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.

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