Review: A Rural Manifesto by Varun Gandhi
An 825-page volume on India’s rural economy by a member of the Lok Sabha has tried to fill the intellectual vacuum which the legislative and executive arms of the Indian state have left vis-à-vis agriculture in the recent pastUpdated: Mar 01, 2019 17:57 IST
Farm anger will be one of the biggest issues in the forthcoming general elections. To be sure, India’s rural economy has been mired in a systemic crisis for more than a decade. Yet, we do not have an agricultural policy. The absence of a coordinated and long-term strategy to deal with the farm economy is the biggest testimony to the apathy of the Indian state towards this crisis. It is on this count that Varun Gandhi seems to be an exception. An 825-page volume on India’s rural economy by a member of the Lok Sabha has tried to fill the intellectual vacuum which the legislative and executive arms of the Indian state have left vis-à-vis agriculture in the recent past. One hopes that this would only be the first among many such interventions from this group of people.
Gandhi himself was aware of the fact that it was never going to be an easy task to do justice to the project. India’s rural crisis is an issue which “was at once an intellectual and emotional problem, and one with no easy solutions”, he writes in his preface. To be fair to Gandhi, he is not trained to be an expert in the subject. Therefore, it is only fair that the book is judged on the basis of whether it is successful in fulfilling its stated objective rather than a rigorous analysis of each paragraph.
To begin with, one could list the biggest strength and weakness of the book. The former lies in the fact that it deals with a host of issues: farmers, handicrafts, rural health and education, and the non-farm economy, among others. This should disabuse anybody of the notion that there is a silver bullet to India’s agricultural crisis.
Let us now come to its biggest weakness. The book is titled A Rural Manifesto which is not surprising, given the author’s background in politics. It would be extremely heartening if India were to witness a pro-active rather than reactive politics to transform the rural economy. Unfortunately, the book is pretty much a failure on this front. Not only is it voluminous, it is also not well-organised and badly edited. For example, in the chapter on non-farm incomes (among the most important ones in the book) the discussion on non-farm diversification begins with a discussion about a drought-affected farmer in Tikamgarh district from the Bundelkhand region in Madhya Pradesh. Bundelkhand is one of the most backward regions in the country, and hence the author had the reader’s attention immediately. Except, the subsequent discussion on non-farm diversification neither returns to the farmer or to any coherent insight on the issue. An intellectual work which is an effort to read can be called anything but a manifesto.
The book has other issues as well. The discussion on livestock in the non-farm income chapter does not even mention the ongoing debate on the disruption to the livestock economy due to the gau raksha frenzy. It is difficult to say whether the author is being politically correct – the Bharatiya Janata Party and its fellow travelers have played an important role in fanning the gau raksha frenzy – or, he genuinely believes that this is not an issue worth discussing.
Another general feature of the book is its inability to differentiate between clichéd but counterproductive and counter-intuitive but germane points about the farm crisis.
For example, a large part of the discussion in the first chapter prioritises the crisis of production in agriculture over the crisis of viability (prices). While there is no doubt that India’s small farmers face many hardships and uncertainties, it is also true that India has not faced a serious food shortage in a long time now. On the other hand, some of the examples given in the book do not hold today. For example, the book applauds the Yantradoot Scheme -- a farm leasing cum training programme – of the Madhya Pradesh government and cites the rise in soya yields as a proof of its success. The same soya has become the embodiment of the farm crisis in Madhya Pradesh today after prices came down significantly compared to earlier levels.
The impact of economic reforms on agriculture is not even discussed in the chapter on economic inputs. While one could agree or disagree with the Left’s view on the impact on Liberalisation on Indian agriculture, any comprehensive analysis of Indian agriculture must look at the changes in input and output markets for farmers in the post-reform period.
To say all this is not to belittle either Gandhi’s effort, or more importantly, intent. The non-farm dependent non-poor Indians, and there are millions of them, need to start thinking about agriculture. We are already behind the curve on this. The book is a much needed political intervention to the collective effort which must be channelized behind this cause.