Will agrarian distress cost the BJP crucial seats in rural Gujarat?

The government has tried to address agrarian distress, but farmers say continuous economic stresses have made their livelihoods obscure and irrelevant.

ByAnumeha Yadav
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Will agrarian distress cost the BJP crucial seats in rural Gujarat?
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On March 28, farmers from Dhareshwar village, Rajula, Amreli district protested against being denied water for irrigating their farms

In the cool evening sun, Narendra Vekariya, a farmer from the prosperous Patidar, or Patel community, in Gundhara village in Gujarat’s Rajkot district, is spraying pesticide on a narrow plot of vegetables and maize — a sliver of green in an expanse of dry, fallow fields. Because of a poor monsoon, farmers in Gundhara were unable to sow winter crops. Gondal block, where Gundhara lies, received 52 per cent of its average rainfall. The village water bodies had dried up.

Vekariya has 16 acres of land and owns two borewells. One of these is 375 feet deep and had no water. But Vekariya used the second borewell to grow vegetables for subsistence and maize for cattle fodder, drawing water now available only at a depth of 640 feet. His neighbour, Mahesh Seladiya, sits on a cot nearby, watching. “Only one out of four farmers in the village are like Narendrabhai, able to grow crops to even feed our families,” he says. “We could not grow anything.”

Mahesh Seladiya and his brother Girdhar could not grow any winter crop in Gundhara in Gondal after water sources dried up in the village.

The Gondal Agriculture Produce Market Committee (APMC)—Gujarat’s second-largest mandi, or farm market yard, around five kilometres away from the village—reflects the low yields. Business has been tepid, say marketing yard staff. “At this time, there would be tonnes of seed crops cumin, coriander in the mandi,” says Praveen Somaiya, the secretary of the APMC. But after a rain deficit last year, the arrival of winter crops of coriander seeds fell by 64,000 quintals in 2018, and cumin by 6,000 quintals. “This year could see a further drop,” he says.


Gondal Agriculture Produce Market Committee has seen tepid business

For decades, the Gujarat government promised that the Sardar Sarovar dam project on the Narmada river will bring water to the drought-prone Saurashtra region where Gondal lies. Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the dam project in September 2017, even though the state government was yet to complete the network of canals and pipelines to take the water to farms. Gondal depends on the Bhadar dam that has run dry, affecting 82 villages. The Narmada network has so far reached till Veri pond, 35 km from Gundhara.

The state government has tried to help, but farmers have been hit by both low production and low prices. Gondal is one of the largest groundnut-producing regions in Gujarat. In 2017, which was an election year, the government procured groundnut in record quantities, says APMC’s Somaiya. “But in February, because of previous record procurement, there was less demand, prices crashed and farmers sold three-fourths of the crop at ₹3,500 per quintal, much below the minimum support price of ₹4,500-5,000.”

He adds, “Also, since demonetisation after the cash-crunch hit, overall, the prices in mandi auctions have fallen considerably.”

Gondal is in Porbandar constituency. The Patidars, or Patels, are the dominant farming community here. But even land-owning farmers are struggling for the future of their livelihoods—a struggle that became apparent when lakhs of Patidar youth took part in rallies demanding reservations in government jobs and colleges in July 2015, the first agitation Gujarat had witnessed in more than 10 years. The Bharatiya Janata Party emphasised that this election will be a test of Gujarat’s pride — whether Narendra Modi, a Gujarati, would lead the nation again. Both major national parties have also tried to appeal to caste loyalties of farmers by nominating candidates from the Leuva sub-caste of Patels, the same sub-caste as that of most farmers here.

But farm issues may ultimately decide the results in this parched region.

The BJP has nominated Ramesh Dhaduk, a real estate entrepreneur from the Patidar sub-caste Leuva Patel. Dhadhuk replaces its sitting MP, Vitthal Radadia, a veteran Patidar politician who won this seat with 62.7 per cent votes in 2014. The Congress has nominated Lalit Vasoya, its first-time MLA from Dhoraji in Rajkot. Vasoya is also a Leuva Patel and is a close aide of Hardik Patel, who had led the Patidar stir for reservations in 2015.

Finishing his work in the fields, Vekariya sits down to speak. He’s sceptical of the BJP candidate. “Dhadhuk’s qualifications are that he studied till high school. He is a businessman who regularly organises katha (ceremonies) presided by Hindu seers, maharaj,” he says. “Is there any shortage of the devout in Rajkot? Then why did he get the ticket? It is because of rokrah, money power,” he says, making a gesture of throwing notes with one hand. He says the Congress’s Vasoya, who was a farmer, enjoys better credibility for speaking up on farm issues, irrespective of his association with Hardik Patel, whom he described as “a Kejriwal”, for focusing on agitational politics.

