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Agricultural minister's silence on land bill strategic or tactical?

March 28, 2015 16:38 IST

The fact that everyone but Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh is speaking on the issue only gives credence to the specious fears of farmers that this government is out to get them. Aditi Phadnis reports

Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari has challenged the Opposition to a jousting match on the amendments to the land acquisition Act that the government wants to effect. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley is defending the amendments from every possible forum, the most recent being the Growth Net event hosted by the Ananta Centre and Smadja & Smadja.

Why, even Nalin Kohli, Bharatiya Janata Party national spokesperson, suave and accomplished but having only a nodding acquaintance with the issues of land, farmers and agriculture, has spoken in defence of the land acquisition Act amendments that the Narendra Modi government wants to bring.

Everyone -- but this government's Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh -- has spoken, even as the Opposition and allies continue to pummel the government on the charge that it is anti-farmer.

So, we have to ask the question that Sherlock Holmes asked when he solved the case of the theft of Silver Blaze, a prize race horse: why didn't the dog bark?

Logically, the agriculture minister -- who should know everything about farming, the problems of peasants and owners of agricultural land and the man whom farmers should turn to in distress -- should be the man defending the amendments.

Prime Minister Modi's ‘Mann ki Baat’ programme was the best argument for the changes in the land acquisition law. He addressed the young aspirational section of Indian farmers and said there was more to life than scratching the parched earth with a hoe and shovel, hoping something would grow. Roads, factories, schools would not come up, more rural jobs will not be created unless it became easier to acquire land. The clincher was: "Sometimes, people who make laws sitting in air-conditioned rooms do not know the ground reality in villages".

This statement came from the prime minister of India who has framed the land acquisition laws of his dreams in Gujarat (and the model is said to be pretty progressive) - not his agriculture minister.

Is Radha Mohan Singh's silence strategic, or tactical... or neither?

Singh's record of making public statements has been somewhat spotty. In February, addressing the Indian Seed Congress 2015 at Agra, Singh said, "BT cotton in Gujarat and other states like Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has clearly demonstrated what these new technologies can do to enhance farmer incomes with consequential effects on their well-being."

As members of the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch -- which has been leading a campaign against genetically modified crops for years -- rubbed their eyes in disbelief at newspaper headlines ("Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh bats for GM crops") the government's publicity department swung into action to clarify his statement. "Some newspapers have published that the agriculture minister has advocated giving fillip to GM crops at the inaugural session of the event on February 13, 2015.

This is factually wrong. In fact, the minister talked about increasing farmers' income and sustainable increase in productivity is closely linked to supply of quality seeds. The GM crop issue did not feature in the minister's speech as the matter is sub-judice in the Supreme Court. The minister mentioned about BT cotton in the speech to inform that this was the only GM crop, which is viable and grown for last 10 years," said a statement from the ministry of agriculture the next day.

Reporters covering the agriculture beat say the minister routinely mixes up kharif and rabi. What is endearing is that he is humble enough to ask reporters for their suggestions on how to improve Indian agriculture.

Those who know Singh from his Bihar days are puzzled. Singh belongs to a zamindar family in East Champaran and while he might not have actually sown fields himself (in those parts they get landless labour to do that), it isn't as if he is clueless about land and the issues related to it.

Singh started his career from Motihari, as an ABVP nagar pramukh (area chief), way back in 1967. He's been a five-time MP, but has also been an influential figure in the politics of the BJP in the state, serving as the right-hand man of Sushil Kumar Modi. Of late, relations between the two have cooled a bit, as both dream of seeing the BJP form the government in the Assembly elections later this year and heading it.

Maybe land acquisition is not an issue in Bihar and Singh figures that the government is in no need of a defence. But the fact that everyone but the agriculture minister is speaking on land acquisition only gives credence to the largely specious fears of farmers that this government is out to get them. The blame for this impression gaining ground should go to the image-managers of the government, whoever they are.

Worse is to come. Prices of agri commodities declined by up to 20 per cent in 2014.

The rate of increase in minimum support price for farmers under the National Democratic Alliance has been much lower than the trend during the United Progressive Alliance government, especially the last few years of its tenure. The BJP is committed to a promise made in its election manifesto that MSP would be calculated with a 50 per cent profit margin over the cost of production. So, should we expect Radha Mohan Singh to weigh in and ask the government to hike MSP? If that happens, what will the implications be for politics and the economy?

Aditi Phadnis in New Delhi