Farmer leader Amra Ram is a four-time MLA, vice president of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), and a Communist Party of India (Marxist) candidate in the Rajasthan elections from Danta Ramgarh assembly constituency in Sikar district.
On June 6, 2017, six farmers were killed in police firing in Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh. The incident sparked farm protests across India. The first successful protest, after Mandsaur, that inspired farmers across the country was in Rajasthan’s Shekhawati region. Its leader was Amra Ram.
Ram told Archis Mohan that the farmers’ movement in Rajasthan forced Vasundhara Raje government to announce a loan waiver, but other issues contributing to farm distress remain unresolved. He says the Narendra Modi government is anti-farmer and its crop insurance scheme has benefitted only big private insurance companies.
As farmers march upon Delhi to demand a special session of Parliament to discuss agrarian distress, Ram talks about what can be done to help them. Excerpts from an interview.
What was the genesis of farmer protests in Rajasthan in September 2017?
Policies of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation pursued after 1991 had promised farmers a better price for their produce. Several farmer organisations welcomed these policies. The AIKS was the only farmer organisation to oppose it. Now, 27-years later we stand vindicated. All that liberalisation did was to give big companies a license to loot farmers.
The farm crisis deepened to such an extent because of free market policies governing prices of seeds, manure and other inputs in the last two decades that thousands of farmers are committing suicides. For example, look at Punjab. Canal irrigation covers 87 per cent of its arable land, productivity of land is good but farmers are still ending their lives.
In 2016, the AIKS held a meeting in Wardha (in Maharashtra). We decided to meet 4,500 family members of farmers who have ended their lives, to find the reasons that forced them. We found most marginal farmers take land on lease and get pushed to end their lives because of high input costs and inability to pay back debt.
The AIKS held a three-day protest near Parliament in New Delhi in November, 2016, with families of these farmers. Subsequently, we travelled across the country – Hannan Mollah, Ashok Dhawale, others and myself – to demand implementation of the Swaminathan Commission recommendations.
Modi had promised its implementation during his speeches in his 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign. The UPA government, because of the Left parties, had set up the commission in 2004, which submitted its report in 2006, but it did not implement the recommendations until 2014. If politicians, officers and government employees can get pension, why not farmers who have played a pivotal role in making this country self-sufficient in food.
We then sat down to draw up a strategy, contacted farmer organisations of all hues – left, centrist, right wing – and small movements started. It was then that Mandsaur incident happened, which sparked countrywide protests.
What happened in Rajasthan?
We campaigned in Rajasthan for six months. We started by appealing to farmers to impose a ‘farmer curfew’ from 8am to 12pm, and received support from all sections of the society, including educational institutions and trade bodies, that gave us confidence. On August 9, 2017, we announced a ‘jail bharo’, but the government refused our offer for a meeting.
Farmers in Rajasthan had launched successful agitations in 1997, 2000 and 2005 for rollback of increased electricity tariff and for better power supply. In 2005, nearly hundred thousand farmers had protested in Jaipur. Therefore, farmers had that confidence.
However, we decided against holding the protest in the state capital in Jaipur because of logistical problems. We decided to protest in Shekhawati region, and 38 organisation representing all sections of the society, including those opposed to Left politics, also supported the protest. A traders’ body provided food once during the day for the entire length of the 13-day protest, and we cooked dinner ourselves.
After the government initially turned us away, we launched ‘rasta roko’ and blocked the roads. The Vasundhara Raje government finally agreed for a meeting, which lasted two days here in Shekhawati. The government agreed to waive off farm loans of Rs 50,000, and Rs 2,000 pension for farmers above 60-years of age. They government did not deliver on the agreement for four months, and we decided to march to Jaipur on February 22, 2018. The government arrested 1,700 leaders, but failed to break the unity and morale of the farmers. Farmers burnt Raje’s effigies and prepared to block highways across Rajasthan. A couple of days later, the government released all of us, and delivered on some of the points in the agreement when we threatened to submit a memorandum to the PM during his visit to Rajasthan on March 8.
