The dramatic death (suicide /accident /conspiracy) of Gajendra Singh Kalyanwat, a farmer from Rajasthan, at the Aam Aadmi Party’s rally in Delhi on 22nd April, has important lessons for the ruling parties at the Centre and the State. The AAP ostensibly turned to populism to shift attention from the infighting that led to the expulsion of senior advocate Prashant Bhushan and psephologist Yogendra Yadav.
Though the media has clubbed Bhushan and Yadav, the former differed with Arvind Kejriwal’s unilateralism, while Yadav wanted the Chief Minister to follow his political blueprint, including fighting elections in Haryana (where he had hoped to become Chief Minister). But Kejriwal suffered by sacrificing his government in 2013 to fight the Lok Sabha elections in the vain hope of checkmating the Modi juggernaut; on regaining the confidence of Delhi citizens (winning 67/70 seats in a State that gave the BJP 7/7 parliamentary seats in 2014), he wanted to focus on governance and disconnect with comrades who did not share his vision.
The rally to draw attention to farmer suicides and the Centre’s land acquisition Bill, contradicts this resolve. The Delhi Government has not given any relief to farmers whose crops were damaged by the unseasonal rains and hailstorms, despite promising Rs20,000/acre. The rally suggests that Mr Kejriwal remains obliged to persons who catapulted him to national limelight (close confidants of the Congress president); his espousing farmer issues helped to galvanise opposition to the Modi Government’s land acquisition Bill.
All was going well until a farmer, ostensibly depressed over the loss of his crops, threatened to commit suicide and, in a sequence of events that remains unclear, was soon hanging from a tree. At the hospital, he was declared dead on arrival. Throughout this shocking episode, Kejriwal and his comrades continued their speeches, smug in the illusion of their teflon coating.
Things unravelled fast after that. Union Minister for Home Affairs Rajnath Singh stood by the Delhi Police which said it had not permitted the rally at Jantar Mantar and had suggested it be held in Ramlila Grounds, where the fire brigade would have space to stand by. It soon transpired that Gajendra Singh may have been goaded to climb the tree and stage a protest; he may have hanged himself by mistake. Some AAP leaders tweeted that Gajendra had become a martyr even before he was pronounced dead. Some reports suggested he had been in touch with Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia. Worse, his ‘suicide note’ was fake; he was not poor; and was supposed to bring one lakh rupees home for a family wedding.
Trapped between media and public ire, with Gajendra’s family alleging murder, the AAP scrambled for damaged control. Kumar Vishwas gave elaborate explanations on television; Ashutosh wept copiously when Gajendra’s daughter questioned him about the ‘suicide note’; and the Chief Minister admitted it was a mistake to continue with the rally. But for Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, Gajendra’s death became an opportunity to charge the Modi Government of being anti-farmer and of bringing the land Bill to favour corporates.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, having passed the Budget and several important Bills in one of the most productive Parliament sessions, should put the land acquisition Bill on hold till the Centre and States complete assessments of crop damage and disburse relief to the affected farmers. This could take several weeks, but would effectively de-link farmer debt and despair caused by inclement weather from the amended land acquisition Bill.
Modi was ill-advised to issue a second ordinance on the land Bill; it made him appear rigid while professing to be open to discussion with the Opposition and to accept legitimate changes. With below normal monsoons predicted for this year, farmers are already jittery. Industrialists have dropped the pretence that there is no link between agricultural and industrial growth.
This is an ideal moment to rework the Green Revolution bias towards rice and wheat which depend on costly inputs but attract farmers due to high minimum support price. Farmers should be encouraged to grow other crops, especially native grains that are hardy and more nutritious. A gradual reduction of chemical inputs in agriculture would improve soil health and crop yields over time (fertiliser overuse has reduced yields), with beneficial impact on public health.
Ecologist Lester Brown (Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity) notes that world farmers tripled grain yields between 1950 and 1973 through fertilisers, irrigation and higher yielding varieties, the potential of which has now plateaued. He warns that genetic modification has little potential to increase yields because plant breeders using traditional approaches have already done everything possible to raise yields. Instead of hurting soil fertility by promoting GM crops, the government should improve irrigation facilities; rework cropping patterns, and fine tune its crop insurance scheme.
The Land Acquisition Bill must be taken up only when it is a stand-alone issue. Modi must himself explain to the people that while there was no ‘consent’ clause prior to 2013, the UPA made certain exemptions, to which he has added rural housing, irrigation, rural roads, sugar mill near sugarcane fields and wheat processing unit near wheat fields. This is to fulfill his election promises to bring agro-related industry closer to the farmer so that he can sell his produce faster, get better remuneration, and youth can find local employment to end the social turmoil associated with seasonal out-migration.
Modi must ensure that acquired land is put to intended use and not diverted to golf courses or holiday resorts. The realty mafia can be contained by encouraging citizens to set up cooperative housing societies; East Delhi grew in this manner, thanks to energetic support from late H.K.L Bhagat. Sadly, liberalisation led to nixing this highly successful model.
The Prime Minister must ensure that squabbling over the land Bill does not get embroiled with the Bihar election; stable government requires winning Uttar Pradesh as well. The BJP performed badly in the recent municipal polls in Bengal because of poor State leadership; this problem afflicts other States also and needs his urgent attention.
The deep-seated resistance to his leadership within the old guard, largely dormant during the election campaign, surfaced within weeks of his triumph and is now an open secret. Obviously the issues related more to power than to public good. Modi cannot let invisible power brokers derail his mandate; he must give domestic issues the same attention he devotes to foreign policy.