A Rural Manifesto: Far removed from electoral fire and fury, Varun Gandhi pens book on agrarian policies

Varun Gandhi's new book A Rural Manifesto explores the idea of a village as a single standalone socio-economic unit.

Pallavi Rebbapragada November 29, 2018 10:16:47 IST
A Rural Manifesto: Far removed from electoral fire and fury, Varun Gandhi pens book on agrarian policies

‘Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests, which interest each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole.’
— Edmund Burke, Speech to the Electors of Bristol, 1774.

Feroze Varun Gandhi seems to have identified the need for lending apolitical academic depth to governance that the Irish statesman proposed centuries ago. As though far removed from the great Indian political battlefield where ideologies are clashing with dynasties over rhetoric and prosody, the 38-year-old is investing his energy in searching for solutions to problems widely known and still, quite inexplicably, unaddressed. One of them being the viability of being a marginal farmer in this country. In a chat with Firstpost, he spoke about his new book A Rural Manifesto that explores the idea of a village as a single standalone socio-economic unit. He writes that India has been besotted by the idea of villages being self-sufficient and self-regulating for centuries and goes on to question the lack of consideration given to the deep dependence on towns for specialised services like construction, transportation, healthcare, and education. ‘Why does construction offer the only hope for rural youth, bereft as they are of any transferable skills in an urban context?’ The book, which is a result of two and a half years of research, makes a case for a national conversation on rural distress.

On realising that donating his Member of Parliament salary to families of peasants who had committed suicide was only benefiting a handful of families, Gandhi began searching for nuance in the reasons that lead to the recurrence of suicides on a national scale. Then along with a friend, he created an economic model that looked at things like debt to asset ratio, cross loss, changing weather patterns, irrigation availability, and energy access. “We took the help of the Uttar Pradesh administration to identify 200 to 400 people worst hit by agrarian distress. I gave a crore of my money and through crowdfunding in 26 districts, we raised nearly 30 crores,” Gandhi explained that the interesting bit was acknowledging the recidivism in handing out large sums of money and engaging with the farmer in narrowing down the cause of debt and helping him find localised solutions instead; a realistic departure from the all-season electoral promise of loan waivers. “We asked a farmer from Jaunpur (in Uttar Pradesh) why he was in debt, and he didn’t know. We figured out that he is only farming paddy in Jaunpur where there is a water shortage and was spending on electricity to pump water. Had he farmed pulses, his input cost would have fallen by 50 percent,” he told Firstpost. Gandhi’s criticism of loan waivers for having ruined the system of rural credit is evident when he writes that it provides a short-term palliative while breeding credit indiscipline among farmers and leads to a shortfall in rural credit growth.

The book, which the preface describes as a collection of facts, forecasts and personal anecdotes from Gandhi’s travels across India, makes it clear that farmer distress isn’t monolithic. For instance, in Assam’s Majuli district, farmers are taking to eating beetles, as a way of beating back pests from their marginal farms, and in Maharashtra, onion farmers routinely see over 20 percent of their produce rot due to lack of cold storage facilities. He writes about how the farmer in India has to be skilled enough to take a variety of decisions, from choice of crops to the time of tillage in a country where even the altering of river courses turns agriculture into a high-risk process at the granular level. Gandhi believes that India’s historic strategy of raising productivity through high-yield varieties while seeking to keep input costs low through fertiliser subsidies and attempting to guarantee a minimum return through minimum support prices has outgrown its utility; a bluntly depoliticised take on existing farmer policies makes a case for a rejig.

The book that draws lessons from sociology and development experts has a section on increasing cost of agriculture. This mentions that the historical fertiliser policy has incentivised excessive use of the Nitrogen-based fertiliser Urea at the cost of phosphorus and potassium-based fertilisers, adversely impacting soil quality. Going forward, Gandhi’s research has also highlighted pitfalls in the demand of taxing farm incomes, one of them being the difficulty in implementing an agricultural tax, especially that of evolving crop specific norms of return to the land while accommodating external shocks like drought, floods or pests because without provisions to exempt farmers from income tax during catastrophes, any land-based revenue system is unbalanced.

Gandhi, who is Member of Parliament for Lok Sabha from the Sultanpur constituency, feels that occupational considerations of farmers don’t become central to the political narrative because farmers vote on regional and community sentiments instead. Gandhi shared with Firstpost that in 2016, he had set out to write a book about the history of Indian people’s movements which he realised was at best a passion project and won’t help anybody. The need for finding systemic solutions for the long-term led to A Rural Manifesto. “We need a system where we work to identify situations at the ground level and then decide at the apex how to deal with it. The problem is when we decide what’s wrong with people, being a million miles away from them,” Gandhi described the need for policy decentralisation over the inertia of bureaucracy as the thread that binds the book.

In his opinion, big-ticket government roll-out projects like Ayushman Bharat and Ujjwala Yojana are well thought out schemes with small missing links. The first scheme might end up promoting tertiarisation of healthcare and demands parallel nurturing of the existing infrastructure of community and primary healthcare centres. The other one relies entirely on crude oil, which often goes through price hikes; gobar gas plants that derive methane from cattle can prove to be a cheaper, localised solution free from the tyranny of distance. Gandhi’s research busts unsubstantiated claims that Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) involves digging trenches and then filling them up, without any usefulness. He cites a survey of 4,100 works created under MNREGA, which revealed that 87 percent of them were functional. The scope of MNREGA, he believes, can be increased.

Aside from condensing his fieldwork into a reference book for policymakers who can be drawn from all parties, Gandhi, who writes for 17 regional and national newspapers, has also been doing his bit as a parliamentarian to increase accountability in the workings of the legislature. Last year, he introduced the Right to Recall bill in parliament. This private member's bill was a step to ensure that people, if not satisfied with their representatives, can get them removed. Earlier this year, he suggested that an external body decide the salary and allowances of MPs which, he claimed, were raised 400 times in the last six years.

Seventy-two years after Nehru’s discovery of India comes Gandhi’s slow and steady attempt at a rediscovery of India.

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