June 14: Raju Shetti, the most prominent farmer leader in Maharashtra, today met JDU veteran Sharad Yadav and offered to join any Opposition front to fight for the rights of the peasantry although he is a BJP ally.
Shetti is a member of Parliament and founder of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sangathan, a farmers' union that is a part of the BJP-Shiv Sena government in the state.
A disciple of the late farm leader Sharad Joshi, Shetti told The Telegraph in an interview that he was convinced after seeing the Narendra Modi government's performance over three years that it was not worried about farmers. A national agitation to oust the government was the need of the hour, he said.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: Why are the farmers in such distress, what happened all of a sudden?
A: Not sudden at all. The situation was bad for many years and it is getting worse because of the Modi government's policies.
The massive mandate Modi got in 2014 was primarily because of the promise to implement the Swaminathan Commission's recommendations - of input cost plus 50 per cent profit for farmers.
Farmers thought their ' achchhe din' would come with this. I can say for sure, farmers in Maharashtra had been swayed by this promise. Never in the past was the Congress-NCP decimated in this manner. The NDA winning 42 of the 48 seats was unthinkable.
Q: But the Modi government filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court in 2015 itself, saying that giving input cost plus 50 per cent profit is not possible and you are still in the NDA.
A: Yes, they did. They said so in Parliament too. I brought a resolution in the Lok Sabha seeking fulfilment of the promise and the government said that was not possible. I have written over a dozen letters to the Prime Minister over the past two years, explaining the pitiable plight of the farmers but nothing changed.
They promised it in their manifesto but went back on their word. They promised to double farmers' income and ended up doubling the debt.
Q: So now you are breaking away, joining the Opposition ranks?
A: No, I am still in the NDA. But I can join anybody to fight for the rights of farmers. My politics is nothing but safeguarding farmers' interests.
I met Sharad Yadav and told him I would work with them, with the Congress. The Opposition must rise in support of the farmers at this critical juncture. A national agitation is called for. The Opposition parties are planning one.
I can say the agrarian distress is going to put Modi in deep trouble. This government will be defeated in the next election.
Q: But you can fight from within, convince the Prime Minister to act.
A: I have tried my best. Around 9,500 suicides happened in Maharashtra alone. Tur (arhar) dal is being sold by farmers at Rs 4,000 per quintal instead of Rs 11,000. Soybean farmers are selling their produce at Rs 2,500 instead of Rs 6,000. Prices of every crop have fallen. Who is responsible? The central government alone.
Radha Mohan Singh (Union agriculture minister) and Ram Vilas Paswan (minister of food, consumer affairs and public distribution) together destroyed the farmers.
The government's export-import policy is mindless and dangerous. Finance minister Arun Jaitley now says states should generate their own resources for a loan waiver. What does he mean? Why should states suffer for the Centre's wrong policies?
Q: Can you explain how the Centre's policies are wrong?
A: The Prime Minister says in (the radio address) Mann Ki Baat that he wants to make the country self-sufficient in pulses. When farmers grow a bumper crop, they don't get support. Pulses are imported. Pulses and onions were imported from Pakistan. It is like a surgical strike on farmers.
When Sachin Tendulkar scores a double hundred, he gets crores of rupees in reward, is given the Bharat Ratna. When farmers score a double, they are hanged, left to commit suicide.
They talk of Digital India and don't have the basic knowledge about sowing, yield and consumption. There are no wild variations in our production, the government can easily assess the demand-supply equation. But policies are made for middlemen, not farmers.
Q: Rahul Gandhi has said big corporate houses minted money in the 'dal scam'; was he right?
A: There appears to be some truth in that allegation. Policies reflect they are designed to help the market. The way imports and exports have been dealt with, be it pulses or edible oil, something looks fishy. And the finance minister's statement is most disturbing. That there is no money for farmers. Money is only for corporates.
It is the government's duty to stabilise market prices in the face of bumper crops and protect the farmers against natural calamities.
Q: But the Prime Minister was so concerned about soil health cards and crop insurance. The government is projecting these two steps as a boon for the farmers.
A: That's bogus. That is only to divert attention from the refusal to pay the MSP (minimum support price) in keeping with the promise. Farmers know their soil, they don't need Modi to introduce this system. Children of farmers know about every leaf in their farm. And crop loans are designed to benefit insurance companies and exploit the farmers.
Q: Did the loan waiver announcement in Uttar Pradesh also contribute to the farmers' unrest elsewhere?
A: That was foolish, the Prime Minister should understand he represents the country and can't use resources to buy votes in one state. How can he announce a scheme for one state and betray the entire country? Unfortunately, no chief minister has the courage to speak the truth.
Q: Is loan waiver a good idea to address distress?
A: Loan waiver is no solution. It provides immediate relief. But suicides will not end till farming is made lucrative. Farmers cannot survive by spending Rs 100 to earn Rs 60. Governments should understand this much of arithmetic.
Q: Then the Mandsaur (Madhya Pradesh) fire is going to spread?
A: Yes, farmers in many states are struggling to survive. The Shivraj (Singh Chouhan) government's nautanki (antics) has further angered the farmers. I am the only politician apart from the chief minister who could meet the families of those who died in the police firing (in Mandsaur last week, in which six persons were killed).
I entered Mandsaur on June 9 along with farmers. The true story is that farmers had called for a bandh. Two shops refused to cooperate.... When farmers asked them to shut shop, they started beating them with iron rods. (Shetti shows a purported video of the incident given to him by locals).
This infuriated the farmers who came back to attack the store. The police then fired at the mob. So far there has been no action against the store owners probably because they belong to the BJP.
Shivraj is giving Rs 1 crore as compensation (to the family of each deceased farmer) because of his guilt consciousness. But he can't suppress anger with money.
I was shocked to know the wife of a farmer who died in the police firing committed suicide two days later. The chief minister's 'upvaas' (fast) was really an ugly drama.