Saturday, June 1, 2002
M A I N   F E A T U R E

The pinch of power

The stand-off between the BKU and the Chautala government at Kandela is a manifestation of broken promises and unrealised expectations, however misplaced they may be. It is an irony that the farmers are agitating against a regime that is considered to be the most farmer-friendly ever. It came to power because of its rural roots. Y.P. Gupta analyses the crisis and says it foretells dangerous consequences.

THE "audacity" shown by Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) activists in taking several policemen hostage recently in Jind and Rohtak districts of Haryana is a display of "kisan power", whose biggest promoters included Devi Lal, father of Chief Minister Om Prakash Chautala, who is now more than feeling a pinch of that power.


Om Prakash ChautalaIt is also a manifestation of broken promises and unrealised expectations, however misplaced they may be. It is an irony that the farmers are agitating under the banner of the BKU against a regime considered to be most farmer friendly. Since the days of Devi Lal, farmers have constituted a major part of the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD). This was the case with its earlier incarnations also. It is no wonder that during the four-year-rule (in two instalments) of Devi Lal, the state did not witness any farmer agitation. In that sense, the recent BKU agitation is a big setback for the son, Om Prakash Chautala.

In modern-day agriculture, electricity has assumed great importance for the farmers. In Haryana, "power" can make or mar a politician. For years, it has remained a major bone of contention between the agricultural community and the governments of Haryana. The first confrontation over the issue was witnessed in the early nineties, when the Bhajan Lal government slightly increased the power tariff for the agricultural sector.

Notwithstanding Chautala’s claims to the contrary, the general impression remains that it was at his prodding that the farmers stopped paying power bills in what is known as the Jat heartland of the state. At one stage, Chautala, who was in the Opposition then, promised free power to the farmers if he came to power. At that time, the Lok Dal workers were the ones to tell the farmers not pay their power bills as these would be waived off when their party came to power.

When the then government tried to collect the power dues, the farmers resisted resulting in the police firing at Kadma in Bhiwani district, in which five persons lost their lives. Leaders of the BKU claim that at that time the HVP supremo had come to Kadma and promised to modify the power tariff in such a way that it would put no burden on the farmers, though he never talked of free power.

The regime changed in 1996. Bansi Lal, along with the BJP, frustrated Chautala's aspirations to become the Chief Minister of Haryana. But the power dues of the farmers continued to be a major irritant for the government. Several attempts were made to find out a negotiated settlement of the contentious issue but in vain. The government refused to repair burnt transformers of those villages where a majority of the residents were defaulters. A confrontation was imminent under such circumstances. Police action followed at Mandiali and Satnali.

Both Bhajan Lal and Bansi Lal stood discredited in the eyes of the farmers. Chautala was now their only hope, as the arrears of the power dues had become unsurmountable. Chautala unexpectedly came to power in 1999. Just a few months of governance made Chautala realise that it was not possible to waive off the power dues or give free power to the agricultural sector. The predicament of his family friend, Parkash Singh Badal in Punjab, had also wisened him.

The Akalis were finding it extremely difficult to provide free power to the farmers. Though the financial position of Punjab was precarious, it was equally difficult for the Akali-BJP government to backtrack on its promise. Chautala changed his tune. The slogan of "regular power" replaced that of "free power." Chautala was right when he said that he had not promised free power in his election manifesto for the 2000 Assembly elections. But the farmers are the last ones to read election manifestoes. It was a failure on the part of Chautala's political opponents not to make the farmers aware of the INLD's changed tune.

Women, with their faces covered, address a BKU rally in Kandela
Women, with their faces covered, address a BKU rally in Kandela

The farmers still cherished the hope that Chautala would waive off their arrears even if they had to pay in future. The government announced scheme after scheme to make the payment of the arrears easy. But there was not much response in certain districts, known as the "problematic areas" in the parlance of the power personnel. Whatever dues the government collected were mainly from those districts which constitute the "docile belt" of the state.

The patience of the farmers in the Jat heartland was running out. The BKU, whose supremo, Ghasi Ram Nain, a self-made man who had been continuously fighting for the "cause" of the farmers with successive governments, stepped in. Trouble broke out at Kandela, where the farmers blocked the road in December last. There was one difference. The tacit support of the INLD, which the BKU always enjoyed against the Bhajan Lal and Bansi Lal governments, was missing this time. But this did not deter the BKU activists. Police action followed.

