Farmers: The endangered Species- Economic Imprisonment Results in suicides

Pradeep Gawande
  Kheti kare so Mare, India Today( March7, 2001).The swelling ‘Register of Deaths,The Hindu (December 29, 2005)Farmers to sell kidneys to raise capital, The Times of India (Feb 2006) Media carries the tragic tales of two different entities namely India and Bharat. These different entities are otherwise heterogeneously yoked together in the name of patriotism and unity in diversity.   However, in terms of social and economic justice, national income distribution they are poles apart.
                Farmer’s leader Sharad Joshi who used to plough a coloumn in ToI titled ‘Bharat Speaks’ finds thousands of farmers speaking through their tale- telling   suicides. .Addressing a mahila rally at Amravati Joshi admitted that his state of mind being as confused as that of Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra and prayed  goddess Durga   for strength and vision. 
Son of soil, agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar ended his tour of district in Feb promising nothing serious except the age – old lip service.   Pitching agriculture into cricket and playing cricket into agriculture is something nothing less of Nero who was playing fiddle when Rome was burning.
Prior to Pawar’s tour his party poster-boy R. R. Patil appealed farmers here addressing rallies not to pay back loans borrowed from private moneylenders and instead trash them nicely.   Shiv – Sena – BJP combine took a out a rally – of – course a ‘ Mahamorcha ‘ ventilating vitriol against ruling government and exploiting the issue for political mileage and demanding nothing special.  
All said and done, the exercise does not go beyond the superficial dressing.   No serious treatment of the chronic disease is prescribed nor any operation for relief and cure.
                It was Royal Commissions’ observation that Indian farmers are born in poverty live in poverty and die in poverty.   This bitter truth was further confirmed by historic support of thousands of farmers to Shetkari Sanghatana and other farmers’ movements all over the nation.   However, as the spate of globalization began and winds of liberalization began to blow, Shetkari Sanghatana version changed.  The exaggeration of the brief for globalization went to extent of creating illusions such as that a remote village farmer Soanbai could sell her Jowar in global market and see the dollars dancing her homeward.   This is just a sample.  In short, globalization was stated to be the panacea for all ills of farmers.
                Three consequent years of drought and results are unending tale of farmer’s suicides. There appears no concern for the natural calamity as a collective responsibility even a state responsibility. Once upon a time it was khalistan movement that made daily news without fail.   Now its farmers that make news almost daily without fail by killing themselves. 
We have a government at center that has been graced by farmers with power dethroning the defaulter devotees of tortured Lord Rama. Yet the apathy for farmers remains the same.  
We are world’s largest democracy.  The full – fledged three-act-play ( nautanki) of democracy runs well.  Thanks to the farmers who unlike the urban   comfort – zone – dwellers take pains to cast their votes.   On the contrary comfort-zone-dwellers just remain at their sweet homes enjoying the holiday on polling day watching cricket match highlights on television or make it to their farmhouses at hill stations to realize the heaven upon earth. They believe in democracy however they don’t believe in taking pains for casting votes.   Strangely enough, yet they are ensured all that they deserve and even what they don’t deserve!  The robbed and helpless farmer gets pushed back ward from where he stood.   Compare his lot in last four five decades.  We would find that years back his lot was comparatively better. He was comparatively happy and healthy.  
Today we find the Farmers nothing but the endangered species caught in the inescapable cell of economic imprisonment.   He is not poor.  He has wealth in the form of land.  He has milk yet he cannot consume it.   In strict economic terms, it is the state of moneylessness. Money adequate enough to enjoy economic freedom does not reach him.  This is the crux.   He grows crops, sells them, pays debts and again borrows new debt.  The vicious circle continues denying him even a little freedom.  No breather.   Thus it is just a life sentence of economic imprisonment.  A vernacular proverb goes that you can act anything but not money ( sab soung chalata hai per paise ka soung nahi chalata ).   This is the basic reason that he is helplessly committing suicide,
