“My book doesn’t seek to say that this person or this dispensation ruined everything because, frankly, everyone is collectively responsible for the rural distress there is today in the country.”
Feroz Varun Gandhi tells me on the eve of the two-day farmers’ protest in Delhi starting from 29 November. The Indian farmer is hungry, desperate, and angry. She seeks to jolt the establishment, yet again. She wants her lot to change. Gandhi’s latest book, A Rural Manifesto, seeks to do the same. The 823-page-long book is an academic study on how India can address rural distress, which is increasingly becoming an electoral factor. The Indian farmer is unwilling to be treated with apathy and condescension any longer.
Gandhi starts with the need to write a book that hardly anybody from his parliamentary constituency, Sultanpur, is likely to read.
Scale Up to Match Up
“I’m a member of the Parliament and I decided long back not to draw a parliamentary salary. I donated it to those families of the farmers that committed suicide. While that went on for a number of years, I realised that the number of people I was benefitting was very small in proportion to the amount of distress there was. So I felt like, why not start a political movement! Something on a larger scale.
I am also an economist by training. A friend of mine and I set up an economic model which explains why farmer suicides take place and came upon a relative formula that after this point a farmer starts seriously thinking of ending his own life.
Now, with the help of the district administration in UP, we identified such farmers and started crowd-funding in those areas. We worked with around 4,300 farmers across districts like Allahabad, Balrampur, Bijnor, Lakhimpur-Khiri. We were very particular about keeping the rate of recidivism low. It should not be like that a person takes the money, reduces or eliminates his debt, and goes on to spend it on his daughter’s marriage and gets back into debt again.
This movement gave me a sense that we could see things to their logical conclusion. But again, this scale was very small. I realised that to effect a social transformation, we need to change things at the policy level because that’s the only way things are going to be systemically solved.
That’s when I started working on this book. This book has taken me to 11 states, 60 districts to talk about things like water, labour, textile, energy access, agricultural marketing etc.”
I begin to wonder if Gandhi’s book also aims at changing the narrative around farmers at a crucial socio-political juncture in the country.
‘We Are Not Doing Farmers a Favour’
“You always find a very urban bias towards the fact that the farmer loan waivers have been given. If you look at total farm loan waivers in the country versus industry subsidies, the total farm loan waivers today are exactly 3.6% of the industry subsidies. When we are talking about people who are 70% of the total population, just 3.6%! So exactly which sops are we talking about?
The conversation on agriculture these days is almost as if we are doing the farmers a favour, which is completely the other way round.
A farmer doing a hectare of paddy or wheat farming earns about Rs 2,500-2,800 per month from that. An agricultural labourer earns about 5000 rupees a month. So a farmer is doing worse than the labour working on his field. How can it be sustainable?
No wonder 30 million people in the last five years have left agriculture. 50 million people before that in the last ten years. That’s a lot of people. If it continues down this road, our food security will be threatened.
My point is not simply about agriculture. My study is an academic critique of how the village as an economic unit can be viable a 100 years from now. Because if the village doesn’t remain viable then frankly India as a country is going to collapse. The cities cannot bear the burden of internal migration. We need to look at non-farm income, we need to look at textile, handicrafts. India has over 300 handicraft clusters. Why are we not ramping those up?
In India one sustainable job in steel costs 24 lakh rupees; 24 jobs are created in textile for 1 lakh rupees. As a country, which one should we be looking at? We have an army of unemployed people, what are we doing?”
In India, rural distress is not a new socio-economic phenomenon. Gandhi provides a detailed historical perspective on the same by referring to the oversights and brutalities of the Raj and early Indian legislators. Certain lessons, however, don’t come easy.
Lessons from History
“When Bombay Presidency was created, the British focused on irrigation in the southern Bombay Presidency, which is the present day Gujarat, and in western Maharashtra of today. But they did very little in what is now Vidarbha because it was largely seen as jungle. Now look at the consequence of something as basic as irrigation. The farmers of Vidarbha have 4% irrigation and they have been reduced to total pauperisation and this region sees the largest rate of farmer suicides in the country.
The problems are there but the solutions are not terribly difficult.”
I interrupt him to ask why have consecutive governments repeatedly missed the point. He responds:
“It’s not about the government only. It’s also about the channels in the middle. There is a historical study done in 1972 in then Calcutta, which said that just 2% of the end-user price of an orange reached the farmer because the marketing channels had consumed the majority of the value.
Just look at our APMCs, the mandis. Unpaved roads, open spaces. Even today there are no storage facilities, there is no cover. A lot of stuff gets rotten. When you go there it’s almost like a mafia is running it. The farmers are at their mercy. The farmer goes there from his village 7-8 km away in a tractor trolley. Sometimes he stays there for 3-4 days awaiting good price. And then in desperation he sells at whatever price. Even if we do nothing else and just fix the mandis in our country that itself will alleviate and mitigate a lot of farmer distress.
A blanket statement like ‘why don’t you grow pulses or vegetables’ to a farmer means nothing. What you have to create is a chain for him. Not just demand. A chain of transportation, a chain of protection.”
Isn’t this exactly what his government seeks to do by bringing the farmer under the ambit of Digital India? What about solutions like e-mandis and other apps?
Digital Rural India
“These are very good solutions. Communication and information revolution will help the farmer. The point is, however, how many farmers have the smartphone? Even if they have smartphones they have cheap ones that don’t have enough battery power to run them. The electricity situation is not the best so their phones are not charged half the time.
One of the projects that I undertook in Banda was with a group that was doing a lot of great work with information disseminated from Mandya in Karnataka via the mobile. Initially we took 4 villages in Banda and we started sharing this with them and we found that they were resistant. They said, “Bhaiya, hum thode hi phone dekh kar kheti karenge” But when I visited again after three months they were literally looking at their phones for one hour a day to educate themselves.
Digital solutions will certainly work but please remember that in India we have gone from medievalism to post-modernism in a record period of time. So, we are living in, simultaneously, two different time zones.”
Of Cows and Mothers
This explains India’s bifurcated psyche, which also reflects in how we look at the dairy farming in the country. For many it’s merely an economic issue, while others approach it more religiously. Gandhi’s mother, Union Minister Maneka Gandhi, has yet another approach to it, that of animal rights.
“When talking about dairy, my mother takes the animal rights approach and I see it from purely economic perspective. Now a person engaged in dairy farming will eventually take the animal to the slaughterhouse after its milch phase is over because they can’t afford to keep them. What we need to look at is different systems to keep those creatures relevant for the farmer.
In India, we have a desperate need for energy. When LPG cylinders—which are made from crude oil—spike in price they become unaffordable for the last man in society. So, if we can look at gobar gas plants many of our issues are solved. A bovine creature gives about 30-40 kgs of gobar everyday. If we can build localised gobar gas plants in every village and connect them to every house we’d have increased electricity, the tyranny of distance would be less and it would be cheaper. And those animals would always be relevant and therefore lead the life of some dignity.”
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