- There are ten Lok Sabha constituencies in the Vidarbha region, where failure of crops have led to a spate of suicides by loan-wracked farmers.
- Five of the seats are held by the Cong-NCP combine and five by the BJP-Shiv Sena. AAP has a fledgling presence but hardly any support among villagers.
- Rural folk have stoically accepted their plight. The systemic changes that could shield farmers from financial ruin are not immediately on parties’ agendas.
- Old-timers say it’s only the larger parties that can bring about positive change. Voting is likely to be on the lines of caste and party loyalties.
On Dhuleti this year, Vijay Dhote, a 24-year-old farmer from Borgaon in Nagpur district, killed himself without a word about his troubles to friends or family. The night before, he had relished puran poli and watched the Holika bonfire. What broke him was the hopelessness that breaks so many farmers in this hardscrabble region called Vidarbha, synonymous with crop failure and suicides. During the monsoon, Dhote’s crop was wasted by flooding; in March, it was ruined by hail. Without an income to speak of, he had borne the wedding expenses of his sister and was burdened with medical bills for the treatment of his mother for a venomous snakebite.
Borgaon is part of Ramtek constituency, Nagpur district. Even as the family waits for compensation and plans to lease out the land to someone else for farming next year, Dhote’s toddler niece runs around with stickers of Congress candidate Mukul Wasnik stuck to her dress. Despite the simmering anger against the government in the region, people in this Congress stronghold say they’ll yet again vote for the Congress.
Switch to Kanzara village in Yavatmal, a Shiv Sena stronghold, several hundred kilometres away from Borgaon. Shubha Nemane, who lost her husband to cancer about a year ago, is a worried mother of four. She has no idea how to repay a loan of Rs 1.5 lakh. Here, the pre-Holi hailstorm destroyed crops and also damaged houses. But no one cared to go and meet chief minister Prithviraj Chavan when he came to survey the damage. Instead of submitting a memorandum, locals went to attend a wedding; what came of the CM’s visit anyway, they ask. Bhavana Gawli, the sitting Shiv Sena MP, organised a protest and promises some action. People say they’ll vote for her and don’t really care about government policies: NREGA is yet to offer work in the village.
Over to Dorli, in Wardha district, which famously put itself up on sale to protest against the agrarian crisis in 2005-06. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and a host of leaders had come visiting Dorli, Waifad and Lonsawli villages, which had moved the UPA government to announce a loan waiver. Again, the villagers seem unmoved: they speak vaguely of some ‘keem’ (scheme) but point out several cases in which help never really arrived.
Villagers take you around their pitch-dark houses with kerosene lamps in their hands to show the damage caused by the hailstorms. They say those who really need help have been left out of the beneficiary list. Asked about the sitting Congress MP and the anti-UPA wave, a frustrated Madhushree Gharkele says, “We don’t know what to do. I wish the roof fell on my head and finished all of us and this saga. All elections are the same. We will keep doing what we do.” One villager is bitter about the “for sale” protest that brought the village so much attention. “We’ve become the butt of jokes. They say even the women of Dorli are for sale!”
The 10 Lok Sabha seats in the Vidarbha region are equally divided between BJP-Sena and Congress-NCP. Crop failures and natural calamities have made people extremely wary of political processes, which, they say, only raise false hope. As many as 201 candidates—90 of them independents—are contesting in this region with a crore-strong electorate. The BJP has hit fifth gear, and its campaigners say a Modi sarkar and Nitin Gadkari—he’s from Nagpur—will solve all farmers’ problems. Modi conducted a chai pe charcha in Dabhadi village, Yavatmal district, but no one has so far promised what villagers might have hoped to hear: another loan waiver.
“It’s all so skewed. Last two years, we did not even sow anything because the yield is nothing. We don’t qualify for bpl status because we are told we are from the upper castes. Look around. What is so upper about anything here? No money, no crop, no house,” snaps Madhushree. Her neighbour, who belongs to a lower caste, doesn’t have a bpl card either. They rush and bring out their Aadhar cards, wrapped neatly in old plastic bags, and say they must be qualifying for something or the other if not for foodgrain at Rs 2 per kg.
The food security law, which Congress supporters and party workers say is a game-changer, is received here with scepticism by people above and below the poverty line. “There is no way to ensure we’re covered by schemes. Nobody has come to survey the hailstorm damage,” says Pratibha Gaiki, clutching her Aadhar card and insisting we take down the number for a “survey”.