                Varsity campuses are on record to have organized workshops on farmers’ suicides.   The comfort- zone-dwellers have their own prejudices and derive sadistic pleasure in analyzing and categorizing farmers’ suicides.  They classify them such as-debt-ridden, family worries, incurable chronic diseases, alcoholism and what not! Nobody bothers to compare farmers’ incomes, nutrition level and the quality of life.   Nobody wants to talk about his affected health, life expectancy. Under the burden of economic and multiple worries a 40-year farmer looks fifty five year old. The UGC is reported to have approved proposals and sanctioned money for so-called researches on farmer’s suicides. Paradoxically nothing comes the endangered farmers way. Son of soil Sharad Pawar finds cricket dearer and soothing than ugly agriculture and shabby farmers. Glamour has an edge over hunger.
The Raj looked down upon the native as a white man’s burden. A farmer is a parallel eyesore, a perfect equivalent of white man’s burden in independent India. Thus cricket is nothing but Sharad Pawar’s escapism rather than the identity crisis. Why does he not spare the portfolio to Sharad Joshi who holds it so dear and has all the way been struggling at the cost of his family and health and what not?
                Some intellectuals take trips to villages to satisfy their cacoethes – lonquendi in the guise of social reformers and prescribe farmers do and dont’s, moral and ethical lessons. Either a dose of spiritualism or an over dose of atheism, according to schools of thought they belong to.   They heap advices on farmers’ such as not to burst crackers in Diwali Period.  The fun is, it is the urban lot that burst crackers after every single four or six is driven or wicket is a claimed in cricket matches by their heroes.   Watching cricket matches is not a pass time or hobby, its a disease now.  And Sharad Pawar wants to spread it further into epidemics by building stadia. Needless to mention, bursting crackers these days is a distant dream for farmers. It’s long that they have forgotten such privileged luxuries. It can well be established from the statistics of sales in weekly markets at taluka places.   The same parameters can be applied to sales of liquor in villages. Farmers exploitation and undelivered due of economic justices is skillfully sidetracked.
                Our Prime Minister has over again reiterated the old story of equitable development and human face to it.  Thank god! Farmers don’t understand English language or else they would go mad with a humour called – Harshavayu.  He himself drove to his office on day one in an imported luxury car.  The advice to party men about code of ethics and simplicity from none other than Soniaji came much later.   Anyway, we should take our Prime Minister for granted for not only being a good economist but a kind-hearted human being too. Our last Prime Minister Atalaji was Carlyle’s Hero as Poet. However, his poetic insight did not reach the plight of farmers.   He found India was shining. The media black-magic did not work. To his great surprise the following election mandate was dazzling. We can expect Sardar Manmohan Singhji to know the ground realities and the seamy side and act before it is too late.
                The object of this paper is to play an eye opener for those at the helm of affairs and act as a communication gap bridge between the urban average middle class and farmers so that the prejudices can be shed mutually as it has unnecessarily been motivated as – salaried class vs farmers.   The shedding of prejudices on the part of urban intellectuals and shedding envy on the part robbed and hence poor farmer as he naturally compares his painful lot with the creature comforts and security they enjoy. This mutual bond of understanding will help throw the ball in court of those who are in planning process over the years.   Farmers don’t want PSU’s to be sold to private parties to ruin the workers.  But it’s the urban happy brother who should forward the hand for handshake.   In short, the trouble lies in planning.  And let me assert that the farmers are not committing suicides because middle class gets a fifth pay scale or a Collector gets chauffer driven car. The trouble is somewhere else.   And this is where communication is required.
                Farmer is victim of defective and visionless planning.  I have local metaphor for that.  I term it as milk cooker planning and milk cooker economy.   Years back there prevailed a popular trend of presenting a neither useful nor or ornamental pot called milk cooker.  It was so popular a trend that a wedding couple used to get even a couple of dozen milk cookers.   They were absolutely useless.  Hence landed even in latrines and finally in scrap.  For long the useless pot played its economic role.   Nobody except the manufactures of the pot benefited.   The closed sugar mills in Vidarbha where sugarcane can’t be grown and closed spinning mills at Daryapur in Amravati district and at Akot in Akola district are the glaring examples of milk-cooker economy and economic planning and vision.   The nearly 400 crore unwanted flyover at Amravati also is a glaring example of visionless planning.  This huge sum of money could well be used for some really necessary work.   Why haven’t those shouting for the back-log of Vidarbha struck it out so that the money could well be diverted to irrigation and water management. These instances are fairly reflective of the overall lack of vision and priorities in planning.   Today we are passing through a phase of- de – construct the old, re – built new and earn as much as possible.  This is the order of the day.   In short, India is under re-construction. You can’t build a strong nation by merely bringing up concrete jungles.
