relief package is a bureaucratic sham’
SAINATH, Rural Affairs Editor of The Hindu, speaks with
SHALINI SINGH about the agrarian crisis that's plaguing
1 – portions of which first appeared in September 9th 2006 issue
been working in rural India for the last 13 years. Was the PM's visit
to Vidarbha in June this year the first by a top-level leader to any of
the crisis-hit regions?
During the 2004 elections in states like Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka,
farmer suicides were the central issue. The UPA government came to power
on farmer anger against the existing governments, particularly that of
Mr Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh. A couple of months after that
election, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited some of the families affected
by the suicides in Karnul and Mehboob Nagar.
Vidarbha, the PM’s visit this June was the first time a top-level
leader was going to the affected families and listening to them. Neither
the agriculture minister, nor the Chief Minister had visited a single
household and sat with the villagers to find out what was happening.
So, why did they decide to visit the affected families only in
June this year?
normal process that governments go through in such a situation is “denial
as long as plausible”, until there's no escape. Now, the Union agriculture
minister was insisting that the number of suicides was “normal”
i.e. it wasn't above average, when his own government's data showed exactly
the opposite! It showed that suicides in Yavatmal district had doubled
every year from 2001.
was the NDA government's response to the issue?
Totally. When we talk about the government's response, it's also important
to see what has been the media's response. It's been appalling. It's very
good for us in hindsight to attack the government for its lack of response.
On Independence Day, PM Manmohan Singh mentioned Vidarbha in his speech
from the Red Fort. Has it shown in the editorial priority of the newspapers?
you had India Fashion Week in Bombay this April, over 500 accredited journalists
covered it. Less than six journalists from outside Vidarbha were in Vidarbha
that same week. According to the Fashion Design Council of India, maybe
0.2 percent of the Indian population uses anything approaching designer
wear. But you couldn't find one correspondent to spend one full week in
is a connection, by the way. The fashion models on the ramp were displaying
cotton garments. One hour's flight away the guys growing the cotton were
committing suicide. Surely that makes news? But it didn't.
are the suicides continuing even after the government announced the Rs
3,750-crore relief package?
it's a reflection of how completely irrelevant the package is to the lives
of the people. There's not a single central issue driving the suicides
that the package addresses. Most of the Rs 3,750-crore package is for
existing irrigation projects which have been in existence forever. If
all those projects were completed and functioning tomorrow, it would add
hardly three percent of irrigated land. Then, it doesn't even talk of
85 percent rain-fed farmers whose lands are un-irrigated. Secondly, what
are the causes behind the suicides and the agrarian crisis? The suicides
are only a manifestation of a much larger crisis. None of those causes
are addressed in the package.
what are the constituents of the package?
the irrigation projects, another element was a Rs 712-crore waiver. This,
by the way, was a waiver on the interest due and not on the loan amount
itself. The government makes it up to the banks. It just means that the
farmer is eligible for a new crop loan because the interest burden on
his old loan has been waived. But still the banks will not give him the
money because they'll say you've not increased the price of cotton, you've
not increased this guy's income. So how is it that the guy who couldn't
pay me Rs 10,000 back yesterday will pay me back Rs 30,000 tomorrow?
The farmer still has to pay back the principal amount of the first loan…
the farmer still has to pay back the principal amount of the first loan.
Even during the colonial Raj, there were periods when the government declared
karza-maafi (loan-waiver). But the present Indian government isn't willing
to do that.
What is the answer then? It’s definitely not relief packages.
But first, what are the problems?
country is in the middle of its greatest agrarian crisis since the Green
Revolution. For the first time in decades, the rate of growth of food
output is running well below the rate of population. Food production is
stagnating very dangerously. You're importing millions of tons of wheat;
per capita availability of food grain per Indian has plummeted sharply
almost to the World-War-years levels. The growth rate of agricultural
output is less than half of what it was in the 1980s, years, which were
already considered stagnant. Last year, the growth rate of agriculture
was 1.1 percent according to the Prime Minister, and according to the
Reserve Bank, even less.
does this talk of India Shining emanate from then!
comes from those for whom India is shining.
