Farmers of Madhya Pradesh want remunerative prices for their produce, chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan told The Economic Times in his first interview after five farmers were allegedly killed in police firing in Mandsaur district. He said the opposition Congress has engineered the so-called farmers’ unrest. Excerpts:
How do you see the Mandsaur incident?
The farmers of MP cannot be violent. I can vouch for that. Also, the agitation has been confined to just one area – there has been no unrest in Sagar or Gwalior. They tried to do it in Bhopal for a day, but not more than 60 people participated – and they were all from the Congress. It is interesting to note that the agitation happened only in Mandsaur and, after that, spread to Dewas lightly. I repeat and I can vouch for this – jo hinsak hue woh kisan nahin thhe (those who turned violent were not farmers). In a very organised way, anti-social elements were gathered. They were asked to use clothes to hide their faces. They were given petrol, matchboxes and stones. These people were certainly not the farmers of MP. They were instigated to this by certain forces. We are investigating that.
Who do you think instigated the protesters?
Friends from the Congress did their best to add fuel to this fire. And, in some places, they were leading the violence from the front. Videos that went viral in the past few days show that very clearly. They were literally trying to light a fire between the people and the police. This has never happened in the politics of Madhya Pradesh. Mandsaur and one part of Dewas became violent only because of the involvement of the opposition. It is very wrong to say that farmers became violent. I have full confidence that the farmers were not part of this violence.
Do you think the firing could have been avoided?
There is an ongoing judicial inquiry into the incident. It would not be appropriate on my part to say anything about what happened. I have faith that the high court will bring out all facets of truth about the incident.
Has this incident affected the trust farmers had placed in you?
I was there in Mandsaur for two days. Day and night I was with the farmers, meeting them, meeting families of the deceased, listening to what had happened and what can be done now. I went to every village of every person who died or was injured in the firing. The trust they have in me will not be broken like that. It is years of exchange between us. I returned to Bhopal last night by road. Thousands of farmers assembled in places to talk to me. All of them assured me they will support the government in addressing the farmer issues.
Yes, they had some grievances. For instance, onions were being sold at Rs. 1 and Rs. 2 a kg but we took a dynamic decision that the government will buy onions at Rs. 8 a kg. We also don’t know what we will do after buying so many onions. But our priority is that the farmer should not suffer. He should get the right price for his produce. Even moong, we are buying at Rs. 5,200 per quintal – the market price is Rs.3,500. We have decided that we will buy even arhar daal, which has slipped to Rs.4,000, at Rs. 5,050.
I have had meetings with heads of banks here so that the farmers get their money on time from co-operative banks for kharif at 40% and rabi at 60%. We have okayed the decisions of farmers to avail benefits for both crops at the same time. We have formed a commission to study the best formula for prices and to educate the farmers to ensure there is no ghaate ki kheti (unremunerative farming). We want to educate them how much to grow soyabean and arhar and not overgrow onions. We are building a compost system that will tell farmers in every district depending on the climate and the land they own what is best for them.
We have decided to have our own Agriculture Cost and Marketing Commission and Price Stabilisation Fund of `1000 cr to assist farmers with marketing and procurement.
Till last year, MP was said to be a model state in agriculture…
There has been a 20% growth every year in agriculture in MP in the past five years. The result has been bumper crops. The biggest and only challenge in front of us right now is ensuring the farmers get the right price for their produce and that there are good processing facilities to take care of the produce the government buys from the Centre. These problems are because of the bumper crop and the flow of food and supply.
Last year, when the price of tuvar daal reached `9,000 per quintal, we encouraged the farmers to grow more tuvar. As a result we have a bumper crop and the prices have gone below `4,000. The state has produced a bumper crop of 32 lakh metric tonnes of onions. There are onions everywhere. This bumper crop is because of the facilities we gave to the farmers – from the best quality of seeds to fertiliser. Twelve years ago Madhya Pradesh was called a BIMARU (acronym for Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh) state. We increased productivity, focused on relief measures in case the crop failed, brought in the multi-crop system and even brought down the 18 per cent interest rate to zero per cent. Even in the case of principal amount the farmer here doesn’t have to return ten per cent. We educated them not to sow more seeds than required. I am a farmer too and I understand what a farmer needs. Traditional agriculture needs support to survive. All farmers need to understand that.
Has that helped?
We have tried our best to change crop pattern in Madhya Pradesh. We have taken agriculture in MP out of the realm of traditional crops. We have horticulture in 15 lakh hectares of land in the state. We have pomegranates, bananas, oranges, grapes, etc. Now we have flowers and vegetables growing here. As a farmer I grow lilacs, orchids, etc., which go to the markets of Delhi every day. It is my own experience that farmers have to be encouraged to look at growing flowers, honey, etc., which are producing good returns on investment. We focused on food processing units to make tomato sauce and onion paste but it takes time for these things to come up.
