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‘The relief package is a bureaucratic sham’

P SAINATH, Rural Affairs Editor of The Hindu, speaks with SHALINI SINGH about the agrarian crisis that's plaguing rural India.

SECTION 1 – portions of which first appeared in September 9th 2006 issue of Tehelka

You've 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?

No. 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.

In 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?

The 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.

What was the NDA government's response to the issue?

Denial. 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? It hasn't.

When 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 Vidarbha.

There 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.

Why are the suicides continuing even after the government announced the Rs 3,750-crore relief package?

Because 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.

So, what are the constituents of the package?

Besides 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…

Yes, 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?

This 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.

Where does this talk of India Shining emanate from then!

It comes from those for whom India is shining.

But that's for a very small number…

Precisely. 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.

Over 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.

Legal 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.

The 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.

We've 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.

At 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.

This 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 suicide'?

They've 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.

Their argument would be and was: ‘Every society has a certain number of suicides. And we don't think it is above the average.’

Are there no instances of farmer suicides in other parts of the country? Or is it that they go unreported?

Firstly, 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 problem.

Generally, 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.

Very 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.

We're 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.

Let's talk a little more about the 'indicators'.

Because 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'.

The 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 in TN.

The 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.

In 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 of people.

By 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.

Women 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.

What's wrong with our agricultural policy and what needs to be done?

It's 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 of agriculture.

One, 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.

Our 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.

The 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.

Fourth, 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.

SECTION1 continues from the above September 9th article 1  

SECTION 2 continues

SECTION 3 continues   SECTION 4

Sep 09 , 2006
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The Kalaskar story is a distressingly familiar one in Vidarbha. Sonia Faleiro and photographer Vibhor Pradeep Chandra visit the region to encounter a tragedy that is a shame on the modern Indian nation
‘The relief package is a bureaucratic sham’
P. Sainath, editor, rural affairs, The Hindu, speaks to Shalini Singh about the agrarian crisis devastating homes across India

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