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Modi, Rahul play 'kaun banega pro-poor' but both are clueless about real farmer issues

Perhaps the best example of how Rahul Gandhi continues to be clueless about issues he supposedly cares for was when he took his captive kisan audience to Australia where he had visited the world’s largest diamond mines.

He said when he heard that 300 families that had been living on the area where the mines were had been displaced, he had asked to meet them.

On the day of the meeting, he said, he expected them to come suited and booted, driving up in a Mercedes. Instead, he was introduced to five 'mazdoor-type ke log' who were working in the mines as computer operators and warehouse clerks; they had been trained and given skills.

The warning that followed this anecdote was that the land which farmers owned was worth more than gold and that its value would increase in the years to come but the Narendra Modi government was taking it away and giving it to Modi’s industrialist friends.

 Modi, Rahul play kaun banega pro-poor but both are clueless about real farmer issues

PM Narendra Modi and Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi.

If, instead of introspecting on foreign shores, Rahul had cared to spend time researching the issue of land acquisition and compensation not even in the deep interiors of India but in and around Delhi, he would not have mocked the mining company for having trained the people whose land it had acquired for low-level jobs. He should have been glad that these five people he met did not come dressed to kill and in big cars.

He would have known that training people for a job is a far more sustainable way of compensating them than only giving them huge amounts of cash upfront and then forgetting about them.

In and around Delhi, there are countless examples of people blowing up the huge amounts of cash they got for selling land in expensive SUVs and flashy lifestyles. When the money ran out, they had little choice but to take to very low-value jobs, with some of the younger generation even taking to drugs and crime.

That is also true of many people who got compensation for the lands acquired for public and private sector projects in the hinterlands, with little knowledge about wisely investing money and no skills training they had nowhere to go once the money got over.

The debate on compensation for land acquisition in India is as much about the form of compensation as it is about the quantum. This is a point that activists of the ideological bent that Rahul prefers have also made – that it is not enough to throw money (even if they are astronomical amounts) at those who depend on land; they must be given training and jobs in whatever project is to come up there.

But if he concedes that, what will happen to Rahul's pet theme of constantly pitting agriculture and industry against each other?

“Before IT, before industry, it was the farmers who laid the foundation of the economy,” he thundered on Sunday at his comeback rally. The foundations on which the economy stands today have been built with the blood of farmers, he said.

If Rahul had bothered to sit with the many economists in his party – one ex-Prime Minister and one architect of the 2013 land acquisition law - he would have been told that this is not unique to India. Economies move from the primary sector (agriculture) to the secondary sector (industry) to the tertiary sector (services), with the shares of the preceding sector declining over time.

The only thing unique about economic development in India is that this natural progression was interrupted and the country leapfrogged from the primary sector to the tertiary sector without allowing the secondary sector to evolve to its full potential.

Actually, even Narendra Modi has not grasped this dynamic. He keeps talking about agriculture, industry and services each having a one-third share in the economy. That is just not the way economies evolve and it would be wrong to force such equal shares on any economy.

The farm versus factory narrative has been a running theme of Rahul Gandhi’s speeches for some years now; a crushing defeat in the Lok Sabha elections just a year back – and losses in every state assembly election after that - was all that he has to show for it.

Being the heir apparent of the main opposition party, Rahul can obviously not be seen to be going along with a law that seeks to overturn a law his own government had brought in. That would be political suicide – of what remains of his career and that of the Congress Party.

But surely the opposition to the land acquisition law can be framed without this either-or rhetoric? Hit out at the BJP by all means, try and show it up on the land acquisition issue or on farmers’ issues - that’s fair game in a political battle. But why conjure up this image of the evil, blood-sucking industrialist versus the pious hard-working farmer? Does taking a left-of-centre position necessarily mean this?

Pitching agriculture against industry is fundamentally flawed, because the two are linked. The first sections, after farmers, to get worried about droughts and crop damage are the automobile manufacturers and consumer durables companies; the bulk of their sales are in rural areas. Agriculture also provides raw material for many industries, the food processing industry is just one of them.

More to the point, agriculture, a low productivity, low wage sector, alone cannot provide employment in the numbers that India needs. The size of landholdings is getting smaller, land cannot support as many people as it used to.

In any case, people are already moving out of agriculture. According to this report based on the 2011 Census, the number of farmers has dipped by 8.6 million since the 2001 Census. Another study by the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), hardly a markets-loving think-tank, 75 percent farmers want to move out of farming.

The first stop for people moving out of farms is the factory.

If Rahul's heart truly beats for the Congress, he would have taken up other issues troubling farmers. In the wake of crop losses due to unseasonal rains, agricultural economist Ashok Gulati has written about the need for an overhaul of the crop insurance system.

This did not find any mention in either his speech or that of his mother, Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Both reeled out a list of what the UPA government had done for farmers. These included massive loan waivers as well as regular and handsome hikes in procurement prices. The Modi government, the senior Gandhi charged, was undoing all this.

Let us, for the moment, keep aside the fact that many of these steps taken by the UPA were responsible for inflation heading north. Could the mother-son duo not have put the Modi government on the mat for this? Would that not have got more resonance than railing against factories eating up farms?

But what of the other side? An hour before Rahul delivered his speech, Modi addressed his party MPs to convince them that his government was pro-poor and not pandering to the rich. He too boasted about the handsome compensation his government had announced for farmers whose crops were damaged in the recent rains.

But there was not a word about the issues Gulati had raised, about the problem of black marketing of urea and how to address this or about other structural reforms that the agriculture sector sorely needs.

On this Sunday of playing who is more pro-poor, both the main parties showed a poverty of ideas on rejuvenating the agriculture sector and improving the lot of the farmers. What a pity.

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Updated Date: Apr 20, 2015 12:24:42 IST