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Gujarat elections: BJP, Congress to focus on agriculture reforms

LiveMint logoLiveMint 25-04-2017 Maulik Pathak

Ahmedabad: Ahead of assembly polls due by the year-end, farmers’ issues and agrarian reforms are likely to remain the key focus areas for political parties in Gujarat as they try to address economic demands by Patels and Dalits.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a two-day visit to Gujarat inaugurated the second phase of the ambitious Saurashtra Narmada Avataran Irrigation (SAUNI) scheme at Botad in Saurashtra on 17 April.

Modi, who is set to be the star campaigner for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Gujarat elections in December, dedicated the first phase of the Rs12,000-crore project to the nation by releasing water into Krishna Sagar lake. The SAUNI scheme is to provide Narmada river waters to irrigate parched areas in Saurashtra region, a politically crucial part of his home state.

The PM also performed groundbreaking ceremony of 74-km long Phase-2 worth Rs1,695-crore at the same function.

Addressing a rally of farmers at Botad, Modi had said that Gujarat’s farmers had played a crucial role in taking agriculture to newer heights and that they had overcome scarcity of water for farming and droughts, which he described as a thing of the past.

The opposition Congress party announced that if the party is voted to power it will waive the loans of all farmers in Gujarat, taking a cue from Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath who recently waived farm loans worth Rs36,000 crore.

“The neo-middle class was given special emphasis in BJP’s election manifesto in Gujarat in 2012. This time around, the focus seems to be shifting to the agrarian community in the wake of the Patidar agitation,” according to Ghanshyam Shah, a political analyst and a retired Jawaharlal Nehru University professor.

According to Shah, many farmers in Gujarat live in urban areas, and their aspirations differ from those of Uttar Pradesh farmers. “In Gujarat, issues like minimum support price (MSP) and irrigation facilities are key. Also sub-canals and branch canals of the Narmada project if not completed before polls may deal a setback to BJP,” he added.

Earlier this month, state Congress president Bharatsinh Solanki said his party would be farmer-centric if voted to power, promising loan waiver, good support prices for farm produce and removal of 5% value-added tax on fertilizer.

The Aam Aadmi Party, which is planning to contest all 182 assembly seats, said it will launch a massive farmers’ rally at Sanand on 1 May to highlight issues faced by them under the BJP government. The party will hold meetings in all constituencies ahead of the rally.

This year’s Gujarat budget lays special emphasis on irrigation and agriculture with a provision for farm loans at 1% interest.

Apart from a scheme to help farmers buy tractors, an allocation of Rs5,100 crore was made for the Sardar Sarovar project which aims to turn Kutch’s arid land fertile. Deputy chief minister Nitin Patel also offered subsidized power to farmers with an allocation of Rs4,011 crore, and Rs400 crore for free power to village water works.

Saurashtra is politically crucial as two communities—the Patels and Dalits—from this region are protesting against the state government.

On the one side, the dominant and rich Patels, known to be one of the biggest land-owners in the state have been agitating for quotas in education and jobs; on the other, deprived Dalits, mainly farm labourers, are seeking land reforms.

The demand of the Patels stems from the fact that agriculture is no longer a lucrative livelihood and a new generation is seeking better career options.

In August, Anandiben Patel, 74, resigned as chief minister citing her advanced age. But her resignation came amid Dalit protests that became a national issue with rival political parties gunning for the BJP and its central leadership.

Of the 12.5 million hectares of cultivable land, only 3.8 million hectares were irrigated in 2000. In 2016, this increased to 6.2 million hectares and an amount of Rs5,745 crore was allocated by the government for expanding the irrigation network.

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