Is the government finally saying sorry to farmers and rural India? Yes, if you go by the slew of Budget announcements for the benefit of both.
For nearly two years, both were a marginal presence in the government's grand plan for the country's economic revival. While all its talk revolved around headline-grabbing big ticket investments, multi-billion dollar projects and making India an attractive destination for global money, the farmers suffered in silence. The government was throwing platitudes but hardly looked serious about them.
Goaded by economists who firmly believed that the concern for both was a frivolous obsession of an intellectually bankrupt political class and that industry-driven high growth was the only solution to the country's economic woes, it shifted to an alien trajectory. It even called the rural safety net programme MGNREGA the living example of the failure of six decades of Congress rule. In the initial days, it was aggressive on revising the Land Act of the UPA to make it more industry-friendly. India was finding it difficult to be comfortable with the drift.
The approach invited ridicule from the government's political opponents. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi invented the derisive expression 'suit-boot ka sarkar' to describe the government. "Why is Prime Minister Narendra Modi seen with industrialists and the well-heeled all the time? He has no time for the poor and the country's farmers," he would say. There was a political price to pay too. In Delhi and Bihar assembly elections, the BJP lost miserably. Obviously, a good chunk of the voters were from rural areas.
It seems the government is now convinced that its politics and agenda for the economy won't be viable with a disenchanted and demoralised rural populace. It desperately needed a course correction and needs to break free from the image of being anti-farmer which the opposition had managed to create through a sustained campaign. The immediate concern could be the upcoming assembly elections in some important states. With a severe drubbing in two elections and an indifferent showing in several isolated elections across the country, it cannot afford political losses anymore.
In less than two years in power it has ceded a lot of space to political rivals through a rather rigid pro-industry stand. Now, it wants to wrest it back. Prime Minister Modi has been more vocal about farmers over the last few months. The Budget of his Finance minister is another big effort in wooing back rural India. Consider these:
-Rs 35, 984 crore for welfare of farmers
-Rs 20,000 crore for irrigation
-Rs 5,500 crore for prime minister's Fasal Bima Yojana
-Allocation for Krishi Sinchai Yojana
-Soil health cards for 14,000 farms this year
These are a few of the measures announced by the finance minister for farmers, which could have an effect on a massive part of the rural community. While we don't know how on-ground execution plays out, the course-correction is significant considering the rural economy is in distress and the lot of the farming community is worrisome. Suicides by farmers have shown no sign of abating and migration of impoverished farmers to urban areas continues. The causes of rural distress - scanty rainfall, inadequate or absent irrigation facility, low productivity and indebtedness etc - remain unchanged despite lofty promises by governments. In combination with MNREGA, the government's initiatives could change all that. That, however, is expecting too much too early.
The big takeaway from the budget is the apparent shift in the government's attitude. Perhaps it has learnt its lesson. It realises that it cannot be arrogant and dismissive of rural India and, at a more general level, cannot have a economic worldview that is perceived to be anti-people.