Sep 8, 2012

Are farmers children of a lesser god?

Expressing alarm at the rising suicides by Army soldiers,  Defence Minister A K Anthony has called for a brainstorming session with the three vice-chief of services, the defence secretary and the head of the Defence Institute of Psychological Research (DIPR) so as to initiate steps that can curb rising suicide tendencies among the lower ranks of the armed forces. 

Since 2003, on an average about 100 Army soldiers have been committing suicide every year. Approximately 1000 soldiers have committed suicide in the past 10 years. The Defence Minister is worried, and this is indicative of his concern to improve the working conditions of the lower ranks. 

Defence Minister A K Anthony’s initiative is certainly laudable. But when I look at Food & Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar’s complete indifference towards the massive spate of farmer suicides that sweeps the country, it dismays me to think that farmers are nothing but children of a lesser god. In a country where ‘jai jawan, jai kisan’ has been a popular slogan, for all practical purposes farmers remain a forgotten species. 

Minister of State for Agriculture Harish Rawat had recently told parliament that between 1995 and 2011 as many as 290,470 farmers had committed suicide. This averages to about 17,000 farmers every year taking the fatal route to escape the humiliation that comes along with mounting indebtedness. Nothing can be more tragic to know that every hour 2 farmers end their own life somewhere in India. 

Not only for Sharad Pawar, the continuing bloodbath on the farm fields is too serious a crime to be ignored by successive governments. There is no reason why Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should not have called for a series of meaningful dialogues and discussions among policy makers, agricultural scientists and economists. Members of the Planning Commission should have been directed to spend at least a month in the suicide hot spots to understand and ascertain the extent of agrarian crisis. 

On the contrary I find the Central as well as the State governments completely apathetic and callous, following a casual approach towards the biggest and the worst of human tragedies in India. Planning Commission had sometimes back sought the screening of Aamir Khan’s feature film Peepli Live to understand what had gone wrong in the countryside. It had even invited widows of the farmers who had committed suicide to Yojna Bhawan to listen to their part of the story. 

As per news reports, Chhatisgarh has found a novel and imaginative way to eliminate farmers suicides. Coming under sharp criticism for recording the highest number of farmer suicides in 2008, 2009 and 2010, the State government fudged the figures to report zero suicides in 2011. In West Bengal, both the CPM and the Trinamul Congress governments have tried to play down the farmer suicides. Reports have indicated how district officials in Burdwan, the State’s rice bowl; have been seeking statements from the families of the victims saying that the deaths were not because of agricultural distress or indebtedness. In Maharashtra, which still maintains a national record, even the definition of ‘farmer’ is being altered to report fewer suicides. 

More than 20 expert committees have submitted reports and equal numbers of studies have been done to know the reasons behind the spate of farmer suicides in the Vidharbha region. According to Kishore Tiwari of the Vidharbha Jan Andolan Simiti: “In 2006, the CM-PM package of Rs 5000-crore was followed by a massive loan waiver in 2008. As part of the Rs 70,000-crore debt waiver, Vidharbha region got a share of Rs 6000-crore. In 2009, the State government extended the loan waiver facility. Planning commission experts also visited the region and submitted their report. In effect, a dozen such committees have studied the farm crisis in Vidharbha. But a lasting solution to make agriculture sustainable and economically viable has evaded the authorities so far.”

In Punjab, another emerging suicide hot spot, State government has in the budget 2012-13 set aside Rs 500-crore to be distributed as compensation for farmer suicides. Besides relief and compensation, State governments are at a loss to know why the death dance on the crop fields shows no signs of ending. 

Farmer suicides have also been a perfect playground for politics. Sometimes back, former Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh Chandrababu Naidu sat on an indefinite hunger strike in Hyderabad. Seeing this, former Congress MP Jaganmohan Reddy too had launched a 48-hour hunger strike against “leaving distressed farmers in the lurch.” Both of them demanded an enhanced compensation package for farmers who lost their crops because of natural calamities. It is however another matter that many farmers had launched a crop holiday in Andhra Pradesh almost at the same time.  

Whether it is crop failure, high cost of inputs, exploitation at the hands of the middlemen, or the slight hand of the markets, the story is the same. While the number of farmer suicides adds on to the statistics, innumerable number of farmers who sell their body organs and simply abandon farming to join the growing ranks of landless labourers goes into oblivion, remains unnoticed. That is why Indian agriculture continues to be in throes of a terrible agrarian crisis, and yet no one seems to be remotely perturbed. 

How long will the government go on setting high-level expert committees is not certain. But what I know for certain is that it has never shown the urgency and seriousness that is required to eliminate farmer suicides. If Defence Minister A K Anthony can seek immediate corrective steps for stopping suicides among soldiers; if the Prime Minister can for all practical purposes assign Commerce Minister Anand Sharma for the past three years or so to create suitable conditions, including political agreement, for the approval of the controversial FDI in retail; there is no reason why the same level of urgency can not be shown towards mitigating agricultural distress. It's all a question of priorities. 

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