Farmer’s Suicides

The recent spate of suicides that began in Karnataka in south India, part of a serial death dance that continues to enacted  in the provinces of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Punjab and Haryana, has failed to stir the nation. In the years to come, more and more farmers will take the only route available to escape the pangs of hunger following mounting indebtedness resulting from a shift towards commercial agriculture and liberalised import regime. 

Such is the growing indifference and hypocrisy that except for the routine formation of legislative committees, and by writing-off the outstanding loans, even the death of thousands of resource-poor farmers has not shaken up an ungrateful nation. Denials from the government notwithstanding, thousands of farmers have committed suicide since 1987 in the States of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Orissa, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and even in the frontline agricultural State of Punjab. Over the years, an unbridled growth in hunger and poverty has bred immunity against human compassion. Suicide deaths, therefore, have failed to evoke any strong reaction.
At a time when all national political parties are battling for survival, and with the political stalwarts engaged in protecting their own position of influence, the suicide epidemic has failed to snowball into a major politico-economic issue. The death of hundreds of farmers has, therefore, gone in vain. And in the bargain, what appears to be the greatest tragedy since the days of the green revolution continues to remain buried beneath official apathy.   

A majority of the cotton farmers who died in Andhra Pradesh alone have left behind a family of five and an unpaid debt averaging Rs 60,000 to Rs 80,000. Except in Punjab and Haryana, where the level of indebtedness is a little higher at Rs 1,20,000 or so, farmers in other parts of the country too have had outstanding dues not exceeding Rs 80,000 on an average. That no employee of the government or the private sector will ever consider ending his/her life at such a “meagre” level of indebtedness, is a pointer towards the stark realities that exists in the countryside.   

The unpaid debt that has been left behind by the unlucky farmers has actually accumulated over the years. Initially, all they may have required by way of farm credit may not have been more than a few thousand rupees. But the Indian
banking system does not recognise such low levels of micro-credit. As a result,
farmers are left with no choice but to seek the mercy of money lenders. And even if the banks were to extend credit to farmers through the cooperatives, defaulting at times of crop failure is no valid excuse.

Significantly, those who ended their lives by drinking pesticides knew that death was the only way to escape the humiliation that comes with being a defaulter. Expecting the government to posthumously write-off the outstanding dues against their names, they knew that such an extreme sacrifice will come as breadth of fresh air for their dependents. And that is the difference between human lives in South Asia and Southeast Asia. In Indonesia, the death of 500 protesters over a few days of demonstrations brought down the most autocratic of the regimes in the region. In India, the death of several times the number of farmers has not even resulted in the customary transfer of the concerned bureaucrats and officials.

Crop failure resulting from the resurgence of a dreaded crop pest, is certainly no provocation for an extreme step to commit suicide. And yet, hundreds of farmers have sacrificed their lives unable to reap the benefits accruing from increasing commercialisation of Indian farming. And behind the mounting death toll hangs the sordid tale of perhaps what could be classified as India’s biggest scam. 

Feeding the farmers: Fifty-five years after the Indian farmers pulled out the perpetually hungry millions from the clutches of ‘ship-to-mouth’ existence, it is now their own turn to be fed. To stave off starvation among the farming community, the Tamil Nadu government in south India, launched in January a free mid-day meal programme for the small and marginal farmers, agricultural labourers and their families.

The tragic and shocking reversal of the role – feeding the farmers who have been feeding the country all these years – is the result of the culmination of national policies that have neglected agriculture and farming in the wake of globalisation and economic liberalization. Tamil Nadu’s courageous decision to provide free noon meal to farmers and their families will soon trigger a domino effect, with many more States announcing similar programmes for farmers in distress.

For a country, which has 600 million farmers and another 200 million agricultural workers, the cost of faulty economic liberalization has just begun to show. Withdrawing the State support to agriculture and farming, and increasingly leaving farmers at the mercy of the monsoon and the markets, the national policies were in reality being drawn to shift the national resources for the benefit of only the business and industrial houses. Successive governments, since the noted economist Dr Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister made the blunder of buttressing industry at the cost of farming in 1991, have only exacerbated the crisis by moving the scarce resources to bolster the industry. While agriculture continued to be neglected, industry continued to receive tax-holidays, cheaper credit, highly subsidized land, and excise duty relief.

