New Delhi is in a state of shock. A 41-year-old farmer Gajendra Singh from Dausa in Rajasthan has brought farmer suicides right to its doorsteps. What was earlier a distant problem, far away from the seat of political power, is now staring at them in a discomforting close-up. So much so that even Prime Minister Narendra Modi was forced to acknowledge that he is shattered and disappointed, and in a subsequent tweet wrote: “At no point must the hardworking farmer think he is alone. We are all together in creating a better tomorrow for the farmers of India.”
In the past 6 weeks, in the aftermath of unseasonal rains, a little over 150 farmers have taken to gallows in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and in Maharashtra. While all these suicides were tragic and should have shaken up the administration, but I didn’t see the kind of shock and awe that we see now for any of those farmer suicides that happened outside New Delhi. In fact, all out efforts by State Governments are to deny that these farmers had even committed suicide because of a lingering crisis on the farming front.
While the politicians are battling it out in and outside parliament, blaming the other party for ignoring the farmers, the fact remains that both the major political parties have blood on their hands. Farmer suicides are not a recent phenomenon. In the past 20 years, almost 3 lakh farmers have committed suicide. On an average about 14 to 15,000 farmers are taking their own lives in a year, with two farmers dying every hour. Those who were committing suicide, and it does require tremendous courage to take your own life, were actually trying to make a political statement with their death. They failed to shake up the callous and insensitive system even by their death.
Soon after Gajendra Singh hanged himself at Jantar Mantar I find the TV channels have swung into action re-enacting scenes from the film Peepli Live. They are in Gajendra Singh’s village in Rajasthan, talking to each and sundry and telling us why he preferred to wear a particular kind of colourful pagri and so on. Every channel is now holding panel discussions calling spokespersons from different political parties who simply are using the media platform to say how white his shirt is by listing the number of steps taken to help farmers. There is hardly an effort to make a serious attempt to track down the fundamental reasons behind this serial death dance. I am getting calls from newspapers who are asking me which areas their reporters should go to. A new face, a new name but the story will remain the same.
If I were to point to the primary and the most significant reason behind the continuing farmer suicides over the past two decades, I would narrow it down to the declining farm incomes. The 2014 report of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) tells us that the average monthly income that a farm family derives from farming activities is a paltry Rs 3,078. To make the ends meet, a farm family has to work in some other non-agricultural activities, including MNREGA. That makes for an average of Rs 6,000 per family per month. No wonder, 58 per cent farmers go to bed hungry, and 76 per cent want to quit agriculture if given a choice.
To look deeper, a colleague has meticulously done a comparative analysis. In 1970, the minimum support price for wheat was Rs 76 per quintal. Forty five years later, in 2015, wheat procurement price is Rs 1450 per quintal. In other words, in 45 years, wheat price has been raised by approximately 19 times. Let’s compare this increase in wheat prices for farmers with the increase in salaries for different sections. The average salary of central government employees has risen by 110 to 120 times; of school teachers by 280 to 320 times; of college/university teachers by 150 to 170 times; and of mid to high class corporate sector employees by 350 to 1000 times. In the same period, school fees have increased by 200 to 300 times; medical treatment cost has gone up again by 200 to 300 per cent; and average house rent in cities has risen by 350 times.
Farmer therefore is being made to pay the penalty for keeping food prices low. This year also, the wheat price has been raised by Rs 50 per quintal only so as to keep food inflation under control. Similarly, rice price for farmer has been raised also by Rs 50 per quintal. This increase comes to a paltry 3.2 per cent. Meanwhile the government employees have got a second installment of DA, a jump of 6 per cent. The employees will soon get the 7th Pay Commission where the salary of the lowest employee – a chaprasi – is being demanded at Rs 26,000 per month.
If I were to go by the lowest rate of salary increase seen in the past 45 years, the wheat price for a farmer should have been raised by 100 times. This means, against Rs 1450 per quintal now, what farmers should have legitimately been paid should be 100 times of Rs 76 per quintal that he was given in 1970. This comes to Rs 7,600 per quintal. That is his due whether we like it or not. Now don’t get panicky. I do not want food inflation to go through the roof. All I am suggesting is that instead of putting the entire burden on the poor farmer, the way out should be to pay farmer a higher price and then subsidise the produce for the consumers. It is done in Japan, and it’s also done in other rich countries.
Unless the farm incomes are raised significantly, I don’t see anything working in favour of a farmer. To say that farmers need to raise crop productivity and utilize every drop of water is simply a way to sell newer technologies. Neither will loading farmers with more credit help them to be out of the debt trap. A farmer does not need credit, he needs income. We have deliberately deprived him of a reasonably good income over the years. Successive governments have deliberately kept him poor. #