Why the BJP will bear the brunt of the farmers’ distress in Rajasthan

In poll-bound Rajasthan, the Congress party seeks to canvass for votes from the state's farmers' community, who blame the Bharatiya Janata Party for inadequate policies to support them through the ongoing agricultural crisis. Tushar Dhara for The Caravan
06 December, 2018

“What price do you get for garlic here?” Rahul Gandhi opened with a question, at a public rally in Rajasthan’s Jhalawar district on 24 October. Amid shouts from the audience, Gandhi raised two fingers—“Rs 2,” he said. “The farmer does not get water, electricity, the right price for crops. He has to pay crop insurance. He is unable to recover his own money.” The Congress president’s words ring true for garlic farmers across the state, who have borne the brunt of an agrarian crisis and crash in crop prices since last year. Babu Lal, a farmer from Chadhana village, in Rajasthan’s Bundi district, told me, “The price I am getting for my garlic is not enough to cover the cost of the seeds, sowing, labour and other inputs.”

In October and November, I travelled to two agricultural belts in Rajasthan—the Hadoti belt in the south east, where I went to the district of Kota, and in the Bikaner division in the north, where I visited the Churu and Hanumangarh districts. Across these districts, my conversations revealed that the farmers’ distress in Rajasthan is fuelled not only by the crash in garlic prices, but also by the fluctuations in prices of other crops, the inadequacy of the state’s policies to support agriculture and the government’s failure to fulfill its electoral promises. All of this assumes significance as the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress canvass for farmers’ votes ahead of the upcoming state assembly elections on 7 December.

At a mandi, or agricultural produce market, in the outskirts of Kota, hundreds of bags overspilling with garlic—an essential ingredient of Rajasthani cuisine—were lying under steel sheds, as farmers and labourers offloaded more from trucks parked in the area. Lal had arrived at the market with 40 bags of garlic, cultivated on his two-bigha land—around half a hectare. Each bag contained 50 kilograms of the crop. Lal would break even if he could sell his garlic at a rate of Rs 10 per kilogram, but he said he was unlikely to receive more than Rs 5 per kilogram for it. He added that he had spent Rs 20,000 to produce the crop.

At its lowest quality, the market price for the crop is Rs 5 per kilogram, while the best varieties—with pods the size of a human fist and a pungent smell—may fetch up to Rs 30 for one kilogram. Small farmers would normally earn around Rs 10,000, out of which they have to pay the transport and labour costs, because few are able to cultivate the water-intensive high-quality garlic. “Of the 7,000 bags of garlic that arrive daily only 50 to 100 fetch Rs 30,” Naresh Agarwal, who works at the Maruti Trading Company, an agricultural trading firm in the Kota mandi, said. “The rest are purchased at an average price between Rs 7 to Rs 15.”

Hadoti accounts for 82 percent of Rajasthan’s garlic output of 7,55,350 metric tons, in 2017–18, according to official data of the state government’s agriculture department. It comprises four districts—Kota, Bundi, Baran and Jhalawar—which send 17 legislators to the 200-member Rajasthan assembly. Hadoti is considered a stronghold of the BJP—the party swept the region, winning 16 seats in the 2013 elections, while the chief minister Vaundhara Raje has successively won the last three polls from her constituency of Jhalrapatan, in Jhalawar.

Dashrath Kumar, the general secretary of the Hadoti Kisan Union, who has been working with farmers for the past three decades, explained the circumstances leading to the crash in garlic prices. “A few years ago, the total area sown and the output of garlic was much less than what it is today and hence the price was higher,” Kumar told me at the Kota mandi. “Because of high international demand and the consequent rise in prices, farmers expanded garlic production and the government encouraged them.” He said the consequent glut led to a crash in prices. “At its height, in 2016, garlic was giving the farmer a profit of Rs 25,000 per bigha, which is more profitable than growing rice, wheat or soybean, which are the traditional crops.”

The figures released by the state’s agriculture department support this claim. In 2013–14, garlic was grown on 29,015 hectares in Hadoti, which expanded by 327 percent to 95,044 hectares in 2017–18, which in turn led to a 467-percent jump in production, from 1,32,601 to 6,19,948 metric tonnes.

The statistics division of the Kota mandi revealed the corresponding fluctuations in prices. In December 2016, garlic was selling at a rate of Rs 8,800 per quintal, or Rs 88 per kilogram. By June 2017, the price had collapsed to Rs 22, and by August 2018, to a low of Rs 13.5 per kilogram.

In the wake of the falling prices, in April 2018, the Rajasthan government announced that the Rajasthan State Cooperative Marketing Federation, or RAJFED, would procure garlic under a central government’s Market Intervention Scheme—a support scheme for the procurement of agricultural products for which a minimum support price is not fixed. RAJFED proposed to buy 15 lakh metric tonnes of garlic from farmers at a fixed price of Rs 3,257 per quintal, but it was only applicable for garlic wider than 25 millimetres.

Pannalal Meena, the Kota District coordinator of the Samyukt Kisan Union—an umbrella organisation that works with farmers in Hadoti—said the directive shows that the government was not serious about purchasing the farmers’ produce. “How can anyone grow garlic of a certain size and specification,” Meena asked. Moreover, as of 12 May, RAJFED had purchased only 1,482 metric tonnes of garlic—less than 1 percent of what it had promised.

