'If farmers' problem not addressed, it will imperil future of India'

Kerala, West Bengal models work: Varun Gandhi

One may not see BJP MP Varun Gandhi at party fora regularly as he does not share an excellent relationship with the present leadership. But this has not deterred him from pursuing his interest in understanding rural India. He has now come up with a book titled A Rural Manifesto: Realizing India's Future Through Her Villages, in an attempt to explore the villages. He will not speak politics but is not unwilling to praise the communist governments of West Bengal or Kerala for certain initiatives. As an MP, his concerns cannot be that of religion, region or caste. He believes if you work for the poor, they will reward you. Gandhi spoke to DH's Shemin Joy.

How did this book come out? Why rural India is important for you?

In 2009, I was elected an MP for the first time. I took a conscious decision never to draw a Parliamentary salary and donate it to a family of a farmer who has committed suicide. As time went by, I felt that this was a small step though in the right direction. It was very limited in its scale. I felt we need to do something bigger. By training, I am an economist. After the 2014 Lok Sabha election, I and a friend sat down and we created an economic model which was to look at economic indicators of why a farmer commits suicide. We created certain indices which when breached, a person is likely to try and end his own life. I wanted to put this into action. What we did was that we approached the district administration in Uttar Pradesh and we said we wanted to do two things. One is to start a crowd-funding initiative where I put in Rs one crore to start with. Then we will go to affluent people in a particular area and we will ask whether they can contribute to families in their districts who are on the verge of committing suicide. Secondly, we realised that there was high rate of recidivism -- people taking money and falling back into debt. In 22 districts, we found out that there are 4,872 such people. Then we created 4,872 individual economic plans for them so that they don't fall back into debt. After one year of the programme, around 4,000 people stayed out of debt. So this gave me a lot of confidence that we can change the system and people can be helped. But there was a lingering doubt in my mind, which was whether we help one family a month or whether you help 5,000 families. It is still a drop in the ocean in a country like India. If you want to help 500 million people, how can you do that? So what I thought was let me explore rural India not from a "Mother India" perspective or pastoral or idyllic perspective but to look at how rural India, how a village, in particular, can be energised to be an independent, viable, functional economic unit so that it does not collapse into nothingness or just be sucked in to the sprawling urban metropolis. When we undertook this journey across India, we realised that it is the only policy that can save the country – a policy which is understood even before it is implemented.

Are we missing a discourse on rural India in the current political scenario? Do you think rural India has slipped out of policy discourse after 1991 liberalisation?

For Mahatma Gandhi, village was a site of authenticity. For Jawaharlal Nehru, it could have been a site of backwardness while for B R Ambedkar, it was a site of oppression. But at the same time, all three of them realised that village represents a real picture of India. Even after 70 years after independence, about 70% of our population lives in villages. Amongst them a significant portion are dependent on agriculture. It is both an intellectual and emotional problem and one with no easy solutions. If not addressed, it will imperil the future of this great nation. Your question is why is this not a larger part of the political narrative. Unfortunately, the identity of a farmer, weaver, agricultural labourer or a woman in rural India are not monoliths. They are not uniform in nature. Now, therefore, they do not vote in blocs. They do not vote as farmers, weavers or agricultural labourers. Sometimes, they vote as Patels, some times as Jats, sometimes as Hindus or Muslims, and sometimes as Malayalis and so on. What happens is when you look at politics in terms of caste, region and religion, it is an easy way for a politician to divert issues and appeal to that person in a different manner. With the communication revolution and information revolution and farmers and people in rural areas having smart phones, my hope is that this will lead to an increased self awareness. This increased self awareness will make them more decisive in communicating their desires, aspirations and their disappointments. When they communicate in a united, strong manner, you will find that politicians will have to respond to them and address their concerns.

We are meeting on a day farmers are marching in Delhi. There is an assessment that we see a lot of rural unrest post-2014. Do you agree?

Rural distress in hinterland is not a recent phenomenon. It has persisted for decades, if not centuries. Especially in colonial times, land and revenue based system ensured that farmers remained subjected to a variety of extortionist cess leading to their pauperisation. Though introduced and implemented with a clean intent, policies by any government can have unintended consequences. Consider this. The tube-well subsidy culture, which entrenched through political patronage, has contributed to unsustainable extraction and misuse of our resources. So, India tops the list of maximum fresh water withdrawal with water availability declining by 70% since independence. Ground water in 30% of our blocks is in critical or over exploited category. Now let us look at what several states are doing to aggravate this. For instance, free or cheap electricity and state free agriculture produce procurement policies have incentivised farming of water intensive crops in regions where there is limited ground water availability and facing risk or aridity. Punjab, with 80% of its blocks considered over exploited in ground water, has the highest share of water intensive crop of rice. Similarly water-starved MP is increasingly dominating the production of wheat. So rather than looking at any government, past or present, we need to have a conversation on rural distress and sow the seeds for a re-jig in our rural policies.