An ungrateful nation ignored agriculture. In fact, some pro-liberalisation economists led the assault on farming saying that it is not the poor farmers who needed adequate infrastructure, cheap credit, an assured market, and a remunerative price but the small percentage of rich industrialists, business and trade that needed to be showered with the State exchequer. The result is that while the non-performing assets of the nationalized banks in India grew to Rs 100,000 crore (Rs 10,00,000 million)  – you cannot call it bank fraud, as it has been performed by the rich — with many individual industrialists defaulting the banks to the tune of Rs 500 crore (Rs 5000 million), the recovery of outstanding dues from small and marginal farmers continued to be in the range of 85 per cent. “Tough love”, isn’t it? Tough for the poor and hungry, and love for the rich and the elite!
Agriculture credit became a low priority, with some committees suggesting withdrawl of credit support to farmers. Credit for housing and buying a car is available at 9 to 11 per cent rate of interest while the crop loans to farmers fetch a hefty interest of 17 per cent. In reality, farmers were worse-off with almost 60 per cent of them depending upon the private moneylenders. The more the poverty levels, the more the rate of interest. In the infamous Kalahandi belt of Orissa, better known for hunger and starvation, I know of farmers who receive loans from private money-lenders at a stupendous interest rate of 460 per cent. In neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, the rate of interest varies from 160 per cent to 250 per cent and in Jharkand, tribals in Palamau district pay back at a phenomenal interest rate of 130 percent.   

Farmers defaulting the banks and private moneylenders (with petty outstanding dues) were hauled up and put behind the bars. Thousands of the farmers in distress preferred to commit suicide rather than to be faced with humiliation that comes along with indebtedness. On the other hand, the industrialists who defrauded the banks adorn the government committees and even head the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI). Erring farmers are put behind bars, following a draconian law that was enacted during the days of the British Raj. Between 1904 and 1912, the British had framed Public Demand Recovery Act, under which farmers could be jailed for defaulting the State for a paltry sum. So much so that even the jail expenses were to be borne by the farmers. Former Agriculture Minister, Nitish Kumar, had asked the State governments (since agriculture is a State subject) to repeal the obsolete law but such is the callous apathy that none of the State governments even cared to respond to the letter. This was in 1991. Since then, thousand of farmers have been sent to jail for their inability to pay back small loans.

Knowing well that the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is aimed at destroying the foundations of food self-sufficiency so assiduously built over the past three decades, the government merrily goes about dismantling the planks of food security and in the process driving millions of farmers from their meager land holdings to head for the urban centers looking for menial jobs. Agriculture instead is being assigned to the corporate and business houses. Government has no money to buy foodgrains from farmers, it’s fiscal deficit grows when farmers demand an increase of Rs 10 in procurement price (hike of Rs 10 means a burden of Rs 100 crore – Rs 1000 million), but doesn’t even flinch an eyelid while allocating Rs 140,000 crore ( Rs 14,00,000 million) for the agri-business industry for the next ten years.

The attack on the Indian peasantry is not only from the WTO but also from the genetic engineering industry, both of which work in close tandem. The entire scientific community (including the Indian Council of Agricultural Research) and the bureaucracy at the national and the State levels is being lined up to pave a way for the smooth entry of the genetically modified crops. Very conveniently diverting the national attention from the more pressing crisis afflicting the farming sector, agricultural scientists have joined the orchestrated campaign to bring in the GM crops keeping the country’s growing food need in the year 2030. On the other hand, there has not been a single effort by the nations’ agricultural research community to address the shameful crisis that continues to plague the countryside.

