(Updates with Sunday election data)
By Ashutosh Sharma
NEW DELHI, May 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Ishwar Chand Sharma, a farmer in northern India, committed suicide days before the start of the country’s general elections, police found a note in his pocket with a plea: “Don’t vote for the BJP.”
While police worked to authenticate the note, Sharma’s son told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that his 65-year-old father blamed the policies of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the debt that drove him to reportedly drink poison.
Extreme weather, rising operating costs and plunging food prices has thrown millions of farmers into crisis, leading to more than 300,000 suicides over the past two decades, according government data, and making farming a key election issue.
In response to the criticism, BJP spokesman Gopal Krishna Agarwal said the party has taken significant steps over the past five years to improve the lives of the country’s farmers, who make up almost half of India’s working population.
He pointed to the government’s announcement last year that it would raise the guaranteed minimum profit farmers make if market prices fall, by buying crops from farmers for 50% more than what it cost to produce them.
“Our government has also done remarkable work on risk mitigation (for farmers),” he said.
As Indians vote for the lower house of parliament in a month-long election that ends on May 19, the plight of farmers has become a key battleground for the leading BJP and its main opposition, the Indian National Congress, or Congress.
More than 100 million people in seven states voted on Sunday.
The BJP, headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, came to power in 2014, when its promise to improve farmers’ lives earned it a landslide victory against the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA).
But farmer rights groups say few farmers are any better off than they were before that election and current polls predict the BJP’s ruling alliance will beat Congress but by a thinner margin than in the past.
This time, said Ashok Dhawale, president of the All India Kisan Sabha farmers’ association, many are giving their votes to Congress, drawn by its manifesto focusing on the farming crisis, climate change and the environment.
One of the main complaints farmers say they have against the BJP is what they see as the party’s failure to implement the recommendations of the so-called Swaminathan Commission - something it and Congress have now promised to do.
Farmers have held several large protests in Mumbai and Delhi since the last election, calling for the government to institute the commission’s policies in full.
Set up by the UPA government in 2004, the commission made recommendations on how to make farming more sustainable.
They included improved access to resources such as clean water, technology and credit; a guaranteed minimum selling price for most food crops; and policies to help “drought proof” farmers in dry regions.
But so far, no government has fully implemented the recommendations, said Satnam Singh Behru, president of the Consortium of Indian Farmers Association, and farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to earn a living.
Recent data from the Reserve Bank of India show that the share of loans in default in the agriculture sector has been rising since 2011.
By September 2018, the total amount of unpaid farming loans had jumped to 1 trillion rupees ($14 billion) from around 700 billion rupees at the same time the year before.
The government announced last year that it would institute one of the Swaminathan recommendations and raise the guaranteed minimum profit farmers make if market prices fall.
Agarwal highlighted changes the party made to crop insurance so that farmers should now get payouts if they lose at least 30% of crops when previously the threshold was 50%.
“There are still a lot of issues,” he said. “It’s a work in progress.”
Congress has dedicated a large part of its manifesto to a new climate action plan designed to protect and restore India’s natural resources and help farmers cope with the country’s increasingly intense droughts.
The BJP’s manifesto “is either vague or mum (silent) on climate issues,” said Indian social and environmental activist Medha Patkar.
Among Congress’ green campaign promises are dedicated funding to develop a state-of-the-art climate information system and to increase the share of solar and wind in India’s energy supply.
The party’s platform also includes plans to clean up water bodies and restore forests by tapping into existing legislation that guarantees people in rural areas at least 100 days of paid, unskilled work every year.
The party also wants to replace the country’s various environmental bodies with an independent Environment Protection Authority to establish and enforce environmental standards and regulations.
Tariq Anwar, a member of parliament and former junior agriculture minister in the second Congress-led UPA government, said Congress had “laid out a broader vision” for farmers.
There are signs that vision is pulling in voters.
After supporting the BJP in the last election, Gurdial Singh Virk, a 58-year-old farmer from Punjab, said he is switching his vote to Congress.
He said he is not sure whether Congress will be able to live up to its promises but he and many of the farmers he knows are desperate for something to change.
“As a prime minister, Modi has duped the farmers of the country. We will never vote for him or his party again,” he said.
"We're not very optimistic about the Congress either, but then there are no alternatives." (Reporting by Ashutosh Sharma ; editing by Jumana Farouky : (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate)