300,000 and Counting

‘How Many Deaths Will It Take...?’

Smarajit Jana

How many farmers' suicide would make it a 'case'? 'The answer is not blowing in the wind'. More than three lakhs of farmers committed suicide since 1995. This is the registered cases of suicides as per the Government department. However as per definition, farmers are those who own farm land in his or her name even if one of the spouses or child of a farmer commit suicide having no land holdings in his or her name will not be figured in the statistics. So the actual number would be much higher if all these cases of suicides that are dependent on agriculture are included. On an average 15400 farmers committed suicides every year in India in between 1995 to 2003. This has increased to more than 16000 in between 2004 to 2012. Suicides rose by 42% in between 2014 and 2015. The number of suicides quadrupled in the state of Karnataka during this period. The rising trend of farmers' suicides across India is a well established fact since it first reported in 1995, barring only few exceptional periods, still it is not a 'chilling factor' and none of these numbers has moved the policy makers, when the farming community is passing through deep to deeper crisis.

Take the case of Maharashtra, during the first four months of 2017, around nine hundred farmers committed suicide. Reasons are not linked to drought or flood as there was good monsoon in the previous year. It is not due to failure of crops; on the contrary due to production of bumper crops, what has brought down the wholesale prices of pulses, vegetables, oilseeds etc much below the minimum support prices (MSP) of these Agri produce pre-fixed by the Government. Many farmers could not even sell their crops as there was no market demand. They had to keep rotting potato, onions, green peas etc. in the field or just staged it on the sides of the Mandi. Mandiwalas are the all powerful middlemen who procure Crops from the farmers and control the market almost unilaterally. Mandis are registered under the respective Ministry of the state Govts who collect a good sum of revenue from them.

This is nothing new. Since more than two decades people have been following these incidents in mass media. The incidents of farmers’ suicides started pouring in from the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat and from among the farmers who are engaged in cash crop production e.g. sugar cane, cotton etc. However nowadays fresh cases of farmers' suicides are getting registered from all kind of farming and not restricted to those who are engaged in cash crops production. In early days cases were reported primarily from two/three major states in India. Now suicides among farmers have become a common feature all across the country and could be identified as general phenomena in the Agriculture sector. It is also surprising to note that though farmer's suicide did occupy spaces time to time in mass media but no serious attempt could be seen to analyze the overall situation and to identify underlying reasons behind these phenomena. It is really heart breaking to note that there is hardly any good research publication either from the view point of economy or from the background of sociology. One may be surprised to note that neither psychologists or psychiatrists or from any allied discipline of medical science took note of it. This is difficult to accept from a country like India who boasts of harboring large numbers of professionals and having scores of intellectuals who are active in mind blowing dialogue and debates. This perhaps has opened up wide gaps, what no other than politicians have ventured into the space through expressing their ingenious views and ideas even if at points it sounds ridiculous. One could be speechless knowing the comment of a representative of the ruling party, who said that 'committing suicides' has become a new fashion among the farmers in our country. Nothing could be compared to this level of insensitivity one can expect from a fellow human being. When these hapless farmers are left without any options but to commit suicides, how these heartless leaders could pass on such comments is one's imagination. Recently, Minister of agriculture, Maharashtra shared his one more unique finding. As per his discovery it is those farmers who have been suffering from sexual illnesses have committed suicide and he stressed that it has nothing to do with farming or anything related to Agri production systems in the country. On the other hand the leaders of opposition party as part of their usual ritualistic exercise did criticize the ruling Government for their failure to protect the life of farmer. Needless to comment that, neither ruling party nor the opposition is serious enough to move deep into these issues with an objective to address mass scale suicides among the farmers. They are least bothered in reviewing existing policies related to farming and market intervention strategies to safeguard the future of agriculture in our country.

