India must act fast to stop farmer suicides

March 30, 2016 12:18 PM (UTC+8)

 

Even as the western Indian state of Maharashtra is worried about security for an upcoming Rs 20,000 million ($302 million) gigantic statute of the local 17th century warrior king Sivaji, thousands of drought-hit, debt-ridden and starving farmers are killing themselves in the parched regions of Vidarbha and Marathwada.

Indian farmer is at the mercy of weather, moneylenders and landsharks
Indian farmer is at the mercy of monsoon, market and moneylenders

Instead of preventing such deaths by lowering the seed price, raising the prices of farm produce and waiving their agricultural loans, the Maharashtra administration is busy with work related to erecting the Shivaji statue in the Arabian Sea off Mumbai, India’s financial capital.

Maharashtra is not the only state insensitive to the grinding depravation of farmers.

The newly emerged southern Indian state of Telangana — another region plagued by farmers’ suicides — has recently given huge hikes to its ministers and lawmakers. While the monthly salaries and perks of lawmakers have gone up from Rs 96,000 ($1,451) to Rs 250,000 ($3,780) each, ministers will be earning Rs 400,000 ($6,048) instead of the current package of Rs 250,000 ($3,780). This will make them the country’s highest paid lawmakers and ministers!

This fat hike comes during Telangana’s most dismal times. Over 2,000 farmers have killed themselves in Telangana since May 2014 when the state came into existence, carved out of the larger Andhra Pradesh.

Telangana chief minister Chandrasekhara Rao tried to explain to the angry media the reason for the pay hike.

“Legislators have to attend a number of official meetings, take care of visitors and tour their constituencies…All these cost a lot of money,” he said.

To many, this could have sounded as hollow as the words of the French queen who asked peasants to eat cake if they did not have bread.

In Maharashtra, probably the richest state in India, 124 farmers committed suicide between January 1, 2016 and February 15. In 2015, 1,000 farmers ended their wretched lives.

In Gujarat (a western Indian state and home of Prime Minister Narendra Modi), almost 300,000 peasants committed suicide between 1995 and 2011.

In the past decade, thousands of farmers in India — mostly in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat — have hung themselves or taken pesticide. Over the past few years, Maharashtra has topped the list of “suicide states”.

The suicide numbers have varied with the government often fudging the figures or under-reporting them, but one estimate says that at least 10 farmers end their lives every day in India.

The picture is so terrifying that the Bombay High Court recently heard a public interest litigation which urged the Maharashtra government to take emergency steps to stop this mass suicide.

“The figure is very alarming…in the last one-and-half months, 124 farmers have killed themselves. We would like to know from the government what steps are being taken to stop this,” said Justice Naresh Patil, who headed a division bench that examined the petition.

The reasons for the gloom on the farm are all there for everybody to see. Frequent droughts (irrigation is still non-scientific) — which lead to crop failure — the struggle to get fair prices for agricultural produce and the high cost of seeds are the main factors that have been pushing farmers into the darkest of pits.

Farmers borrow loans from moneylenders at punishing rates of interest. The peasants hope for a better yield in times to come, but this never happens, and they find themselves in a debt trap. Unable to pay the interest, let alone the principal, they borrow more and more till they find themselves cornered and at the mercy of money-lenders, who are no better than sharks. Shylock demanded only a pound of flesh. But the moneylenders of Maharashtra and elsewhere bay for blood.

Added to this is administrative apathy and corruption. Activist Kishore Tiwari, who is heading a mission to reduce farm distress, said: “The problem has got acute given that proper attention was not paid to it in the past 15 years. The government machinery, which was supposed to be looking into the matter, has been riddled with corruption.”

Finally, the Indian farmland distress can be linked to the World Bank’s policies in the mid-1990s that forced the country to open up its seed sector to global corporations like Cargill, Monsanto and Syngenta.

These conglomerates made sure that the Indian farmer bought seeds from them, and these seeds needed fertilizers and pesticides. The cost of farming shot up, and the poor farmer, who had till then used his own seeds — those saved on the farm — had to buy them from big companies. The seeds supplied were engineered in such a way that they came with “non-renewable traits.”

As writer Vandana Shiva said in one of her papers: “A free resource available on farms became a commodity which farmers were forced to buy every year. This increased poverty and led to indebtedness.”

The man ploughing the field was so distressed that at first he sold his kidney to notorious gangs — which included doctors and hospitals and which sold the organ to a desperate patient for an insane amount. When the farmer found that the price of his kidney could take him only this far, he had little choice but to tie a noose around his neck.

The picture has gotten so bleak that it will require tremendous will and hugely honest efforts on the part of governments to help the farmer escape the debt trap, nay death itself.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years. He now writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and Seoul Times.

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