BJP MP from Sultanpur says that through his book, he seeks a rejig in rural policy.
Feroze Varun Gandhi, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) parliamentarian and MP from Sultanpur, has recently penned an 823-page book on India’s rural distress—A Rural Manifesto— highlighting the vagaries India’s rural population face and has also provided solutions to systematically solve the problem that affects over 70% of India’s population.
He spoke to The Sunday Guardian and highlighted several issues on rural distress, farmers and joblessness in India. Excerpts:
Q. You have authored a book on rural India and named it as “A Rural Manifesto”. You have dealt with the issue of rural distress in various aspects in your book. Do you think that rural distress, which had led to public protests in many parts of the country, is linked to policies of the government? Or can it be avoided if the policies and initiatives were different?
A. Rural distress in India’s hinterland has persisted for decades. In the historical past, especially during colonial times, land revenue based systems ensured that the farmer remained subjected to a variety of extortionist cess, leading to their exploitation. Rather than looking to blame any government, be it past or present, we need to evaluate issues causing rural distress and rethink our policies from an analytical perspective, keeping welfare of our people at the forefront. Through this book, I seek to start a conversation on rural distress and sow the seeds for rejig in our rural policy.
Q. Why did you choose to name the book a “Manifesto”?
A. A “manifesto” is a statement of intent. This book is not just an academic critique, but is meant to effect a transformational change that unfolds itself systemically. The book, through a series of vignettes, highlights experiences from my decade-long public life, serving as a Member of Parliament (MP) for mostly rural constituencies, while drawing lessons from sociological experts and development policy. This has been distilled into a rural manifesto, which aims to trigger a discussion on socio-economic conditions in India’s rural landscape, sow the seeds for a rural policy rejig and is an ode to our small and marginal farmers.
Q. What had prompted you to write a book on rural India? Were you inspired by your own experiences or have you drawn inspiration from somewhere else?
A. The idea or inspiration for the book came from my travels across India’s hinterland. Be it campaigning and conducting field visits across India, including my constituencies Sultanpur and Pilibhit, or more simply, meeting students of universities in states. The cause of marginal farmers and their current dismal condition struck a chord in me. This issue which was once proudly espoused by all new politicians, was at once an intellectual and emotional problem, and one with no easy solutions. When I first became an MP in 2009, I took a conscious decision to donate my parliamentary salary to the families of the farmers who committed suicide and this practice continues till date, but then I realised that it was benefiting very few people. So what I really wanted to look at was how to solve this issue. In 2015, I made an economic model to look at what is the exact economic indicator which when breached makes a farmer commit suicide or looks at committing suicide; such issues were an inspiration that made me pen this book.
Q. We do see a lot of unrest in rural India post 2014 compared to previous years. Is that assessment correct?
A. India’s problem of rural distress is not a recent occurrence. This broad-based issue has persisted for decades. Rural indebtedness, the extractive policies of the ruling state, weather vagaries and usurious money lending have been farmers’ bane for a very long time. The report of the Deccan Riot Commission of 1878 had then stated that the constantly recurring small items of debt for food and other necessities—like for seed, for bullocks, for government assessment—all these things only add to the indebtedness of a farmer than an occasional marriage, and this state of the farmers has rarely changed in India.
Q. What solutions does the book provide to rural distress? Does the book offer any remedy to correct rural indebtedness?
A. Let’s take the case for farmers’ income. One would expect that ideally the market, and if not the market, the government, would ensure that the farmer receives good value for all his work. But the price difference of what a farmer gets for his harvest and the consumer price remains stark. A study in 1972 in Kolkata found that just 2% of the end user price of an orange reached the farmer. The post harvest losses for farmers are also about 15-50% due to the constraint of store houses, bad roads within the markets and open auctions which often lead to congestion. Aside from farm loan waivers, which remain necessary, there are other ways to mitigate their plight. Greater subsidies could be extended on the purchase of agricultural equipment, fertilisers and pesticides, while medical insurance coverage could be expanded through the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana. In addition, the scope of MNREGA could be increased. Allowing marginal farmers to be paid for tilling their own fields could reduce their input costs. Small steps like these can make a meaningful contribution to their lot.
