Tuesday, Nov 29, 2022

Who Killed The Vidarbha Farmers?

Heartbreaking as they are, suicides - over 90 last month - are only a symptom of the larger and deep agrarian crisis, reminds the award-winning journalist, touching on the role played by our policy-makers and politicians - from Montek Singh Ahluwalia

Who Killed The Vidarbha Farmers?
Who Killed The Vidarbha Farmers?

Farmers’ suicides in remote parts of the country have a way of appearing in and disappearing from our national media and national consciousness. With suicides, mainly by cotton farmers in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region, hitting an all-time high of over 710 since June last year, the political establishment was forced to take some note. The Prime Minister himself called a meeting in June and asked to visit the six affected districts of Vidarbha. He traveled there on June 30 and July 1 when the suicide tally read 574; since his visit and announcement of a Rs 3750 crore relief package, over 90 suicides have been reported in a single month.

As cold statistics keep piling up – Vidarbha follows a pattern seen in Andhra Pradhesh, Kerala, Karnataka, Punjab – and the national media chooses an occasional fleeting moment to throw its spotlight on the crisis, there is one man who has been consistently highlighting the heart-breaking grimness of the issues involved: award-winning journalist-author P. Sainath who has been tracking "the suicide story" for over six years now. Sainath, who works as Rural Affairs Editor of
The Hindu is based in Mumbai but has reported on rural distress and agrarian crisis since 1993-94 in various publications. He has traveled thousands of kilometers across states for research and reporting on these issues and spent considerable time in the districts of Anantapur, Mahbubnagar, Nalgonda, Medak, Nizamabad, Adilabad, Ranga Reddy in Andhra Pradesh; mainly Wayanad district in Kerala; Yavatmal, Amravati, Akola, Buldhana, Wardha in Maharashtra; as also parts of western Orissa and Rajasthan.

For his work on rural distress including farmers’ suicides, Sainath has received highly prestigious national and international awards including the United Nations FAO Boerma Prize and the Harry Chapin award earlier this year. Not surprisingly, the award money has been ploughed back in various ways to alleviate some part of the suffering of the scores of distressed families he has written about; it’s a little-known facet of his work. "The level of distress in rural households is nearly the same everywhere," he says, "the only difference between a suicide and non-suicide household is the loss of the breadwinner. We are not even beginning to address the distress." No wonder then that, given his research and datasheets of the last many years, the Prime Minister asked for an exclusive one-on-one briefing in June 22nd evening at the PM’s Race Course Road residence, where his Vidarbha visit took shape. Sainath was realistic enough to know that the relief package announced on July 1 would not make a major difference to the lives or futures of the indebted farmers, but even he is now distressed by the unstoppable tally of suicides.

Here, Sainath talks to Smruti Koppikar,
Outlook Bureau Chief in Mumbai, on a gamut of issues from suicides to agrarian crisis and gradual corporatisation of Indian agriculture.

Smruti Kopikar: It’s been over a month since the PM visited Vidarbha. This period saw an unprecedented level of farmers’ suicides: nearly 90 in July alone. Obviously, the PM’s relief package did not mean much. What is your interpretation of the spate of suicides?

P. Sainath: Whatever the rhetoric at the top, nothing has really changed on the ground. To begin with, by the time the PM came, the sowing season had ended and there was an absolute lack of credit. It’s one thing for the farmer if he has sown but it turns out to be a bad crop and so on, but to not sow at all means an abject and utter sense of failure and defeat for him. This year many farmers just couldn’t sow; they were indebted many times over. Then, there’s the whole sense of being let down because there was such a huge expectancy build-up to the visit. Farmers really believed that the PM would do for them what their own chief minister and (union) agriculture minister have not done in the last few years, but there was little to cheer in the PM’s package. Forget the package, no one can tell what happened to the Rs 50 lakh that the PM left behind for each of the six districts; at least that could have been put to immediate use but clearly wasn’t. We can only hope that the numbers will now taper off.

The agriculture ministry seems to have played a significant role in the non-implementation of the PM package, isn’t it? That the minister allowed the crisis to reach such proportions is itself an indictment but his role in the last month has been less than exemplary, would you say?

Mr Sharad Pawar, it seems, is the Board of Cricket Control in India (BCCI) chief first and union agriculture minister later. At least that’s what a dinner invitation to honour him recently in Chennai wanted us to believe. He apparently had no objection to being introduced in this manner, so the BCCI chief is clearly the more ascendant part of his function. In any case, cricket is more profitable than subsistence level agriculture. But, there are other ways in which he is undermining the debate altogether. A cabinet colleague of his mentioned sometime back that there were decisions that could not be taken because the agriculture minister was not present. Mr Pawar has missed cabinet meetings on agricultural issues at a time when farm sector crisis was that big but he did make the time to attend meetings on cricket at Doha and Qatar and elsewhere.