The situation was defused when a written agreement was reached between the BKU and the powers that be. The Agriculture Minister, Jaswinder Singh Sandhu, and the MP son of the Chief Minister, Ajay Singh Chautala, who is also the president of the youth wing of the ruling party, were official signatories to the agreement. The pact stipulated, among other things, that a meeting would be held on March 1 last to sort out the issue of power arrears and all cases registered against the farmers (in connection with the agitations against the recovery of power dues) since 1992 would be withdrawn.

Chautala now claims no agreement was signed with the farmers. Obviously, he refuses to recognise BKU activists as farmers, whom he now describes as "anti-social elements." No meeting was held with the BKU leaders as stipulated in the agreement.

The farmers in Haryana are restive once again
The farmers in Haryana are restive once again

While announcing the 75 per cent-waiver scheme early this month, the government decided to get tough with the BKU. It started arresting its activists, leading to the hostage drama, first at Kiloi and then at Kandela. The BKU activists felled trees to block the roads.

Interestingly, the agitational tactics of the BKU are very similar to the ones adopted by Devi Lal during the famous rasta-roko agitation launched by him in 1985 against the Rajiv-Longowal accord on the inter-state disputes between Punjab and Haryana. Defying the authority of government officials too is something which the BKU has perhaps learnt from the tau, who once gave a call to the villagers to keep shaving blades in their pockets so that they could cut the noses and ears of officials who harassed them.

If the BKU has learnt its tactics from Devi Lal, the government too seems to have taken a cue from the previous regime. When once Chautala had given a call for a Haryana bandh, an Ambala resident, Surinder Juneja, who was believed to be close to the then DGP, Ramesh Sehgal, had moved the Punjab and Haryana High Court. He obtained directions from the court that no agitator would block any road or create any hindrance in the smooth flow of traffic or forcibly close shops. Chautala was at his wits’ end. But he respected the court directions. The bandh was not a failure as compared to similar agitations launched by the party in the past.

This time a relative of a DSP, who was taken hostage by the BKU activists, moved the High Court, which directed the DGP (read the government) to produce the DSP before it. It suited the government. If the BKU had not released the hostages peacefully, the government would have justified the use of force against the farmers, whom, the political leadership did not want to alienate at any cost, as its constitutional obligation.

It should be a matter of concern for Chautala that though his party enjoys considerable support among the farmers, many of whom are active members of the INLD, no party workers came forward to resolve the tangle. It was left to officialdom to deal with the situation which had been created by politicians. Is it a sign of growing alienation among the party workers? Or is it the manifestation of the age-old system prevalent in the state, under which a deputy commissioner acts as the president of the district unit of the ruling party and a superintendent of police as its general secretary?

Many feel that instead of announcing the latest concessions for power defaulters (under which 75 per cent of the arrears would be waived off in case of those who paid the remaining amount) at a meeting of deputy commissioners, the Chief Minister should have held negotiations with the BKU and other farmer organisations and should have projected the scheme as the result of a negotiated settlement. This would not have given a cause to the BKU to agitate. Perhaps, the ruling party did not want to give importance to the BKU.

To be fair to the Chautala administration, short of waiving the entire amount of arrears, the scheme announced by the government is very liberal. If a person does not want to pay even 25 per cent, he can pay 50 per cent of the arrears in monthly instalments of mere Rs 100.

Of course, the package has angered those who had been regular in paying the power dues or have already cleared their arrears. They wonder whether they have been punished for being "good" consumers. The government is under attack from another quarter also. The urbanites feel that the package is another proof of the anti-urban bias often displayed by the Chautala administration. The new scheme is not for consumers in the urban areas.

Everyone has heaved a sigh of relief at the peaceful turn of events. But the fallout of the Kiloi and Kandela incidents would be dangerous. There is evey likelihood of officials avoiding going to villages on official duty, particularly if the task is unpleasant. This would only embolden anti-social elements in the countryside.

The ruling party too will have to work hard to regain its base among the farmers, which must have been eroded by the BKU, at least in certain pockets of the state moreso when Mahendra Singh Tikait seems all set to make his own entry into the ongoing tussle.