crisis : No end to farmersí suicides
By Devinder Sharma
Jun 29, 2004, 12:36
Andhra Pradesh chief minister Y.S.Rajasekhar Reddy is
in a quandary. Ever since he took over as the chief minister more
than a month, on May 14, more than 300 farmers have committed
suicides. This was the official death toll in the suicides register
till June 25. Unofficially, the death toll is estimated to be much
The spurt in farmers suicides, which unfortunately
has failed to move the state as well as the Congress-led Coalition
at the Centre, is the outcome of the utter neglect and apathy of the
erstwhile Chandrababu Naidu's government in Andhra, voted out after
nine years in power. The situation in several other states,
including the frontline agriculture states of Punjab and Haryana,
and even in the left-ruled West Bengal and Kerala is no better.
Thousands of farmers have ended their lives in the past few years.
What has meanwhile baffled the new government is that the spate of
suicides shows no signs of ending even after it announced a series
of routine packages - free electricity and more credit -- aimed at
relieving farmer's misery.
The package also includes an ex-gratia payment of Rs 1 lakh each to the next of the kin of the
deceased, and Rs 50,000 for a one-time settlement of the loans of
indebted farmers. The erstwhile government too had started paying an
ex-gratia grant of Rs 1 lakh to the affected families after suicides
were initially reported in 1997-98. After giving the assistance to
some 250 farmer families, the payments were stopped on the plea that
such an ex-gratia would prompt more farmers to take their lives. The
Congress, then in the opposition, had stepped in by collecting
donations for providing assistance to the grieving families.
Although the newly-elected government of Andhra Pradesh (and
followed closely by Tamilnadu) have moved in quickly by announcing
free power to farmers, what is more depressing is that the
governments are clueless of the reasons that forces farmers to
commit suicides. Nor is there any effort from the so-called
distinguished agricultural scientists, economists, and social
scientists to come out with proposals to put an end to this shameful
blot on the country's image. The reason is obvious. No one has the
political courage to point a finger at the real villain --
industrial farming model that shifts the focus on cash crops and
thereby plays havoc with sustainable livelihoods.
Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh was swept away by a tidal wave
of the angry farmers. The small and marginal farmers, in tandem with
the landless labourers, who constitute nearly 80 per cent of
Andhra's 80 million people, gave their verdict: the
industry-sponsored economic reforms are anti-poor. In Karnataka too,
where the farmers suicide rate is equally high, the over-emphasis on
technology had only alienated a large percentage of farming
populations from economic growth and development. Both the States
had relied heavily on the British consultancy firm, McKinsey India
Ltd., to draw the blueprint for economic reforms. In adition,
McKinsey's services are also being utilised by West Bengal for
re-designing the economic model of growth.
Blindly aping the
World Bank model of agriculture (as suggested by McKinsey India
Ltd.), Karnataka and Andhra had pumped in huge finances to push in
an industry-driven agriculture that has not only exacerbated the
crisis leading to an environmental catastrophe but also destroyed
millions of rural livelihoods. The biggest tragedy being that both
the States had turned into a national capital of shame for farmers'
distress, visible more through the increasing rate of suicides in
the rural areas. Making available cheap credit to these marginal
farming communities, as has been announced by the Finance Minister,
will not be helpful. What these poor and marginalised need
immediately is income support.
In reality, Andhra as well as
Karnataka were only making it smoother for the industry to move into
the rural areas. APs Vision 2020 document talked of reducing the
number of farmers in the state to 40 per cent of the population, and
did not have any significant programme to adequately rehabilite the
remaining 30 per cent of the farming population. The objective was
to promote the commercial interests of the agribusiness companies
(read foreign financial institutes and international bankers) and
the IT hardware units. All benefit would have accrued to these
companies in the name of farmers. In fact, these two sectors, along
with biotechnology, were being heavily subsidised in the name of
efficiency and infrastructure whereas the poor farmers were being
divested of the their only source of income - their meagre land
Andhra in reality was fast turning into a BIMARU
state (an euphemism for backward states). Thousands of farmers were
migrating every season looking for menial jobs in the urban centres.