Beyond all this, what’s disturbing is the insidious ways in which his "ministry" - who in the ministry is what I would like to know - is consistently undermining the recommendations of the National Commission on Farmers (NCF) and the political games he’s playing in Vidarbha. For example, the NCF suggested long back that import duty on cotton should be raised. It wouldn’t -- or shouldn’t -- cost the government anything, yet the agriculture minister is unwilling to increase it to any level from the current 10 per cent. He seems loathe to bring in a Price Stabilisation Fund for cotton, the way we have for oil, that was also suggested by the NCF. And, it’s open knowledge that he opposed tooth-and-nail the idea of a loan waiver for indebted cotton farmers though he never opposes subsidies for sugarcane farmers and now for wine growers. What’s mischievous is that his "ministry" issues statements to certain publications on how "unpracticable" NCF recommendations are, trying to put a question mark on NCF’s credibility. Who in the ministry is saying this, he himself? Please explain to us why the recommendations are "unpracticable".

You have toured Vidarbha extensively in the last two years. Before that, you wrote about farmers’ suicides in Andhra Pradesh, in Kerala. What’s it that’s gone so horribly wrong in Vidarbha that the Maharashtra government hasn’t been able to address when you compare this region to other suicide-affected regions?

It’s a very frightening situation. Vidarbha is defying the trend that we have seen in the last few years when there were spurts of suicides in certain seasons. You could clearly see the spikes in Feb-March, then April-May when farmers go to purchase inputs for the sowing season ahead. Monsoons have always been bad for suicides but this year’s Vidarbha is the worst-ever. The spraying season is also bad because that’s when the burdened indebted farmer also has a can of pesticide in his hands…years of frustration and humiliation could just end in a moment. So many deaths have happened in the fields like this.

At the government level, I must say the Vilasrao Deshmukh government has been totally pathetic. Chief minister Deshmukh and union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar who is from the state had not even visited a single suicide-affected family or village till they were forced to accompany the PM in late June. That itself shows how serious the state government and state leaders perceived the situation to be, and it wasn’t as if there were no reports. The media was writing about it, local politicians were bringing it up, sections of the bureaucracy knew what was happening. There was simply no response. Rather, the response was contrary to what it should have been.

Take the minimum support price (MSP). This Congress-NCP came to power in October 2004 on the promise that it would restore the MSP to Rs 2700 per quintal, that’s what they said when Madam Gandhi canvassed there for votes. Then, within a year, the government drops the MSP to Rs 1700 per quintal. Just restoring it to the pre-2005 level would have saved lives this year. Then, they withdrew the advance bonus of Rs 500 per quintal which would have cost the government Rs 1100 crore a year. It’s purely ideological decision but the farmers are paying with their lives for it. After all this, the chief minister keeps saying suicides have nothing to do with prices.

The state government has been in the denial mode.

Of course. The first instance was in the way they kept fudging suicide figures. Initially, government officials told the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) that only 141 farmers had committed suicide between 2001 and 2004, then they told the Bombay High Court that 524 had committed suicide in the four-year period, in October 2005 they told the NCF that the figure was 309 only for Yavatmal. Two months later, the government told the state assembly that 1041 farmer suicides had been recorded in the period. Then, of course, the PM was given a figure of 1600 plus in six districts, of which 574 had been recorded in the last one year, prior to his visit. So, there’s a basic attitude of denial.

That’s topped by a laggard and lackadaisical approach to the situation. I will give you just two instances. When the NCF was on its mission to Vidarbha, not a single MLA from the region came to meet the team or talk or be present anywhere, which was in complete contrast to Kerala when three MLAs from Wayanad region talked to the NCF team. Then, of course, Mr Pawar visited Vidarbha two days before the NCF came there but he had apparently come there to canvas votes from the Vidarbha Cricket Association for BCCI election. He even addressed a press conference but he had no time for dying farmers.

Mr Vasant Purke is the guardian minister, he never visited a single affected village. When he eventually did, it was to a village that he didn’t even know existed, people there gave him a piece of their mind. All that the government has done is to stonewall and remain silent. When the numbers piled up and the crisis became too big to keep quiet, they started instituting teams and commissions of inquiry. Each one came up with similar findings but they still instituted the next, hoping that that report will be in their favour. There’s also a collapse of sorts of the local political class.

So Mr Vilasrao Deshmukh is twiddling his thumbs but he and the union agriculture minister don’t seem to be on the same page on this issue. Also the one-upmanship between Congress and NCP is playing itself out here too. Is this your assessment as well?

There’s a larger political game at play. Mr Sharad Pawar wants to be seen as the benefactor of whatever little happens in the farmers’ favour there, so he pouted and played hard to get when the PM’s visit was announced. He wanted the relief package to be seen as his doing for the Maharashtra farmer. And the PM was supposed to be a postman delivering it there! Unfortunately for him, it didn’t work out that way. If the state government does anything for the farmers, it will be seen as the Congress’ gesture which does not bode well for NCP prospects there in the next election. So, there is indeed a political game being played out there but that’s not what we need to spotlight; doing that would take away from the focus on the crisis. There are other aspects of politics too - local leaders, MLAs and others are becoming agents of seed companies, they are the new moneylenders, and so on. Politicians are very much a part of the problem.