Though there has been significant increase in agricultural production in good number of states during the year 2015-2016 it has brought down the prices of commodities, to the level what is no longer remunerative to farmers. Market prices of crops like rice, wheat, pulses increased by only 3% during the last 5 years [this is not the retail price of Agri produce what we pay as consumers but the price what Mandi owners pay to farmers] whereas the cost of production has gone up significantly over the years. There has been a steady increase in production of crops. As per Government estimate production of food grains has gone up by 28% since last 5 years but during the period famers have experienced series of challenges while buying seeds, in providing irrigation , procuring tools and machineries etc. They had to pay high prices for fertilizer and pesticides as Government has cut down subsidy on these commodities in successive years. Per unit cost of electricity has increased by leaps and bounds forcing farmers to pay more on each and every item which are clubbed under the means of production. Every year the prices of seeds are also rising, moreover presently few multinational corporations control the Global seed market and farmers are dependent on them. Previously, farmers used to save part of the grains from the last year's produce as seeds for the next cultivating year. By using 'terminator' seeds and its technology the monopolist Multinational Corporation has established full control over the seed business, because the produced grains could not be used as seed as it will not germinate further. So farmers have to buy seeds each and every year from the corporate or its subsidiaries. Introduction of GM [genetically modified] seeds are an added and formidable challenge to agriculture and to farmers. National Government is yet to develop any policy on seeds as a result of which farmers have lost their autonomy and have become dependent on monopoly market of seeds.

As part of the policy respective Government Department declares Minimum Support Price (MSP) which is notified every year but that too for only 24 farm produce. However Government procures routinely only paddy and wheat from the farmers leaving rest of the items open to the market volatility. As a result of which the minimum procurement price fixed for most of the crops hardly serve any purpose. As for example what happened in MP this year, could be an eye opener. Last year (2016) farmers of MP grew bumper crops resulting in drop of market prices with special focus to pulses. They had no other option but to sell their produce at much lower prices (almost half the prices of MSP) to Mandis, who essentially dictate market prices through creating their unofficial cartel. Even for wheat and paddy out of the 28 states, only few states routinely buy and that too in nominal amount from the farmers, leaving most of the farmers to sell it in the open market. As per NSSO data only 6% of farmers sell their crops at the rate of MSP. There is no mechanism and no conscious effort on the part of the Government to regulate prices of agricultural produce except fixing MSP. In case of paddy the Rice Mill owners based on their cartel dictates the market prices of paddy which is often lower than the minimum support price; what ranges in between 40% to 50% less than the MSP. It is not that all this state Governments do not have these basic information what has been happening years after years in front of their eyes. What they lack is the motivation on their part to protect the long term interest of farmers and the Agri sector in the country.

All previous Governments including the present one usually shower promises to the farmers before the elections which are same or similar in nature. They all promise to waive farmer's loan before the election, some of them fulfilled it after coming to power as happened in UP this year. This approach has become quite popular among the politicians as it does not require much effort to address root causes of the malady. This year too, Governments of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Tamilnadu and Punjab have adopted the same strategy to douse farmer's anger, albeit for immediate political gain. This could be considered a little better approach in line with the British Raj, who after the Deccan riot of farmers in 1873 enacted a law to reduce the interest rate on loan taken by the farmers from the moneylenders. However while implementing the act officials took partisan role to support only those farmers who could sub serve the interest of the business of the British Raj whereas the implementation of loan waiver policies and practices of the National Govt directly or indirectly favors only rich farmers leaving behind poor and landless peasants who for obvious reasons could hardly access to loan from Banks.

On the other hand farmers in India appear to have shown very little collective strength and power to influence the Government policy. They also lack in consistency in pushing any reform in Agri sector. Movements are often headed by rich farmers, poor and landless farmers have very little say in those struggles. Lack of strong leadership from among the farmers is another weakness. During 1980's under the leadership of Tikayet particularly in North India farmers got united and forced Government to deal with them. However after the death of Tikayet the movement fizzled out. Though in the recent past we have been observing regrouping of farmers in many states in India, who have forged a national forum called Rastriya Kisan Mahasangha consisting of 62 farmers organizations. However Govt refused to accept their charter of demands. How long the present agitation of farmers will continue to press the Government and whether they would be able to mobilize support from the  rank and file of all the stakeholders of the Agri sector and in addition to that to what extent they would be able to draw support from other social networks and movements across the country is yet to be seen.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his election campaign (2014) promised that he would help farmers to make double the profit over cost of production through selling Agriculture produce by 2020 if he comes to power. Even manifesto of BJP [2014] articulated that they would make such arrangements that would help farmers to make 50% profit over the cost of production. However within these last three years neither the party nor the Government could bring any significant policy changes to help improve the life of farmers.