Vekariya and other families who gathered around the cot are uncertain if they can trust either of the two national parties on resolving their problems. “In the Assembly elections in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the Congress said it would waive off farmers’ loans. Did they really do so, I wonder?” asks Praveen Pansuriya, another farmer. Vekariya’s neighbour, Seladiya chimes in, a lanky farmer with a ₹1.3 lakh farm loan left to repay. “How is it that Nirav Modi, Vijay Mallya flee the country taking crores, but banks find out only after ₹13,000 crore have disappeared, and when it comes to farmers owing them ₹1 lakh, the banks know immediately?”

“Ultimately, it is not difficult to lead India, bhai,” quips Pansuriya. “All you need to be is a Bol Bachchan (a man of big words). And that our man is,” he says, taking a dig at the BJP’s “son of the soil” pitch to form the government a second time under Modi’s leadership.

Cracks in the ‘model’

In 2014, Gujarat was one of two larger states, along with Rajasthan, where the BJP swept all 26 Parliament seats. It won with a 60.11 per cent vote share, bettering the record from 1980 when the Congress won 25 seats in Lok Sabha from Gujarat. The Congress got 33.45 per cent votes in 2014, down from 11 seats in 2009 to none in 2014.

After his historic win, the first challenge to Modi’s slogan of sabka saath sabka vikas emerged in Gujarat in 2015 in the form of the agitation by Patidar farmers. The growing resentment in rural areas reflected in the results in the 2017 Gujarat Assembly elections where the BJP retained power in the state with an eight per cent vote margin and won 85 per cent of the urban seats, but bagged only 37 per cent of the rural seats. The Congress, on the other hand, won 58 per cent of the rural seats, showing it could still credibly challenge the party governing in Gujarat’s rural areas.

An analysis by the Trivedi Centre for Political Data showed that the Congress gained largely in the Saurashtra-Kachchh sub-region, dominated by Patidar farmers, which had been hit hard by low crop prices and failing agriculture. The BJP’s vote share in Saurashtra-Kachchh dropped nearly six per cent, while the Congress doubled its seats in the region to 30 seats in the state Assembly in 2017, up from 12 in 2012.  

Days before he officially started campaigning for the 2019 elections, PM Modi raised his re-election pitch by visiting Gujarat. While inaugurating a slew of development projects, he laid the foundation stones of Vishwa Umiya Dham, a ₹1,000-crore Kadva Patidar temple in Ahmedabad on March 4, followed a day later by a ₹50-crore Annapurna temple being built by the Leuva Patel community in Adalaj. Both events were seen as the BJP’s placation of any resentment among the powerful Patidar community.   

Will the agrarian distress cause a setback to the BJP in the general election? Will the Congress and Opposition parties build on the rural resentment and the Patidar stir to carve a larger share of seats this time?

At his Ahmedabad office, Gujarat BJP spokesperson Bharat Pandya dismisses the Patidar agitation as having any significance for the upcoming elections. He describes it as being the result of a “proxy war” of the Congress. “Three to four people tried to vitiate the atmosphere with jaativaad (casteism), kaumvaad (communalism) and we lost a few seats in the Assembly elections in 2017. But our biggest achievement is to have retained power continuously for 22 years in this state.”

Pandya enumerates a number of measures the state government has taken to address agrarian distress. “It was successive Congress governments that obstructed the Narmada water from reaching Gujarat. But as prime minister, Modi cleared the orders for closing the gates of the Narmada and raising the water level within days. I do not have the irrigation figures at hand, but we have ended the tanker economy of the past. We have built a 1,125-km-long network of pipelines for delivering Narmada water for drinking purposes. We have started the Saurashtra Narmada Avataran Irrigation (SAUNI) link project and Sujalam Sufalam schemes for generating water resources and distributing it efficiently through pipelines and filling dams and ponds with Narmada water.”

Pandya says the government also increased the minimum support prices for several crops. “Never since Independence has a government bought so many crops from farmers—groundnut crop, potato crop, you name it. As part of the PM Kisan Samman Nidhi, we ensured online claims were filled on time and 25 lakh farmers received ₹2,000 cash in their bank accounts,” he says, describing the ₹6,000 amount as an “auspicious start”—referring to the total of ₹6,000 these farmers will receive in three instalments. Pandya says he’s confident that agrarian issues won’t adversely affect the BJP’s election prospects. “After five years of development, the farmer, the working poor, women of this country, all of them feel, ‘this is my government’. There is a strong wave to make Modi PM again.”

Dalit agriculture workers Jaya Deoji and Rekha Phanji, they had to buy water from tankers but continued to support the BJP.

Village residents said they received forms to open accounts but many struggled to fill them in English.

