In June 2017 violent farmer protests broke out in Madhya Pradesh catching the BJP government of Shivraj Singh Chouhan by surprise. In the police firing that followed five farmers were killed in Mandsaur district, catapulting what would have been an easily ignored regional protest to national news.

In the coverage that followed one name kept cropping up—Shiv Kumar Sharma or Kakkaji as he’s known to his supporters. In the fragmented and disorganised state of Indian farmer’s movements and unions he seemed to be one of the few with countrywide influence.

The avuncular, impeccably dressed 65-year-old with a head of wispy silver hair and moustache to match has been a farmer-activist for the better part of the last 40 years. In 1998 he joined the RSS-backed Bhartiya Kisan Sangh rising to become its state president, before being fired a decade later for his trenchant criticism of the state government.

Subsequently he dabbled in politics briefly before turning vehemently apolitical, establishing the Madhya Pradesh based Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangh—a farmer’s rights organisation. His rise to prominence, however, began only in 2017, when he became the informal leader of the nascent Rashtriya Kisan MahaSangh, a federation of farmer’s bodies from across the country (of which the Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangh is a part).

Impetus for the federation came from the rising anger and frustration of farmers with the government. Indian agriculture is in deep crisis—after having grown at 4 per cent a year between 2004 and 2014, agricultural growth has slowed down to little over 2 per cent in the last few years. Returns from agriculture have decreased and farmer suicides have gone up, but the government seems oblivious.

Beneath his dignified demeanor Kakkaji is an angry man. He expects little from the government but asserts his right to protest. Farmers, he says, need to make themselves heard. Even if violence is an occasional fall out. He speaks to Fountain Ink in Delhi where he was preparing for a massive blockade of the city on February 23.

Tell us a little more about the Rashtriya Kisan Mahasangh—why and when was it formed?

It’s a long story—nearly all farmer unions in the country have localised issues and memberships. Not a single union has countrywide representation, most in fact don’t even have statewide presence. This became obvious at the time the government introduced the Land Bill. The protests against the bill also helped galvanise cooperation among these myriad farmers groups, thanks to which the bill was returned.

Soon after these protests an activist—who later fell out with the movement—got 60 farmers organisations together in Chandigarh. The idea was to create an organisation called “Kisan Ekta”, and since I had experience in leading organisations I was asked to lead it. The plan was to have meetings every three months—the next one was to be in Bangalore, then there was another one in Shimla that was organised by farmer leader Harish Chauhan.

But it soon became obvious that the activist who had mooted the idea of this organisation was working for the government. When I confronted him much later on this, he replied that he thought since I had a background working with an RSS-linked organisation I was pro-government as well. He said he’d been asked by my ‘affiliates’ in the government to call this meeting.

At the first meeting we discussed the possibility of farmers getting a fixed income. If a peon in a government office gets ₹35,000 then a farmer should get ₹50,000. And if that’s what the farmer did get, farming would be a wonderful profession. This activist suggested we demand the formation of a commission to look into this. According to him the agriculture minister had proposed something on the same lines. All we had to do was to demand the same, and the chances were that it would get done.

Here I interrupted him. After Independence, I said, five commissions have been formed to look into farmers issues, but the recommendations of not a single one have been implemented. The last one was the Swaminathan committee whose recommendations were supposed to be implemented in 2006. The government of the time said they’d implement the report’s recommendations if a committee of 10 chief ministers approved it. So the committee was formed, and they seconded this report. Still nothing happened. Then the BJP came to power. In their manifesto, point number five I think, they promised to implement the Swaminathan committee report. Then, in 2015 they submitted an affidavit in the Supreme Court saying they couldn’t implement the recommendations. So committee after committee is formed for the farmer, but nothing changes.

In their election manifesto the BJP (like the Swaminathan committee) had promised to remunerate farmers 50 per cent over the cost of production. By asking for yet another committee all we were going to do, I told him, was to put the ball in BJPs court. They would tell us to wait for the committee’s recommendation before taking any concrete action, and then it would go the way of all the other commissions. It was a ploy to get us to keep quiet till the 2019 general elections.

In the 70 years post Independence the farmer has been taken for a ride by everyone. First it was the government, then traders, electricity companies, now even these so-called activists and their NGO lackeys. It was time we non-political farmers’ organisations banded together.

In the 70 years post Independence the farmer has been taken for a ride by everyone. First it was the government, then traders, electricity companies, now even these so-called activists and their NGO lackeys. It was time we non-political farmers’ organisations banded together.

So around 60 organisations got together in Delhi in early 2017, and we realised that our demands were much the same. But we were going to limit the demands to two main ones since often what ends up happening in large federations is that the list of demands keeps growing and getting added to. So you finally have a list of 50, or 80. Then the government picks a few minor ones that are easily fulfilled and the major ones get pushed aside.