If only the effort that is being made to bring in the GM crops was directed to distribute the mountains of surplus foodgrains (exceeding 38 million tonnes at present) that rot in the open, a majority of the 320 million hungry people in India could have been adequately fed. If only the wasteful expenditure of Rs 100-300 crore  (Rs 1000 to Rs 3000 million) that goes into developing one GM crop, which has little or no advantage for farmers but is aimed at bringing more profits for the companies, had been utilized for helping out the farming communities, the country could have laid a strong foundations for an ‘evergreen revolution’.

Tamil Nadu’s decision to throw open the free meal centers, which provides lunch to 7.5 million school children, to farmers as well from the auspicious day of ‘pongal’ on January 15, is a loud and clear ‘wake-up’ call. Corporatisation of agriculture, privatization of water, and pushing farmers to face the vagaries of the market, is all aimed at driving out farmers from farming. Ironically, the world’s biggest private enterprise, considering that every fourth farmer is an Indian, is under a threat from privatization. Economic liberalization therefore is aimed at destroying the very foundations of the farming systems thereby paving the way for a corporate takeover of Indian agriculture.

But before we go any further, let us first take a look at the great saga of green revolution -what made this country emerge from the clutches of hunger and starvation.

Towards food self-sufficiency: Former Agriculture Minister, the late Mr C.Subramaniam sat huddled with his senior staff. There was tension in the air. Depending upon imported foodgrains coming from 12,000 miles away, and particularly when it came in driblets following US President Lyndon Johnson’s directive to “teach India a lesson”, was already humiliating enough. What worried Subramaniam was that the food stocks had reached such a precarious low that it was only sufficient to last for another two weeks and still worse, there was nothing in transit. “As a last resort, I told my officials and experts to identify the nearest food carrying ships on the ocean throughout the world. I said we would identify the nearest ships carrying wheat to other countries and appeal to the US President to divert it to India if other countries could wait for another six to eight weeks,” he had told this writer. 

This was in 1966-67, the critical year of drought when India imported 11 million tonnes of foodgrains. A year earlier, India had imported 10 million tonnes of foodgrains. It was almost at this time the Paddock brothers, often referred to as ‘prophets of doom’, concluded in their book Famine 1975 that by the mid-seventies at least half of India would be led to a slaughterhouse. Before 1947, Indian history was replete with famines, drought and food shortages. Between 1770 and 1880, as many as 27 food scarcities and famines were recorded. At least 20 million lives were lost in India in about 20 famines that struck since 1850.

Ever since the days of green revolution in the early 1970s, India has done remarkably well to keep the famines and acute starvations at bay. The seeds of Green Revolution were truly sown in the mid-60s. What followed next is already part of the contemporary history. India not only became ‘self-sufficient’ in food grains but also became a net exporter.

The famine-avoidance strategy that India launched had all the necessary ingredients that make for a sustained effort. In 1965, Agricultural Prices Commission was constituted with the basic objective of assuring fair prices for farm produce. The Commission, an autonomous body, works out the cost of cultivation for 22 agricultural commodities, and suggests a price to the Government that includes profit that should serve as an incentive to grow more. The administered price of wheat, for instance, was raised by 71 per cent between 1972 and 1981. Similarly, the price of rice was jacked up by 81 per cent during the same period.

Later to sustain the tempo of the rice revolution, the relative price structure was moved in its favour. In the early phase of Green Revolution, the price policy favoured wheat, but after the mid-seventies it was tilted in favour of rice. And for oilseeds and pulses, the reverse was put into action. Relatively high support prices were announced in the early 90s to make their cultivation profitable.

The biggest achievement of the Indian food policy, dependent more and more on buffer stocking and operational stock holding, has been the avoidance of famine-like conditions. It was with the basic objective of curbing consumption and ensuring an equitable distribution of available food supplies, especially in the deficit areas and among the poorer strata of society, that the Public Distribution System (PDS) was introduced. PDS supplies were also used for the ‘food for work’ programme as well as other anti-poverty programmes. At present, PDS covers more than 80 million families and the total foodgrains distributed through a network of 40,000 fair price shops accounts for over one-third of the total trade in foodgrains.

