NEW DELHI -- Ram Kanwar, a farmer from Rajasthan, who has lost his crops to unseasonal rain and hail, is looking for a leader who can help him through this crisis, but he doesn't believe it can be Prime Minister Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.
On Sunday morning, Kanwar left his village in Viratnagar district at four in the morning to attend the huge rally for farmers organised by the Indian National Congress party at the Ramlila Maidan in Delhi.
It took Kanwar over six hours to reach the venue because he got caught in the morning rush of farmers from northern India, and some even from the south, making their way into the Capital to hear how the Congress Party intended to help them through the disaster of their crops being destroyed by rain, hail and drought, made doubly harsh by unfamiliar patterns.
But Kanwar never got to hear the speeches at the rally, which was also the big “comeback" moment for Gandhi, Congress Party-vice president, who is positioning himself as the messiah of the poor farmer against the "anti-poor and anti-farmer" Narendra Modi-government.
"Farmers are afraid of the changes that are being introduced to the (land) bill we had brought in 2013. Today, when a farmer goes to bed, he doesn't know what will happen to his land the next day. He is living in fear," the politician, fresh from a 56-day sabbatical, said.
"Modiji took loans from industrialists when he was fighting the elections, and to pay them back, he will give them your land,” he said."The Congress will stand with you. If they try to take your land, we will be there. You will see Congress workers there, you will see me there."
Far from the crowd
While Gandhi, 44, was slamming the prime minister for changing the law to make land acquisition for projects easier, Kanwar, 48, was sitting in a shady spot on the side of a road, around a kilometer away from the Ramlila Maidan, encircled by other farmers from his village of Ismailpur. They grow a variety of crops including wheat, chickpeas, mustard, millets and maize.
Earlier in the day, Kanwar had waited for Gandhi to arrive at the maidan for at least two hours until he started feeling breathless in the crush of farmers and labourers. The other villagers said they too left because the sun was too hot, and they couldn't find any water. "I couldn't stand anymore, there was no air," he said. "I couldn't wait anymore."
Feeling faint and parched, Kanwar decided to go find some water and stretch his legs for a few minutes. But it was so crowded on his way back that he never made it inside the maidan. Instead, he almost got thrashed by a local policeman who was trying to control the throng of people attempting to funnel their way in through the handful of entrances. "Once out, it was impossible to get in. And the cops were brandishing their sticks as if we are criminals," he said.
Far from the madding crowd, Kanwar expressed his concerns about Modi to the other farmers. "Modi has done nothing except give long speeches and take trips abroad since he has become prime minister. He doesn’t think of farmers or the poor. He only thinks of those who own business and factories," he said.
"This is the bitter truth," another farmer chimed in.
Back home, Kanwar said deep gloom has descended on the villagers as unseasonal rains and hail ruined their crops, and their spirits were crushed by the decision of the BJP-state government to pay only Rs. 750 per hectare as compensation to farmers of Bundi and Kota districts, who had suffered 50 percent damages. These farmers are demanding at least Rs. 3,000 per hectare as compensation.
Everyday, they hear of deaths and suicides among farmers from different parts of the country.
Last month, 30-year-old Khem Singh in the Bhilwara district of Rajasthan died of a heart attack when he saw his wheat crop destroyed. Over the weekend, Saji Malik from Harda in Madhya Pradesh, a debt-ridden farmer whose crops were damaged by the hailstorm and unseasonal rain, committed suicide. His family said that he slashed his wrists after receiving a property attachment notice over a loan of five lakh rupees.
In Maharashtra, reeling from the fallout of a drought from last year and unseasonal rains now, at least 600 farmers have committed suicide in the past three months—more than 30 percent higher than the same period in 2014. Around 55 farmers have committed suicide and over 350 have died of shock due to crop damages in Uttar Pradesh due to the freakish weather.
The Ismailpur farmers recalled the Congress government's debt-waiver program in 2008 which led to more than 700 billion rupees in loans being lifted off over 40 million farmers. The Modi government is yet to take a stand on writing off loans, a move which is widely regarded as gratifying the rural electorate before the national elections and detrimental to the credit culture.
"That is why we believe the Congress Party will be for the poor despite its many failures. It has always stood by farmers since independence," said Kanwar.
With their crops failing, these farmers are now even angrier at the BJP-state government for increasing the power tariff by 16 percent in February.
Yes to Congress, No to Rahul
While he made this journey to support the Congress Party, Kanwar expressed his disappointment with Gandhi for his 56-day “sabbatical” from politics. He also criticised him for being absent while his mother and Congress Party president, Sonia Gandhi, launched a campaign against the Modi government's proposed changes to the land acquisition law.
"I don't think it was right for him to leave for a holiday when things are so bad. He needs to stay with the public and share their concerns in parliament," he said. "He has failed his responsibility to be a strong opposition."
While he ridiculed Modi's speeches and trips abroad, Kanwar said that Gandhi's way of speaking at rallies, his demeanour of disinterest, and his absence from parliament suggested that he wasn't ready to lead the party or the country. "Being the prime minister of a country with more than a billion people is very huge responsibility. You have to be ready to do it with your body and soul."
No respect for farmers
The end of the rally on Sunday afternoon resembled an avalanche as farmers squeezed out of the exit gates before being catapulted on to the dusty roads of Delhi, and then dispersing in different directions. While some rushed to the closest kiosks to find water pouches, others preferred ice candies to beat the heat.
As Kanwar got ready to leave, he said that haggling over prices and compensation was a daily grind, but the role of farming in India was changing so fundamentally that he saw no future in the work of his ancestors. He wants his son, who is a second-year biology student in college, to go into a "technical field."
"There was a time when this country respected its farmers," he said. "Hundreds of us dead is just a statistic that people read in the newspaper. No one values us anymore."