As thousands of farmers marched towards Parliament, demanding loan waivers and better prices for their produce, Sultanpur MP and BJP leader Varun Gandhi, who spent several months in understanding the rhythm of India’s villages for his book ‘A Rural Manifesto: Realising India’s Future Through Her Villages’, tells LIZ MATHEW that there is a need for a national conversation on rural distress.
Farmers from various states, including BJP-ruled ones, are assembled in the national capital with their grievances.
India’s acute agrarian crisis has led to this turmoil, increasing farmers’ vulnerability while offering few alternate livelihood opportunities. Beyond the stark numbers associated with rural distress, the human tragedy is poignant. Farmers now need more courage to live than to kill themselves. More than ever, we now need a national conversation on rural distress.
Do farm sector issues play a role in electoral politics?
It will become a major issue as the communication revolution reaches its zenith. But (as of) now, there are issues such as caste identity, religion, etc, on which farmers or weavers vote. Till we reach a situation where farmers vote on their consideration, aspiration and farm labour, politicians will unfortunately always find a way to move off central issues by approaching issues such as identity, religion, caste and region, which are, frankly, diversionary issues.
When farmers vote as farmers, politicians will be forced to address their issues.
You have dealt with the issue of rural distress in your book. Do you think rural distress that led to public protests in many parts of the country is linked to government policies?
Rural distress is not a recent phenomenon, it has persisted for decades, if not centuries. Any government policy with clean intent can have unintended consequence also. Consider the tubewell subsidy – entrenched in political patronage across the board, this has contributed to unsustainable extraction and misuse of groundwater resources. Free or cheap electricity and state agricultural produce procurement policies have incentivised farming of water-intensive crops (even) in regions with limited groundwater availability – (these regions are now) facing risk of aridity.
Rather than looking to blame any government – the present or of the past – we need to evaluate issues causing rural distress and rethink our policies from an analytical point of view, keeping people’s welfare at the forefront. I seek to start a conversation on rural distress and sow the seeds for rejig in our rural policy.
Many activists critique clearances given to big projects without factoring in environmental costs. What is your view?
Environment and development issues need not be mutually exclusive, they can coexist. Sustainability should be at the heart of industrial development, which can only come with protecting and nurturing the environment.
Over the last two decades, the Centre has (been) consistently skewed towards development without fully considering the environmental trade-offs. With climate change intensifying, we must seek to implement a policy keeping long-term trade-offs in mind.
Which Central government scheme has touched rural life and its economy most in recent past?
If one is to choose one scheme across various governments, MGNREGA (rural employment scheme brought in by the Congress-led UPA) is a worthy candidate, as it has had a net positive impact on rural economy by providing meaningful employment to millions. It has effectively created a labour wage flow in the rural market – raised minimum wages, reduced rural vulnerability, and increased women’s participation in labour force.
But it has to be re-tailored at the Central government’s level to effect its optimisation, which means greater allocation, timely payment for beneficiaries, and greater decentralisation in terms of project selection and execution. Policies need to be bottom-up and decentralised, particularly in identification of a government project.
The Ujjwala Yojana has already benefited 40 million households – it helped increase LPG penetration and acceptance by reducing upfront costs. There’s a human angle (as well) – it (LPG) reduces health hazards to women and children from inhaling kitchen smoke.
But certain challenges persist. Once connection is obtained, market rates have to be paid, with subsidy amounts deposited in Aadhaar-linked (bank) accounts, or utilised to pay off loan taken at the time of obtaining the connection. As refilling price increases, households find it attractive to switch to alternative fuels. With LPG use being restricted for special occasions, inactive LPG connections have also increased.
Villages were seen differently by different leaders. For Mahatma Gandhi, the village was a site of authenticity; for Jawarlal Nehru, it was a site of backwardness; and it was the site of oppression for B R Ambedkar. As author of this book, how do you view India’s rural sector?
For all three (leaders), a village represented the real India. My book is not looking at village in a pastoral, idyllic or Mother India manner – it’s about looking at the village as a viable economic unit, so the village can survive and thrive.
How do you see the linking of poor air quality in the National Capital Region in winter to stubble burning by farmers?
It is an issue that is inherently linked to our inefficiencies in the farm sector. For farmers in Punjab, the penalty of burning stubble on average is about Rs 2,500 per acre. In comparison, the cost of a stubble-processing unit, including the rent of machinery, cost of diesel and associated labour charges, work out to be Rs 6,000 per acre. As farmers are pressed for time in the seeding seasons after harvest, burning stubble makes economic sense for them.
The poor condition of custom centres is another significant barrier. Mechanisation is an obvious solution- but lack of economies of scale remains a hindrance for small and marginal farmers. When economies of scale is harnessed, we can even explore processing stubble and thus generate additional income for farmers.