Dismantling food security: The restructuring of the Indian economy has shifted the focus to agri-exports. Cultivation of staple food is being replaced by cash crops, tomatoes in place of wheat, durum wheat (for bakery purposes) replaces wheat as a staple diet in Punjab and Haryana, flowers in place of rice, and so on. In the coastal areas, private enterprise is taking away the fish catch depriving the local communities of a livelihood and the only nutrition source. In Kerala, vast tracts of forests and paddy fields have been converted into rubber, coffee and coconut plantations. Every year, about 25,000 hectare of good paddy land is being diverted for non-paddy purposes.

The structural transformation is not only peculiar to Kerala alone. It is happening in almost all the states. Commercial crops is eating into the fertile land tracts meant for growing essential foodgrains, thereby making the states rely more heavily on the PDS. The diversion of good agricultural land, which in any case is limited, to commercial farming and even industries, is further restricting the ability to grow enough foodgrains.

The other strategy to destroy the strong foundations of food self-sufficiency is to withdraw from announcing procurement prices for agricultural commodities. The government then is under no obligation to purchase the surplus that flows into the mandis. Farmers would thus be left at the mercy of the trade and the market forces, and if the past experience is any indication it simply means rendering the farming community vulnerable to exploitation thereby threatening the country’s food self-sufficiency, so assiduously built over the past three decades. Millions of farmers will then abandon agriculture and move to the urban centers in search of menial jobs.

Prime Minister Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s call sometimes back to the State government’s to adopt the system of decentralisation of procurement of foodgrains and distribution was also designed with the underlying objective of dismantling the major plank of the country’s food security system. Addressing the State chief ministers’ at a conference in New Delhi on ‘WTO Agreement on Agriculture and Food Management’ in early 2002, Vajpayee was actually seeking political support, by exhorting the chief ministers to rise above party politics, for a “consensus action plan on some crucial imperatives.”

Stating that WTO and food management issues were central to the country’s agriculture and the national economy, the Prime Minister had spelled out an agenda for action, which in reality is nothing short of a recipe for disaster. “As a first step, we propose to restructure the Food Corporation of India (FCI). This year’s Budget has unveiled a new system of decentralised, State-level procurement and distribution. Instead of providing subsidised foodgrains from the Central pool, financial assistance will be provided to the State governments to enable them to procure and distribute foodgrains to below poverty line families at subsidised rates.”

What the Prime Minister did not specify was that the World Trade Organisation (WTO) makes it imperative for countries like India to knock down the procurement machinery. Accordingly, grains for the food buffer have to be purchased at the market price and the releases from the buffer (read FCI) have also to be at the market prices, except for those living below the poverty line. In the past two years, the government has tried to “restructure” the public distribution system as per the WTO norms by removing the “above the poverty line” (APL) families from being a recipient of the subsidised rations.

For the ruling coalition, the next stage in the process of dismantling the food procurement system is to “decentralise” it. The chief ministers rejected the proposal on grounds that they neither had the required financial resources nor infrastructure to procure, store and distribute foodgrains on their own. Punjab’s former chief minister, Prakash Singh Badal had argued strongly in favour of continuing the present system of procurement. Terming the decentralisation move as “impracticable and inadvisable”, he had warned against any change in the existing policy. “Rather, the government should play a more proactive marketing role in favour of farmers.”

Surprisingly, Mr Badal’s views found strong support from the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, Mr Chandrababu Naidu, who termed the decentralisation move as being “flawed”. Mr Naidu felt that the emphasis should be more on increasing FCI’s efficiency rather on decentralising procurement and distribution operations. Joining them were the chief ministers of Haryana, Kerala, Karnataka, Orissa and West Bengal. The chief ministers also viewed the WTO regime as a threat to the country’s agriculture even as the Prime Minister attempted to allay their fears over the issue.

What prompted the chief ministers to torpedo Prime Minister’s proposal was not only sensible economics but was also a fall-out of the political ground realities. Unlike the Prime Minister, who always tries to shift the blame for any faulty decision on his coalition members, the chief ministers do not have that escape route. Moreover, and obviously more importantly, chief ministers are aware of the rising dissent against the pro-WTO policies of the Central government. For the chief ministers, accepting a disastrous policy of decentralising the food procurement systems, would be like committing a political Harakiri.