You have tracked the farmers’ suicides in Andhra Pradesh extensively. Tell us the difference in the way the governments in Hyderabad and Mumbai handled the crisis in the two states.

Oh, there’s a big difference, especially in the last two years. And, they are both Congress party governments, at least Congress-led governments. The crisis there happened or peaked when TDP and Chandrababu Naidu were at the helm. After their 2004 defeat, Naidu, who was hailed as the best reformist chief minister of the country by international lending institutions, told the world that the TDP had failed to make farming community accept the correctness of the reforms but told his party: we lost farmers. If the Congress was back in power, there was a message for it and they seemed to have got at least some things right. Andhra Pradesh is a poorer state than Maharashtra, its Human Development Index is the worst for the four southern states.

In the two years of YSR Reddy’s tenure as chief minister, several pro-active steps have been taken. First, they paid compensation to almost 3000 farmers which was a big step because this was an acknowledgement of the crisis at a time when the Naidu government was not even willing to say so. The actual figures of those who should have got compensation were higher, but at least these suicides were not disputed. Then, they set up a helpline for farmers and saw to it that calls were taken seriously. Then, they issued ten lakh new Below Poverty Line (BPL) cards and restored the ones that the Naidu government had cancelled. This meant that indebted and impoverished families had some access to foodgrain.

What worked also was that AP agriculture minister has been pro-active on the issues that were in his domain. He was the man who took the multinational seed company Monsanto to court over the exorbitant rates they were charging for seeds, under the guise of technology costs. See what happened. Monsanto dropped its price per packet of Bt cotton seed by half. It was a big relief. The government banned three varieties of seeds. Then, he led raids on moneylenders who were harassing farmers and forced them into an one-time settlement against outstanding loans. There were, and are, issues that are outside the purview of the state government like the import duty and so on but at least, the government was seen to be doing something that touched the farmers’ lives in a real way. It restored the confidence of the peasant community. The first few months of Congress rule may have seen high suicide figures continuing from TDP time, but the numbers tapered off. What’s surprising is that both AP and Maharashtra have Congress-led governments and yet there are such deep differences in their approach.

Over the years, what are your impressions of how the crisis has played out? Are there any trends that are common, any lessons that can be learned and transferred?

There are some trends and patterns that are common. One is that you learn to anticipate the season of suicides and hope that there are none. The sowing season is one when credit becomes unavailable or too expensive to the farmer and he sees no further hope. Then, the harvest season when his produce - the little that has survived drought, pestilence and everything else - gets a low output price which is so low that it often doesn’t even cover the cost. So, what’s left for the farmer and his family? The lender claims the first right on the produce. The state-owned marketing agencies and representatives are not to be seen or pay the farmer very little. So, there are seasons of suicides that people like us hope not to see, but know will come upon us.

There’s another frightening trend in Vidarbha that I also noticed in Kerala - so many farmers who committed suicide were experienced farmers, who had been at it for years together yet saw no light at the end of the tunnel. They were not novices but had at least 15-20 years of experience of withstanding drought, inhospitable conditions. Many of them had a good elementary education, they had passed Class Xth at least. It’s scary when a farmer like this with 20 years of experience behind him says: "I am gone, I can’t do it anymore". It shows how we as a nation treat our farming community.

There’s a pattern in the government’s response too. State governments in each of these states and the central government begin in the denial mode. The union agriculture minister dismisses these suicides as a mere 15 per cent of the one lakh suicides in the country every year. This attitude then inhibits everything else, all other responses. Once the issue becomes too hot to handle, governments get into the dispute mode. They dispute your figures, they institute committees and commissions they hope will give them more good-looking figures but it doesn’t always happen that way. So, they will keep disputing all other sets of figures but never actually giving their set of numbers. Then, there’s a whole Brahminical analysis of election results and suchlike to show that there’s no relation of the crisis to political power.

The most "successful" strategy so far for them has been to treat farmers’ suicides as separate from the larger agrarian crisis, distinct from rural distress. Bad monsoon or drought is a favourite fallback excuse for suicides but we have had ten-twelve good monsoons now, so that falls flat. Once governments acknowledge the crisis, their response is very varied depending on who runs the show, who calls the shots, who is tied in with what interests and so on. Most responses are then ideologically determined - for example, Kerala demanded many concessions and got some because all their crops were linked to global trade, AP does it one way, Punjab yet another (there hasn’t been much media attention on Punjab thought the crisis is as big), Maharashtra another way.

Farmers taking their lives, however heart-rending, are the micro stories. The larger issue is why so many thousands of them have been pushed to such an extreme step, isn’t it?

Every suicide is heart-breaking. The delayed and little media attention is focused on the suicides, so are many responses. Suicides have to be recorded but they are not the crises. Suicides are a symptom of the larger and deep agrarian crisis that we as a nation find ourselves in. Governments are still quibbling over the reasons for suicides and setting up committees to find out those reasons but truth is that we all know the reasons. Vidarbha is not unique, nor is any other region. They are part of the larger crisis. And the crisis is there to see, it is affecting every farm household. The only difference between a suicide and non-suicide household is the loss of the breadwinner but they are faced with the same set of issues.


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