1. Idea Exchange: ‘Who’s a farmer leader? Rahul just speaks about them, but BJP has most farmer MPs’

Idea Exchange: ‘Who’s a farmer leader? Rahul just speaks about them, but BJP has most farmer MPs’

Union agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh calls the recent agrarian crisis a ‘product of the past’, asserts that the RSS doesn’t dictate terms to the government and insists that his government is trying to keep its poll promise of providing minimum 50% return over production costs for farmers

By: , and | Updated: January 17, 2016 12:14 AM

HARISH DAMODARAN: How do you react to criticism that agriculture is not the focus of this government? This is notwithstanding the droughts, price realisation declines and farmer suicides hitting new highs.

Our job is to work with integrity for the farmer. Why are farmers committing suicide? Because they have not been able to water their fields for years. Barring in Punjab or, in recent times, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh under BJP governments, there has been no attempt to extend protective irrigation to farmers. This is our priority and that is why we launched the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana.

Also, thousands and lakhs of acres have been destroyed due to the indiscriminate use of fertilisers. These issues had not been addressed earlier. Our efforts now have started showing results. This year, with deficient monsoon rains, everybody said there will be very less sowing. But 93 new varieties, including seeds which can withstand the impact of climate change, were made available to states.

In the past, there was more sloganeering than work. Was it not the Centre’s responsibility to create a national market for farmers to sell their crops? Previous governments said this was a state issue. When we started meeting states and asking them about their markets, we found out that every state had its own rules, a farmer selling in one market wouldn’t know about prices in others. We first went to Karnataka. When our chief minister Yeddyurappaji was in power there, he started e-marketing and had brought 50 markets on to one platform. If a farmer went to one market, he would get to know the rates in other markets. Most states agreed to replicate this model. After March 31 this year, we will launch a website where we will dissipate the boundary walls created between states, and by September 2016, we will bring 200 markets under this single national e-market. And now we have also introduced a new crop insurance scheme with very low premium rates and no limits on subsidy, which will help farmers cope better with crop failures.

SHEELA BHATT: Before the 2014 election, PM Modi had promised to increase the minimum support price (MSP) for farmers and in some cases even double it. That hasn’t happened. In fact, during Sharad Pawar’s term as agriculture minister, cotton farmers in Gujarat, for example, were getting R1,200 per 20 kg; now prices have fallen to R800-1,000.

But the market rates today are still more than the samarthan mool (support price). Whenever the market rates have fallen below MSPs, we have set up our centres for procuring cotton. When Atal Bihari Vajpayee was PM, he set up the National Agriculture Commission. The commission made over 200 recommendations, but our government fell. Then, in 2007, the UPA framed their farmers’ policy. Their government did not agree to 20 of the 200 recommendations that the Commission had made, but accepted the rest. One of the 20 recommendations said that the government should give a 50% return over production costs to farmers. Another committee chaired by MS Swaminathan had also made this recommendation but the government did not agree, saying that increasing MSPs to guarantee 50% return would create chaos in markets. When our government was formed, the PM said farmers will get 50%-plus return. But we will do it by reducing production costs for the farmer. We will also provide a national market for farm produce to enable farmers get better price realisations.

HARISH DAMODARAN: So are you saying that the UPA government’s philosophy was to increase the MSP, whereas your government is trying to cut costs and plan for the long term?

No, the MSP was raised only when a committee recommended it. This was the normal practice. But what we are trying to do is to reduce input cost and make sure farmers get a good price in the market.

SHEELA BHATT: You did succeed in raising arhar dal prices to R200/kg.

We have got a detailed report on pulses from the food ministry. Ever since our government has come to power, we have taken several steps to boost production of pulses. We have also provided support to Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs) to promote cultivation of high-yielding varieties of pulses by farmers. It is because of these measures that this year’s drought has not led to a production crisis. The conditions are not bad as compared to previous years when there were droughts.

SHYAMLAL YADAV: There are problems that farmers face that don’t reach Delhi. For instance, in eastern UP, farmers have stopped cultivating pulses because of the nilgai (Asian antelope) menace. How do you propose to solve these problems?

