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BW Businessworld

Who Dares, Wins?

PM-Kisan, unfurled shortly before India goes to polls, reaches out to 82 per cent of the farming community. But does the small farmer really see it as the proverbial manna from heaven?

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It is much easier to put existing resources to better use, than to develop resources where they do not exist,” said celebrated investor and philanthropist George Soros once. The wisdom of the iconic founder of the Soros Fund Management and the philanthropic Open Society Foundations, may have been the underlying thought behind the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi, better known now as PM-Kisan, but detractors see it as a mega poll gimmick.

The ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) proclaims PM Kisan Samman Nidhi (or the Prime Minister’s Farmer Salutation Fund) to be a game changer. The scheme that became effective on December 1, 2018, aims to transfer Rs 6,000 every year into the bank accounts of small farmers through the direct benefit transfer (DBT) mechanism. Only farmers with cultivable landholdings smaller than two hectares (or five acres) are eligible for the scheme. Since 9.28 crore (or roughly 82 per cent) of the 13.83 crore farmers in India fall within the category PM-Kisan targets, the scheme should logically prove to be the palliative rural India needs to alleviate the distress on the farmlands.

The funds, to be released in three instalments, come with practically no strings attached. PM-Kisan simply puts money in the hands of small and marginal farmers across the country, so they may not be strapped for funds for inputs for farming or the myriad activities allied with agriculture like poultry farming or rearing sheep or cattle. Even though the PM-Kisan funds come from Budgetary resources, the onus of identifying the eligible beneficiaries of  the scheme rests with the state government — and thereby hangs a tale. While three states, namely Delhi, Sikkim and West Bengal have not provided the list of beneficiaries for PM-Kisan at all, some others like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya have not verified the uploaded the data or made requests for funds.

Do promises impact polls?
Meanwhile, a rather unified Opposition chants that PM-Kisan would have no impact on agrarian distress at all and was little more than a vote snatcher. The sop for small farmers was after all, announced on 1 February, barely two months before the biggest festival of democracy — the national general elections — was about to grip the nation. The scheme does reach out to the most populous vote bank — the farming community. It benefits a whopping 82 per cent of that vote bank, made up as it is of small and marginal farmers.

Perhaps, the Opposition has reasons for concern, for statistics do show a direct link between pre-election promises and the rural voter turnout in the last few general elections. (Please see chart). The NDA promise to overhaul the agricultural infrastructure, for instance, saw voter turnout in rural areas rise by eight per cent in the 2014 national general elections compared to the general elections in 2009.

If drawing out the rural voter was indeed the motive behind PM-Kisan, the scheme would have worked best in times of distress. As it is, PM-Kisan was offered to farmers during the rabi (winter) crop harvest season, after a record production. As Siraj Hussain, former secretary in the Union Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare (MoAFW) points out,  “In March, April and May, the farmers do not have major agricultural operations, so the money received by them is not likely to be used for agriculture. It means that the scheme will not have any substantial impact on farm production.”For a realistic insight into the situation, BW Businessworld scoured  six states that have been hot spots for agriculture, namely Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Kerala and West Bengal. We found that funds had not been disbursed to farmers in Madhya Pradesh because the state government had delayed preparing the list of PM-Kisan beneficiaries, while the state of West Bengal had not sent the list to the Union government in the first place. We spoke to farmers, regional representatives of farmers’ unions and experts on agrarian issues.

We asked them if the scheme could possibly influence the rural vote bank and how the additional Rs 6,000 in the bank accounts of farmers would impact their lives. We asked farmers and experts if the PM-Kisan scheme would really prove to be the game-changer the ruling coalition professes it to be. The responses of farmers were both baffling and eye-opening. (please see chart: States showered with the largesse PM-Kisan brings)