                Farmers have made this nation self – sufficient on food front. We can feed over a hundred crore population.  Yet millions starve. This has exposed all intellectuals. They are out of their pants.
There are several economic aspects of this issue that shall be dealt with in the course of time. The immediate object of this eassay is to express wearer best knows where the shoe pinches account of the first hand experience of the problem as I am a debt-ridden farmer having no other income source other than agriculture. I am a landlord hence not poor. However, I don’t have money. This is thus a farmer’s FIR.
Thus to define poverty we will have to get away from traditional parameters of economics. It is nothing but moneylessness.   And as money doesn’t reach farmer’s hands he is caught in the dark tunnel of economic imprisonment. And economic untouchability is another thing that he finds himself rejected as a leper. This is the reason that he is kissing death by committing suicide.
Money is the magnet that pulls goods around it.   Commodity does not travel from one place to another by means of transport. The magnet called money pulls it.
There are wonderful arguments about there being no money. For instance, the World Bank finances projects such as construction of nullah. The fun is, cement and steel required for constructions is produced in our nation, sand is ‘ours’, Water required for mortar is neither imported nor mineral. Labours are very much Indians.   The nullah is ‘ours own’, but we can’t undertake the work because we don’t have money and money finally comes from great grandmother -in law – WORLD BANK, great grand father in law IMF and the good Samaritan Uncle Sam.
                It would take some time to digest this maxim and interpretation, as it is new.  It is not absolutely new. Economists Milton Friedman, even Barbara Ward (in her book, Poor Nations) has a great deal spelt it out quite explicitly.   However, in Indian context where as the hold of tradition is much too fast, the openness to accept it would come taking its own time.  But it will come because ultimately it is India that has historically accepted many things that even the west would have found hard to accept and digest.   It is not socialism or communism but decentralization of capitalism. It is as simple as empowering the grampanchayat.  The farmer should be monetarily empowered to liberate him from the present economic imprisonment. Let him breath the fresh air of being a consumer so that Industry will grow. The goods won’t require to be sold in ‘ SALE ‘ after they get shop-soiled and old.   Even Bata footwears remain unsold and get offered in ‘SALE’ in less than an year with 50 % discount.  This is because farmer has no buying power.   Let us hope that our kind hearted Prime Minister Sardar Manmohan Singh and lawful economic Minister will cast look at villages through their bifocal glasses and do justice to farming community.
                We produce peerless mangoes such as hapus and other varieties but we don’t have money to consume them. Thus the Americans consume them because they have money. Isn’t this something funny? All quality fruits, food grain, dry-fruits are meant for Americans.   
                It simply wonderful that cotton fabric and garments are in fashion.  The prices of cotton clothes have gone up almost five to ten times compared to raw cotton prices.   However, besides the rise in demand raw cotton prices have come down.  Who will explain this?  Will the mainstream economist try to be sensible? Unfortunately trespassing their territory, they are busy prescribing condoms to their growing children. ( Swaminomics – in ToI )
                The phenomenon of SALE economy and sale market is the result of denying farmers power to purchase and his right to be a consumer.  Perverted consumerism of Amway genre at the cost of consumer’s health and environment is a bad thing.   However, the lopsided growth of it is deadly for the natural and healthy growth of market economy and ultimately industry.  In short, farmer stands as an economic untouchable in market economy, almost a leper.   Hence   suicides. The  advocates of globalization will find no bush on the sea shore to hide behind and put the clothes on. The ” Buddha of Welfare economics” perhaps deserves another Nobel for the art of euphemism and intellectual blackmail.
                I have long back underlined all this in my paper, “From Mahad Lake to Mineral Water : Economic Untouchability in  21st Century” (Oct 2000).   To do justice to the farmer we will have to alter the course from Jai Jawan Jai Kisan to Jai Kisan Jai Jawan for he is the breadwinner of the Nation in strict economic dimension and not emotional. Stop the, emotional blackmail, in the name of annadata and act. Enough is enough.
Published- Farmers’ Forum—VOL-6 No- July-    2006
Plot No. 1, Shriram Housing Society, Sambhaji Nagar, Amravati Ph. 9226592406,

