Instruments by Name Kalawati and Sasikala
28th 2008, R. Ramakumar
of the most discussed speeches in the debate on the
trust motion in the Loksabha was Rahul Gandhi's. Arguing
that "energy security is directly related to poverty",
Rahul Gandhi pitched in for the deal in the name of
two widows from suicide-stricken Vidarbha – Kalawati
and Sasikala. According to him, the lesson from his
Vidarbha rural ride was that Kalawati and Sasikala were
poor because they were energy-insecure; their children
could not study and become doctors, engineers or collectors
as there was no electricity in the evenings. Coming
from a man, known for his wholesome support for the
deal and portrayed as India’s future Prime Minister,
the speech was celebrated in most of India’s dailies.
"Empower Kalawati with N-deal", said the CNN-IBN.
"The millions of Kalawatis in rural India must
become part of a new politics of social-economic emancipation",
wrote the Economic Times.
In a sense, Rahul Gandhi's speech was a classic cover-up
operation that should have left his tour guides aghast.
The current power crisis of Maharashtra – with regions
outside the power-guzzling Mumbai subjected to a massive
power cut – is a very direct outcome of the shady and
disastrous Enron deal of the 1990s. It was the State’s
Congress government that initiated talks with Enron
and signed the MoU in 1992 and the PPA in 1993. It was
the Narasimha Rao government at the centre in 1994 that
signed the counter-guarantees with Enron. The MoU, PPA
and the counter-guarantee were sold to India's people
in the name of "energy security" for Maharashtra.
Much the same enchanting dreams that we were asked to
see during the debate on the nuclear deal were told
to us in the early-1990s also, when Left parties and
progressive activists were opposing the Enron deal.
The Shiv Sena-BJP combine that came to power in 1995
was equally guilty of getting "politically educated"
and moving towards supporting the deal in the name of
"renegotiations". The Enron deal came crashing
in the late-1990s, upsetting energy plans for the State
– a shock from which Maharashtra still reels.
Kalawati's lights were switched off primarily due to
the Congress's shady Enron deal. If only Rahul Gandhi’s
advisors had given him a few lessons in history, he
would not have committed that gaffe.
There is more. Rahul Gandhi's comments did not just
cover-up for the Enron fiasco. It was also a poor effort
to sidestep the central role of the Congress party (as
well as the Sena-BJP combine) in triggering the series
of farmers’ suicides in rural Maharashtra. The agrarian
distress in Maharashtra is largely a result of the crisis
in its cotton economy. This crisis has many causes that
have been repeatedly discussed. First, the crash in
cotton prices adversely affected the economics of cotton
cultivation, primarily because the government began
to gradually weaken the 'Monopoly Cotton Procurement
Scheme' from the late-1990s. Till the late-1990s, cotton
was purchased from farmers by the Maharashtra State
Cotton Growers Marketing Federation at an assured price,
and then sold in the open market. The Congress' remarkably
ineffective Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh went a
step ahead in 2005 by withdrawing the promised 'advance
bonus' of Rs 500 per quintal of cotton; this was one
of the final nails in the cotton coffin. The withdrawal
of the procurement scheme rendered cotton farmers, including
Parashuram Bandurkar (the late husband of Kalawati),
totally susceptible to volatilities in international
and national prices.
Secondly, cheap imports of cotton have flooded the Indian
market after the activation of the WTO agreement signed
by the Congress (again, without the approval of India's
Parliament). Import duties on cotton were significantly
lowered in 1997, resulting in a surge of imports and
a fall in prices. Incidentally, 1997 was the year when
the first reported suicide by a farmer took place in
Vidarbha. The central government eliminated quantitative
import restrictions for cotton, and reduced import tariffs
from 35 percent in 2001-02 to 5 percent in 2002-03.
Farmers like Parashuram Bandurkar faced growing competition
from subsidized cotton grown in the West. Both the NDA
and UPA governments at the centre have consistently
refused to raise import tariffs for cotton and protect
farmers from cheaper imports.
Thirdly, both the Congress and BJP governments at the
centre and the State have presided over a period of
breakdown of institutional support structures in rural
areas from 1991 onwards. Input costs have exhibited
a sharp rise after a reduction in subsidies. The rise
in the input costs is reflected in the rising bills
for electricity, fertilisers, energy (diesel) and transportation.
Given the declining public investment in agricultural
extension, farmers have lost access to the public extension
that is supposed to give reliable information on how
to deal with pests and declining productivity of land.
In its place, the farmers are dependent on agents of
seed, fertiliser and pesticide companies – a dependence
that has attained disastrous dimensions in the suicide-stricken
regions like Vidarbha.
To top it all, the Vidarbha Relief Package – conceived
and implemented by Congress governments at the centre
and the State – has been shown by the Maharashtra's
CAG report for 2006-07 to be a major failure.
The Indo-US nuclear deal is not an agreement with foreign
policy implications alone. The strategic embrace with
the US has important economic dimensions; a series of
agreements have been signed between the two countries
in fields like energy, agriculture, trade, investment
and open sky policies. For instance, the Indo-US Knowledge
Initiative in Agriculture (KIA) is a step towards the
privatization of agricultural research in India. It
has been noted that this agreement would weaken public
sector research and promote private sector research
on commercialized crops at the expense of food crops
– an agenda identified by multinational corporations.
The Board set up for the implementation of the KIA includes
representatives of Wal-Mart and Monsanto. It was ironic
that Rahul Gandhi chose to invoke the Vidarbha suicides
to sponsor a policy shift that is likely to exacerbate
the agrarian crisis in rural India.
In his speech, Rahul Gandhi seemed unperturbed by the
damage the Congress-initiated economic reform had inflicted
on Indian agriculture. In trivializing the discussion
on poverty and farmers' suicides, thereby trying to
portray energy insecurity as the cause of poverty, he
was doing a neat whitewash job of Congress' bleak record
in this sphere. Indeed, to this end, Kalawati and Sasikala
were good instruments.