Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday wooed rural India with a crop insurance scheme designed to protect 700 million farmers from natural disasters, an initiative that may help fend off criticism that his government is anti-farmer.
But the advantage was lost as Maharashtra’s BJP parliamentarian Gopal Shetty has allegedly called farmer suicides a “fashion” and a “trend”, sparking outrage as his home state is struggling with drought for the third consecutive year.
Modi’s NDA government has been facing widespread criticism of ignoring rural India as farmers, grappling with unseasonal rains, hailstorms, drought and debt, were driven to suicide.
Maharashtra alone has reported 124 farm suicides since January.
Mumbai Congress chief Sanjay Nirupam said the BJP MP’s remarks reflected the ruling party’s insensitivity towards thousands of farmers who committed suicide because of debt and crop failure.
“Not all farmer suicides happen because of unemployment and starvation. A fashion is going on. A trend is on,” Shetty, the MP for North Mumbai, said on Wednesday.
Hours later, he apologised for the “poor choice of words” and accused media of “distorting” his statement.
Party sources said the damage was done as the Opposition will try to rake up his remarks when Parliament and the state assembly sit for their budget sessions.
But Prime Minister Modi told a rally of farmers at Sehore, about 40km west of capital Bhopal, his government’s farmer-friendly insurance is criticism-proof.
He promised the scheme will be much better than the one that existed during Congress-led UPA government, which he succeeded in 2014.
He called the UPA anti-farmer for changing a crop insurance scheme introduced during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led government of 1998-2004.
The changes made farmers hesitant and started keeping away from the scheme, he alleged.
“Now, not more than 20% farmers are willing to opt for the policy. So the first and foremost priority is to restore farmers’ faith in the crop insurance scheme,” he said.
Besides, he announced a national agriculture market will be launched on the birth anniversary of the father of the Constitution, BR Ambedkar, on April 14 to help farmers get adequate price for their produce.
Modern technology and traditional wisdom will be used to create a digital platform linking 550 mandis or wholesale markets in the country, he said.
A farmer will be able to check rates of farm produce at different mandis on a smartphone and sell his product at the market of his choice to increase profit.
(With inputs from HTC Mumbai)