Corporate invasion is in full swing, only people's power can overthrow it

The nation is under attack from multinational corporations. They are occupying space every where displacing the people and the state. Our life, livelihood and freedom are at stake. Governments are lying prostrate at the feet of corporate colonialism Wherever the masses are up in arms against it, the entire state machinary comes down heavily on them with a view to crush their voice and upsurge. Foreign companies and forces are operating here with no police or military force of their own. Instead, governments are working as their loyal security guards. Corporate invasion is manifold, from all sides and on all fronts.
During 15-16 years of corporate-led global economic regime, specially under the dictates of World Bank, IMF and WTO, the multinational corporations took over country’s industrial, service and finance sectors and are now engaged with full vigour to do the same with agriculture and retail also, the two most vital and largest job-providing sectors in Indian economy. The agriculture is under severe attack on four fronts. First, multicrop fertile farmland is being acquired on a large scale for setting up mega industrial projects and Special Economic Zones (SEZs) for the benefit of corporate giants. Second, free export-import of foodgrains and other farm produce is destroying the fabric of our rural and agrarian econmy and life. Government policies are designed so as to subsidise agri-business corporations at the cost of the lives of our farmers, who are thus forced to committ suicide. Third, agriculture has become unremunerative and loss-making as supply of inputs like seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, etc. are in the hands of big corporations, government subsidies are negetive, and minimum support prices of agricultural commodities are much below the total costs incurred therein. Fourth, in the name of launching second green revolution, India and US joint agreement—Indo-US Knowledge Initiative in Agricultural Research, Education and Training will completely hand-over entire farming to multinational corporations displacing millions and millions of farmers, and farm-related workers.
Retail is next to agriculture. Wal-Marti sation of Indian retail business is on the anvil. Retail provides bread to 40 million households and now their very survival is threatened due to the entry of domestic and foreign big corporate houses in this sector. Government is making conducive environment for them.
The state has succumbed to them but the people have not. It is really a healthy sign that people everywhere are opposing on their own the establishment of corporate enclaves. They are spontaneously getting united and are providing leadership to protest movements. More or less, they have identified their first immediate enemy-multinational corporation Multinationals should be forced to realise that it is now not safe to continue their operations here. This is possible if these grass-roots protest movements consolidete and converge into a nationwide mass movement against corporate colonialism. They have the tested and tried weapons-weapons of non-cooperation and civil disobedience. Farmers, small retailers and youths should come forward and take the lead in this new freedom movement

403 farmers commit suicide over five years in Gujarat

New Delhi, October 11: As many as 403 farmers committed suicide in Gujarat in the last five years. Junagadh district topped the list with 85 suicides in the state.

The data was furnished by the Gujarat Government to an application filed under Right To Information (RTI) Act by activist Bharatsinh Jhala.

The data informed that there were 62 such cases in Rajkot, followed by 50 in Jamnagar and 48 in Mehsana.

The applicant sought details on the number of farmers suicides in the state where floods had devastated the life and property in 2005, 2006 and 2007.

As per the data, 36 farmers have ended their lives in 2007 itself, Jhala told reporters.

He said he filed the application when he found “discrepancies” in the information provided by the government and a survey conducted in various villages by him along with some NGOs.

“The survey presented a grim picture of the farmers who were reeling under the debt even as the state initially maintained that there were only 148 deaths in the entire period,” he said.

“Our study indicated that the farmers were committing suicide due to cost production exceeding the returns specially when agriculture is the sole source of income,” Jhala said.

He added that the information through RTI substantiated his fears.

The other reasons were non-availability of cheap and ready agricultural credit, lack of investment in rural social infrastructure like health, education, transportation in the context of lack of alternate sources, he stated.

More than 3000 participate in Global Vigil for Farmers on Gandhi Jayanti

Even as the United Nations declared October 2nd as the International Day of Non-Violence, a unique event was unfolding around the world which was perhaps closer to Gandhi’s principles and actions. More than 3000 people including 1000 NRIs took part in “Our Food, Our Farmers” global vigil in 58 locations. Responding to the call for a coordinated global event by Association for India’s Development (AID), dozens of organizations participated and voiced their solidarity with the farmers and expressed outrage at the policies which are deepening the crisis. Remarkably, these vigils drew thousands from urban India and NRI community who are typically very distant from the realities of rural India, and they spoke out in a strong voice, “Thousands of suicides, hundred millions in distress – the farmers’ crisis is unacceptable!”