What are some of your major demands?

Demand one—all farm inputs like diesel, seeds, fertiliser, labour, etc., be calculated and the farmer given a minimum support price that is 50 per cent over this. The BJP promised this in the manifesto—I even have a video of Modi saying as much. There needs to be a law that all crops across the country will be acquired at the minimum support price.

Second we demand that all farmers—small or large—be freed from debt. We’re completely against debt write-offs but you’ve got to realise that farmers are in debt due to the chicanery and the incompetence of successive governments—and that is the only reason they’re indebted. We’ve suffered from ham-handed policies, and that is why we’ve incurred losses.

Our slogan is: Khushali ke do ayaam, wrin mukti aur poora dam (Two dimensions to our happiness—freedom from debt and full payment).

Have you led many protests in the last year?

Our first agitation was in Bhopal on January 10-12, 2017. Then we blocked national highways at 290 places in 22 states, but we limited it to three hours so as to not inconvenience the general public. After that we led a “jail bharo andolan” between the 9th and 15th of August 2017—we’d be in jail when the rest of the country was celebrating Independence. Forty thousand of us went to jail, but the jails were already a bit overcrowded so the government didn’t really keep us for very long (laughs).

Now we’re planning to gherao Delhi on the 23rd of February, 2018. We’re going to shut down all the roads leading into the city. We’re going to lead protests marches on the city; and when we’re stopped we’re just going to sit down.


What has been the effect of protests so far?  Has the government approached you for a dialogue?

Nobody from any government, state or central, has approached us. All previous prime ministers (including Indira Gandhi) used to meet 50-60 farmer unions every year, but in the three-and-a-half years Narendra Modi has been PM he hasn’t met a single farm organisation for a single minute. He meets with the Adanis and the Ambanis but not with farmers. Not surprisingly farmers feel he is anti-farmer, favouring only corporate interests.

If in three-and-a-half years he has not met farmers, why would he now? Our job in a democracy is to put our demands forward, relentlessly, fighting to the best of our ability. We are completely non-political. That is a cornerstone of the Rashtriya Kisan Mahasangh.

The Madhya Pradesh government recently introduced the Bhavantar Yojana, which promises to pay farmers the difference between the support price and the price at which their produce has been acquired. This has been getting a fair amount of praise in the media. Your opinion of it?

It is a complete and utter fraud, I don’t understand how the government has managed to get the media to label it a success. In Madhya Pradesh we have the 1972 Mandi Act—it’s a short document of just five pages, please read it. It stipulates that all grains will be bought at minimum support prices at the mandis. If grains are bought at below the support price an FIR should be lodged against the trader and the government.

The Chief Minister’s Bhavantar Yojana commits a crime by contravening this. It says we’ll buy ten per cent of your produce, and if the price is below the support price we’ll pay you the shortfall—when we feel like it. As for the remaining 90 per cent of the farmer’s produce, that remains their problem.

This year the government is yet to pay the price difference for grains acquired over two months ago. And then the government does distribute the money it behaves like it’s doling out largesse, doing the farmers a favour. This is the farmer’s money, it’s what is rightfully due to them. We don’t need the celebrations, the grand cheque distribution ceremonies. We don’t need the ‘Ekatma Yatra’, ‘Mata Ki Chunari Yatra’, ‘Nandaji Ki Seva Yatra’—where are you trying to take the country with this religious obfuscation?

Why is there a surge in imports—8 lakh tonnes of wheat were imported at zero duty from Ukraine and Russia when India had supposedly had a record wheat production of 97 million tonnes?

This scheme has already required 15 modifications. When a tyre has that many punctures you know it’s time to get a new one.


In 2015-16, India imported 1,402,680,000,000 worth of agricultural commodities. This was more than three times the annual budgetary allocation for domestic agriculture. The agricultural import bill has jumped six times in past 13 years, from $4.7 billion (307,709,000,000) in 2004 to reach a peak of $25.7 billion (1,682,579,000,000) in 2017.

The case of edible oils is particularly stark. From near self-sufficiency in edible oils achieved in 1993-94, when only 3 per cent of imports were required to meet the domestic requirement, India now imports roughly 60 per cent of its needs. A similar situation crops up in wheat and pulses. Why is there a surge in imports—8 lakh tonnes of wheat were imported at zero duty from Ukraine and Russia when India had supposedly had a record wheat production of 97 million tonnes?

These surging imports have resulted in a crash in domestic commodity prices, compounding the agrarian crisis. In 2016-17 farmers were not able to get more than ₹3,250 to ₹4,000 per quintal for arhar against the procurement price of ₹5,050 per quintal. Yet India has already signed a MoU with Mozambique for importing 3.75 lakh tonnes of pulses in the three-year period, 2016 and 2019. It is also negotiating with Brazil, Russia, and South Africa to import pulses and oilseeds.


