Madhya Pradesh farmers protest: Riots amidst rising prosperity? Surjit Bhalla says politics explains phenomenon

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Updated: June 10, 2017 5:40:08 AM

It is politics that best explains the phenomena of farmer riots amidst rising prosperity of farmers

Madhya Pradesh farmers protest, Maharashtra, Demonetisation,  2017 farmer riots, farmers suicide, RBI, INDIA, BEEF,  farmer agitation circa 2017The poor farmers (are these the ones who are rioting?), need cash to transact sales, but there is no cash in the system.

Is it political, or is there a socio-explanation for the farmer unrest (and riots) in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh? According to some, this unrest is liable to spread across the country. Hence, it is imperative that policymakers, and analysts, understand the causes behind the riots in order to best insure society, and the farmers, from economic doom. The socio-economic explanation, according to experts, is that nobody wants to be a farmer anymore. And why? Because it is not remunerative, and relatively hard physical work. The children of farmers aspire for a well-paying urban job. This is a universal and “natural” phenomenon which is why social scientists (and economists) have stressed that it is incumbent for policymakers to be forward-looking and prepare the “ground” for this change. But the economy is not producing enough jobs to accommodate the migrants from farmer families. These leads to frustration, despair, and unrest. And hence the riots. A related explanation for farmer unrest, according to the “experts”, is demonetisation. The “reasoning” proceeds as follows. Demonetisation was, like a hurricane, an all-round destructive force. The poor farmers (are these the ones who are rioting?), need cash to transact sales, but there is no cash in the system. Hence, the farmers are rioting. And committing suicide. Just look at the data on suicides for confirmation. As TV anchors, and journalist experts (in print and TV) will constantly remind you, there are over 12,000 farmers committing suicide. As one politician recently reminded me, he was concerned about the plight of farmers because he was in touch with some of the families where there had been a suicide. He believed that by talking to them (and even invited me to come along), I would correct my “inhuman” attitude towards farmers.

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What exactly is my insensitive inhuman view of farmer suicides? That suicide of a loved one is one of the most inexplicable and depressing occurrences for any family member, or friend, to experience. That most of us, beyond a certain age, have known a dear one to have committed suicide. That suicide is a much studied problem (see Durkheim) and that poverty is not known to be one of the major causes of suicide. And that one should not demean a highly tragic personal experience in order to score narrow political points. Finally, appealing to suicides to address public policy is nothing short of emotional blackmail.

Citing number of farmers who have committed suicide does not add much knowledge to understanding why farmers are rioting in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. For starters, farmer suicides while numbering 12,600 have declined from a peak level of 18,241 in 2004, and 17,368 in 2009—2004 was a good agricultural year, and 2009 a drought year. Housewife suicides have stayed in the 23,000 range for the last decade. Student suicides have risen by over 60% since 2001, and now number 8,900. Suicide is a complex social and cultural phenomenon. Let us not reduce it to a political soundbite.

Coming back to the mystery of farmer agitation circa 2017. Is it economic, or is it political? The answer is that it is heavily political. Allow me to reject the economic explanation. Recall that what we are trying to explain are 2017 farmer riots. As we all know, Indian farmers faced two consecutive years of drought in 2014-15 and 2015-16. Such an occurrence, two droughts in a row, has only happened five times since 1870, and on three occasions in independent India: mid-1960s, mid-1980s and now. Despite this rare farmer tragedy, we did not observe any farmer riots during the recent drought years.

We read a lot about collapsing food prices, and lowering of farmer incomes, as identifiable causes of riots (and suicides). How have food prices performed over the course of last three years? The accompanying table documents the course of prices of six food items. Two dominant conclusions are (i) producer prices (whether minimum support prices of the government of India or wholesale prices) have risen by about 5-10% over the last year; (ii) at the same time, consumer prices, of selected and volatile food items (fruits, vegetables, and pulses) have also stayed broadly constant over the last three years. [RBI and MPC, and other inflation experts, please note this constancy over three years!] One constant refrain is that pulse prices have gone below their respective MSPs. While no doubt this has occurred for selected items, in the aggregate procurement prices of pulses have risen an average of 11% in each of the last two years; and the wholesale price of pulses is up a hefty 52% since 2014-15.  Incomes have also increased, and increased sharply in this post-drought (but riot prone?) year. Pulse production is up 30%, providing the pulse farmer with an income gain of more than 40% in 2016-17. Wheat farmer incomes are up at least 10%. So, where is the problem, or as the American idiom goes, where is the beef?
There is an additional dimension to the story that farmer riots are politically motivated. News reports suggest that there is a lot of looting, and stealing of liquor. By farmers, or who? As a social scientist, I have been taught (and willing to teach whoever is willing to listen) that who gains and who benefits is a useful starting point for most questions about policy, and politics.

So, who benefits from stirring up riots? Let us examine what has happened, politically, over the last three years. First, politicians outside the BJP tent have been badly hurt. There is little likelihood of an opposition party, or an opposition alliance, coming to power in 2019. Note how experts no longer talk about a week being enough time for the politics to change course. Now, even five years (let alone the two years till the next election in 2019) may not be enough for an opposition to arrive. More bothered than the opposition outside the tent is the opposition inside. Just look at how the Shiv Sena is running scared. Even after chief minister Devendra Fadnavis of Maharashtra promised a loan waiver, benefitting the vast majority of the indebted poor, farmer riots have continued. Also, for political inferences, a dissection of the “beef ban” is necessary. Maybe the Supreme Court has more to do with the beef ban injustice than any politician. In any case, the beef ban, and the rank anti-Muslim communalism associated with it, does not benefit PM Modi or the BJP. It does not garner any new votes, and does indeed lose some old votes. So, if Modi/BJP lose from the beef ban, who gains?
A parallel phenomenon to the rise and rise of PM Modi is the fall, and fall, of the influence of the RSS. Prior to the UP election, there was a lot of talk about the RSS cadres being essential to BJP; in my travels in UP, and discussions with several expert commentators, the near universal conclusion is that the UP vote was for Modi, and not for BJP, and definitely not for the RSS. The support for Modi is among the vast majority of the emerging and the emerged middle class. This large group of people has aspirations for a modern India, complete with education, jobs, and freedom of thought, and action. No modern country, and certainly no diverse country like India, can afford to restrict the young and the old in their freedom to choose. Does the RSS think that it can gain credibility, and support, by harking back to its own imaginary Hindu era? Food for thought.

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