Only A Truly Urban Party Can Take India Forward And Counter Obsessive Interest In Unviable Farming

by R Jagannathan - Dec 11, 2020 11:06 AM +05:30 IST
Only A Truly Urban Party Can Take India Forward And Counter Obsessive Interest In Unviable FarmingPrime Minister Narendra Modi with Home Minister Amit Shah.
  • India’s future is urban, and even agriculture will perform better if its surplus dependents move to urban areas.

    A clear political articulation of urban priorities by a party with an urban heart is what India truly needs.

The intransigence of farmers in demanding the repeal of three reformist laws when the Union government has made efforts to address their concerns tells us how vested interests have hijacked our polity in the name of “poor farmers”.

The nonsense that unviable farming must be supported at any cost is partly based on idealistic assumptions about pristine rural and agricultural life. Mahatma Gandhi and Bollywood needlessly glorified rural life when Dr B R Ambedkar saw rural life for what it was: a cesspool of problems best abandoned by those tyrannised by it.

India’s present and future are urban, and trying to keep more people tied to agriculture through bad policies like ever-rising minimum support prices (MSPs) is what is holding us back. India is already 55 per cent urban, according to a World Bank study, even though the Census is yet to recognise this reality. Example: over 9 per cent of India’s citizens live in just two urban agglomerations, the National Capital Region (NCR) and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), but large parts of both the NCR and MMR remain categorised as rural.

India’s politics will change once we realise that we are already an urban country and even those who live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for livelihoods are better off having urban aspirations.

We need a truly urban party for the simple reason that even rural progress depends on an urban driving force and wealth.

As things stand, India has three parties that have roots in urban politics: the BJP, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Shiv Sena. But somewhere along the line, all three parties have forgotten their origins.

The BJP, to expand its political footprint beyond urban areas, had to willy-nilly adopt a pro-agriculture stance. Thus, even though Narendra Modi has talked about smart cities, metros, aspirational India, neo middle class, digital economy, etc, the party has not done more fundamental thinking on what makes urbanisation work.

These include reforms in urban governance (with autonomy and direct elections to city corporations), good social and physical urban infrastructure (good schools, hospitals, sewage, water supplies, and lower housing costs). It has not connected the dots between rural well-being and urban growth by pointing out that agriculture must shed jobs and the compensatory growth will only happen in urban areas.

The Shiv Sena, which really has a political base only in Mumbai and Thane, has lost its way as it has focused on ruining the two cities. It has done nothing to improve city life, and the infrastructure that got built was the work largely of two individuals – Nitin Gadkari, who was PWD minister in the Sena-BJP government in the 1990s, and T Chandrashekhar, who, as Municipal Commissioner of Thane during that same decade, took on the powerful builder lobby and demolished illegal structures, widened roads, and improved infrastructure, making urban Thane more livable than Mumbai.

Mumbai’s future calls for lower land prices, better infrastructure and more vertical growth – which means the builder lobby that feasts on high real estate costs must be taken on again.

A truly urban Shiv Sena would focus on redesigning the two cities it governs by bringing down realty costs, so that more professionals can buy homes and settle there, and increase roads and public spaces (parks, gardens) as buildings grow vertically. But the builder lobby – and politicians linked to them – cannot make huge profits if the values of their unsold inventories fall as a result of liberalising land and building policies and reducing corruption. But the Sena has no vision to make this happen.

As for the Aam Aadmi Party, it has a leader who is more focused on going national than doing much more for Delhi. Going national also means AAP must focus on urban concerns, but, in the current farmer protests, Arvind Kejriwal has come down solidly on the side of agricultural vested interests. And this when Delhi is not exactly about farmers and agriculture. It has only some rural areas within its ambit.

This leaves the BJP as best placed to become an urban party. Urbanisation demolishes narrow caste and linguistic identities, providing a fertile soil for Hindutva politics. There are three ways forward.

One, it should focus on creating urban jobs, and tell low-paid farm workers to look to cities for growth.

Two, it should gradually replace minimum support prices (MSPs) with cash payments to poor farmers, which means the Kisan Samman Nidhi is the way to go. Cash payouts can be used to replace product subsidies (as in urea). Giving farmers cash rather than MSPs will allow them to move to urban areas and non-farm rural jobs, as they can lease or sell their lands more easily to supplement their incomes.

Three, massive investments in urban infrastructure based on policies to lower land costs will make both things happen. Builders and bankers stuck with high priced properties may require some short-term bailouts, but urban growth cannot be held hostage to the vested interests of those who want to keep realty costs too high. If 99 per cent of the population cannot afford to buy or rent a home, we will get only slums and sickness and low-quality jobs.

Four, Indian farming will be competitive only if the number of farmers shrink and farms sizes expand to benefit from scale economics. Guarantees on MSPs will not help that process.

To repeat: India’s future is urban, and even agriculture will perform better if its surplus dependents move to urban areas. A clear political articulation of urban priorities by a party with an urban heart is what India truly needs.

The message farmers need to hear are this: you need urban jobs, not more farm subsidies.

Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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