Dec 25, 2014

Farmer suicides: More than what IB can see

While a young farmer in prosperous Gujarat allegedly set himself on fire last week demanding a higher support price for cotton triggering a series of farmers’ protests across the State, the Intelligence Bureau (IB) has submitted a report to the Prime Minister Office (PMO) on the failure to seriously address the problem of rising number of farmer suicides.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) 11,772 farmers had reportedly committed suicide in 2013. In the past 17 years, close to 300,000 farmers have committed suicide.
The IB report states that farmer suicides are showing an increasing trend in Maharashtra, Telengana, Karnataka and Punjab. It is fast spreading in Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu where farmer suicides is emerging a recent trend. While Vidharbha in Maharashtra is widely known as the suicide hot spot, the serial death dance is taking the lives of two farmers on an average every day even in the frontline agricultural State of Punjab.

Although the IB has blamed suicides on natural as well as man-made factors like pricing policies and inadequate marketing facilities among the various causes, I don’t understand the reason why IB should be getting into areas where it’s expertise is almost zero. Setting a bad precedent, the IB had earlier come out with a report accusing some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and activists for holding up the country’s development process. It had even gone to the extent of computing the loss in terms of country’s GDP.

Let me make it clear. The IB has no expertise to measure GDP. Nor has the IB got scientific acumen and ability to understand the implications of genetically-modified crops on human health and environment or for that matter on whether or not nuclear plants are safe that it can be asked to deliver a verdict. Similarly, the IB suggestions on what needs to be done to put an end to the shameful scourge of farmer suicides show that the entire exercise is politically motivated. Otherwise there is no justification for IB to ignore its primary role of providing timely intelligence about subversive activities. Let’s not forget the IB had come in for sharp criticism for serious lapses in intelligence that led to the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.

What the IB has said in its report on farmer suicides is nothing new. All the suggestions it has come up with have been simply collated from various committee reports, academic studies and newspaper articles. Farmer suicides is one of the most analysed subject with truckloads of academic research papers, and has led to least 20 separate central and state-level committees to the affected regions. Some popular films in Hindi and regional languages like Marathi, Telgu and Malyalam have also been made on the subject of farmer suicides.

Where the fault lies is the failure to come out with a comprehensive solution. Short-term measures like compensation to the next of the kin of the deceased, loan-waivers and relief packages, including some efforts to provide psychiatric advice to farmers, have miserably failed to stem the tide. Policymakers have refused to go beyond these ‘short-term’ measures. While numerous relief packages, including the Rs 1,100-crore package declared by Gujarat as late as on Dec 15 and Maharashtra’s demand for Rs 4,500-crore from the Centre for drought-affected farmers have been forthcoming, no sincere effort has been made to radically overhaul the intensive farming system that has led to the crisis.

Mounting debt and the inability to source bank credit is part of the problem, but it is not the primary reason for farmer suicides. It is also true that increasing foray into the cultivation of cash crops like cotton and sugarcane, and inadequate marketing facilities are among the numerous reasons, but farmer suicides is a very complex and intricately woven phenomenon that requires a much deeper understanding. It’s time to look beyond growing indebtedness, and trace the reasons that lead to the mounting burden of debt that forces farmers to succumb under pressure.

But what perhaps is being simply glossed over is the declining trend in farm incomes over the past few decades. Agriculture is no longer an economically viable activity, and several studies have shown that farm incomes have remain frozen (or declined) in the past 20 years. Even globally, studies by UNCTAD show that farm incomes have remained static for two decades if you adjust for inflation. In other words, what the farmer was getting as wheat price in 1995 is no different from what he is getting in 2014. The only difference being that while farmers in rich developed countries get direct income support and subsidies, farmers in India are left to survive on hope.

Farmers need a monthly assured income package, and not more credit. Unless, a serious attempt is made to provide more income in the hands of the farming community, I see little possibility of the serial death dance abating. 

Source: Dec 24, 2014

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