But that's for a very small number…
The other thing is that the inequality has grown as never before in our
history since the colonial Raj. Employment has collapsed completely. The
rate of growth of rural employment in the late 1990s was at its lowest
in our history since we started keeping data – 0.67 percent. Again,
compare that rate of growth in employment with the rate of population
growth -- a terrible situation. By the way, if you're a CEO or upper-middle
class person, this is the best country in the world to live in. If you're
at the bottom, sub-Saharan Africa is better for you.
past five years 10,000 farmers have committed suicide in Maharashtra,
Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala and, in August this year, the Supreme
Court (SC) issued notices to the Central and state governments to intervene.
redress is one option. But I have no idea what the SC will finally say.
The SC has already pulled up the government repeatedly on hunger deaths.
The Bombay High Court has slammed them on farmers suicides. The Government
of Maharashtra refused compensation to a farmer, H. Patil, whose father
had committed suicide. They said your father committed suicide because
of depression over your mother's death and it had nothing to do with debt.
Well, the wife had died 16 years back. The court pulled up the government
and compensation was given.
policy on agriculture is part of the larger packet of policies. Among
other things, thousands of farmers' children are dropping out of schools
because they can't afford education anymore. Health crisis is huge in
this country. It's the fastest growing component of rural family debt
in Vidarbha after consumption. Actually, not just there but nationwide.
commercialised education enormously in the last 15 years. It's more expensive
than it has ever been. The farmer isn't responding just to the price of
seed, it's the whole package! His farming is collapsing, his income has
fallen, his child is dropping out of college or school, his aged parent
is suffering from cancer and he can't afford treatment. He has mortgaged
9 acres of his land to pay his father’s hospital bills. He's unable
to get his daughter married because he can't afford it – Indian
weddings are tremendous financial burden on families. Then he has crop
failure. Then he gets a poor price. There's no hope of coming out of it.
The moneylender comes and humiliates him. That's the cumulative experience
that drives the person to the edge. It is not that he reads the newspaper
and says ‘Oh damn, seed prices have gone up by ten rupees, I think
I'll commit suicide' – it's not like that.
a time when salaries are at their highest in India, real wages of agricultural
labour have stagnated and farm incomes have plummeted. Studies by the
NSS (National Sample Survey) show how appalling the per-capita expenditure
of farms is today. The Monthly Per Capita Expenditure (MPCE) of a farm
household – say, an Indian household has five people, though rural
families have larger numbers -- is Rs 503. Less than what a meal in a
restaurant would cost. Now that Rs 503, which they spend on one person
in one month, breaks up as: 58 percent on food. If we take food, clothing,
fuel and footwear, 78 percent goes on that. These are not poor households.
This is an average household, including rich farmers. If you disaggregate
this, you'll find that there are millions of households in this country
whose monthly per capita expenditure is less than Rs 225. In their case,
food alone accounts for 65 percent.
Rs 503 figure shows that the rural family's expenditure on health is twice
of what it is on education. Spending on health is Rs 34, on education
Rs 17 – which is 50 paise a day. This is for the national average.
What about the Rs 225 household? India has the sixth most privatised healthcare
system in the world. And we are privatising it more, instead of concentrating
on public health. The rural poverty line is Rs 425. The families with
MPCE Rs 503 are Rs 70 above that. The average in states like Jharkhand,
Bihar, Orissa is even below the poverty line.
