India elections 2019: Farmer distress to eat into BJP votes
Stray cows eating crops adds to list of concerns fuelling farmers' anger
A fence of broken branches and thorny twigs piled high to protect crops from marauding cows is one symbol of the farmer distress that will have an impact on the Indian general election.
Ram Sevak Yadav, 35, built the makeshift barricade after herds of cows destroyed his wheat crop last year in Imamganj village in northern Uttar Pradesh state.
The massive stray cow menace has fed the anger of farmers and adds to their list of complaints against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party after several Indian states banned the slaughter of the animal worshipped by devout Hindus.
“I respect the cow, it is like my mother. But after the government said there can be no slaughter, it eats our crops. All our hard work can be ruined in one night,” said Mr Yadav who grows wheat, rice and bananas on a five-hectare farm.
“Before we had a problem with deer that would eat some grain and fruit. But the cow eats everything, they don’t even leave the husk for our animals. They eat up our entire crop, they destroy our hopes.”
Agriculture employs more than 50 per cent of the India’s population and accounts for 17 per cent of GDP, according to government data.
But low crop prices added to higher costs of fertiliser and fuel have taken a toll over the past few years.
Farmers have marched from villages into big cities, dumped rotting crops in government offices and demanded higher prices for agricultural produce.
Erosion of farm income is a big challenge for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government as he seeks a second term.
Tapping into farmer disillusionment, the federal government announced a scheme in February promising 6,000 rupees (Dh315) in an annual payout to an estimated 120 million farmers with less than two hectares of land.
The government also provides support to poor farmers to build indoor toilets and to replace thatched mud huts with homes of concrete and tiled roofs.
Opposition parties too have scrambled to take advantage of farmers’ concerns.
Rahul Gandhi, leader of the main opposition Congress party, has promised a nationwide farm loan waiver, an increase in government procurement prices for crops and a minimum guaranteed income for individuals below the poverty line if elected. Details are sketchy and critics have said it is unclear how this would be disbursed.
Some farmers say they will vote for Mr Modi regardless of shrinking incomes.
“On most days there are 30-40 cows that we need to chase away,” said Viren Kumar, a tea seller and farmer off a main state highway.
“The cows don’t know rich from poor, they go to any land. Half our crop was ruined recently after all the hours we worked. But we will still vote BJP because overall there is no better party.”
But Shoor Vir Singh, a 44-year-old farmer from Mohanpur village also in Uttar Pradesh, said politicians need a deeper understanding of endemic farming problems.
“It’s not just this government, no government has really tried to understand our community,” he said.
“A farmer does not want loan and subsidy, what he wants is a reasonable price for his rice and wheat. We need a place to stock our crops and support from the government so it does not rot. We need good cold storage facilities and quick transport to the market.”
Farmers like Mr Singh have called for long-term policy change, investment in food storage, processing, transport facilities and an improved supply chain network.
As the son of a poor farmer, Keshav Prasad Maurya, the deputy chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, acknowledges that work needs to be done.
He said the state administration was building shelters for cows to prevent them from trampling farm land.
“I was born in the house of a poor man and I know the amount of hardship farmers face," he said.
"We have done a lot for the benefit of farmers, but to uplift them further will take us some more time.”
More on India's election
When Mr Modi took charge in 2014, he had promised to combat food price inflation. His government raided traders suspected of hoarding vegetable and fruit, curbed exports of onions and potatoes and increased imports of pulses.
However, these imports continued despite record Indian pulse harvests in 2016 and 2017.
This reduced food prices and farmers were paid less for their crops even though their production costs increased.
Experts said that farm protests were one cause for the BJP's loss in three key state elections in December last year and agricultural concerns figure high among electoral issues.
“The farming sector is facing a crisis. Farm income has sharply declined. This could be due to a wide range of factors, from surplus production to increase in agricultural imports, decline in agro exports,” said Arun Leslie John, chief market analyst with Century Financials, a financial services company.
“The farming communities don’t know the specific reasons for the crisis, but there is distress. There could be some backlash but how much it will impact the election remains to be seen. This is just one issue in a country where 900 million are eligible to vote.”
When Mr Yadav, the farmer in Imamganj village, walks amid waist-high wheat crop protected by a fragile barrier, his wish list includes education facilities.
“Whether you give us 6,000 or 60,000 rupees, what we need is to be able to stand on our own feet,” said Mr Yadav, who opens his home every evening as a study area where older farmers gather to teach village children reading and maths as part of a voluntary initiative.
“We need to give our children knowledge. Their foundation must be strong for us to be strong. Our life has been a struggle and we want better for our children. The country can grow if our children progress.”
Updated: May 12, 2019 07:22 PM