Paresh Dhanani, the Congress MLA from Amreli and the party’s Leader of Opposition in the Assembly, contests Pandya’s claims. “Since 2002, not even an inch of improvement in irrigation canals has taken place here,” he contends. “Gujarat’s farmers are paying the highest rates of payments in the country for electricity and irrigation, even while prices are depressed.” He says it’s farmer distress that led to the BJP being rooted out from Amreli—the district which gave Gujarat its first CM and several of its agriculture ministers—during the 2017 Assembly elections.

According to Dhanani, the government’s responses to questions raised in the Assembly show that the state and Centre had paid ₹7,201 crore as premium to various insurance companies in 2017-18, while farmers received payouts of ₹2,311 crore over the same period. “The insurance companies have reaped a windfall of ₹4,980 crore under the PM Kisan Beema Yojana, while farmers cannot recover even the premium they contribute,” he says. “There is deep distress in rural areas.”

‘Farmers will be extinct’

Dhanani will contest from Amreli against the BJP’s Naranbhai Kachhadia, who had won the seat in 2009 and 2014.

Amreli is a BJP bastion. The party won all Parliament elections held between 1991 and 2014, except in 2004 when it lost to Congress. But it isn’t infallible. In the recent state Assembly elections, the BJP lost all five Assembly seats in the district. For the first time in 32 years, the BJP was closed off entirely from the crucial agrarian district, the largest cotton-producing region in the state.

Like all 11 districts in Saurashtra, Amreli has a drought in several villages. The question of Narmada waters has been a major political talking point for decades. But experts say the frequent droughts are caused by an over-dependence on Narmada water, leading to neglect of local water resources.

Cattle struggle for water and fodder in Amreli.

“Historically, the availability of water resources was not poor in Gujarat,” says Dr Indira Hirway, author of a study on water availability in Gujarat for Water Aid. “Permeable geological formations along the Saurashtra coast stored aquifers of sweet water. But now, because of over-drawing of groundwater, the water table is falling at the rate of 10 feet every couple of years.”

Hirway says though the original plan for the Narmada project in the 1990s did not provide for using the river for drinking, now seven out of eight municipalities and 9,633 villages depend on it. “In 2018, when the water in Narmada river dried up, the government acted in panic, launching a crash programme of desilting local water bodies. But even that has been corruption-ridden,” she points out.

Hirway’s contention bears out in Amreli’s Rajula block. On March 28, more than 250 farmers of Dhareshwar village in Rajula surrounded the government offices in the town. They demanded that they be given water first from Dhatarwadi, a 45-year old small local dam. The farmers said they needed to save their wheat crops currently wilting in their fields, while water was being given on priority to the urban population in Rajula and Jaffrabad. They threatened to open the dam’s gates and draw the water themselves if the administration did not heed them.

Ramji Parmar, a Dalit resident of the village who works as an operator in the water department, says a pipeline of Narmada water was brought to the village to provide drinking water 10 months ago, but barely any water was supplied. “The water is supplied to L&T, to cement factories instead,” he says. “It makes me furious that I am told to release drinking water for the village only four hours in the whole week, but the town, Rajula, is supplied with water every day because the better-off live there.”

Ramji Parmar who works as an operator in the water department said it made him angry that the town received Narmada water while Dhareshwar village barely got any drinking water.

Gathered in the village square in Dhareshwar, farmers express their helplessness at being at the receiving end of administrative neglect. They complain that the Dhareshwar dam has not been desilted even once in 40 years. The dam’s fusegates were washed away in a flood in 2003, and the state administration did not replace them, causing the level of water that can be stored to fall by 1.6 meters, they say.

“We pay the state ₹307 per hectare for irrigating one crop for one time,” says Dilip Sujitra, one of the farmers who had protested. “I paid ₹3,000 in advance last year to the administration for irrigating my fields over a period of 120 days. But they released the water five times only over 75 days. If they do not release the water now, our standing wheat crops will be ruined in a matter of days.”

Dilip Sujitra in Amreli

Sujitra had to sell cotton in distress at ₹900 per 20 kilos after the erratic rain spells lowered the quality of the cotton ball. He suffered a loss of an average of ₹13,000 per bigha in groundnut, he says, but received ₹3,900 in crop insurance.

“We voted for the Congress the last time thinking they will waive off our farm loans but they failed to form the state government,” says farmer Ishwar Patel.

Hasmukh Sojitra says they can’t figure out who will work for them, the BJP or the Congress. “All our MP Naranbhai has provided us are these bakhla, benches in every village.” He points to the white stone benches the elderly farmers sit on. “This is what the government wishes to tell us: sit here and remain idle. After all, there is nothing left for the farmers to do anymore.”

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