Mindset of favouring industries but denying farmers must change: Varun Gandhi

Varun Gandhi Interview

Sultanpur BJP MP Varun Gandhi has criticised economists who support fiscal sops doled out to the industry but do not approve of similar benefits to the farmers.

In his new book, titled A Rural Manifesto: Realising India’s Future Through Her Villages’, Varun has suggested solutions to address the concerns of rural India.

Keeping himself shielded away from the poll campaigns, Varun spent months in the country’s villages to understand the root of the farmers’ outcry in the country. He spoke to India Today TV’s Anand Patel about his findings.

India Today: Your book has dealt with agrarian crisis in the country. Farmer unions want to introduce two private member bills in the upcoming session, demanding one-time farm loan waiver and minimum support price (MSP) as per Swaminathan Commission recommendations. The farmers alleged that BJP promised all these but did not deliver. Do you think these are genuine demands?

Varun Gandhi: My analysis in the recently launched book highlights that both steps remain necessary. However, apart from these options, there are other ways to mitigate their plight. Greater subsidies could be extended on the purchase of agricultural equipment, fertilizers and pesticides, while medical insurance coverage could be expanded through the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY).

In addition, the scope of MNREGA could be increased; allowing marginal farmers to be paid for tilling their own fields could reduce their input costs (they cannot afford other agricultural labourers and find it socially awkward to till someone else’s field). Such measures could increase their net income, reducing the scope of rural distress. Even more so, we need a national conversation on rural distress. Unlike the Champaran Satyagraha, national attention has been curiously lacking. With empathy for India’s marginal farmers, we must make the right choice to support them.

India Today: The issues you have written about rural India in your book form the bulk of debate and discussion in the upcoming polls. So why are you not campaigning for BJP in the ongoing assembly polls?

Varun Gandhi: For the last two years, my focus has been to shine a bright light on the complexity associated with marginal farmers living in rural India. My book focuses on the impact rising prices of agricultural inputs, availability of water, soil suitability and pest management, highlighting the narrow window of economic benefit for the marginal farmer.

It explores solutions to improving the economic viability of marginal farming and bolstering non-farm income. Even more so, we need a national conversation on rural distress. I believe that polls in the past, present and upcoming future should be focused on this topic.

India Today: Do you agree with PM Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit shah when they said what BJP govt has done in 60 months has not been done in 60 years for farmers?

Varun Gandhi: The government should be rightly lauded for a number of schemes that have had significant impact on rural India Ujjwala, the push for rural electrification and health insurance. However, over the past few decades, deep structural factors have prevented the Centre from drastically turning the rural economy around. We need wholesale reform, across the entire agricultural value chain, while exploring opportunities to boost non-farm income.

India Today: The Modi govt claims to double farm income by 2022 but it is choking MREGS funds and has stopped publishing farmer suicide data. Do you think there is any disconnect between claim and reality?

Varun Gandhi: I believe that the push to double farm income is a long journey and one which will require deep restructuring of a range of institutions and schemes in the country many of which are elucidated in my upcoming book, A Rural Manifesto.

More importantly, our conversational tone about addressing farmer loans needs to change. India’s fiscal pundits seem to have a rather curious penchant for decrying the offering of any fiscal sops (grants, right to food, loan waivers) offered to farmers, while discounting those offered to the industry. The current NPA crisis is not because of farmers holding back on repayments.

India Today: Lot of people are comparing your book with – Discovery of India and Glimpses of World History, written by your great grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru. But how do you feel when your party leaders, ministers and even PM criticise him for all the ills the country is facing today?

Varun Gandhi: This book has not been written with platitudes in mind it seeks to focus on a complex set of problems with no easy solutions. I hope that readers consider the arguments and push for policy change. Implementation of reforms in rural economy will be satisfaction enough. I believe this is a cause that all Prime Ministers, past and present, have fought for.

India Today: Regarding 2019 polls, do you think the agrarian crisis the country will pose a challenge for PM Modi when he will go out for campaigning to seek a re-election?

Varun Gandhi: Since independence, India has been stricken with rural distress across geographies. Every poll has been influenced by this underrepresented factor. I believe that all political parties and leaders should push for policy solutions, top-down and bottom-up to resolve this.

India Today: We are again at that time of the year when we see the air quality in Delhi and surrounding regions deteriorate considerably, with most people blaming stubble burning. What are your views on the matter?

It is an issue that is inherently linked to our inefficiencies in farm sector. For farmers in Punjab, the penalty of burning stubble on average is about Rs 2,500 per acre. On the other hand, the cost of maintaining a single stubble processing unit, including the rent of machinery, cost of diesel and associated labour charges, works out to be Rs 6,000 per acre.

As farmers are pressed for time in the seeding season post harvesting, burning stubble makes economic sense for them. The poor condition of custom hiring centres is another significant barrier.

Mechanisation is an obvious solution but lack of economies of scale’ (a proportionate saving in costs gained by an increased level of production) remains a hindrance for small and marginal farmers. When economies of scale’ is harnessed, we can even explore processing stubble and thus, generate additional income for the farmer.