Farm suicides in Vidharbha crossed 400 this week. The Sensex share index crossed the 11,000 mark. And Lakme Fashion Week issued over 500 media passes to journalists. All three are firsts. All happened the same week. And each captures in a brilliant if bizarre way a sense of where India’s Brave New World is headed. A powerful measure of a massive disconnect. Of the gap between the haves and the have-mores on the one hand, and the dispossessed and desperate, on the other.
Of the three events, the suicide toll in Vidharbha found no mention in many newspapers and television channels. Even though these have occurred since just June 2 last year. Even though the most conservative figure (of Sakaal newspaper) places the deaths at above 372. (The count since 2000-01 would run to thousands.) Sure, there were rare exceptions in the media. But they were just that – rare. It is hard to describe what those fighting this incredible human tragedy on the ground feel about it. More so when faced with the silence of a national media given to moralising on almost everything else.
In the 13 days during which the suicide index hit 400, 40 farmers took their own lives. The Vidharbha Jan Andolan Samiti points out that the suicides are now more than three a day – and mounting. These deaths are not the result of natural disaster, but of policies rammed through with heartless cynicism. They are driven by several factors that include debt linked to a credit crunch, soaring input costs, crashing prices, and a complete loss of hope. That loss of faith and the rise in the numbers of deaths has been sharpest since last October. That’s when a government that came to power promising a cotton price of Rs.2,700 a quintal ensured it fell to Rs.1,700. A thousand rupees less.
When 322 of 413 suicides have occurred since just November 1, you’d think that is newsworthy. When the highest number, 77, take place in March alone, you’d believe the same. You’d be wrong, though. The Great Depression of the Indian countryside does not make news.
But the Sensex and Fashion Week do. “There is nothing wrong,” an irate reader wrote to me, “in covering the Sensex or the Fashion Week.” True. But there is something horribly wrong with our sense of proportion while doing so. Every pulse beat and flutter on the Sensex merits front-page treatment. Even if less than two per cent of Indian households have any kind of investments in the stock exchange here. This week’s rise does not just mark the highest ever. It makes the lead story on the front page. That’s because the “Sensex beats Dow in numbers game.” The strap below that headline in a leading daily reads: “Dalal Street’s 11,183 eclipses Wall Street.” It’s moved to 11,300 since then.
On television, even non-business channels carry that ticker at the right hand corner. Keeping viewers alert to the main chance even as they draw in the number of deaths in the latest bomb blasts. At one point, the mourning for President K.R. Narayanan was juxtaposed to the joys of the Nifty and the Sensex. The irony does get noticed but it persists.
The great news for Fashion Week lovers is that this year will see two of them. There’s a split in the ranks of the Beautiful People. Which means we will now have 500 or more journalists covering two such events separately. This in a nation where the industry’s own study put the Indian designer market at 0.2 per cent of the total apparel market. Where journalists at such shows each year outnumber buyers – often by three to one.
Contrast that with the negligible number of reporters sent out to cover Vidharbha in the depths of its great misery. At the LFW, journalists jostle for `exclusives’ while TV crews shove one another around for the best `camera space.’ In Vidharbha itself, the best reporters there push only the limits of their own sanity. Faced with dailies that kill most of their stories, or with channels that scorn such reports, they still persist. Trying desperately to draw the nation’s attention to what is happening. To touch its collective conscience. So intense has been their tryst with misery, they drag themselves to cover the next household against the instinct to switch off. Every one of them knows the farm suicides are just the tip of the iceberg. A symptom of a much wider distress.
The papers that dislike such stories do find space for the poor, though. As in this advertisement, which strikes a new low in contempt for them. Two very poor women, probably landless workers, are chatting: “That’s one helluva designer tan,” says the first to the other. “Yeah,” replies the other. “My skin just takes to the Monte Carlo sun.” The copy that follows then mocks them. “You’ll agree,” it says, “chances that the ladies above rub shoulders with the glitterati of the French Riviera are, well, a little remote.” It throws in a disclaimer, of course. “We don’t mean to be disrespectful … ” But “this is a mere reminder to marketers that a focus on customers with stronger potential does help.” That is an ad for the `Brand Equity,’ supplement of a leading newspaper group.
Nearly 5,000 shanties were torn down in Mumbai in the same eventful week. But it drew little attention. Their dwellers won’t make it to the French Riviera either. Those in media focus, though, might. Mumbai’s planned Peddar Road flyover, seen by some of the metro’s mega rich as hurting their interests, grabbed yards of newsprint and endless broadcast time. There was barely a word seen or heard from those whose homes were razed to the ground. Meanwhile, more and more people flee the countryside for urban India. Candidates for future demolitions. In the village, we demolish their lives, in the city their homes.
The smug indifference of the elite is matched by the governments they do not vote in, but control. When the National Commission for Farmers went to Vidharbha last October, it brought out a serious report and vital recommendations. Many of these have become demands of the farmers and their organisations. At its Nashik meeting in January, the All-India Kisan Sabha (a body with 20 million members) called for immediate implementation of the NCF report.
Instead, both the Centre and the State Government have sent more and more `commissions’ to the region. To `study’ what was well known and already documented. It’s a kind of distress tourism now. It just adds the sins of `commissions’ to those of omission.
The damage is not only in Vidharbha but across the land. Why is the Indian state doing this to its farmers? Isn’t farming, after all, the biggest private sector in India? Because being private isn’t enough. Ruthlessly, each policy, every budget moves us further towards a corporate takeover of agriculture. Large companies were amongst the top gainers from distress sales of cotton in Vidharbha this season. The small private owners called farmers must be sacrificed at the altar of big corporate profit. The clearest admission of this came in the McKinsey-authored Vision 2020 of Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh. It set out the removal of millions of people from the land as one of its objectives. Successive governments at the Centre and in many States seem to have latched on to that vision with much zeal. In some ways, the present United Progressive Alliance takes up where Mr. Naidu left off.
Where are those being thrown off the land to go? To the cities and towns with their shutdown mills. With closed factories and very little employment. The great Indian miracle is based on near jobless growth. We are witnessing the biggest human displacement in our history and not even acknowledging it. The desperation for any work at all is clear in the rush for it at just the start of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme. Within a week of its launch, it saw 2.7 million applicants in just 13 districts of Andhra Pradesh. And close to a million in 12 districts of Maharashtra. Note that the Rs.60 wage is below the minimum of several States. Know, too, that many in the lines of applicants are landed farmers. Some of them with six acres or more. In the Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh, a farmer who owned eight acres of paddy fields was a person of some status 10 years ago. Today, he or she, with a family of five, would be below the poverty line. (If that’s the case with landowners, imagine the state of landless labourers.)
If the State Government’s role in Vidharbha is sick, that of the Centre is appalling. Making sad noises is about as far as it will go. As the NCF report shows, much can be done to save hundreds of more lives that will surely otherwise be lost. But it avoids that path.
Its vision of farming serves corporates, not communities. And the media elite? Why not a Vidharbha week? To report the lives and deaths of those whose cotton creates the textiles and fabrics that they do cover. If just a fourth of the journalists sent to the Fashion Week were assigned to cover Vidharbha, they’d all have many more stories to tell.