NEW DELHI: As farmers take the political centrestage thanks to special economic zones and rising commodity prices, parliament members across parties are joining hands in what appears to be India’s first and biggest political lobby that also breaks regional and political barriers.
The Centre for Parliamentarians on Rural Development is the brainchild of K.S. Rao, the Congress MP from Andhra Pradesh. What is unusual about the group is that its membership, likely to be about 100 by the time the budget session gets fully under way later this month, is that it seems to cut across major party chasms that have typically prevented the emergence of issue-based parliamentarian lobby groups.
In his fourth term, Rao has quietly managed to get widespread support for his Centre, whose 70 or so members belong to Maharashtra, Kerala, Karnataka, Orissa, Bihar and other states. They represent the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Biju Janata Dal, the Lok Jan Shakti Party, the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party, Shiv Sena and others in both houses of Parliament.
The Centre plans to send Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and finance minister P. Chidambaram a memorandum listing their “farmer-friendly” expectations of Budget 2007.
The list is likely to include—again unusual for a group that includes MPs from the Congress Party—demands first raised by the CPI(M) in its pre-budget demands: cull futures trading in farm commodities, set an extremely friendly interest rate on institutional credit for farmers at 4% and activate the price stabilization fund.
Indeed, “it was not our aim to represent any political party”, says the 64-year-old Rao. “The Centre’s objective is to improve the rural lot, and the condition of farmers in particular.”
The Centre wants controls on sugar prices to go; individual crop insurance for farmers, instead of the current block-based insurance, and state agricultural universities to work as consultants to farmers. A demand for the minimum support price (MSP) to be 50% higher than the weighted cost of production will also be included in a letter being drafted by Rao and his Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha colleagues. These “urgent steps are required to provide relief to farmers in crisis”, insists Rao.
The group has also decided to throw its weight behind the BJP government’s mammoth river-interlinking project. The project cost was estimated at Rs600,000 crore in 2004, but even if this doubles to Rs12 lakh crore in 2007, Rao doesn’t think it will severely impact all the other Left-friendly proposals put forward by his forum.
“Nothing comes out of individual lobbying,” says Rao. “That is why I created this lobby—to take a stand above party lines. River interlinking is a good plan, too. It will increase land under cultivation, assure water supply and green the country.”
When not in his Lutyen’s Delhi bungalow, Rao is often back crisscrossing the 500 rice and sugarcane-growing villages of his constituency, Eluru.
“You know, the states we belong to might be different—I might be from South India and others may represent North India—but the issues are the same,” says Rao, an engineer by training and a successful businessman. “When we go to our constituencies, farmers plead with us: ‘What crime have I committed? Why can industrialists get loans when I can’t?’”
BJD’s Prasanna Acharya, the MP from Orissa, was one of the earliest to sign up with the Centre. “There are many different lobbies and groups in Parliament, but not a single organized forum for farmers’ concerns,” he says.
Ranjit Ranjan, the MP representing Bihar for LJSP, says she decided to come on board to prevent some “very dangerous provisions against farmers, for instance, in the new seeds bill”.
“I will be pleased if this new forum goes beyond just meetings. You see, farmers’ problems in my state are so severe that I cannot afford not to join such a group. If any good comes of it, it will be excellent. Right now, let’s just see how serious the (other) MPs are about making any changes come through,” says Ranjan.
The Centre hopes to convince the government to accept the National Agriculture Commission’s recommendation that nationalized banks should lend to farmers at 4%. It also wants cooperative banks, who lend mainly to farmers, to be exempt from income tax.
Will such a diverse group hold through the critical budget session with all the pulls and pushes of party diktats? Rao is sure it will. “My point is that I can get it done.”
Sukhmani Singh contributed to the story.