So the pertinent question is, why the successive Governments are so reluctant in initiating any positive change in Agri sector in the country? The reasons are few and far between. As the common understanding and our 'belief system' centering on growth and development is primarily based on the calculation of GDP, it is highly unlikely that Agri sector would get its importance. As the contribution of Agri sector to GDP is not significant and proportionate contribution to GDP is falling over the years [what constitute 40% of GDP during green revolution which is now just 13%]. As a result of which manufacture and service sector's growth gained prominence over the agriculture. If this political environment does not change it is difficult to believe that the 'mindset' of the policy makers would be different. Agri sector could get importance provided Government put serious thought to link poverty alleviation and agricultural growth in the country and to attend self sufficiently in Agriculture. To what extent Government is committed to fill the hungry stomach and is inclined to secure nutrition status of the children is an issue? Whether Government will walk the talk or will go on with high volume speeches in usual manner will tell the truth. There is very little evidence at present in support of the Govt's commitment towards these issues rather what have been observed in the recent past is a matter of a concern. This year Government procured only 23 million tons of wheat for PDS which was 28 million tons in the previous year. There has been drastic reduction in the amount of buffer stock of food grains to be maintained in the country from 2.4 million metric tons to 1.38 million metric tons. There has been reduction in budget as well as geographical spread of MGNREGA and the tempo of the programme is losing its steam. Public investment to improve the agriculture sector is getting smaller and smaller over the years. It is less than 3% at the National level. As per the scale of 'hunger index' (the most sensitive index used to measure hunger, under nutrition and stunting of growth of children in combination) India occupies the lowest rung in the table among 114 developing countries. Thailand, Srilanka and even Bangladesh occupy higher position over India. Though Nationalism is a buzzword in this era, self sufficiency, in agriculture remained a non issue and the practice of the present Government to import significant amount of Agri produce and that too through reducing or waiving import duties of commodities like wheat, palm oil, sugar, fruits etc raises several questions. Whether Government's real interest is to 'outsource' Agriculture to other countries and to enhance burden of farmers? When our farmers are producing increased amount of food grains what helps in building self sufficiency why Govt is hell bent not to procure from the farmers but to import from the Global market?

As for example in the year 2015-2016 when farmers of MP and Maharastra could produce oil seeds almost double the amount from the previous year's production [what led the market crush forcing farmers to sell their produce at throw away prices what fueled cases of suicides among the farmers). Interestingly during the same period Government reduced import duties on palm oil to sub-serve whose interest could be anyone's guess. This year farmers of Maharastra had no option but to let onions rot in the field, as Government remained rigid to keep on enforcing its old ban order to export onion outside the country forcing them to plunge into deeper crisis. In fact there has been a steady increase of import of food grains over the years. It was only 2% of the total imports of goods and commodities for the country in the year 2008 but it has gone up significantly since 2014 and in following years. The irony is that during the period when farmers succeeded in growing increase amount of Agri produce Government did the opposite through importing large amount of food grains from the global market; perhaps to appease the Global Agri trade regime and their bosses. Government imported food grains spending 1.4 lakh crores of rupees during the last year what was less than thirty thousand crores during 2008-2009.0ne may question; it now constitute 5.63% of total import whereas export of food commodities has fallen sharply. Important to note that India (along with China) is fighting in WTO to force EU and USA to withdraw subsidy from Agri sector in their countries [These countries want to keep subsidy to farming in their countries for the sake of self sufficiency and to reduce dependency on outside) but strangely the same Government is making our farmers and Agri sector weak and vulnerable through its mind boggling policies and practices.