In New Delhi, 2 days of street plays Connaught Place, Dilli Haat and other popular locations were followed by a Photo Exhibition on the evening of October 2nd visited by hundreds of people. AID-Delhi volunteers were joined by activists from Mehdiganj (UP), a few farmers from Vidarbha and Tamil Nadu and a large farmers’ group from AP who were on a dharna. The vigil at Hyderabad saw the participation of about 40 organizations. “We are all with you!” was the simple message to the farmers from a large crowd of IT professionals and students.

In all, 18 locations in India conducted various events like rallies, marches and candlelight vigils. Many organizations and individual activists have been enthusiastic partners, including Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, Bhumi, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Bharat Uday Mission and Youth for Social Change. Eminent citizens and experts on agriculture including Devinder Sharma, Prof. Arun Kumar, Dr. Ramanjaneyulu, Kavitha Kuruganti, Kishor Tiwari and others spoke at various locations.

In the US, about 1000 people participated in candlelight vigils held in 39 locations including cities such as Seattle, San Diego, Bay Area, New York and Washington DC, as well as university campuses such as such as Cornell, Univ. of Texas, Univ. of MD, West Virginia University and so on. Besides events at common locations like public parks, Gandhi statue and university commons, the organizers also used more unusual strategies to attract attention of NRIs such as gathering outside popular Indian restaurants and marching from one Indian grocery store to another one. One 65-year old visitor from Chennai informed AID volunteers, “Though I have lived all my life in India, I didn’t realize the magnitude of the problem until I heard you today.” Participants also reflected on their own consumer choices: “Why should food be cheap?  People who farm need to make a living too. We want a 99 cent lunch but what is the big picture of this 99 cent lunch?”

Even as the organizers are deeply moved by the continuing spate of farmer suicides – 836 in Vidarbha alone in 2007 – they strongly believe that the underlying causes need be addressed to find a long-term solution. Eminent journalist P. Sainath, who was awarded the 2007 Magsaysay Award, says, “The tragic farmers’ suicides are, finally, an extreme symptom of a much deeper rural distress. The result of a decade-long onslaught on the livelihoods of millions. The crisis now goes way beyond the families ravaged by the suicides.”

The government policies in the past fifteen years have consistently removed support structures for Indian farmers while promoting unsustainable, high-input agriculture which farmers, especially in dry areas, cannot afford to practice. The petition circulated as part of this campaign has been supported by several thousand signatures and demands genuinely pro-farmer policies from the government. The demands include strengthening the minimum support price system to cover the real cost of production, waiver of debt and proactive support to low-input sustainable agriculture especially in rainfed areas.

Here it must be mentioned that developed countries such as US heavily subsidize their agriculture. It is estimated that nearly 25,000 cotton growers in America receive $3.2 billion subsidy per year, which affects the cotton prices world over. If the American government can act for its farmers, why is the Indian government allowing our farmers to kill themselves?

The organizers say, “The amazing response to this event which was proposed just 3-4 weeks ago, has proved that the farmers’ suicides and the underlying agrarian crisis stirs the conscience of people around the world. At a short notice, thousands of people who never participated in such events came out to voice their concern. Are the governments ready to listen and take the right action?”

The follow-up measures by AID volunteers include meeting policy makers with our demands and memoranda, building advocacy collaborations with activists, experts and resource organizations, and promoting sustainable agriculture practices through AID projects. We invite broad sustained support and involvement from all concerned citizens, especially those inspired by this effort.

Farmers Vigil Locations


United States India
Atlanta, GA New Delhi
Austin, TX Kolkata
Baltimore, MD Hyderabad
Baton Rouge, LA Bangalore
Bay Area, CA Mumbai
Berkeley, CA Jaipur
Bloomington, IN Chandigarh
Boston, MA Nagpur
Buffalo, NY Pune
Chicago, IL Cuddalore
Cleveland, OH Bhubaneswar
College Park, MD Chennai
College Station, TX Paralekhamundi, Orissa
Dallas, TX Bhopal
Fairfax, VA Kanpur
Gainesville, FL Kakinada, AP 
Gaithersburg, MD Jammu 
Harford County, MD Doda, J&K
Houston, TX  
Lexington, KY  
Los Angeles, CA  
Louisville, KY Netherlands
Madison, WI Amsterdam
Milwaukee, WI  
New York, NY  
Columbus, OH  
State College, PA  
Philadelphia, PA  
Pittsburgh, PA  
Portland, OR  
Princeton, NJ  
Redmond/Bellevue, WA  
San Diego, CA  
Santa Barbara, CA  
Seattle, WA  
Tempe, AZ  
Washington, DC  
Morgantown, WV  