There has never been a loan waiver in Rajasthan, even when the Centre had given debt relief to farmers in 1990 and 2008. This time, cooperative bank loans of 2.9 million farmers in Rajasthan worth Rs 80 billion were written off. In 2016, we had forced the Raje government to roll back increased power tariff for farmers.
What about mob lynchings in Rajasthan?
Rajasthan has witnessed most mob lynchings in the last four years. The AIKS has led protests against it. Unfortunately, the Congress, which is the main opposition party in the assembly, did not support any of our protests--whether our movement against power tariff or mob lynchings or even the farmers’ protests. We sat on a protest in Jaipur outside Rajasthan assembly for three days after Pehlu Khan’s lynching, but not one of the Congress legislators uttered a word in our support.
But is not the CPI (M) dividing the anti-BJP votes in Rajasthan by contesting 28-seats?
We have formed a democratic forum comprising seven parties. It includes Left parties and other democratic parties. In 2008, CPI (M) won three seats. We will break our record this time. Women do not generally come out for political rallies in Rajasthan, but thousands turned up when my colleagues and I filed our nominations (on November 16). This was evidence that people are conscious that while BJP has become anti-farmer and anti-people, even the Congress does not support issues that concern peoples' lives. In the last four years, the BJP government has attempted to privatize state transport, passed anti-labour legislations, which led to frequent strikes by government employees and others.
The BJP and Congress policies are the same. One is a party of hard Hindutva and other of soft Hindutva. The Congress did not oppose any of the Raje government’s anti-worker moves. The Congress does not fight BJP’s communalism; they busy themselves in counting their votes instead of raising their voice against injustice. This strategy will sink the Congress, as it has done in much of the country, and helped BJP’s rise.
But Rajasthan politics is bipolar
Yes, you are right. Our democratic front is not the alternative to the BJP on most seats. Our objective is to contest well in areas where we are strong. Our first aim is to throw the BJP out of power, which will happen on December 7. We also want issues related to peoples' daily lives, like jobs and farm distress, should be discussed, and not temples and mosques.
What issues do farmers face?
There are several. On July 7, the PM of this country announced the government would purchase bajra on minimum support price (MSP) of Rs 1,950 per quintal. However, farmers are forced to sell it at Rs 1,100-1,200. Similar is the story of moong, groundnut and urad. Urad MSP was announced to be Rs 5,600 per quintal, but it is selling at Rs 2,200, while moong was to be purchased at Rs 6,975, but farmers are forced to sell it at Rs 4000. The government had promised cooking gas cylinder at Rs 300-400, it is now at Rs 900.
But the crop insurance scheme has helped farmers.
That scheme has become the biggest instrument to loot farmers. According to data the government presented in Parliament, insurance companies pocketed Rs 220 billion in premium from farmers, but last year disbursed only Rs 40 billion in compensation. Companies benefitted by as much as Rs 180 billion. The Modi government is working as an agent of these companies.
Take the example of Churu district, which witnesses extreme weather conditions. Earlier, farmers received full compensation if their crop was damaged when temperature dropped below zero degree centigrade. Under Modi government’s crop insurance, the temperature needs to drop to minus 2.7 degrees centigrade, which rarely happens.
The PM might announce the MSP, and television and newspapers might advertise it as well, but farmers know the reality. The story is similar of dairy industry. Foreign milk powder is getting dumped, and farmers are losing their livelihood, while consumers continue to pay steep prices.
Take the case of cows. The BJP and Sangh Parivar shed no tears when 4,000 cows died in an animal shelter here, but Pehlu Khan gets lynched for transporting a cow he had purchased for Rs 25,000. Do you really think a farmer would pay that kind of money to finally slaughter that cow? Strays are slaughtered, not milch cows. He had a proper receipt. We respect cows, but farmers cannot get proper night’s sleep in the fear that stray cows and bulls would damage their crop at night. The Sangh Parivar is politically exploiting the issue here, while its chief minister in Goa announces there will be no shortage of beef.