Sunday, July 16, 2006

Politics of packages, packaging of politics

The politics of relief packages in Vidarbha: P.Sainath reports on the relief package that was announced by the PM to address the agrarian crisis in Vidarbha.
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.)
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Not a single top leader of Maharashtra had entered a grieving household prior to the Prime Minister's visit.