Care for those who feed the nation

Our Food, Our Farmers, Our Agriculture

Mass Candlelight Vigil on October 2nd, 2007 to support Indian farmers and Agriculture

On 2nd October, several concerned citizens and groups across the world are coming together to remind the governments that agrarian distress is not to be ignored, that farmers’ suicides are continuing in an unacceptable manner in India and that farmers continue to reel under huge debt burden caused by rising costs of cultivation & living, unremunerative prices due to liberalisation and dismantled public support structures. 

As concerned and responsible citizens and members of the civil society, we request you to lend your solidarity to Indian farmers and our agriculture by joining us in a candle light vigil


if you are in Hyderabad please join us at

When:   Tuesday, October 2nd, 2007, 5.00 pm to 7.30 pm- Birth Anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.

Where:  Tank Bund, Near Secretariat, Hyderabad (exact location will be communicated in a subsequent mail)

In case you are not from Hyderabad, pls do sign up for a solidarity fast on that day ( or organise something in your own city/town/village. If you are from Delhi, join the event at Jantar Mantar (details on the AID website).

Why: Government of
India and state governments have completely failed to protect our farmers’ interests. Farmers in India are in extreme social and economic distress. With huge inflation and raising input costs but lesser and lesser price for their produce, Indian farmers are neck-deep in debts and are facing huge socio-economic distress. There are many state policies at the root of this situation that farmers are confronted with.

Goal: To let the Government know that we will not tolerate this injustice to Indian Agriculture and the farmers – this is also a message of hope to farmers that some farming community members in the state are finding solutions to the problems confronting them through collective efforts including on establishing ecological farming and that they should all join hands to combat anti-farmer policies. This is also to let the government and the farmers know that urban consumers and concerned citizens have not forgotten the issues confronting Indian farmers and their farming.

What can You DO?: Every one of us feels for this cause, so all of us should participate in the vigil. Please bring your candle and any appropriate posters/banners that you have, related to the issue.


Our Demands:

  • Ensure regular income support to farmers
  • bring back quantitative restrictions on imports and stop liberalised trade
  • ban GM seeds and chemical pesticides
  • promote & support ecological, agro-diversity based farming
  • prohibit the shift and use of agricultural land to non-agricultural uses including SEZs
  • say NO to corporate and contract farming
  • scrap the Indo-US Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture
  • debt relief to all farmers
  • make food security and food sovereignty a national development priority

Caring for those who feed the nation….. We do it because it is “Our Food, Our Farmers”. Hope to see you in the candle light vigil.


For more information, contact:


  1. Rakesh Kumar Reddy, Association for India‘s Development (AID): 98-854-9012
  2. Kavitha Kuruganti, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA): 93-930-01550
  3. Ramanjaneyulu G V, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA): 93-913-59702

Village for Sale: Farmers in Crisis

Over 25,000 farmers in India have committed suicide between 1990 and 2006, many of whom owed less than Rs.8,000, writes Jaskaran Singh.

(Inset): Sikh farmers in a village in Punjab. A farming crisis has led to a spate of suicides in this agriculturally rich state.
(Above): A Punjab village. Its outwardly calm exterior belies a severe economic crisis that has hit the farming community. (Photos: Amritsar Times)

Amid all the hoopla over India’s much vaunted economic reforms, a silent crisis has been stalking India’s rural hinterland. Amid the bright lights, glitz and glamour of India’s rising clout in IT and BPO, this is a much darker legacy of India’s economic liberalization that has received far less attention from India’s typically navel-gazing metropolitan-bound English-language media.

How many Indians are aware that as many as 25,000 farmers in India have committed suicide between 1990 and 2006? Many of them owed less than Rs.8,000 ($173). A majority of those who committed suicide were relatively young, below the age of 45 years. In many cases the families of suicide victims did not have enough financial wherewithal to arrange the last rites of the victims.

Andhra Pradesh has among the highest number of cases, over 9,000 farmer suicides from 1997 to January 2006. More than 3,000 have taken their lives during the past 22 months.

