtedness to local lenders remain unchanged despite lofty promises of the government. It is the same story over decades, irrespective of the party in power: arrogance and neglect of rural India, a vote they used to come to power.

The big issue is: How do the budget rural schemes benefit those who really need them? Going by the latest NSSO data, the number of the “effectively landless‘’ has increased considerably in the last decade leaving them with no option but to work for land owners for a livelihood. Their plight is so fragile that any disturbance in the ecosystem — unseasonal rains, market pricefluctuations, corruption in the local mandis makes their survival difficult. Their plight ensures they can no longer depend on agriculture as a means of livelihood. And they have to come to the city centers in search of jobs. Mumbai is today flooded with armies of displaced migrant farmers who can be seen begging and scrounging for a living on the streets. These are the drought victims who have fled their villages for survival. The story is the same in Bundelkhand.

The future is indeed bleak as an increasing number of small and marginal farmers will find agriculture to be unviable and will join the armies of drifting unemployed. The fragmentation and subdivision of family landholdings is adding to the problem.

We should never forget that agriculture and its related activities continues to be the biggest source of livelihood for nearly half of this country’s population. The share of agricultural employment is nearly 48.9 per cent of the workforce, but the farm Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is just around 18 per cent and declining. Worse, the farm economy is expected to grow at a snail’s pace of just 1.1 per cent, according to the Central Statistics Office (CSO). Vast tracts of rural India — or 60 per cent of the agricultural areas are rainfall dependent. This has resulted in two consecutive years of drought that has taken a huge toll of life. It is quite clear that the Prime Minister realises the rural challenge. That’s why he has launched a national agriculture market, linking 21 mandis spread across eight states to provide a better market for the farmers’ produce. But is enough being done to wipe away Radha’s tears?