The mass garlic production followed by the subsequent fall in prices and the government’s failure to adequately compensate the farmers led to a spate of suicides in Rajasthan. In the period from April to May this year, five farmers committed suicide—though the state government denied that it was related to the fall in garlic prices. While addressing the media in April, Gulab Chand Kataria, the home minister of Rajasthan, claimed that only three farmers had committed suicide in the state since the BJP came to power, in 2013. Kataria was responding to the Congress, which had alleged that the state had witnessed 92 farmer suicides under the BJP regime. Meena, on the other hand, claimed the figure stood between 150 and 200.

The Congress manifesto, in its section on farmers’ welfare, states that it will waive agricultural loans in the first ten days of coming to power. It also promises to promote the export of crops such as onion, garlic, guar—cluster bean—and cotton. “Farmers in Rajasthan have been deeply unhappy over the last five years and there have been agitations in Sikar, Hanumangarh and Jaipur,” Dharmendra Rathore, a senior Congress leader who was the former head of the Rajasthan State Seeds Corporation, told me. “If the BJP had worked for farmers, these conditions would not have arisen.”

But Sunil Kothari, the BJP state vice president, said, “We have done a lot for farmers, both in Rajasthan and the national level.” When I asked him about the government’s weak efforts to procure garlic he said, “They may have happened due to local issues [in Hadoti], but there have been no such reports from other parts of Rajasthan”.

The mention of guar in the Congress manifesto presumably seeks to tap the discontent among farmers who, like those cultivating garlic, experienced a spectacular rise in prices and then a crash. Rajasthan is the leading producers of guar in India, accounting for 70 percent of the total production in the country. It can be eaten as a green bean or used as cattle feed.

In 2012, the demand for guar increased exponentially, with its price reaching a record high of Rs 30,432 per quintal in March. A primary reason for the sudden surge was the rise of the shale exploration industry—shale oil is a substitute for conventional crude oil—in the United States, which uses guar gum as an ingredient in the hydraulic fracturing process to extract oil and gas. As a result, exports climbed to $3.9 billion in 2012–13. At the time, global crude oil prices stood at around $100 a barrel, spurring investments into cheaper energy sources such as shale gas. But by January 2016, the price dropped to $36 a barrel, making it more economical than shale. In turn, the guar prices collapsed—by 30 November 2018, the price of guar had dropped to Rs 3,967 per quintal, and exports had declined to $646.94 million in 2017–18.

The Churu region of northern Rajasthan contains dry land conditions that are ideal for guar cultivation. The prosperity followed by penury enabled by guar farming was evident upon arriving at the district. Its residents had built palatial houses, bought SUVs, tractors and cattle. Umesh Poonia, the former sarpanch of Basmoondi village, in Churu district, told me, “There was a brief period of prosperity when guar was gold.”

When I asked him why guar prices crashed, Poonia said he did not know the reasons, but blamed the BJP government for not doing anything about it. “The BJP is a government of the capitalists and traders, not of the farmers,” he said. Referring to a scheme that Raje announced in September this year to give free mobile phones to one crore families in Rajasthan, Poonia added, “They should do something to raise the prices of our crops, not give free mobile phones.” Kothari said that the BJP was purchasing guar at the rates under the Market Intervention Scheme, but Kumar, the Hadoti Kisan Union general secretary, denied the claim.

Rajasthan’s farmers have suffered due to the failing prices of other crops as well. Dinesh Kumar, a resident of Amarpura village, in Churu district, told me that the market price of moong dal was Rs 8,700 per quintal in 2016, and declined to Rs 4,000 in 2018. Similarly, he added that the price of bajra had fallen from Rs 1,500 per quintal to Rs 1,300 in the same period.

Though the central government offers a minimum support price of Rs 6,975 per quintal for moong dal and of Rs 1,950 for bajra, Dinesh said that the system of selling crops at MSP was “complicated and rigged.” Referring to the website of Bhamashah Yojana, the state government’s flagship welfare scheme, he said, “A token has to be procured online via the Rajasthan government’s Bhamashah platform. In Rajgarh tehsil, there were 55,000 tokens for moong. Farmers got only 112 and the rest were cornered by traders.” According to him, traders would purchase the farmers crops at market rates, which are below the MSP, and then resell it to the government at the support price, thus making a profit at the farmers’ expense.

Several farmers also complained of the menace of stray cows that roam free because of the disruption of the cattle trade by cow vigilantism. In Churu, I noticed several fields enclosed with barbed wire to keep the cattle out. “Farmers have to stay up in the fields all night with lathis in order to chase the cows which eat their crops,” Hoshiar Singh, a resident of Taranagar town in Churu, told me. “All this started after [Narendra] Modi became prime minister.” Singh added that he was supporting the Congress candidate Krishna Poonia, who is contesting from the Sadulpur constituency in Churu.

A common grievance against the BJP among the farmers was the party’s failure to fulfill its promises from the previous elections. “Modi promised farmers the moon in 2014 and I voted for him and told others to also vote for him,” Balwider Kang, a wealthy farmer who grows mustard, moong, cotton and wheat on 22 acres of land in Hanumangarh, told me. While campaigning for the 2014 general elections, Modi had promised that he would implement the recommendations of the National Commission on Farmers, chaired by MS Swaminathan, which had submitted five reports between 2004 and 2006.

Referring to this, Kang said, “After coming to power they filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court saying it is not possible to implement the Swaminathan Committee suggestions regarding MSP.” In June 2017, in an affidavit filed before the Supreme Court, the central government stated that it would not implement the recommendations regarding the increased minimum support price. Kang raised the question, “If it was not possible, why promise it?”