Sunday, July 3, 2016

Aarefa Johari - In Gujarat, a strong anti-Modi sentiment brews among disgruntled farmers

Sitting in the shade of a tree in mid-June, farmers in Jamnagar district’s drought-hit Sumri village had an animated discussion about inflation and the prices of cotton. “Four years ago, fertilisers cost Rs 800 per 50 kg, and now it costs Rs 1,375,” said Bhimabhai Chhaiya, a cotton farmer with three acres of land, who is several lakhs in debt. “But the price we got for selling cotton last year was just Rs 800 for 20 kg.” The market price of raw cotton is controlled by the central government, and Rambhai Chhaiya, another cotton farmer, couldn’t help but compare two governments – the previous United Progressive Alliance government and the current BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.

“When Manmohan Singh was the Prime Minister and Modi was the CM, the cotton rate was Rs 1,400 [for 20kg],” he said. “And Modi kept saying big things – that the rate should be at least Rs 2,000. Now Modi is the PM and look what he’s done to us – the rate is as low as Rs 800. At least Manmohan was an educated economist!” The farmers in Sumri know they cannot control cotton prices, but they are determined that in the next Gujarat Assembly elections, scheduled for October 2017, they will not vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Turning tide: In 2014, Narendra Modi, then the Gujarat chief minister for over a decade, became prime minister after the Bharatiya Janata Party won the Lok Sabha elections with resounding support from across the country, especially from his home state. So strong is his personality cult that even two years after Anandiben Patel took over as chief minister following Modi’s move to Delhi, the masses in Gujarat still associate the state’s Bharatiya Janata Party government with Modi alone.

But this isn’t turning out particularly well for the BJP in Gujarat, as is evident in the unmistakable anti-Modi sentiment brewing among a large numbers of voters, particularly in the drought-hit villages of Saurashtra region. The disillusionment began with agitating Patidars, who blamed the state for reported police atrocities on Patels after the community rallied for caste-based reservations in August 2015. 

In February, Patidar leaders openly accused the BJP of being a communal party that had planted its anti-Muslim ideology in the state for years, and accused the party of orchestrating the 2002 Godhra train burning and communal riots in order to retain power in the state elections that came up later that year. The Patidars took credit for the BJP’s poor performance in Gujarat’s local body elections last December, and seemed determined not to vote for the BJP in the 2017 elections.

In June, when Scroll.in visited villages in Saurashtra’s Jamnagar district, which has been reeling from drought for three years now, it was evident that the Patidars were not alone in feeling abandoned. Farmers across Gujarat said they felt let down by the BJP in general, and Modi in particular, and added that the many promises the prime minister made in his speeches were yet to be fulfilled.

‘Gujarat developed because of good rains’: “There are no Patidars in the villages around here, but the BJP still lost in our local election last year,” said Mahesh Aahir, a cotton farmer from Vijarkhi village in Jamnagar. “They lost because farmers like me are frustrated with how we have been ignored.” Like many other villages in the region, Vijarkhi was almost entirely dependent on the monsoon to fill the reservoir of the Vijarkhi dam, which provided them with water for drinking and cooking, and for their farms. But the reservoir, which isn’t connected to any feeder canals, dried up in 2013. Since then, the village has been dependent on an erratic supply of drinking water from tankers, and there’s no extra water available for agriculture.

“For years, the government has been promising us that our reservoir will be connected to canals from the Narmada dam,” said Aahir, referring to the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the river Narmada. “But when will that actually happen?” Aahir added: “From 2002 to 2012, Gujarat developed because we had relatively good rainfall – not because Modi was the CM.” For Aahir and other farmers burdened by heavy debts and repeated crop losses, any failure of the state government is directly linked to the figure who helms the central government.

“The government has enough money to hold big events like Vibrant Gujarat, but not to connect more villages to the Narmada,” said Mansukh Mungra, an agro-shop owner in Jamnagar’s Theba village, and the district head of the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, a farmer’s collective. “There is no way we are bringing another BJP government to power in the 2017 election.”

‘What Digital India?’ Vibrant Gujarat isn’t the only scheme spearheaded by Modi that drought-hit villagers are bitter about. After three consecutive years of poor rainfall, farmers are experiencing a severe scarcity of drinking water, fodder for cattle, affordable food grains and employment opportunities. As previous Scroll.in reports have shown, the state’s response has been delayed and inadequate. Instead of declaring a drought, Gujarat declared “semi-scarcity” in 1,100 villages starting April. Also, at government ration shops, subsidised wheat and rice are being distributed only after verifying villagers’ identities using a thumbprint scanner. These scanners work through online databases, so poor Internet connectivity often means no ration for those waiting in line.

For Bhimabhai Chhaiya of Sumri village, this is a clear failure of Modi’s highly-publicised Digital India campaign that seeks to improve Internet connectivity across the country. “They make us put our thumbs on scanners and if there is no tower [Internet], they tell us to go home and come another day,” said Chhaiya. “Is this what Modi calls Digital India? No network, no ration?” In the same village, Rambhai Chhaiya hit out at the Sardar Patel Statue of Unity that the Modi government plans to build near the Narmada dam, at a cost of nearly Rs 3,000 crore. “What does he want to build a statue for?” he said. “Tell him to give some of that money to us instead – we’ll pay off our loans.”