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Of Gods and governments

When Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi heaps sarcasm on Union minister Nitin Gadkari, I feel quite sorry for my long-standing friend from my hometown of Nagpur.

columns Updated: Apr 21, 2015 22:53 IST
Sujata Anandan

When Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi heaps sarcasm on Union minister Nitin Gadkari, I feel quite sorry for my long-standing friend from my hometown of Nagpur.

Gandhi was, of course, not serious when he said he appreciated Gadkari for speaking out his heart — or perhaps he was. For that has added a lot of grist to the Congress mill in their fight for farmers and against the NDA’s land acquisition bill. Speaking in Amravati in Vidarbha — where hundreds of farmer suicides take place every year — Gadkari said farmers should not depend upon the government or God for survival, au contraire they should be responsible for themselves.

In these times, when we place more value on political correctness than on free speech, that sounded rather callous and more like saying, ``We don’t care whether you live or die but we will not give you subsidies, we will not provide irrigation facilities, we will not procure your produce and if God rains down hail instead of water on your fields, what the hell, that’s your lookout. Why should we provide you any compensation?’’

Now this is not the first time that there have been unseasonal hailstorms in the country. I remember these happened last summer too right in the middle of a long-drawn election process and the caretaker UPA government had made haste to release a package of Rs 4,000 crore as relief to farmers who had had their crops destroyed by these storms. But the implementation process was faulty and the Congress, which thought it would keep its rural vote intact, lost massively in these areas as well.

So, Gandhi is not wrong when he warns the BJP that all could be lost to them if they deliberately continue to hurt the farmers. That is something that Gadkari ought to understand more than most. He was part of the first Shiv Sena-BJP government in Maharashtra comprising mostly urban ministers beginning from chief minister Manohar Joshi. As NCP president Sharad Pawar has said often enough, the largely urban-based saffron parties are unable to understand the needs of rural folks.

The Maharashtra government had already overstretched its resources building flyovers and roads in Bombay and, yes, in Nagpur, Gadkari’s hometown, when he was the public works minister. They had borrowed more than they could repay and spent more money than they had in reserve. So, they had to take more than the usual number of overdrafts from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). The first thing they did then was to refuse to guarantee loans to farmers usually paid out by the National Bank for Agricultural and Rural Development. (NABARD).

The suicides of farmers began soon after and became highly visible during the term of the next Congress-NCP regime, which had to increase the compensation to farmers triple fold to stem the suicides. But by then it was too late — loan sharks and unlicensed money lenders had got into the business, some of them cleverly joining the ruling party and becoming MLAs. Farmers were left with very little to fall back upon.

I would expect Gadkari to know all this and be a little more guarded with his words. I can understand the spirit behind what he says — that one must take charge of one’s own life — but Gadkari should know that government aid to farmers is provided in every country in the world, including the US, France and Japan, even if these countries practice a free market economy.

It needs reminding that in the past six months alone — ever since the BJP has been in power in the state, in fact, — more than 600 farmers have committed suicide, not just in Vidarbha but also in Marathwada and in other parts of the state.

Gadkari is absolutely right when he says one cannot depend upon God for a good monsoon or a bountiful harvest. But what about the government? He should draw from the examples of Punjab and Haryana where irrigation facilities are so superior that one or two failed monsoons will make little difference to the fortunes of farmers.

But otherwise bright sorts like Gadkari continue to ignore farmers’ needs not just because they care about capitalists more. They simply do not know any better.