A suicide is a suicide. A farmer is a farmer. What are the ‘40
indicators' that decide whether a suicide falls into the category of 'farmer
modified it a bit now after the reportage on the issue. The whole definition
was organised in order to exclude and keep the list down – the numbers
they heard were, embarrassing. They said, there's a suicide here and there,
but these are not farmers…
Even then, is it not a problem? It’s a suicide after all.
argument would be and was: ‘Every society has a certain number of
suicides. And we don't think it is above the average.’
there no instances of farmer suicides in other parts of the country? Or
is it that they go unreported?
one would hear of them if we journalists did some work. Second, it's a
fact that some regions have seen much higher levels of suicides than others.
Every suicide has a multiplicity of factors. The police will write this
guy committed suicide because he fought with his wife – marital
discord. Factually, it's true. But facts don't always add up to the truth.
That guy has had three years of crop losses, he is in heavy debt, has
been beaten up by the money-lender and humiliated in the public square
by his creditors, he can't get his daughter married, his son has dropped
out of school... He gets drunk, goes home, fights with his wife and commits
suicide. And the reason written will be marital discord – a very
convenient way of ignoring the larger crisis pushing people to a particular
the farm suicides are a culmination of a process of despair, demoralisation,
and a complete loss of hope and faith. Most of the families in Vidarbha
don't even make appeals to anyone – the credibility of governance,
of the system, has never been as low in villages as it is today.
often, regions with a higher rate of suicide are where people have shifted
crop -- usually from food-crop to cash-crop. The rate of suicides is much
higher, nationally, amongst cash-crop farmers. Cash-crop prices are even
more volatile. Food-crop prices are low and they get little return on
it. But at the end of the day, if something goes wrong you can eat your
food-crop. You can't eat your cotton. At the very time that these suicides
are increasing, economists and the World Bank have been encouraging people
to switch to cash crops. The West has a vested interest – they wanted
to grow crops that don't grow in their climate. You can't grow pepper
in Connecticut, nor coffee in Scandinavia. So they want us to grow not
what's good for us but what they need at cheap prices.
heading for a gigantic food crisis in this country. In fact, we are already
there. Punjab and Rajasthan are seeing very high numbers of farm suicides.
I'm sure there are other regions that are experiencing them, but we haven't
heard enough about them. This is because we've spent ten years in denial.
talk a little more about the 'indicators'.
governments have been in denial about suicides, there have been all sorts
of ways to cover up the causes. In Andhra Pradesh, from 1998-2001, the
suicides were recorded as 'suicides due to unbearable stomach ache'. I
assure you that if you drink pesticide, you'll have a stomach ache. Hundreds
of suicides got covered up in this process, until we did two investigative
stories in 2001. Another way to keep the numbers down was to falsify the
definition of a suicide. Another favourite thing -- which is now being
done by inept journalists and corrupt administrators in Vidarbha -- is
‘they are all drunkards; this has nothing to do with the crisis'.
great Amarinder Singh of Punjab in 2003 told an interviewer, (he was willing
to admit there were 600 suicides in that year because the Akali government
was in power then) that most of these people were drunkards. There's a
problem with his argument -- if alcoholism was the source of peasant suicides
there would be no peasantry left in this country! Number two, it is very
cruel, inhuman and cynical. The issue isn't whether the guy is an alcoholic;
it is whether the guy is in debt. If I compare Vidarbha with Tamil Nadu
(TN), I would say that the alcohol consumption in TN is much higher than
Vidarbha. Then how come you're not getting huge reports of farm suicides
most cynical argument of all is, 'they are doing it to get the compensation'.
Farmers owning land worth Rs 4-5 lakh are killing themselves to get one
lakh compensation? This heartless argument has been perfected by Mr Chandrababu
Naidu. He used this argument to cancel compensation. What happened? Between
1998 and 2004, when there was not a paisa of compensation, during that
period, the suicides were highest.
each state, they've gone through the indicators differently. Maharashtra
had some 40-46 indicators. The local patwari would come with a list. The
first four or five are standard; name, age, sex, caste… then they
create the indicators to evade calling it a farm suicide. For instance,
the indicator would only take note of bank debt, not private debt. Now
in Vidarbha, the banks hardly give anybody any money. A guy might have
Rs 2 lakh private debt; he might have Rs 5,000 bank debt. Then the collector
will say, 'This is not a farm suicide, nobody commits suicide for Rs 5000'.
