New Delhi: A month after Congress wrested Rajasthan from the BJP and Ashok Gehlot became the chief minister for a third time, farmer protests have returned to Sikar district over unfulfilled loan waiver promises and failure to give Minimum Support Price for their produce.
The All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), the farmer front of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPIM), is protesting the delay in implementation of the loan waiver scheme promised by the newly formed Congress government in the state. Farmers also claim that the write offs are “exclusionary” and will thus leave a vast majority of the debt ridden without relief.
After taking oath as Rajasthan CM, Gehlot had announced waivers for farmer loans of up to Rs 2 lakh taken till November 2018. The write offs would be applicable to short-term loans taken from cooperative banks and loans of up to Rs 2 lakh taken from nationalised, commercial or other banks till November 30.
Farmers in Sikar, which became the epicenter of farmer protests under BJP rule in 2018, feel cheated by Congress and say another big stir is in the making.
Usman Khan, who lives in Kasli village in Sikar and is the former Pradhan of Dhod, has been protesting with farmers since the loan waiver announcement in the district. He said the riders in the government order will lock several farmers out from loan waiver benefits.
“The order said the only the loans of defaulting farmers from nationalized banks would be written off. Waivers should be for all farmers who have taken loans,” Khan claims.
A farmer who has paid back his loans on time with interest, but still has debt will not benefit from waivers, Usman said, adding that another farmer who has not paid on his debt in five years will get the write off. “If it is just for defaulters, people won’t pay back (to avail the benefits),” he said.
The defaulters form only a minority group of indebted farmers, according to AIKS district secretary Sagar Khachariya. Thus, only a small percentage of farmers would be eligible for the loan waivers.
“For example, the Baroda Rajasthan Kshetriya Gramin Bank has branches in 21 districts and their defaulter ratio is only 6.7 per cent. In other banks like SBI, PNB and others, defaulters form less than even 5 per cent of the total,” Khachariya said.
Several other groups that often overlap with agrarian population are excluded from the loan waiver scheme as well. According to Khan, the order states that village heads, government servants, pensioners, nagar palika chairmans and Panchayat pramukhs would also be ineligible.
“Suppose if there is one government worker in a family, but there are five other members who are farmers in debt. If all these groups are excluded, how many are even eligible?” Khan, who himself has a debt of Rs 1.5 lakhs, asks.
Another gripe for farmers in the region is that despite the waiver announcement coming within 10 days of government formation, the rollout has not yet happened. Farmers say they voted for Congress over the loan waiver promise and a month later, they feel betrayed.
In a major victory ahead of 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Congress had wrested back three crucial Hindi heartland states — Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh — from Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the promise of loan waiver had played a key role in wooing the agrarian community.
Following the state poll results and government formation in December, Congress promptly announced farmer loan waivers in all three states. Party president Rahul Gandhi had tweeted “Done” after the announcements and has since gone on to say that Congress would initiate nationwide loan waivers if they come back to power at the Centre in 2019.
But among farmer groups and Left farmer unions, the order, with its multiple conditions and riders, was criticised immediately. Additionally, farmers, who were promised a complete loan waiver, felt manipulated when the government announced waivers for loans only up to Rs 2 lakhs.
A long standing demand for the implementation of recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission has also not yet been fulfilled. “Farmers are still not getting MSP equivalent to 1.5 times their input price. There is no proper system for selling produce to state government as well,” Khachariya said.
According to him, state government buys about 5 to 6 percent of a farmer’s produce. The state has put up an online system where farmers must register before a deadline, failing which their crops go unsold to the state. Congress had also promised a compensation of Rs 3,500 per month for unemployed youths, which farmers say, has not yet been implemented.
Days after the waiver announcement, farmers protesting alongside AIKS, burnt effigies of Gehlot on December 21. On January 8, farmers in Sikar burned copies of the loan waiver order in protest. The next day, they staged an agitation at the district headquarters and handed out a memo of their demands. The stir, according to Khan, is only going to grow bigger and stronger.
Rajasthan Agriculture Minister Lal Chand Kataria claimed that he had no knowledge of a brewing unrest among Sikar farmers as he was in Jodhpur for the past few days. He, however, said that the state government was in the process of clearing the loan write offs. “Don’t focus on ‘defaulters’ tag in the order. All loans up to Rs 2 lakh will be waived,” Kataria told News18.com.
According to the minister, the confusion surrounding the loan waiver will be cleared up when the government note on the order comes out. “I can tell you that the government is working on it. A committee of ministers is looking into it and will pass the order after consulting everyone,” Katariya said. “All loans will be waived.”
The minister said 70 to 80 per cent work has been done and the loan waiver will be implemented in the next five to seven days. “We are waiting for some figures from banks. Once we get them, it will be cleared.”
But Virendra Singh, a Congress legislator from Dantaramgarh in Sikar district, contradicted Kataria’s statements and said the process would take another month or two.
“Gathering data from banks and processing it will take time. But it will be done before Lok Sabha elections,” he said. Singh also sought to downplay the farmer unrest in his district. “It’s not a farmers’ protest; it’s a communist protest.”
The Left, which has enjoyed a strong presence in the region historically, had mobilised a massive farmer protests in Sikar in February 2018 and demanded loan waivers from the BJP government. CPI(M) and AIKS leaders Amara Ram and Pema Ram had led thousands of farmers to stage a sit-in at the Jaipur-Sikar highway after they were barred from entering the state capital.
Plans of a similar agitation, now against the Congress government, is in the works, Khachariya said. “We will start a village-to-village campaign in the district that will go on till February 15. After the month-long campaign, there will be a big protest.”
“The next step is the state Assembly. Farmers had tried to gherao the building last year, but had failed. This time we will surround it,” said Khan. “The two CPI(M) MLAs (from Dungargarh and Bhadra constituencies) will protest inside and we will protest outside.”