Food procurement operations, linked to the announcement of assured prices for agricultural commodities, were the two planks of the ‘famine-avoidance’ strategy that India had adopted in the wake of the green revolution. Whether the economists like it or not, the fact remains that a combination of these policies helped India to emerge from the dark days of ‘ship-to-mouth’ existence. And why does the IMF, the World Bank and WTO oppose it? The answer is simple. India’s massive food procurement operations are coming in the way of the expansion of the food trade that the United States and the European Union are looking for. And if the US doesn’t find an assured food market in a country as huge as India, with one sixth of the world’s population, the chances are that its own agriculture will collapse under the artificial weight of its own federal subsidies.

Produce and perish: At the height of the paddy harvesting season in September 2000, hundreds of thousands of farmers in the frontline agricultural states of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, in northwest India, had waited for over three weeks before the government agencies were forced to purchase the excess stocks.  For three weeks, farmers sat patiently over heaps of paddy in the grain markets.  At least a hundred farmers, unable to bear the economic burden that comes with crop cultivation, preferred to commit suicide by drinking pesticides.  In Andhra Pradesh, in south India, there were no buyers for the five million tonnes paddy surplus.  Even in the poverty-stricken belt of Bihar and Orissa, in north-central India, farmers waited endlessly for the buyers.

Farmer’s suicides are perhaps a reflection on the breakdown of institutional safety nets, which in the past have cushioned the impact of agrarian crisis. The state government of Andhra Pradesh has publicly asked farmers not to produce more paddy.  In Punjab, the citadel of the green revolution, farmers are being asked to shift from staple foods like wheat and paddy to cash crops.  And yet, agriculture scientists want farmers to go on producing more foodgrains keeping the deficit projections for the year 2015 in mind. There appears to be something terribly wrong with the way the scientists, industry and the planners blindly support biotechnological breakthroughs in the name of feeding the world, whereas political masters in the developing world are actually asking farmers not to produce more. 

What lies ahead is frightening. Committed to the WTO, the government has in reality begun to remove trade barriers much in advance. Take the case of edible oils, the government has reduced the custom duties further thereby opening up the country for massive imports. From a position of strength, India has in the past decade turned into a major importer of edible oils regardless of the impact such cheap imports have had on the livelihood security of millions of oilseed farmers. With the blue revolution already sucked dry by the aquaculture industry, the yellow revolution in oilseeds turning colourless, and the white revolution under attack from the private dairy industry and cheap imports, all eyes are now set on dismantling the gains of the much-acclaimed green revolution. 

Consider the following situation: At the time of Independence in 1947, India had about five million farms. By the early 1980s, the number had risen to about 90 million, and the estimate is that there are now some 110 million farms in the country. Every fourth farmer in the world today is an Indian, and nearly half the country’s land is being utilised for crop production. Already the population has crossed the one billion mark. At the same time, India also has 20 per cent of the world’s animal population. Given the dismal nutrition standards, more than 320 million people, mostly women and children suffer from chronic hunger. And that too at a time when the grain silos are bursting at the seams.

The choice, therefore, is limited. The only viable path towards sustaining the natural resource base to satisfy the demands of the growing population for food and other agricultural commodities lies in enhancing the potential of domestic agriculture. A correct mix of policies, coupled with strategies that restore the shine in agriculture, is the answer to India’s food crisis. It requires location-specific technologies and production packages that meet the aspiration of a majority of the farmers owning less than 2 hectares on an average.

Try to wipe out every tear from the farmer’s eye, and they would do the rest. They have done it in the past, and they have the ability to feed the nation for future. #

(Devinder Sharma is a distinguished food and trade policy analyst. Among his latest work includes two books: GATT to WTO: Seeds of Despair and In the Famine Trap. Responses should be mailed at: [email protected] )

Leave a comment