Chhattisgarh Polls: Farmers’ Votes at Centre of Politics on Paddy Prices, Loan Waivers, Development

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Chhattisgarh Polls: Farmers’ Votes at Centre of Politics on Paddy Prices, Loan Waivers, Development

New Delhi: Tolesh Kumar Chandel, 40, who grows paddy on his approximately two acre land in Chhattisgarh’s Narayanpur district, is pinning his hopes on the Congress to deliver its promise of procuring paddy for Rs 3,200 per quintal, if it is voted to power again in the state.

“I had a loan of Rs 1.22 lakh which was waived off when the Congress government came to power in 2018. This happened after it had promised loan waivers. During the BJP government (before 2018), we used to get Rs 1,700 for paddy procurement. Last year, they [Congress government] procured paddy for Rs 2,500, and this year we have got Rs 2,640. If they (Congress) are making promises to farmers, they are delivering on it as well. We are hopeful that if they form the government again, they will deliver on their promises,” he told The Wire.

In Chhattisgarh, considered as the rice bowl of India, poll promises to farmers, including farm loan waivers, and competitive politics over the price of paddy between the incumbent Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is being seen as the pivot that could decide the elections in the state.

In the 2018 elections, that ended 15 years of the BJP rule in the state, disenchantment among paddy farmers is believed to be one of the key factors along with anti-incumbency that helped the Congress dislodge the saffron party and win 68 of the 90 assembly seats in the state.

Prior to the 2018 election, the Congress had announced a slew of promises to farmers. After its victory, it delivered on procuring paddy at Rs 600 per quintal, which is above the Union government’s mandated minimum support price (MSP), along with short-term loan farm loan waivers. It also delivered on providing electricity up to 400 units at half the rate, among others.

In the two-phased election being held this month in the state, the Congress is once again pinning its hopes on its winning formula of farm loan waivers and increased paddy procurement prices to farmers.

Last month, in an interview to The Wire, deputy chief minister T.S. Singh Deo said that the party will be going to the voters with the promises that they had delivered.

“Nowhere in the country are paddy farmers getting as much value for their crops as in Chhattisgarh. We had assured that we would be waiving short-term farm loans, which we did to the tune of about Rs 10,000 crores,” he said.

“We assured the farmers that we would purchase paddy at least at Rs 2,500/quintal. And now we will be purchasing paddy at just short of Rs 2,800 in November,” he said.

While the BJP has centred its campaign around corruption by the Bhupesh Baghel government, in learning from its mistake in the 2018 defeat, it is also attempting to woo farmers this time. The party in its manifesto released on November 3 has promised to procure paddy at Rs 3,100 per quintal (21 quintal per acre) – Rs 500 more than what the current Congress government offers.

The party has also sought to course correct on its 2013 promise of providing Rs 300 as bonus per quintal over the Centre-mandated MSP. While the bonus was delivered in the first three years of the Raman Singh government, it was stopped after the Union government directed states to stop giving bonuses on paddy and wheat procurement

This time the party in its manifesto has also promised to deliver on the outstanding paddy procurement bonus for those two remaining years at Rs 300 per quintal by December 25, if it comes to power.

While the Congress has called the BJP manifesto a “copy” of its promises, just two days later in its own poll manifesto released on November 5, the Congress subsequently upped the ante and promised to procure paddy at Rs 3,200 (20 quintal per acre).

In addition, it has also promised to once again waive farm loans.

Pawan, 50, another farmer in Narayanpur, said that while he had his farm loan of around Rs 1 lakh waived in 2018, the competitive politics over the procurement of paddy prices appears to be an election ploy by the two parties.

Janta ko idhar udhar kar rahe hai (They are trying to pull the voters from one side to the other),” he told The Wire.

Nilkanth Nag, 52, in Narayanpur said that although he had a loan of Rs 2.03 lakh which was waived in 2018, the competitive prices for paddy are being offered in the name of votes only.

“Both parties are offering higher rates (for paddy). The current rate is fine. What is the point of increasing it further? We should get as much as we have worked for. Both the parties are doing this in the hope of getting votes. Our vote is for development and in the interest of the nation, in which Modi has done good work,” he said.