For one thing, there is a strong co-relation between the wellbeing of farmers and the food security of the country. Until and unless farmers movement is linked with the food security campaign the importance of agriculture could not be reestablished. The 'political status' of Agri sector is unlikely to gain importance unless perpetual hunger among the countrymen and self sufficiency in agriculture is emphasized. As per the census data of 2011 there has been an increase of 35% of agriculture laborer since last ten years and a drop of farmer population by 9 million who were forced to sell their property to get transformed into Agri labor. That agriculture sector won't be able to add value from the perspective of GDP is a foregone story but its political significance could be established through its alignment with the plausible movement to establish self sufficiency in food and agriculture at the National level. The spectacular growth in agriculture in MP in the recent past is comparable to what happened during the Green Revolution in Punjab and Haryana in terms of production of Agri crops in seventies but this time farmers could not reap the benefit from the bumper crops due to the market crash that ignited agitation among the farming community. As per submission of the Minister in charge of Agriculture in the Assembly of MP, more than 15000 farmers committed suicides since last ten years, as if it was not enough; so police opened fire against the agitating farmers killing six of them. However it won't be added to the list of suicides. Does it bring a sigh of relief? The Minister in Charge has declared in the month of July '17 that respective Dept will procure pulses from the farmers but the farmers have already sold their produce to Mandis after the harvesting seasons. Now the Mandi owners will make profit twice through selling it to the Govt at the rate of MSP what they have procured from the farmers in throw away prices.

Agri production has became a two-edged sword to the farming communities in India, when they fail to produce enough crops due to drought or flood they will go hungry with their family members but when they produce bumper the policy makers of the country through their 'actions' and 'inactions' will facilitate market crash forcing farmers to sell their produce at much lower prices than the cost of production. So there are two options left to them either to commit suicide or if they get united and take to the streets, they have to face the bullets. History says that the general consumers of their produce will remain as silent spectators of this 'Pan Indian drama' duly directed by the policy makers and enacted by the respective depts. Uncountable farmers in our country are living in a disparate condition, many of them have resigned to the fate, some committed suicide, some have resigned from the agriculture and many more in the queue. As per NSSO data [2013] the average income of a farmer's family is Rs 6223/month ['12-'13| which has slipped to Rs 1600 during '16-'17. Report submitted by NITl AYOG (2016) stated that 53% of farmers live below the poverty line.

The issue is whether agriculture will sustain and grow in the country under the present social-economic and political environment is a big question. In India heading to the same scenario what happened in Ethiopia and many other African countries on behest of the Empire of Global trade regime?

Minister Debendra Phadnavis of Maharastra has refused to waive loan of all the farmers, restricting it to 3400 crore as the ceiling for the state. Interestingly in Maharastra there are 12000 Government registered money lenders from whom farmers have taken loan amounting around thirteen thousands crores in the previous year what Minister has refused to waive. The reason is difficult to conceive. It is a well known fact that the poor and landless peasants could hardly access loan from the Banks. So they had to depend on money lenders. Farmers' committee of Maharastra is raising the question that when the National Government does not hesitate to waive bank loans to industrialists amounting to hundred thousands crores, why they are so stringent in waiving loans of all the farmers, which is much smaller in amount?

However waving loan cannot bring fundamental changes in Agri sector and hardly can change the life of the agrarian communities. In truth no change did take place when the central Government in 2008 waived loans of farmers across the country. Their fate remained the same in the following years and cases of suicide among the farmers did not fall. Waiving loan provides only symptomatic relief and that too for a short span of time. The root causes of the problem in Agri sector are much bigger and complex in nature. Govt developed few schemes and projects e.g. Price stabilization fund, Soil heath card scheme, Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Joyana etc which are very small and ad hoc in nature and could reach out to less than 5% of the farming community without any measurable impact. This sort of ad hoc policies and strategies would never succeed. We need a comprehensive Agri policy looking from all the aspects of production including means of production, procurement, storage, market interventions [both in country and global import and export mechanism] in addition to labor from a framework of food security and self sufficiency in Agriculture. Without hesitation it could be said that a united struggle of farmers in partnership with the Rights to food movement is the call of the day. It is they who could push the Govt as no other stakeholders appear to be seen in the field though 50% of Indian population depends on agriculture even today.

Vol. 50, No.19, Nov 12 - 18, 2017