Political parties in Odisha are out to woo farmers ahead of Lok Sabha polls

CM Naveen Patnaik at an event to distribute the first tranche of financial assistance to farmers in Puri on Friday. Photo: Business Standard
With the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections round the corner, major political parties in Odisha are out to woo the farming community, the largest electorate group.

While the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) government has announced a Rs 10,000-crore package for the farmers to be implemented over three years, the Congress has promised to waive farm loans if voted to power.

The BJP, on the other hand, is waiting for a cue from the doles for farmers, expected to be announced by the Central government.

This race among parties to woo the farmers mainly stems from the analysis of political pundits that the peasant class, in distress in most parts of the country, played a crucial role in the defeat of the BJP in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and the ascent of the Congress on the basis of its poll promise of farm loan waiver.

Soon after the election results were declared, the president of the Odisha Pradesh Congress Committee, Nira-njan Patnaik, had said his party would waive loans of defaulting farmers within five hours if it formed the next government. He, however, could not say how the waiver, estimated to cost Rs 25,000 crore, could be done.

The ruling BJD was quick to respond. Though BJD chief and Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik rejected the proposal of loan waiver, saying it would weaken the fiscal health of the country, he came up with a plan under the banner “Krushak Assistance for Livelihood and Income Augmentation” (KALIA), which aims to transfer Rs 10,000 crore (still less than half the burden of a loan waiver scheme) to over 5 million farming families over the next three years through direct benefit transfer. This is a big vote bank and covers half the 10 million households in the state, says a political analyst.

Unlike a loan waiver plan, which benefits only those who have taken loans, this scheme is universal and gives the flexibility to farmers to use the money for agriculture or personal needs. Moreover, it not only targets benefitting land-owning peasants but also those classified as tenant farmers/share-croppers, landless farm labourers and vulnerable sections of the farming community.

Economists, including Fifteenth Finance Commission Chairman N K Singh, have praised the scheme. Its success, however, depends on its implementation, particularly the selection of beneficiaries in a transparent manner, Singh said during a recent visit to Odisha.

Citing the dwindling financial health of the state and its rising debt, critics are sceptic about arranging funds for the scheme. The government seeks to transfer money from the contingency fund, which otherwise is meant to meet emergency expenses, to support the scheme. Besides, this may inflate the debt beyond the estimated Rs 92,000 crore in the state Budget for 2018-19, they warned.  

Allaying apprehensions, a BJD spokesperson said the distress of farmers could be considered an emergency situation that qualified for advances from the contingency fund. Besides, there have been instances of contingency fund money being spent on schemes. It is estimated that the scheme will require Rs 1,733 crore during the current fiscal year. A provision of Rs 250 crore has been made under the “Farmer’s Welfare” scheme in the 2018-19 Budget. The government has issued orders for advancing Rs 734.66 crore from the contingency fund. The rest can be arranged through re-appropriating unspent money allocated under other programmes.

The BJP, which earlier favoured farm loan waiver in the state, is now ambivalent on this demand after the central leadership of the party rejected it. It is considering an Odisha-type DBT for farmers in a package expected to be announced soon by the Centre. The party, however, is heavily critical of the transfer of contingency fund money to meet the KALIA scheme expenses.

Amid the political fight, the Nabanirman Krushak Sangathan, which has been spearheading an agitation on its demand for price, pension and prestige for the peasants of the state, is far from happy with the KALIA scheme. What the farmers need are long-term solutions like proper irrigation facilities, in-time supplies of inputs like fertilisers and good-quality seeds, right prices for agricultural produce, etc, says its convener.

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