Mofussil newspapers in the heartland of the cyberstate - that's how
Mr Naidu wanted the state to be called - were full of advertisements
inviting people to mortgage their gold and silver belongings.
Livestock deaths and the plight of dalits and other landless and
marginalised no longer adorned the headlines. Farmers were asked not
to produce more rice (the staple food) as the State had no place to
stock it. Farmers suicides had become so common that Mr Naidu had
actually sent team of psychetrists to convince them against taking
their own lives.
Believe it or not, daily wage workers in AP
can still be hired at a price that their counterparts in Bihar would
scoff at. And yet, the ignorent media despised the maverick
political leader Laloo Prashad Yadav for taking his state - Bihar -
to economic backwardness whereas Mr Naidu was showered by all kinds
of accolodes. Such was the extent and level of poverty that AP also
topped the country in the percentage of women entering prostitution
and trafficking. Mr Naidu on the other hand ignored the writing on
the wall and went about holding web conferences with his bureaucracy
much to the chagrin of the national media, which painted him as the
poster boy for economic reforms.
The Naidu model has failed.
It also means failure of the McKinsey's model of economic
development. To talk of 'Naidu Plus', as some economists have said,
indicates the level of arrogance among a school of economic thought
that refuses to see anything except the industry.
newspapers have already quoted the secretary general of the
Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), Mr
Amit Mitra as saying "economic initiatives in the IT and services
sector should be extended to the rural areas and to such industries
as food processing and rural industry". Unfortunately, the industry
refuses to accept that it was because of its own over-indulgence
that Mr Naidu paid a heavy price. In addition, the Confederation of
Indian Industry (CII) and the newly emerging biotechnology industry,
were the beneficiaries of the state's largesse in the name of
improving agricultural productivity and enhancing rural incomes. The
new government has focused on agriculture but refuses to look for
the real causes behind farmers distress. All its efforts are
directed towards convincing the markets that sensex will not be
allowed to slip any further.
The tragedy is that while the
farmers have delivered their verdict, the economists and policy
makers are not willing to accept it. The nation is not only clueless
but doesnot even want to know how to resurrect agriculture and
farming. This is where the politico-economy equations have gone
wrong, this is where the Indian democracy has reached superficial
heights. The CII and FICCI have already ensured that their breed of
economic thinkers and supporters are in each political party. The
tragedy therefore is that the policy directions between the ruling
party and the opposition has blurred. Both follow the same economic
prescriptions that have no connection with the ground realities. The
Congress-led coalition too will easily fall into the trap of pushing
for more economic reforms, and provide the same direction for the
agriculture sector that Mr Naidu falsy banked upon.
ground realities are far removed from the rhetoric and the
statistics that have bred immunity against compassion. We are all
part of a global food system, which perpetuates poverty and
deprivation. The food industry makes tall claims of nutritious diet
that it churs out, and millions are dying of obesity and related
problems. We make tall claims of improved technology for agriculture
by pushing stark realities of increasing indebtedness, growing
poverty, resulting human suffering and hunger from the public glare.
We are, therefore, in reality, the cause behind hunger and the
resulting farmers suicides.
Behaving like an Ostrich is
surely not going to eclipse hunger and death from the
politico-economic radar screens.
It requires policy makers,
agricultural scientists, academicians and even the civil society
groups to first accept the fundamental flaws that force farmers to
the gallows. And then it needs determination - both political and
scientific -- and there is no reason why farmers distress cannot be
turned into a scourge of the past. Economic gimmicks like announcing
free electricity and enhancing bank credit will otherwise continue
to force farmers to take the fatal route by drinking pesticides.
(Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based food and trade
policy analyst. Among his recent works include the book In the
© Copyright 2003 by The New Nation