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Arun Jaitley hasn’t fulfilled his promise to farmers. So why is he pretending like he has?

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The FM knew that the media would not spend that much of time and attention on farmers. He knew that on farmers, you need not put your money where your mouth is.

I type the finance minister’s name very carefully. He is “Jaitley”, and not “Jaitlie”. I bow to India’s Parliament and note that the spelling of his name is a matter of national interest. Now I wait for Parliament to settle a matter of much lesser interest: did the FM lie to Parliament? When it does, I would like it to consider the case of the FM’s big announcement on the farm produce prices in his budget speech.

He knew that the farmers of India needed a big announcement from his budget. He must have read his own chief economic adviser’s Economic Survey that pointed out that in the four years of this government, the farmers’ income has remained stagnant. He must have read the warning about fall in rural wages, decline in Kharif and Rabi sowing and crash in farm produce prices this year, besides the medium-term challenge of shrinking farm incomes due to climate change. He may have glanced through news reports about farmers’ suicides.

He knew that farmers expected some big announcements on the price front. He must have heard that farmers’ organisations from all over the country have come together to demand better prices and a one-time loan waiver. He must have known about the historic “Kisan Mukti Sansad” of the farmers in Delhi on 20-21 November last year.

On the price front, Parliament proposed a bill to make the government’s minimum support price (MSP) a statutory right. Even if he did not, he must have known about the recommendation of the National Farmers’ Commission (popularly known as the Swaminathan Commission) that the government must ensure the farmers’ make at least 50 per cent profit over their comprehensive cost of production.

He knew that his own party had made a solemn promise to the voters on this count. The 2014 election manifesto of the BJP promised the farmers of price one and a half times that of the cost of production. Modi repeated this promise, and clearly said this would be the benchmark for MSP, in virtually every election meeting in 2014. The FM knew that all farmers’ orgainsations have been reminding his government of its own promise. If he did not, we can trust the farmers’ morcha of BJP and Bharatiya Kisan Sangh of the RSS to keep him informed.

He knew his government had so far reneged on this promise. Far from implementing it, this government had actually filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court saying this recommendation of the Swaminathan Commission is impossible to implement, as it would “distort market”. Radha Mohan Singh, the Union agriculture minister, made a clumsy attempt to wriggle out of this promise by denying that their promise had anything to do with the MSP. An RTI reply of 19 January 2018 had reiterated that cost of production plus 50 per cent formula is not acceptable to the government.

He knew what this promise meant. “Cost of production” here meant comprehensive cost, and not partial cost calculation. Legally savvy as he is, the finance minister would have known that it meant what the Commission on Agricultural Costs and Prices calls “C2 cost”. Swaminathan Commission recommended that. And that is precisely what farmers’ movements have been demanding.

He knew there was no point in talking about partial cost estimates, called “A2 cost” and “A2+FL cost” by the CACP, as these do not cover the full costs of the farmers. Besides, the calculation method is full of flaws, that works to the disadvantage of the farmers. In any case, it made no sense for the BJP to promise one and half time the partial cost of production (A2+FL), as the farmers were already getting this for most crops during the UPA regime. He knew that his PM had promised 50 per cent on C2 cost of production.

He knew there was a big different between partial A2+FL cost based MSP and the one based on comprehensive C2 cost: the difference ranged from Rs 500 to Rs 2000 per quintal. He knew what a big difference this could make to a typical farmer’s household. He must have been told that this one announcement could raise the farmers’ income by 15-20 per cent.

Yet he knew he was not going to fulfill this promise. Fixing the MSP at C2+50 per cent would mean significant rise in the support price for every single crop, especially because the NDA government has actually bought down the rate of growth in MSP achieved during UPA years. Even if his government were to keep to the procurement levels of last year, it would have meant additional expenditure of Rs 33,279 crore this year. He knew he was not going to spend that much money on the farmers.

He knew that the media was not going to spend that much of time and attention on the farmers. He knew that on farmers, you need not put your money where your mouth is. In any case, he knew he has many friends in the media.

So the finance minister rises for his budget speech and announces this ‘historic decision’: “I am pleased to announce that as per pre-determined principle, Government has decided to keep MSP for the all unannounced crops of Kharif [besides Rabi that is already announced] at least at one and half times of their production cost.” He did not of course specify what he meant by “production cost”. Needless to say, he got the headlines he wanted. A week later the agriculture minister has confirmed that the announcement is about A2+FL, not about C2.

I call it a lie. What would you call that?

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