Q. Why do you think that rural distress is not a part of the bigger political narrative today?
A. Rural distress cannot be ignored. While looking at it from the prism of an election remains a short-term outlook, we need to rethink and re-tailor our rural policies, which directly impact nearly 70% of the Indian population living in its villages. Rural distress actually is a significant electorate issue and it shall get increasingly important as awareness levels in rural India increases. Today, self awareness among farmers has increased with the information and communication revolution and penetration of smartphones. People today are more decisive about government performance and strong rural performance has actually led to pro-incumbency in some cases. However, we also need to keep in mind that farmers do not vote in a bloc. Personal identity is not a monolith, but a complex dissemination of various factors and thus remains subject to caste and religious considerations.
Q. There is a critique on our growth story. From jobless growth, we are moving towards job-loss growth. What do you say?
A. With high GDP growth rates, we should be in a sweet spot in terms of employment generation. Yet, we see lakhs of applications for a small number of vacancies and our labour market data itself is fuzzy and fragmented. About 80% of our employed workforce is engaged in informal employment, with just 17% actually being supported by a regular salary, while just 21.6% of the workforce actually availed social security benefits. Automation presents further risk; 69% jobs in India are at threat. There is a need to finalise a National Employment Policy, while reforming labour laws and providing tax benefits to key employment generating industries. Entrepreneurship needs a boost, with increased SME lending and provision to explore new avenues like optional placement holiday for a year or two at major institutions to boost risk taking. Unemployment remains our youth’s bane and mere rhetoric needs changing.
Q. The Union government has provided crop insurance scheme, yet farmers continue to commit suicide. Why?
A. Currently, India has two main crop insurance schemes—the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY) and the Revised Weather-Based Insurance Coverage Scheme (RWBICS). PMFBY has done well in terms of being affordable, it caps the insurance premium payable by the farmer between 1.5% and 5%, depending on crop type, with the state and Central government sharing the remaining premium amount. Yet, our insurance schemes face challenges pertaining to coverage, approval of claims and non-payment or delayed payment of dues. Overall, the area insured has decreased from 53.7 million hectares to 47.5 million hectares in 2017-18, less than a quarter of gross capped area. Low claim approval ratio and non-payment or delayed payments have resulted in high margins for insurance companies. During the 2017-18 Kharif season, the empanelled insurance firms (five public and 12 private) collected Rs 17,796 crore as premium, while paying out claims of only Rs 2,767 crore, having a margin of Rs 15,029 crore, or 85%. Additionally, despite being in existence for decades, crop insurance is still seen as a cost to be incurred by the farmer—an avoidable one when taking loans from informal sources. With data on farmers’ suicides not released for the past two years, one cannot conclusively judge the impact of the scheme. Meanwhile, our farmers still wait to be rescued from the vagaries of yield-risk.
Q. You have been critical of projects to interlink rivers. Why do you think it has demerits?
A: River interlinking, the largest water development project in the world, aims to ease the water shortage in the country by linking 37 rivers. It shall build 12,500 km of new canals, irrigate an additional 35 million hectares of land and increase hydropower production capacity by 35GW, providing huge employment opportunities to many. The initiative has significant demerits. The projects would have large environmental costs, destroying a significant chunk of India’s limited remaining high density forests, while leaving millions in need of rehabilitation. It could potentially strain our relationships with our neighbours (Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan). Social unrest due to forced resettlement of people (just the construction of canals and reservoirs in South India could displace half a million people while submerging fertile land and forests) could also take place. Since the 1980s, we have had great difficulty in completing even a single project successfully and we want to embark on thirty massive projects at the same time now. The ecological impact of digging hundreds of canals would be significant, affecting the ecological balance of land, freshwater, oceans and sea water. In addition to the huge initial capital outlay, subsequent maintenance costs associated with canals, dams, tunnels and tanks would be a significant annual burden for Central and state budgets. Inter-state cooperation on water has historically been hard (consider the Cauvery dispute), with no state ready to give water to another state. The potential environmental damage that would be caused by this project is inestimable. Treating rivers as bundles of pipelines that can be molded, cut and re-joined at will is a mark of technological hubris and conducts violence on our erstwhile sacred rivers.