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India’s Agrarian Crisis


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 higher. 


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.


Mr N 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 holdings.


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. 


No wonder, 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.


The 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 Famine Trap. Responses can be emailed at: [email protected])


 

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