In the Punjab, there were 2,116 suicides between 1998 and 2005 according to official statistics. Non-government organizations quote much higher figures.

The farmer suicides are not confined to these two states. Maharashtra witnessed over 250 farmer suicides in Vidarbha district from June 2005 to January 2006.

Amid such misery comes the news that sometimes a whole village is for sale, lock, stock and barrel! Not one farm or house, but the whole village as a single lot.

So what is it that is driving whole villages to put themselves on the auction block?

When India became independent in 1947, the nation did not have enough food for all. It has come a long way since then, becoming the world’s second largest exporter of rice and fifth largest exporter of wheat. Agricultural exports account for 15 percent of Indian exports. Something must be terribly wrong if a third of the Indian population still goes hungry to bed everyday; farmers are still dying, not from starvation but from hopelessness. The money lender is not the only villain, government agencies and institutions are acting just as callously. Today, it turns out that the farmer cannot pray for rain and then hope; he finds that he cannot compete with global forces and the apathy of his own government.

So a Punjab village took the extreme step of putting itself for sale. In January 2001 Harkishanpura, a village in Bathinda district of Punjab took an unheard-of step. The village panchayat announced that the village was up for sale. Since then five more villages in the state — known as the food bowl of the country — are awaiting auction. What started as an isolated and bizarre case is now becoming a tragic and wider reality.

Not just in the Punjab. In December 2005, Dorli in Wardha district of Maharashtra made itself available for sale. “Dorli village is for sale” signboards were everywhere, and the message was painted on trees and cattle. It looked like a symbolic gesture, surreal, from a Kafka or Camus story.

In the Chingapur village in Yeotmal region of Maharashtra, the villagers organized a “human market” for the sale of kidneys and invited Indian President Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

In 2000, 22 peasants in the Kundoor district sold their kidneys to pay their debts.

In a neighboring village, Shivani Rekhailapur, banners read: “This village is ready to be auctioned. Permit us to commit mass suicides.”

Why do villages put themselves up for sale? Take the example of Malsinghwala, a tiny village in the Mansa district of Punjab. It is a collection of low brick buildings, a dusty road and fields. The village owes around Rs 70 million, of which Rs 25 million is to private moneylenders and commission agents. Jasbir Singh, the village sarpanch, says, “We are neck deep in debt. We are left with no other option but to sell of our land.” Each of the 4,000 residents has an outstanding debt of Rs 13,000. Of its 1,800 acres, about 1,150 are good for growing crops. Half of this land cannot be cultivated for lack of irrigation facilities.

More than 43.4 million Indian peasant families are deeply indebted. Small and medium peasants are the worst affected, but they are not the only ones.

Overall, the number of rural landless families is increasing. Farmers cannot ensure a secure livelihood for their families even after selling their valuables, land and body organs.

Devinder Sharma, a food and trade policy analyst, points out that harmful combination of chemical outputs with water-guzzling crops is responsible for the present predicament of the farmers.

In 2005, the Commission on Farmers’ Welfare, set up by the Andhra Pradesh government, concluded that the state was in “an advanced stage of crisis,” the most extreme manifestation of which was the rise in suicides among farmers.

Chaired by Professor Jayati Ghosh of Jawaharlal Nehru University, the commission concluded that the causes of the problems related directly to public policy and economic strategy at both local and national levels. Heavy burden of personal debt among farmers is the “most acute proximate cause of agrarian distress,” the commission said.

Why are farmers suffering from high indebtedness?
There institutional reasons are: (i) A steep rise in the cost of inputs; (ii) Volatility and often a fall in the price of produce (iii) Lack of proper agricultural advice and (iv) lack of access to formal lines of credit.

Farmers have been forced to pay more for their seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, water and power. At the same time, the price they’ve received for their crops at market has swung wildly and even fallen. Round this off with an inability to get bank loans and a sudden absence of proper advice from the state government on what crops to grow where, and farmers are on the fast track to ruin.

According to the Commission of Farmers’ Welfare, economic policy in India at central and state level “has systematically reduced the protection afforded to farmers and exposed them to market volatility and private profiteering without adequate regulation; has reduced critical forms of public expenditure and has destroyed important public institutions, and did not adequately generate other non-agricultural economic activities. “While this is a generalized rural crisis, the burden has fallen disproportionately on small and marginal farmers, tenant farmers and rural laborers, particularly those in drier tracts. The most extreme manifestation of the crisis is in the suicides of farmers.”