Sunil Yadav, 27, a farmer from Dantewada district, said that while he has received the bonus and the Congress government has done the work for the farmers, development still remains a concern.

“It is not that the government has not done the work. But we need more schools, quality education. The main concern is unemployment, which they should address now,” he said.

Also read: Chhattisgarh: To Remain Impervious to a Future Operation Lotus, Can Congress Pull off a Big Victory?

‘Farmers will decide the elections’

Sudesh Tikam, a Rajnandgaon-based farmer leader, who had also contested the 2019 elections as an independent, said that the competitive politics over procurement prices for farmers highlights the success of bringing in farmers’ issues to the mainstream.

“The disenchantment against the Raman Singh government’s failure to fulfill its promise of providing the outstanding bonus for the last two years played a pivotal role in Congress’s victory. The contrasting poll promises regarding paddy procurement by both parties now underscore the triumph of the kisan andolan in the state, successfully bringing farmers’ issues to the mainstream,” he said.

According to him, both the parties are pledging paddy procurement above Rs 3,000, however, the Congress has an edge over the BJP in this election because of a trust deficit in the BJP.

“This marks a big victory for the farmers as a BJP-led central government that was initially not ready to give bonus over MSP prices, is now offering them in the state. The only difference between the two manifestos is the promise of farm loan waivers. The BJP is not promising any loan waivers. It is, however, promising to give the outstanding bonus that was left over from its last two years in power. There is a trust issue involved here. When the BJP was in power, it had promised to give a Rs 300 bonus, but it did not give it for the full five years. So, in that sense it is behind the Congress, which has delivered on its promise,” he said.

“In the previous election, even farmers affiliated to the BJP voted for the Congress. The course correction is visible in the BJP’s manifesto. But the trust issue remains. How farmers will react to this, only time will tell,” he added.

Tikam added that either way, farmers’ issues will decide this election.

“Farmers’ issues will decide not only this election but the next few elections as well. Farmers will only decide who will form the government in the state,” he said.

Also read: As Five States Go to the Polls, the Power of the Poor Will Decide the Results

‘Paddy procurement not a decisive electoral issue anymore’

According to Neeraj Mishra, a Raipur-based political commentator and senior journalist, while farmers’ issues remain important, paddy procurement and loan waivers on their own may no longer be as decisive an election issue as it was in 2018.

“In electoral terms, it is not an issue whether you will give Rs 3,100 or Rs 3,200. The farmers are happy because they are getting a minimum of Rs 2,600 anyway. They [political parties] can give more but they will not give less. That is their [farmers’] assumption,” he said.

“The farmers’ issue is a big factor. So, this time the BJP had to fall in line [with the promises made to farmers]. However, this time it will be a much closer election than 2018 as voters will return to voting for the parties they have traditionally supported. Congress may still win, but it will be much closer than it was last time,” he said.

The feasibility of poll promises from a budgetary perspective

According to Mishra, the feasibility of poll promises may not make budgetary sense in the long term.

“The sum of Rs 500 that is being given as a bonus over the MSP is costing the state exchequer about Rs 5,000 crore. Now to that if you add another Rs 500, then it will add another Rs 5,000 crore to the state exchequer. The government is taking a loan to pay this. About 66% of the state’s loan in the last five years is because of this. The farmer does not care where this money is coming from. But this will add to the burden of the state,” he said.

In the context of farm loan waivers, Mishra mentioned that despite the Congress government’s efforts in waiving farm loans, there remains an outstanding amount of approximately Rs 16,000 crore yet to be waived.

In addition, post-procurement issues need to be considered, including the adverse impact on other infrastructure development.

“The bonus is being paid at the expense of other infrastructure. It (the Congress government) has put a stop to all other development work like roads and other infrastructure. Paddy is getting wasted when stored in open skies, because there’s no infrastructure to store it. There is still remaining stock from last year. Where will you keep all this? What will happen after another five years? Infrastructure has not been developed to keep the grains. Post procurement is also a process,” he said.

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