Why is this happening? What do you make of it?

This is a question Modi needs to answer…the export-import lobby is notionally controlled by him, but is actually more powerful than the PM. And the biggest player in the export and import of agricultural commodities is Adani.

We have an excess production of wheat every year—it rots and we throw it into the ocean. So why did we import so much? We did it because it made business sense for Adani, who owns nearly all the large grain silos in the country, including one near my village which has a capacity of 50,000 quintals. After that we asked for (imported) chana, and then tur from Mozambique. According to the agreement we signed for the latter we were going to import 1 lakh tonnes the first year, 1.25 the next, then 1.5, increasing by 25,000 tonnes every year. So tur that was earlier selling at ₹6,500 now sells at ₹2,500.

We have an excess production of wheat every year—it rots and we throw it into the ocean. So why did we import so much? We did it because it made business sense for Adani, who owns nearly all the large grain silos in the country, including one near my village which has a capacity of 50,000 quintals.

Nine years ago under pressure from us Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Madhya Pradesh’s  current chief minister had said in the state assembly that wheat should be ₹2,200 a quintal. That was nine years ago—so the price now should be ₹4,000. But you only give us ₹1,700, The farmer is subsidising the country—that is our contention.

This government wants to break the farmer’s back. It wants to push them out of farming. That was what the land bill was intended for. Today 10-15 per cent of farmers are in debt. Had the land bill gone through this land would have been seized and auctioned off to companies. Corporate houses employ 2 per cent of India’s working population, agriculture 56 per cent. The day farming collapses 40 crore people will be unemployed.

The government is willing to write off corporate India’s ₹7,00,000 crores as non performing assets. Total agricultural debt by contrast is just ₹60,000 crores. Farmers have never said they won’t pay this back. But you take their motorcycles, pumps, cattle saying you haven’t paid but can’t even take a pen from the pockets of India’s corporate defaulters.


Do you think imports are going to increase?

All previous goverments had a framework that would define upper import limits so as to protect farmers. Our backs however are being broken by both imports and exports.

Take cotton for example—you cannot hold the crop (or exports) for more than 40 days because after that you won’t get the same price. This government has stopped the export of cotton 18 times, because of which the prices of cotton are 30 per cent of what they were. That is why 7,213 cotton farmers committed suicide, so it’s not only imports, exports are also important.

The government is willing to write off corporate India’s ₹7,00,000 crores as non performing assets. Total agricultural debt by contrast is just ₹60,000 crores. Farmers have never said they won’t pay this back. But you take their motorcycles, pumps, cattle saying you haven’t paid but can’t even take a pen from the pockets of India’s corporate defaulters.


Have farmer suicides increased?

Doubled—increased 43 per cent in Modi’s tenure, the last three years. These are National Record Bureau statistics—but even these are incorrect since state governments try their best to camouflage farmer suicides. I think the real numbers are double the reported ones.


What do you think of NREGA?

Farmers are not getting labor any more. Agriculture should be included in NREGA—the government should give their half and the other half can be given by the farmer. It would be to everyone’s benefit.


What should happen with BT cotton – on one hand the crop seems to losing resistance to the bollworm, on the other farmers are planting a whole array of untested, unapproved varieties?

The government Beej Nigams are responsible for most of the fake seeds sold in the country. Beej Nigam outlets at the mandis sell whatever comes their way, and the government has done nothing about this.


With BT cotton—should industry be blamed for falling resistance? Or are the seeds fake?

This is for the agriculture department to tell us—they need to test the seeds. I’ve been demanding for the last 20 years that each development block have a lab that can test seeds, fertiliser and soil. In 1972, when 1 per cent of farmers used fertiliser there was a single lab in Madhya Pradesh—in Jabalpur. Today when nearly all farmers use fertiliser there is still a single lab.

We have a lot of sugarcane in our area, but the government has no system for calculating the sugar percentage of a crop. We can’t blame the scientists. This year the country’s agriculture budget has been slashed by 30 per cent—so what can the scientists do?


What do you think about the Centre’s proposed directive to state governments to procure all crops from farmers for which MSP is announced?

The Centre is lying—you have to pass orders. Guidelines don’t work. Support prices are decided centrally and followed by the state government. There is a central commission that determines these prices. The MSP for wheat was ₹1,725, which included a ₹100 bonus. When Modi came to power he scrapped this bonus countrywide, with a single order. If the Centre issues an order on procurement the states will follow it.


