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The Swachh Bharat program made cleanliness and access to sanitation an agenda for the nation. Photo: Hindustan Times
The Swachh Bharat program made cleanliness and access to sanitation an agenda for the nation. Photo: Hindustan Times

A policy program inspired by Gandhi’s ideas

  • The programs of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government have incorporated the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi to create an environment that enables the poor and farmers to gain self-reliance and live with dignity.

In 1856, the revenue of the British East India Company from India was a little under three crore pounds. Close to 10% of it came from taxes on salt alone. In today’s value, this would amount to about 3,000 crores annually. Revenue documents of the British show that an average Indian man would need to work for approximately two months to pay for the annual consumption of salt for his family.

In April 1930, the Mahatma—who had himself given up eating salt a few years earlier—marched to Dandi to break the salt law. This defiance, by picking up a few grains of salt from the sea, was driven by the fact that the salt law affected the poor the most. Gandhi’s symbolic breaking of the law was also aimed at making an abstract term like poorna swaraj, or complete independence, accessible and understandable to the common man. There was no better way to do this than by linking an abstract idea like political freedom with the real economic freedom that was being denied. A naturally available resource such as salt was being monopolised and taxed. This resonated across India. Gandhi’s push for economic freedom and self-reliance goes back to 1915, when he first began to use khadi in Sabarmati Ashram. The ideas of using khadi to achieve gram swaraj and the breaking of salt tax laws were based on the ideas of self-sufficiency and economic freedom.

Today, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been able to fuse his lived experiences as a humble chaiwallah with the teachings of Gandhi. In this process, Modi has been able to build a potent manifesto that focusses on empowering the poor and instilling a sense of dignity in them. The idea of Swachh Bharat in Modi’s first term made cleanliness and access to sanitation a universal agenda and was inspired directly from Gandhi’s own life and teachings. This was achieved on a mission-mode as it was converted into a peoples-led movement. Our march towards an open defecation-free country was possible because the Prime Minister was able to link the aspirational ideas of cleanliness and hygiene with dignity and self-respect.

Today’s India is politically free but economic freedom is still aspirational to many poor and downtrodden. Economic freedom and self-reliance are the pillars on which the poor can be uplifted. If Garibi Hatao of the 1970s was a slogan that ended up perpetuating poverty, then atma nirbharta, or self-reliance, is the polar opposite and aims to unshackle the poor from handouts so that they can carve their own destinies.

The recent laws aimed at farmer welfare and on essential commodities are logical steps in providing economic freedom and choice to farmers. Instead of infantilising them and paying lip service with empty slogans, Modi has liberated the Indian farm sector. At the same time, existing government frameworks such as the PM-KISAN scheme and procurement operations through the minimum support price (MSP) mechanism ensure that famers have the necessary support to procure agriculture inputs such as seeds and get a fair price for their produce.

The Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020 aims to create an ecosystem in which farmers have the choice to sell their produce through any trading channel that fetches them remunerative prices. Farmers are no longer compelled to sell their produce in market yards of the government and can be involved in inter-state trade or intra-state trade. The law also ensures that no market fee or cess can be levied on any farmer or trader if they choose to trade outside the government notified market yard.

While choice is important, we also need to secure the long-term future of our farmers by making prices more predictable and securing the purchase of their produce at the time of sowing. The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020 aims to do just that. The Act empowers farmers to engage with agri-business firms, processors, wholesalers, exporters and large retailers for the sale of their planned farm produce at a mutually agreed price. The idea of contract farming is revolutionary as it lets farmers grow according to demand, thus allowing for a fair and transparent price discovery of their crop.

Finally, the passage of the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020 removes agricultural produce from the Act unless there is a 50% increase in the retail price of non-perishable agricultural foodstuffs and a 100% increase in the retail price of horticultural produce. This achieves three goals. First, it ensures that farmers get more remunerative prices for their produce. Second, it reduces the inspector raj of state machinery that harasses farmers and traders on the pretext of hoarding and black-marketing. Finally, it allows for the regulation of agricultural commodities only when extraneous factors such as large-scale crop damage or natural disasters so require.

Modi has laid his vision of an Atmanirbhar Bharat in a systematic manner. He first espoused the principles of self-reliance and then followed it up with a 20,000 crore package. When Parliament convened, he created a legal framework in which farmers could prosper. Several past governments have taken inspiration from Gandhi’s message but no Prime Minister has implemented it on a pan-India scale in today’s context. Modi, by doing so, has acted like a true Gandhian.

G. Kishan Reddy is the minister of state for home affairs

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