As the Punjab government gets ready for the second Green Revolution, planning to shift 33 percent of state’s total farm land to horticulture, corporate farming and organic farming in next couple of years, one wonders if Indian policymakers have learnt their lesson.

"King" Bt cotton stumbles…

On March 9th India celebrated the fact that, according to the latest figures released by Forbes magazine, more billionaires call it home than any other Asian nation, a honor held by Japan for the last two decades.

Being Indian that made me happy, but only so much. March also saw a spate of farmer suicides across the country, something that has been going on for a while in the nation’s rural villages, some worse affected than the others. In India, unfortunately, one becomes immune to the harsh disparities between the rich and the poor, but this contrast was a little too stark for me. The rich had just got richer and more numerous while desperate debt-ridden farmers were killing themselves by drinking the pesticides meant for their crops.

The official figure for the number of suicides in the past five years is about eleven thousand, and alarming as that is, the real figure, it seems, is much higher, closer to twenty thousand. Last July the Prime Minister toured the worst hit regions and announced a relief package of 37.5 billion rupees ($833 million). Out of this, about 22 billion rupees was to be spent on existing irrigation projects, but nine months later that has yet to happen. So the money meant for the farmers has yet to reach them and they continue to kill themselves in droves

The worst affected are the cotton growers, and the reasons for this are many – crop failure, lower price for their product, low import duty, drought, and lack of irrigation facilities – to name a few. But the main culprit, claim farm activist Kishore Tiwari, and others is a crop known as “Bt cotton.” The state government promoted this genetically modified and pricier (nearly double than the ordinary ones) cotton plant claiming that it would yield better results since it was resistant to pests (the “Bt” in the name refers to this attribute). The idea was that planting Bt cotton would reduce the need for harmful chemical pesticides. But that’s not what happened. Cotton crops were affected by disease every year. This sad state of affairs was pointed out back in 2002, but nothing was done. Hearing the promises of a higher return for their crop, many farmers had taken loans from private moneylenders at steep rates to buy seed and were devastated when the crop failed. But Monsanto, that international agriculture conglomerate that manufactured Bt cotton doubled it’s sales.

What happened next was typical: Panels of experts were set up, fingers pointed and causes explored. But all this was of little relief to the farmers who continue to live in wretched poverty even today, caught between the government, private Shylock-like money lenders, crop failure and drought. In one cotton growing state in Western India, Maharashtra; there was a suicide every six hours. As crops have continued to fail, year after year, farmers have no option but to borrow more money and fall deeper into the debt trap, a vicious circle that many are unable to break out of. In many cases, after they’re gone, their widows and children have no money even for their funerals – and they often inherit the debt.

It’s a desperate situation and no one seems to care. It grabs a headline every once in a while, politicians clash over it, committees are sent to the villages, but in the end, even if relief is allocated, it fails to reach the farmers, or to their widows who are left penniless and with no breadwinner for the family. Critics say that the government has not done enough, and more importantly, that it has contributed to the agrarian crisis by promoting a transgenic crop like Bt cotton, which has proved disastrous for the areas where it was grown.

At the crux of it, it’s the age-old scenario: A multinational company lobbies the government to switch to their technology, in the apparent interest of the masses. But in this case the government, for the vested interests of some, does not do it’s homework, it blindly implements a scheme; crops fail; farmers die; non-government agency advocates howl but – at the end – nothing happens.

The Indian government now reluctantly admits that the Bt cotton crop has failed. And some farmers, those who’ve survived, are giving up on cotton. But there are a variety of serious factors that still need to be looked into – higher prices for the produce and drought being two important ones. The ministry of agriculture on it’s website declares that: “Drought is a condition of moisture deficit sufficient to have an adverse effect on vegetation, animals and man over a sizable area.” It then goes on to add that drought is a management issue and can be avoided, it just fails to mention how this is all to be done. Needless to say, it does not even address the farmers’ issue.

How long this agrarian crisis will continue, is hard to say. The road looks long and hard for many Indian farmers. Even as I write this I wonder how many are contemplating suicide, driven to desperation, neck-deep in dept and abandoned by corrupt government officials. This, I say in sadness, is India too.

Posted by Gopika Kaul at 2:07 PM | Print this article