By saying we will only take note of bank debt, you've excluded thousands
the way, you had to have land in your name, for it to be a farmer suicide.
In India, the land is always in the old father's name till the last day.
The settlement is made later. The working farmer of the house is aged
48, the land is in his dad's name, he is 76. He's not doing the agriculture,
the farmer is. He's the working farmer of the house. If the situation
becomes impossible and he commits suicide, the government of Maharashtra
will not record it as a farm suicide.
are anyway excluded. They are not counted as farmers, they are counted
as farmers' wives, farmers' daughters. Women farmer suicides have been
extremely high in some regions like Anantapur in AP. If you had a fair
survey, you would end up with figures that would make you sick in the
stomach. After much criticism, the Maharashtra government has adjusted
some indicators. It's now being compelled to admit that if a person was
in a land-owning family, it's a farmer suicide. They've also agreed to
include women farmers, but they have not been doing it.
wrong with our agricultural policy and what needs to be done?
taking the direction of wiping out smallholding farming in favour of corporate
farming. That's what the decks are being cleared for. The Indian farmers
are the last surviving body of small farmers in the world. They're being
finished. The agricultural policy is one of calculated neglect and gutting
public investment in agriculture is negative. Second, in this year's budget,
sodas and small cars got cheaper, but agricultural inputs get costlier
and costlier. Agriculture policy has also encouraged uncontrolled growth
of cash crops. It has already landed us in a major food crisis, which
is developing into a gigantic one. It has no protection for the farmer
against the volatility of global prices. It's a violation of your democratic
principles. But also the agriculture policy is part of much larger policies
moving in the same direction. You cannot have a rotten overall policy
and have a good agricultural policy. Even if the relief package was very
good and the policies bad, relief would be temporary.
policies have also opened up large sectors of our economy to the intervention
of extremely profiteering corporations -- national and international --
without any defences or shock absorbers for the farmer. Our agriculture
policy has seen a sharp dip in the income of farmers. We haven't used
our import-export duty policy to protect the farmer against the dumping
of foreign cotton. Our overall package of policies, wrongly called reforms,
has contributed massively to this damage.
correctives: firstly, you have to restore development expenditures as
a share of GDP to at least the levels of 1991. Second, create a price-stabilisation
fund for agricultural output. We have a price stabilisation fund for petroleum.
Oil prices hit you; the government has a fund, which moves in to see that
the prices don't kill you. Have a price-stabilisation fund, a corpus of
money at the Centre and state for cotton or paddy or whatever. Third,
in Vidarbha's case, the government must honour its promise. The government
of Maharashtra was elected on the promise of procuring cotton from the
farmer at Rs 2,700 per quintal. After coming to power, instead of raising
it from Rs 2,200 to Rs 2,700, they actually cut Rs 500! And now it is
Rs 1,700. It implied a loss of
Rs 1,100 crore a year to the farmers. Many of us predicted at the time,
that suicides would shoot upwards and they did.
you have to go in for a debt waiver. What will you recover from people
who cannot pay? In the villages they say, 'recovery toh laash ka hoga,
paise ka nahi'. Having waived the debt to an extent, you must make available
new sources of credit to the farmer, otherwise how does he conduct his
farming? All farming, everywhere in the world is contingent on a certain
degree of credit. Then you’ve got to have public provisioning of
inputs, you've got to give seeds and pesticides at affordable rates to
the farmer, free if necessary in crisis areas. Then the Central policy
also has to use what powers are available to us within the WTO protocols,
to impose duties and to use variable tariffs. Then the government has
to intervene in the market to ensure a minimum price for the produce for
the farmer. These are some immediate solutions.