Uttar Pradesh

In the Sirathu town in Kaushambi district of Uttar Pradesh, which incidentally is the native place of Uttar Pradesh Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Murya, we contacted the village council elect (Gram Sabha Pradhan) Kuldeep. “I am a beneficiary (of PM-Kisan) and there are hundreds of such beneficiaries in my village alone,” said a delighted Kuldeep. The scheme he said was no less a game changer than the surgical strikes in Pakistan by the Indian Armed Forces had been!
“Small and marginal farmers — all have benefited, irrespective of what their caste happens to be,” he said gleefully. “I am sure this will impact 10 per cent to 12 per cent of the vote share of the BJP-led coalition,” he went on to say, emphasising that PM-Kisan would definitely impact the election results. Moti Lal, Chandrabhan, Lavlesh, Gandhir (all small landholders belonging to the scheduled caste community), echoed the same sentiments. Surprisingly, so did Anand Kumar, a ‘forward caste’ beneficiary from the same town. They were unanimous in their opinion that it was the PM-Kisan scheme that had cast the dye for them and had bolstered their resolve to vote for the NDA.

Kerala is a state where the NDA has never been in a commanding position, yet voices of dissent are rising. Narayan Kutty, a farmers’ union leader from Palassena in Palakkad district said, “You better know that this is a state where central government schemes can be ruled out.” Another farmers’ leader from Palakkad’s Akathethara village concurred that the state had not allowed beneficiaries to get their share of PM-Kisan instalments.

Kutty corroborated the information, saying, “Yes, but the farmers are not fools, they know the benefits of this scheme, which will certainly reflect in some form during the elections.” In some districts like Pattambi, Mannarakad and Ottappalam, a fortunate few have received the largesse PM-Kisan offers.

Madhya Pradesh

Congress Kisan Morcha President from Madhya Pradesh, Kedar Sirohi, welcomed the scheme saying, “We have very recently shared the list of beneficiaries with the central government, but the amount is so little that it is not much of a samman (honour) for the farmers.” He dismissed possibilities of  the scheme influencing the rural voter, pointing out that the state government had taken an enormously long time to share the list of beneficiaries with the Union government.  A list of  beneficiaries of some 51 districts and 367 towns reached the Union government not too long ago.

Many farmers like Vikas Vyas from Khandwa, Dinesh Lega from Harda and Deepak Raguvanshi from Hoshangabad, were not sure if the scheme would influence voters or their turnout at the polls. But in tribal belts like Shahdol and Umariya, where the income from farming is low, the scheme has evoked jubilation. The annual income of farmers in this region is often as low as Rs 10,000 or less.

Maharashtra has been among the BJP-ruled states, where farmer unrest has been perpetual. President of the Shetkari Sangathna (Joshi) Anil Ghanwat said, “As far as I know, the scheme has so many beneficiaries in the list, but hardly a few thousand may have benefitted from it.”

Ghanwat was somewhat skeptical of PM Kisan Samman Nidhi. He claimed to be aware of instances where the money had been credited into bank accounts of farmers only to disappear the following day. “Banks have no idea (about what happened) and have informed the farmers that the money had been taken back by the government,” Ghanwat told Businessworld. Walmik Dagaduji and Balasaheb Handore were among farmers in Maharashtra whose bank accounts got credited with PM-Kisan funds only to vanish a day later.
Farmers like Yogeshwar Borade and Vishal Barve from Nashik have received funds disbursed under the the scheme, but Bhagwan Kundik and Vishnu Eknath Borade, also from Nashik, are among those who have not received PM-Kisan instalments at all. It goes without saying that the scheme is unlikely to influence farmers in areas where farmlands have irrigation facilities and are as a result better off  than those in arid, unirrigated areas.

In Ghanwat’s opinion PM-Kisan would have little impact in Maharashtra. “You have seen farmers who had money credited into their accounts and those who haven’t had it credited into their accounts. You have also witnessed the tragedy of credited money being pulled back. Do you really think it (the PM-Kisan scheme) will have an impact that goes in NDA’s favour?” asked Ghanwat indignantly.  