What will you do with the huge quantity of onions that you have promised to buy?
There is a limit to which the government can buy. Today I am buying so many onions. But we don’t have that many units. Falling prices are the main issue for the farmers and that we will have to resolve. We want private sector to come forward for opening onion storage and maintaining them. We shall give them 50 per cent subsidy. We have already got a few ready but the whole onion produce of the Centre is not getting accommodated in them. Food processing units that make paste of onions or prepare tomato ketchup are welcome. We are working on improving facilities.
There was speculation that after UP and Maharashtra, MP would announce farm loan waiver...
I spent two days and nights with the farmers of the state and they told me they want best price for their produce, not loan waiver. Loan waivers become a popular slogan but are they benefiting the farmers that much? That we must all think about. Farm loan waiver is an issue the government has to talk about very critically and carefully. I feel appropriate MSP (minimum support price) for their produce will benefit the farmers more than waiving their farm loans. In MP, 72%of the farmers pay off loans in time. They don’t default on loan payments. When you waive the loans of some and not of others, the farmer who paid back the loans might even think of it as unfair. He might think his not defaulting was probably a mistake. I feel we have to listen to the farmers on what they actually want, on what would benefit them the most.
Now the farmers of MP don’t want their loans to be waived; they tell me, give us the best price for produce. Now we are thinking of a samadhan (solution) for the 28% of farmers in the state who need loan waivers. This will assist them in getting loans again at zero per cent interest. Once they come in this zero net they can avail themselves of the benefits. This will not be ghaate ka sauda (unprofitable) for them as they are already exempt from paying a significant amount of money.
Do you think the central leadership could have spoken more in your favour?
I talk to the central leadership almost every day on the situation in the state. There is no doubt that we are together on this. Also, there was no issue which demanded their intervention. Internal intelligence reports have reached them too, that it was not a farmers’ agitation that led to the violence.
Some people in your own party have given statements against you. Is there a rift among BJP leaders in the state?
(laughs) No, no… Such a situation cannot happen in Madhya Pradesh. Yes, people might have said things in their own style. I don’t want to comment on that.
Is there a rift between you and the Sangh now?
The farmers’ unit has been criticising your policies openly... Not at all. There has never been anything like that. There are various units of the sangathan that do various work for different people – farmers, labourers. They raise issues related to the particular sections. This was not an agitation of the (RSS-affiliated Bharatiya) Kisan Sangh at all. Whenever there are protests by farmers, we have always reached out to them, understood their grievances.
Some reports said farmers’ woes increased after demonetisation and that GST has created apprehensions among traders...
I don’t think there has been much of an impact of demonetisation. As far as GST is concerned, we are working out the crucial details.
Do you sense a dent in your popularity?
I cannot say anything about it as people know best but I can tell you that in the past few days, people welcomed me everywhere I went, despite me telling them strictly that I wanted no flowers. They sat all day, all night with me telling me how it all happened. Family members of the deceased themselves came to meet me, so did women who rarely come out their houses. They know I have been with them for years and I have maintained that connect. They will know whom to trust.
You have been heading one of the biggest states in the country for 13 years. Do you see a role for yourself at the Centre sometime soon?
There is a lot of work in Madhya Pradesh and I am completely focused on the state. Frankly, in our party we do work, responsibility of which is handed over to us. And I have never thought of going to the Centre.
Your wife is said to play an important role in your decisions. There are posters in MP calling you two Shiv-Shakti...
My wife is with me, in the work I do. She is not in active politics. Ever since we got married, she has supported me in whatever I did. I respect women the most. Both of us are part of the same person. Whenever there is a challenge we face it together. For example, when I started the fast she insisted that she will fast too. She also didn’t eat anything.
Why did you decide to go on a fast?
I decided to fast because I was pained with the violence in the state. I have integral strength in Madhya Pradesh. I have no doubt in saying that people of the state have faith in me. They regard me with high respect. I felt in a situation like this if I sit on fast, people will be forced to rethink their way of protest. Even farmers will be urged to think that coming and talking to me will be a better way to get their issues resolved. I wanted to send across a message that I am pleading with them with all my moral strength that peace is important for the state.
Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia has been organising kisan satyagrahas...
Congress is on a journey of survival of sangharsh (agitation). At this time, they are doing programmes everywhere. They are struggling to ensure a little bit of survival. My best wishes to them.