Reviews

‘A Rural Manifesto — Realizing India’s Future through Her Villages’ review: From the fields

Every aspect of rural life is captured in A Rural Manifesto’s 11 chapters. The 10 substantive chapters are on agricultural inputs, water availability, energy access, agricultural marketing, non-farm income, handicrafts, labour, education, healthcare, rural credit, and finally, a chapter that spells out the way forward. Since each chapter is huge, the bibliography at the end of the chapters itself has to be by section, rather than one bibliography for the whole chapter. There are tables (118) and figures (221) a-plenty, on the one hand, but also plenty of anecdotes from Varun Gandhi’s years of travel.

Informed treatise

Gandhi has been a BJP MP from 2009, and had become the youngest general secretary of the BJP in 2013. Gandhi wrote his first volume of poems, The Otherness of Self, at the age of 20, in 2000. His second volume of poems, Stillness was published in April 2015. As a 39-year-old, with a B.Sc. in Economics from London University, he has clearly acquired much field experience in rural India, which he shares with the reader through anecdotes and individual stories, much as a journalist does. What the reader would find remarkable in a country where it is taken for granted that 30% of MPs and MLAs have criminal cases against them, and half of that share (i.e. 15%) have ‘serious crimes’ like rape and murder against their name, it is a good thing if an MP, especially from the current ruling party, also writes books dealing with the national crisis in agriculture.

Despite the two hate speech cases against him, writing seriously about such a national crisis needs to be applauded — it indicates a certain seriousness of public purpose. Such scholarship can only help Gandhi’s contributions to parliamentary debates and in parliamentary committees. In August 2013, newspapers reported that Gandhi was the only MP in the country who had spent all his MP Local Area Development Fund (MPLAD) before stipulated time.

Gandhi certainly has his heart in the right place. He has repeatedly committed his MP salary to helping the families of farmer suicides, especially in his constituency. While this is very laudable, the young MP may consider devoting more time to convincing his party’s government to resume publishing NCRB data on farmer suicides, which have not been made public since 2016.

He suggests that village-wise lists can be prepared of farmers who have availed of unsustainable amounts of credit, and are thus “potential suicide candidates” and he suggests that the Reserve Bank of India and NABARD can analyse such lists for policy interventions, and local administrations utilise them to ensure timely loan restructuring and counselling — a useful suggestion.

Myriad issues

He rightly makes a pitch for drip irrigation, but notes its ‘high initial cost($500-1500 per acre)’. Most drip irrigation systems that were available in India were for a land-holding of one acre. The small size of the farms immediately translated into a design constraint. Small farmers could not afford the expensive drip irrigation systems.

Second, electricity was not always available to many farms. To irrigate a farm using drip irrigation systems normally requires continuous power supply for three to four hours. Most Indian villages did not have this luxury. However, there are firms that have reduced the cost sharply, e.g. Netafim (an Israeli firm). As against other systems that would cost at least double, this system cost just ₹30,000 of which 50% came in by way of a grant from the State government. The farmer had to finance just around ₹15,000. It is such drip irrigation that MPs should be making a pitch for.

Gandhi recognises the impact of climate change. He suggests that agro-met advisories at a district level need to be converted into block and village level advisories. Good advice indeed, but the reason this has not happened is that the Met department does not have enough radars to provide such granular information. Could his party focus on this specific intervention?

Gandhi shows a remarkable breadth of reading and understanding derived from the field. He is probably exceptional as a BJP MP (or any MP) for the level of knowledge he has acquired on agriculture, and displays perspicacity in the granularity of his suggestions. In fact the detailed referencing to books and journal articles is impressive, and he must have had quite a team helping him with such referencing, which borders on scholarship.

He notes that 61% irrigation is now from groundwater with the share of districts with semi-critical or over exploited blocks at 33%. Gandhi rightly emphasises the need to shift back to dryland farming. “Rajasthan, despite the lowest rainfall in the country, is buffering by having subsidiary farm enterprises like dairy, poultry, sericulture and goat rearing. States like Haryana, with little rainfall, can be encouraged to shift back towards oilseed and coarse cereals. Rice cultivation can be increased in rain-fed Odisha and Assam.”

With sensible proposals like these, one can only hope that Gandhi would push harder for these proposals in parliament.

A Rural Manifesto: Realizing India’s Future through Her Villages; Feroze Varun Gandhi, Rupa, ₹995.


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