The 2017 assembly elections in Gujarat had found the rural voter apathetic towards the ruling BJP. Even though the party returned to power in the state, its share of rural votes was somewhat lower than in previous elections. The PM-Kisan scheme may help amend the situation, especially in regions where farmers are very poor and own less than two hectares of land. At Sabarakantha District, Kamleshbhai Babubhai from Poshina town, Badhabhai Ranmolbhai from Poshina, Jaydeep Kumar from Khedbrahma, Maganbhai Bhutka from Palanpur were among those who found the scheme rewarding.

Some farmers felt the amount offered in the scheme was too little. Regional farmer activists like Babubhai Patel believe that the scheme would have a definite impact on the entire tribal belt and among poor farmers. “For the very poor, this amount (Rs 6,000 a year) matters a lot and you can look at the satisfaction on their faces. This is the Aravali belt and life here is way too difficult,” said Babubhai Patel.  

West Bengal
Till the time of going to Press West Bengal had not shared the list of PM-Kisan beneficiaries with the central government, depriving farmers in the state of the benefits of the scheme. Farmer and activist Kalyan Kumar of Birbhum district pleaded that the issue be brought to light. ‘Kalyan Da’, as he is known within the farming community in Birbhum, said farmers were aware of the scheme.

The state government, he felt, would pay a price for its ego battle with the Centre in the general elections. His sentiments  were echoed by farmers in North Dinajpur, South Dinajpur, Birbhum, Purulia, East Bardhaman, West Bardhaman and Murshidabad.  

Too little, too late?
“I cannot say what impact PM-Kisan will finally have on the elections,” said former bureaucrat Siraj Hussain, “but it will surely be upheld by the government as a major effort to address farm distress. The Opposition will contest it by arguing that the amount is too small. In many states, farmers will get less than MSP prices for their Rabi produce (after a bumper crop) and it will have a negative sentiment.”

Mixed record

Personally Siraj Hussian is somewhat sceptical of the efficacy of PM-Kisan. “I think PM-Kisan has so far had a mixed record. In some states like UP, it has worked very well and more than one crore small and marginal farmers have had money transferred to them,” said he. “Several Opposition ruled states have, however, not provided details of most farmers in their states. Delhi and West Bengal have, for instance, not done it yet. It could be because the scheme has been formulated without any discussion with the states and they do not have any financial share in the scheme,” he went on to say.  

Prabhakar Kelkar, Vice President of the Bhartiya Kisan Sangh felt that the benefits of PM-Kisan had not been communicated well to the farming community. “The government was supposed to communicate this scheme to the underprivileged which, it certainly has not done,” he said. Pushpendra Singh, President, Kisan Shakti Sangh, felt that the amount being transferred to farmers was too little and too late.

 Farmers had hoped for a scheme that could match up to the Raythu Bandhu scheme offered by the Telangana state government. Farmers in Telengana have been offered a relief of Rs 50, 000 a year. “I don’t think PM-Kisan will mitigate farm distress or will have any impact (on agrarian India),” said Singh sardonically. “Besides,” he said, “our farmers are happier with the government’s decision on surgical strikes!”    

The rural electorate

There seems to be a general consensus among experts that PM-Kisan would definitely be popular among farmers with marginal landholdings, who are likely to be happy with whatever they get as support.

The trend is apparent in the jubilation in the tribal belts of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. Going by the 2010-2011 Agriculture Census of India, small and marginal crop growers make up 9.28 crore of the 13.83 crore farmers in India, which is roughly speaking, almost 82 per cent of the farming community. (Please see chart: The PM Kisan Scheme impacts the lives of 82% of the farming community).

PM-Kisan’s impact on the rural electorate, therefore, is likely to be immense. The Union government’s decision to waive the stipulations for Aadhaar card linkage with the scheme for the second tranche of funds for farmers will, moreover, bring in more beneficiaries within  its ambit. Meanwhile, Members of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) backed farmers’ unions believe, though, that the scheme had not been adequately communicated to farmers.

So, is the government of the day really “better using existing resources” as Soros had preached or has PM-Kisan remained a token gesture? Will it then be able to woo the rural electorate? We will perhaps, have to wait for 23 May, 2019 for an answer to that question.

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