Reforms to the APMC Act that govern the functioning of mandis seem to be in the pipeline. A few months ago agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh said “Currently a regulated market is available per 462 sq km while ideally there should be one every 5 sq km. Our goal is to increase the avenues where a farmer can sell the produce and so we are also allowing warehouses and cold storages to act as regulated markets.”

“Our goal is to promote competitiveness by breaking existing monopolies (of traders and middlemen),” said Ashok Dalwai, additional secretary at the agriculture ministry who headed the committee, which drafted the model law. What do you think of this proposal?

 It’s too early to say anything about this. What will the private mandis be like? Who will control them, what will their bylaws be? The government has made the pronouncement, but it’s only when the fine print is laid out that I will be able to comment.

What I can say, however, is that mandis need a complete overhaul. Currently the farmers money is looted at every single point—first at the weighing where machines are rigged, then the prices, then at the points of loading and unloading where he has to pay out of his pocket.

Then there are arbitrary policies. Suppose a farmer brings 10 quintal, 40 kilos of grain to the mandi. The government won’t take the 40 kg since they only take 50 kg bags. The farmer is not going to take this back home; so there’s a ring of traders at every mandi that will acquire it at throwaway prices.

The Mandi Act needs to be strengthened so that mandi officials are held accountable. If weighing machines are rigged the mandi secretary should lose his job.


What about contract farming?

 I don’t think the country is ready for this, but I haven’t thought about it much.

Is the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana working? How has the implementation on the ground been around the country? Are farmers being compensated adequately by the companies or do they create unnecessary problems in compensation?

There is no end to the difficulties with this scheme. I was present the day it was launched by Modi in Madhya Pradesh. Three days before its launch I went to the state insurance department office to find out more about it. The director told me there was no notification about the scheme. As far as he knew the state government had only been asked for its views on the draft proposal of the scheme.

Even a cursory reading the draft was enough to tell that the scheme was clearly in favour of insurance companies. If there was a hailstorm or lightning strike claims would be given, but not if there was fire for some other reason. For insurance purposes every field should be a single unit instead of a village being considered one. Often there’s hail in just part of a village – in which case you can’t claim insurance for crop damage since the whole village is considered to be a unit. Also insurance needs to be voluntary, not mandatory.

It was amazing that the PM was coming to launch a project that had not even been notified—what was the hurry?

Of the ₹16,000 crore insurance companies have got for this scheme their payout has been all of ₹700 crores. My premium this year was ₹5,000 and I got a cheque for ₹20. There have been instances when a whole village of 100 houses has got ₹233.

But the biggest fraud with this scheme is elsewhere. The kharif crop (soybean, rice, jowar, maize etc) is sown in July. The farmer pays the insurance premium for this in May or June when he goes for a crop loan. How is the bank calculating the premium when the farmer himself does not know which crop he is going to grow? Which crop he grows depends on various factors, most importantly how much it rains.

The absurdity is that the government issues a gazette notification in May listing the crop that has been grown in every village. If the farmer deviates from this notification and plants something different, he will not be entitled to an insurance claim.

In my development block of 120 villages the soybean crop failed across the entire block, but only five villages got their claims. I asked the MP agriculture minister about this but he had no idea.  He asked his officials. What about the other 115? They said that according to the gazette notification for those villages they had not grown soybean (laughs).

I asked Shivraj Singh Chauhan, the CM, what machine he had that could foretell what  we’re going to grow? He could only laugh.


The fertiliser industry is accorded great protection. Are these benefits passed on to the farmer in any way?

Fake fertilisers remain a big problem especially in the more backward states. Crops fail because of them, wiping out farmers.

As for the subsidies to the manufacturers—these companies pocket the bulk of them by inflating production figures. The direct transfer of fertiliser subsidies to the farmer that the BJP talked about when they were out of power has not happened. Why? Because there’s a lot of money to be made here.

I recently bought a pump from the agriculture department for which I paid ₹2,500 after a supposed subsidy of 50 per cent. The officials at the agriculture department claimed the pump cost ₹5,000. A few days later the pump packed up so I took it to the company's service centre for repair. Out of curiosity I inquired about the open market price of the pump —₹2,500 I was told. All these subsidies are for officials along the chain—there’s nothing for farmers.


Will your agitation on 23rd February make a difference?

It is not necessary that andolans always have results. Our main work is to make farmers aware—to teach them how to fight for themselves. As a result of many years of agitating the farmer has now learnt to fight for himself to some extent. The day 50 per cent of our farmers learn to fight for their rights they will be able to topple any government.

Fifteen years ago, in my village labourers who did the loading and unloading of trucks could smack the farmer. And the farmer dare not say a word contradicting the trader. Today in 180 mandis in my state farmers have beaten up traders for corruption. That is the difference. Now you cannot insult the farmer. He asks questions—what is the MSP, what are the rates in different places? The farmer is learning to fight.