The voice of the woman who answered the phone was barely audible. Trying to make herself heard over the music, Shri Devi said that her husband was taking a break, and could I please hold on while he finished the song? “Can you hear the flute?” she asked.
The man playing the flute was 78-year-old Kadidal Shamanna, a farmers’ leader who declined Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s invitation to participate in the farmer-themed Dasara celebrations this year. In a bid to salvage its image in the backdrop of the numerous farmers’ suicides, the Siddaramaiah government decided to make farmers the focus of this year’s Naada Habba, which is held during Dasara.
Shamanna’s refusal to participate in the celebrations is a snub to the chief minister, with whom Shamanna shares a socialist background. When Siddaramaiah became chief minister, expectations of his government were high in the intellectual circles of the state, with many of the state’s prominent writers and activists having collaborated with Siddaramaiah during his political career.
“I am not opposing the government's decision to celebrate the festival. It is a happy occasion and it should happen just the way it has been celebrated for many decades,” he says, but this does not mean that he is uncritical.
“Every day four to five farmers in Karnataka commit suicide. With such numbers, it is apparent that their condition is abysmal and it is high time the government looks into the matter. Having closely interacted with farmers for so many years, my conscience does not allow me to take part in the celebration at a time when there is spate of farmer suicides in the state,” he says.
Displaying a keen understanding of the genesis of the problem, the elderly activist says: “It is not that we don’t know the reasons. Both government and the farmers are to blame for this crisis. The farmers are facing loss as their produce is not valued at a reasonable price. The list does not end. Be it water or money or resources, the farmer is suffering.”
Given this scenario, he felt the government’s invite to the farmers to take part in the festival has come at the wrong time.
He criticized the government’s policy on pricing. The minimum support price (MSP) was not profitable for the farmers, as did not meet the farmer’s input costs. “There is no way a farmer can cut down on his input costs. He/she has to spend on sowing, pesticides, labour, water etc.,” he says.
“The crisis will not see an end unless the government decides on a price that would cover all the input costs incurred by the farmers. When the government can let the person who makes the cloth quote the price, why can’t a farmer be given the right to decide the price for his/her yield? Both the cloth-maker and the farmer know the amount of work that goes into the process,” Shamanna says.
Referring to the dues owed to sugar farmers, many of whom had committed suicide, Shamanna said that there was a “sugar lobby” in the Cabinet itself.
Having been at the forefront of farmers’ movements through the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha in 1970s, Shamanna says: “The association has been fighting for the farmer’s rights for 45 years, but not even a single demand has been met by the Karnataka government.”