People in Delhi may not have heard of these problems, but I have come to Delhi from a village; not the other way round. There is no block in eastern UP that I haven’t visited. On the question of nilgais, in most parts, killing of the antelopes is permitted, but after consulting a committee and raising the issue with the district magistrate. But because the word ‘gai (cow)’ is attached to it, people are not comfortable with the idea. So, now we have requested that the name of the animal be changed so that there is no issue.

SHYAMLAL YADAV: You mentioned KVKs. The criteria laid out by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) for setting up these Kendras are such that only the agricultural universities or big politicians manage to meet them. So now we have about 500 KVKs with agricultural universities and the others are with the politicians. Do you intend to change that?

There are 642 KVKs in the country, of which 450 are run by state agricultural universities, ICAR runs about a 100 and NGOs run the rest. The first thing our government did was to ensure that KVKs were not given to NGOs. I have visited about a 100 KVKs across the country and noticed that many of them didn’t have a tractor or a jeep. We came up with a proposal of R4,000 crore to ensure that all KVKs in the country have jeeps, tractors and motorcycles and that there are at least 10 scientists in each centre. The PM has accepted the proposal and we are moving towards implementing it. I have said this many times—whatever we are witnessing today is a product of the past. You will soon begin to see the results of our efforts.

LIZ MATHEW: Do you think there is a problem in BJP that there are not enough agrarian leaders?

There was a time when the BJP was known as an urban party, but today the party has several leaders from the rural belt too. Just raising slogans doesn’t make you an agrarian leader, you have to work towards the cause with dedication. Wherever the BJP has formed state governments, agriculture has got a boost. Gujarat, MP and now Chhattisgarh, all have registered good agricultural growth. I was an MP during Vajpayee’s tenure. That’s when the Farmers’ Committee was set up. Now that our government is in power again, we are thinking about har khet ko pani (water for every field) and creating a national market for the produce.

LIZ MATHEW: Can you name some kisan netas in BJP, apart from you?

Who is a farmer leader—Sanjeev Balyan or Jyotiraditya Scindia? Jyotiraditya Scindia and Rahul Gandhi only speak a lot about farmers in Parliament, but our Sanjeev Balyan (BJP’s Muzaffarnagar MP, MoS, agriculture and food processing) comes from a farming background in an area that grows maximum sugarcane. Then, our (Mohanbhai Kalyanjibhai) Kundaria (MoS, agriculture) is into dairy farming. If you draw up a list, you’ll see that the maximum number of farmer MPs today are from the BJP.

HARISH DAMODARAN: But there is a sense of this government not being alive to farmers’ problems. Last year, urea was sold in the black market. This has never happened before.

Last year and this year, too, the supply of urea has gone up over the previous years. There was some black marketing in UP and Bihar. But distribution and control rest with the state government.

HARISH DAMODARAN: It happened in Haryana, too, where your party is in power.

Wherever be the case, the fact is for the first time this year, there has been no shortage in the supply of urea to states. The job of controlling black marketing lies with the state government. However, even there, we have found a way out. Black marketing of urea is done because it finds use in other industries too. This government has brought in neem-coated urea that cannot be diverted for non-agricultural uses. Why was this not done earlier? Maybe, because we had too many farmer leaders who only talked.

ASHUTOSH BHARDWAJ: Land acquisition, particularly of arable land, is a sensitive issue for farmers. Don’t you think multi-crop land should not be acquired for non-agricultural purposes?

Of course, only when arable land is absolutely necessary for acquisition should it be acquired. If there are vast expanses of vacant land, please take those lands for setting industries, but ensure not just the families of farmers whose lands have been acquired but also those of others living within a radius of 10 km get jobs in these units. Every farmer family now may have four members living off their land. But even they would want at least three of those sons to go out and get a job outside. Farmers are ready to give their land, provided they get at least four times the market rate, are given jobs, and the factories being set up will also process their farm produce. All these provisions were incorporated in our land Bill. But it was unfortunately politicised.

AMITABH SINHA: What is your opinion on GM crops?

The ministry of environment and forests has a technical committee (GEAC) that finalises which crops can be genetically modified and only when they approve it, we will allow their cultivation in fields. Right now, the matter of GM crop approvals is before the Supreme Court. As a minister, will I do things as per my own wish or will I listen to the Supreme Court?

AMITABH SINHA: But you are not even allowing trials. We are not talking of commercialisation.

