Raju Shetti during Idea Exchange at The Indian Express office in Pune.
Anuradha Mascarenhas: How successful has been the farmers’ movement in bringing down farmer suicides?
The death of six farmers in police firing in Mandasur, Madhya Pradesh acted as a catalyst in bringing together farmer leaders. Over the last four years, farmers have realised that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has duped them and the firing proved that they will not be able to fight on their own. This firing brought together all the farmer leaders, who have realised that the problem is too large to tackle on their own. Thus, the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) was formed, which is an umbrella organisation of over 190 grassroot-level farmer organisations.
Under the AIKSCC, we have drafted two Bills for complete loan waiver of the farmer and assured returns of 1.5 times the input cost, as per the recommendations of the M S Swaminathan Commission. We have met the President and asked for a special session of Parliament to pass the Bills. More than one crore signatures were collected, asking for a special session to pass the Bills.
More than 4,500 farmers have taken their lives in the state in last 10 months. Farmers have lost their self confidence… This increase is a sign that farmers have lost belief on farmer movements and leaders. A farmer only commits suicide when he feels there is no one for him. That is the reason we had undertaken a Shetkari Bachao Melava from May 1-10, which saw us moving around the suicide-prone areas of the state, asking farmers not to commit suicide. We have realised that the private money lenders and micro finance companies are harassing the farmers. When we hear about such harassments, our workers reach out to the farmers. But I have to admit that the magnitude of the problem is too huge for our strength.
Sushant Kulkarni: The decline of the cooperative institutions is also a major cause for distress in the farm sector. What is your analysis of this decline?
One of the main reasons for the decline of the cooperative institutions is the excess interference by government institutions and leaders of the movements itself. Cooperative institutions have become the hot bed of politics, which should not have happened. Politics should have been kept out of the cooperative, as for the common man, such institutions are necessary.
Higher number of suicides by farmers were reported from districts where the district central cooperative banks (DCCBs) were weak. The simple reason is that the DCCBs have an extensive network of village-level primary agricultural credit societies (PACS), which makes distribution of crop loan easy. Farmers are easily able to avail crop loan from these banks. But when such banks become defunct, farmers are not able to get loans.
The nationalised banks are not very conducive when it comes to distribution of crop loans for farmers. Managers of these banks are changed every three years and the only thing they want to do is fulfil their target for agriculture. They provide loans to farmers with larger land holdings, who are not dependant just on agriculture for their livelihood. Such people take crop loans for their income tax returns. For the common farmer, getting loan from such banks is almost impossible and they have to pay to agents for loans.
Anuradha Mascarenhas: Will the agrarian distress be a game changer in the 2019 elections?
Yes, the 2019 elections will be fought on agrarian issues and we will ensure that they remain the tone of the elections.
Vidyadhar Kulkarni (Loksatta): Sharad Pawar was the agriculture minister for 10 years and yet he did not implement the Swaminathan Commission’s recommendations. In protest you had joined NDA but now you have left them for the same reason. Don’t you feel that the farmers’ movement is falling prey to politics?
No, it is not. The Opposition leaders who have supported the two Bills brought by us have not done it just out of love for the farmers. We know that they are supporting the Bills as they require our votes in the next elections. So why should not the farmer also take advantage of the same political sentiments and get their work done? It is possible to implement the recommendations.
Many people ask why should the farmers get 50 per cent profit. For this, we need to understand the economics of farmer leader Sharad Joshi. Joshi used to say that in order to understand the economics of farming, you need to calculate their balance sheet for at least three years, as once in three years, they go into losses without fail…
But then our psyche is against giving money to farmers. However, we need to understand the deflation in the farm sector over last few years. To cite an example, the expenditure on food items for a normal household has gone down from 50 per cent to 12 per cent. Thus, the earning of farmers has also gone down. Should we not look into this also?
Partha Sarathi Biswas: How successful will be your move to form a farmers’ votebank in 2019? Because experience shows that farmer movements are successful but politically they are not able to vote as farmers. Also do you fear more poaching from your party by the BJP? Minister Sadabhau Khot was with your organisation but later he joined the BJP
We know that the support our Bills have got is just due to electoral reasons. We also know that political leaders can dupe us — if Modi can dupe us, what stops others from doing so? Despite all these, we want to send out a strong signal to the leaders that they can’t take farmers for granted any more. If we can help bring political parties to power, then we can vote them out also. We want to show that farmers can’t be taken for granted anymore.
We know that our people might not get elected, but we have the power to defeat some… Leaders who have left the movement for power should see the decline in their popularity. During their hey days they were most sought after but since they left the movement they find themselves without any base. Farmers only follow leaders who speak for them and once they change their tune, farmers stop following them. This applies to me also.
Ajay Khape: In this scenario who should the farmers trust?
Farmers do not trust people blindly, they observe the so called leaders for 10-15 years before trusting them.
Nanda Kasabe (The Financial Express): How successful have you been in creation of a pressure group?
We have been able to expand our base across the country, which is a big positive point. Also, the central government, who till recently, was silent about the issues of farmers, has started talking about fixed returns, which, it says, is 50 per cent plus A2. Prior to this, they had given an affidavit in the Supreme Court expressing inability to pay the recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission.
However, by their own calculations, the Minimum Support Price of some of the commodities will go down, which was a point I raised in Parliament. It’s our achievement that they are at least talking about the farmers. Now they say they will ensure that the income of farmers will double by 2022. What is so special about 2022?… The only speciality of 2022 is that the RSS is completing its 100 years in 2022. Does the Sangh knows anything about farming?
Ajay Khape: How has been your experience in dealing with this government vis-à-vis last government on agri issues?
The previous governments were no saint. They troubled us a lot. They had registered attempt to murder cases against me. But they were at least sensitive to the issues related to the farm sector… But the present government has not done anything for the farmers.
I have been leading the cane farmers for the last 15 years. Earlier, we could take our agitations to Delhi to meet the Prime Minister in order to solve the issue. But in the last four years, not a single delegation has gone to Delhi. Earlier, they used to call leaders of all parties to find a solution. This government is not ready to do anything other than giving lectures.
Partha Sarathi Biswas: What would be the electoral strategy of Swabhimani Paksha? Will you opt for a pre-poll alliance before 2019?
Chances of a pre-poll alliance can’t be ruled out. However, as a constituent of AIKSCC, our party will follow the stance taken by the committee. We will also take into account the local political situation. But, as of now, we are more focused on formation of the votebank of farmers. We have enough time to take decision. Right now we do not have any proposal before us.
If you ask me, chances of formation of a third front are dim. It will be election between Modi and others. If Shiv Sena leaves the government, we will be interested in making an alliance with them. If they do not come out, we will fight against them.