Farmers and activists fear other repercussions. “To provide cheap foodgrain, ultimately farmers will have to take a hit in terms of selling prices. People who are given cheap foodgrain should continue to work so they can provide for health and education of the family. But here, the mindset changes: those getting foodgrain try to sell it or not work at all,” says Ashok Bhutada, an innovative farmer and activist of the Peasants and Workers Party. He laments the breakdown of the party’s network, which fought for the rights of farmers.
There’s hardly any sign of campaigning in these villages, though a few meetings have been held. At Dhapewada, Nilkanth Zode says he went for the Sonia Gandhi rally in Nagpur because a few vehicles from the village had gone there. “What an experience it was! We went to show our support. It was good but what has that got to do with elections and our problems?” asks Zode.
His experience is echoed by several men and women who travelled more than four hours to attend the Sharad Pawar-Sonia Gandhi rally at Lakhni in Bhandara. All for Praful Patel, aka Bhaiji, the richest candidate in the region, who has done great things—like setting up a flying club, to which none of the audience members go, or was instrumental in setting up the bhel plant, where many hope to get jobs. One of the few rallies to have seen a crowd of 50,000 plus, more people seemed to have come from Gondia, where Patel is deified, and less from nearby Bhandara, where the BJP-Sena has made recent inroads.
Analysts say that NCP-Congress candidates such as Praful Patel, Sagar Meghe (Datta Meghe’s son), Vilas Muttemwar, who were sure-shot winners for the UPA, are not going to have it easy. Hardly 5,000 people turned up for Rahul Gandhi’s Yavatmal rally, indicating dwindling faith in the UPA. Outside the rally ground, people just carried on with their chores, heedless of the political pitch. “All this can go on, but we have to work for our survival,” said a labourer, as he wrapped his head with a white cloth and set off on his bicycle.
Rahul stuck to the UPA agenda of inclusive growth, speaking of loan waivers, health and education schemes. At their Bhandara rally for Praful Patel, Pawar and Sonia too kept mentioning the Rs 71,000-crore loan waiver. Although the Gandhi topi-sporting crowd did not seem interested in the list of achievements, perhaps because of the 42 degree C heat, they said they’d vote for Patel.
“I know nothing much has been done. But who else can give my children jobs? Bhaiji can start new companies,” says Urmila Rane from Lakhanpur. “We want things to improve. But what is the guarantee that any other party will do it?” They are least interested in AAP. Perhaps this is representative of the reaction of Vidarbha’s farmers to the fledgling party.
“It is not easy to run this country. Such a government can be run only by the Congress. We are old-timers,” says the caretaker of an orange orchard that lost the entire crop of this season to the hail, at Kalameshwar, Nagpur district. In the same breath, he spoke of atrocities that farmers have had to endure because of the government’s delayed response.
Vilas Zade, a farmers’ activist who spoke of his plight before the PM many years ago, is now a defaulter himself on crop loan explains. “Overall, disillusionment is very high. If an activist like Vijay Jawandia (an activist and agriculture expert) had contested, we would have definitely thrown other parties out.”
Jawandia himself says, “No party has really taken up the cause of farmers. There’s no political will to make systemic changes so that farmers have to depend less on nature or relief packages. We need to bring the farmer back into the banking system. Despite the loan waiver, which was like oxygen for the community, today farmers are back in the trap of private money-lenders.”
This is something officials at the Bank of Baroda in Waifad agree with. “The NPA has risen from Rs 1.73 crore to more than Rs 3 crore this year. We are bound by rules and cannot give loans to defaulters. Frankly, small farmers are sincere, but what they really need is better irrigation so that they can grow more,” says an official. “A small number purposely do not pay, hoping for a waiver. But they don’t know that it is spoiling their credit history. These are major issues that are unlikely to be solved with elections.”
Since none of these systemic changes such as input costs, selling price, storage, import-export policies are on anyone’s agenda, not even of voters, it may just boil down to two factors: existing party loyalties and caste equations. And in urban areas, the so-called Modi wave is likely attract youngsters and first-time voters. Along with curiosity for AAP.
“Since all have failed us, why not give AAP a chance. Even if it loses, the message goes out to other parties that they can no longer take us for a ride,” says Rashmi Bansal, a dentist and soft-skills corporate trainer from Nagpur. “My friends are enthusiastic about AAP, but I know it doesn’t have much reach.” There is many a slip between the cup and the lip, they say. Here the slip lies between the traditional support of older voters and that of anger-driven young voters.
Meanwhile, Sagar, Vijay Dhote’s brother, waiting to complete his Std 12, remains silent on his brother’s suicide, his mother’s plight, farming, government, elections—everything. Which party will move him to action?