But the problem there has more to do with the states: how will trials take place unless they give land? We will implement whatever the committee decides. There are no restrictions on trials from our side. When the technical committee approves it, we will allow trials. As a farmer, I hope the experts decide in our favour.

SHYAMLAL YADAV: Agricultural scientists say is no transparency in the Agricultural Science Recruitment Board and that its selection process is worse than the UPSC or UGC.

We have made a lot of changes. Earlier, only 20% vacancies would even be announced. This year, 81% vacancies were announced. We put it up on the board’s website. In Brazil, I saw that scientists who do more research and extension work with farmers get more marks, but here, those who work in KVKs get no marks and those who don’t go to fields get more marks. We made sure that changed. Those working in KVKs will get more marks and their promotions will be better.

SHYAMLAL YADAV: You are from Bihar. How much of the Mahagathbandan’s win can be attributed to what Mohan Bhagwat said (on September 21, 2015, he called for a review of caste-based reservation)?

People in Bihar knew that if Lalu-Nitish came to power, there would be jungle raj. The BJP had been around for six-seven years and people had seen our work. But the credibility that Nitish Kumar earned during his party’s alliance with us helped him fool the people. People got caught in that deceit and ever since the two have come to power, jungle raj has returned.

LIZ MATHEW: Eight out of 12 BJP leaders from Bihar said state leaders were not involved in the elections and leaders were brought in from Gujarat or other places.

If you see the history of the BJP, every time we have lost, we have come back stronger. As for our national president, I haven’t seen a more hard-working man. During the Bihar elections, I was in charge of seven-eight districts. We were not brought in from outside. You spoke to eight people, we spoke to 8,000. We were all given responsibilities and our programmes were charted out. It is not just for Bihar. We are a national party. Recently, I went to Telangana for a foundation-laying function at a university. Municipal elections were on and we had to be part of it.

COOMI KAPOOR: Nitish and Lalu have already started speaking against each other.

Coalition politics is a natural arrangement, but only when allies are like-minded. Theirs is an unnatural arrangement. It doesn’t seem likely that Nitish and Lalu will stay together for too long. Or maybe they will. When (Nitish) was with us, he would do as we said—on development work, law and order. Now, he is doing what Lalu is telling him to do. There have been 350 murders since they have been elected. Murder, abduction and loot is racing ahead at a speed of 200 kmph.

ASHUTOSH BHARDWAJ: Can you talk of the RSS’s relationship with the BJP, both during Vajpayee’s tenure and with the present government?

I am from the RSS. The work we are doing for the country is what we have been taught in the RSS. The RSS has taught us patriotism. Patriotism first, country first—this is our school degree. But today, people are often confused. They think RSS dictates terms. How can it do that? It can only give suggestions. Look at Narendra Modi. His whole life is dedicated to serving the country. Where did he get the inspiration from? A pupil who has never been to that (RSS) school will never know. Before the government takes a decision, we accept all suggestions independently, even those coming from our enemies. And we were born in the RSS. We accept all suggestions that are in public interest.

HARISH DAMODARAN: Farmers, especially in drought-hit states, are finding it difficult to maintain cattle. In earlier years, they could at least sell these animals, may be to butchers, and get a reasonable price. But today that has become virtually impossible, especially in states ruled by your party where even slaughter of bulls, bullocks and male calves have been prohibited.

Today, we are facing the threat of climate change that is going to reduce milk yields of foreign breeds of cows. These animals are also more prone to diseases. Countries like Brazil and Australia are, in fact, opting for the indigenous cows of India. That is why we have also started the Rashtriya Gokul Mission, and given R500 crore for the project that aims at conservation and development of our indigenous breeds. When we told the PM, he allotted another R50 crore for building two national breeding centres for the welfare of indigenous cows. Under the R500-crore project, proposals were received from 28 states. I am happy that eight or nine of them have proposed to set up Gokul Grams in which, if there are 1,000 cows, there may be about 400 that don’t give milk. But just like milk products are sold, products made of cow dung and urine can also be sold. In Indian culture, the cow is pivotal to the village economy. If you have one cow, you need not buy chemical fertilisers at least for one acre. It also increases productivity. Keeping this in mind, all efforts are being made to promote and protect the indigenous cow.

Transcribed by Pritha Chatterjee, Sweta Dutta and Mayura Janwalkar

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