There is a critique of our growth story. One section now believes we are moving from a job-less growth to job-loss growth. How do you respond?

We need to finalise a National Employment Policy. We need to reform labour laws and provide tax benefits to key employment generating industries. The apparel industry is 80% more labour intensive than automotive sector and about 240% more than steel. Each incremental lakh rupee invested can create 29 additional jobs. Similarly every lakh rupee invested in leather and footwear can potentially create seven additional jobs. Quality of jobs generated could be improved through continuous skilling. Entrepreneurship needs a boost with increased small and marginal enterprise lending and the provision to explore new avenues like optional placement holidays for a year or two at major institutions to boost risk taking. Unfortunately you are right. Unemployment remains a youth's bane and mere rhetoric needs changing.

Do you think the discourse on rural India is missing in the campaign in the latest Assembly elections?

Wherever the government has been responsive and positive towards farmer welfare, they have benefited electorally. When we look at the performance of state governments, let us look at the primary reason why the Communist government was repeated six times in West Bengal. It was because of the improvisations they made in the Land Reforms Act 1955. It gave rights for the first time in India to tenant farmers, which at that time was 56% of Bengal's all farmers. When they gave them rights like institutional credit, social protection, crop protection, those farmers then remained loyal to them. I will give you two recent examples. Let us look at Kerala's State Debt Relief Commission (SDRC). There is a lot of talk about loan waivers being fiscally irresponsible, creating a nascent credit culture, harming ethics etc. I want to give you an example of how schemes have being re-tailored in states that are benefitted parties even politically. I am making a larger point. The SDRC has dealt with both institutional as well as non-institutional debt. While being empowered to declare an area as distress effected, the SDRC is also able to waive off a percentange of debt while announcing a general moratorium on debt repayments. State governments have learnt from this Kerala model that can dole out a quick mitigation process instead of pushing everything on the over burdened executive. Chhattisgarh has reformed the Public Distribution System. What it did was until recently, it created a better way to improve delivery and access of the PDS by breaking the nexus of ration shops and rice-mills by taking control of logistics and procurement. This led to 90% of the domicile population getting food and nutritional security. So what I feel now is that we are seeing both anti-incumbency and pro-incumbency in rural populace. When they see there are governments sensitive to their needs, we will often find people voting in droves for that dispensation whichever one it will be. The state of rural economy is very much up there in the narrative of whether a government gets re-elected or gets defeated at the hustings.

Do you see such pro-incumbency in the states which are on election mode, particularly BJP-ruled Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh?

I can very safely say that in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the reasons that these governments have been re-elected three times each is due to the increase in agriculture productivity, the highest percentage of growth and particularly in Chhattisgarh, the effective way in which they dealt with the PDS system.

Not many lawmakers raise issues related to rural India. What is missing in policy discourse?

The job of an MP is not only limited to minor civic works, remaining range-bound in terms of issues and policy within their constituency. I am a firm believer that we need to be thought leaders and look at policy reform to help the masses. If we do not invest our time and energy in exploring issues that form the national fulcrum, how can we improve the lives of our countrymen when we get the opportunity? I am a firm believer in the school of thought which holds that a Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests, but a deliberative assembly of one nation, with national interest in mind. This country needs building and rebuilding as ever before. We must be invested in that.

There is a complaint that parties do not raise issues of concern but divisive issues in campaigns. What is your take?

What you will see is that when one talks about issues which are germane to the people in front of them, one is rewarded in greater measure.

Are you satisfied with your work as an MP?

I have given over 100 talks to young people, civil society organisations etc over the last two years. The one thing that I have realised is that there is an extraordinary energy in our country. And I am very optimistic as a young person. At the same time I feel that we need to now look at our country as a country which is at an inflection point because we have the largest number of young people, we are probably the most intellectually capable people on this planet. We are a people inherently brave and optimistic and hard working. It is a very potent combination. When I look at my role as a young political worker or public representative what I feel is that my concerns cannot be narrow. My concerns cannot be that of religion, region or caste. My concerns must be to make this the country of our dreams. But the way to do that is not simply by sitting back and dreaming. The way to do that is to find out what are those reasons that in a particular area we could not achieve our gaols, we could not achieve our potential and to re-tailor or reorganise energy in that particular endeavour to try and see those mistakes are mitigated and that a new path way is forged ahead. 

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Kerala, West Bengal models work: Varun Gandhi

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