Understanding Agrarian Problems

Farmers’ Crisis in India

Bharat Dogra

Nearly two-thirds of the people in India are involved with agriculture and related livelihoods to a lesser or greater extent—either as cultivators of self-owned land, landowners, sharecroppers, landless farm labourers, tenants or in other ways. It is a matter of serious concern for the entire country that farmers are facing increasing difficulties and a crisis situation.

The crisis faced by farmers has been documented in the form of many reports of their increasing difficulties, distress sale or auction of land, agitations and protests by farmers, large areas remaining uncultivated particularly at times of low rainfall, high rates of distress migration and high rates of suicides by farmers in some parts of the country.

The causes of the crisis of farmers must be clearly understood as without such an understanding the proper remedial action—political or official—cannot be taken. Any distorted understanding of the problem can easily lead to wrong policy decisions which the nation can ill afford.

Some essential characteristics of farmers in India can be generalised, despite the fact that there are many regional variations in a country as large and diverse as India.
l    A significant proportion of rural households are landless, (around 31 percent, according to NSSO data, although many of them are involved with agriculture as farm labourers and/or sharecroppers).
l    About 49 percent of the rural households own less than one hectare of land, while another 11 percent own between 1 and 2 hectares of land. Hence the majority of owner-cultivators are also small farmers with a low resource base.
l    In a large part of the country a big break with traditional knowledge and wisdom of agricultural practices took place when from 1964 onwards the government embarked on the strategy of 'green revolution' agriculture, growing exotic varieties with chemical fertilisers and pesticides while abondoning traditional seeds and allied practices. Since then one or two generations of farmers have been brought up whose link with the traditional wisdom of farming has been badly broken.
l    Initially the government tried to fill the gap formed by the breaking down of traditional wisdom links by promoting its own research, extension and seeds, but soon this role was handed over to a significant extent to the private sector including some giant multinational companies or their subsidiaries in India.
l    Despite the existence of thousands of years of farming wisdom and traditional practices in India, today farmers have become badly dependent on the private corporates and their middlemen-traders to meet their essential needs of not only seeds and other inputs but also advice on farm technology. This has created a situation of great uncertainty and vulnerability for farmers who fall prey to the various strategies of corporates and middlemen to maximize their profits on the one hand and indulge in a lot of risky and hazardous experimentation on the other hand in pursuit of their wider, often global strategies.
l    Villages today see a mixed situation of traditional and modern influence. In this situation farmers on the other hand have to meet their traditional obligations of wedding expenses and dowry etc, and on the other hand these and other social expenses are increasing due to modern consumerist influences. Fast expansion of commercial culture exerts pressure to indulge in many non-essential social expenses at a time of increasing economic problems.
l    Rapid spread of liquor vends and processed tobacco (gutka etc) selling shops, not to mention drug-addiction in some parts, has also increased economic tensions and health problems.
l    With the growing privatisation of health and educaton sector, the necessity of spending more in these areas particularly to meet medical needs has increased.
l    Although the government has several subsidies, credit-schemes and loan-waivers for farmers these are prepared and implemented generally in a situation of alienation from the real needs of farmers. In addition high levels of corruption and the role of middlemen also greatly dilutes and distorts the avialability of any real benefits to genuinely deserving people.
l    Water is the single most important input for farmers, but public spending on irrigation has been marred by large-sacle wastage. Over the years the availability in rivers and tanks has decreased, while water-table has gone down, creating a situation of serious water-stress. The water meant for villagers has been diverted to cities and industries while within villages, overexploitation by big farmers for commercial crops has left little for small farmers and staple food crops.
l    In these times of climate change weather has become much more erratic and unpredictable. Due to this and other reasons the threat from droughts, floods and other disasters is increasing.
l    The price farmers receive for these crops has not increased in proportion to expenses, at least in the case of small farmers who face several additional problems and constraints in marketing their crops due to their vulnerability and immediate need for cash, which increases the possibility of distress sale. In many cases a significant share of the crops is meant specifically to pay the debt as soon as it is harvested.
l    The green revolution strategy favoured by the government results in destruction of natural fertility of soil and loss of earth worms and micro-organisms in soil due to excessive use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, as well as damage to other friendly insects and birds etc. Thus very soon the overall eco-system is disrupted and yield-rise then is minimal while expenses go on increasing.

Thus most farmers in India operate in a situation of almost continuing crisis when overall production and consumption (including ceremonial) expenses are likely to be more than earnings. There are likely to be only a few exceptions such as where at least one member of the farmer household manages to get a government or private job with a reliable good salary or other earnings.

In this situation the ability to face any adverse situation is very low. Any adversity can force farmers to borrow at a high interest rate, and then it becomes difficult to pay back the high interests, let alone the principal amount.

As farmers have frequent need for cash to meet their real needs as well as social obligations they are vulnerable to the propaganda of traders and corporate interests selling seeds, chemicals and machinery of dubious merit. Often they became unsuspecting victims of companies making risky trials of their new varieties and technologies. At other times low quality or hazardous equipments and inputs are dumped on them. There are very few safeguards, warnings or protection for vulnerable farmers at a time when several risky technologies such as GM crops are being tried by corporate interests.

While the frequency and intensity of droughts as well as other disasters are increasing, the ability of the people to cope with disaster situation has decreased due to growing alienation from traditional wisdom, breakdown of village communities and reduction of greenary, trees and pastures. Another big factor in accentuating distress is the decline of water table and depletion of tanks and other water sources even in normal times. All this leads to serious crisis situations all too soon despite the presence of positive factors like employment guarantee scheme and various relief schemes.

Due to increasing medicare expenses of privatised medical care, any serious illness or accident (road accidents are particularly common) pushes a farmer family deep in debt.

Social compulsions force many farmers to spend beyond their means on marriages and other ceremonies, frequently leading to debts at high interest rates.

Projects which cause partial or full displacement or create serious pollution problems and other ecological ruin in and around villages often create serious crisis situation for farmers.

In this situation of continuing crisis and aggravated crisis, sometimes several distress factors combine together to create an extreme question of helplessness and hopelessness. In such situations there have been many cases of farmers or family members commiting suicide. This is an extremely tragic situation and aggrieved families certainly deserve all help that can be provided to them by the government and NGOs. Longer-term needs should also be considered instead of providing only one-time help. This help should be provided with due consideration for the self-respect of the family concerned.

While this help should be certainly provided, the main concern should be to prevent suicides by removing the causes of farmers' crisis over a wide area. If there are two villages suffering from serious crisis situation but suicides take place in only one village, then equal help should be provided to check the crisis situation in both villages. Suicides should not be the only or even the main basis for deciding the distribution of resources and relief.

Vol. 47, No. 37, Mar 22 - 28, 2015