Farmer & Agricultural Labourers Suicides due to Indebtedness in the Punjab State — a pilot project of Sangrur and Bathinda districts

A Punjab Agricultural Univeristy report Farmer & Agricultural Labourers Suicides due to Indebtedness in the Punjab State — a pilot project of Sangrur and Bathinda districts, submitted to the Punjab government a few days back has sirred a political storm.
The survey report says that 2,990 farmers had committed suicide in two districts — 1256 in Bathinda and 1634 in Sangrur district — between 2000 and 2008. This report, more or less like a household census, is considered to be the first authentic survey of the spate of suicides among farmers and agricultural workers.
This report comes within a month of the Punjab government’s decision to fix a price for farmer suicides — Rs 2 lakh to the families of those farmers who have committed suicide in the past one year.
In Sangrur district, 738 farmers who took the fatal path to escape growing indebtedness, had an average outstanding debt of Rs 3.36 lakh per farmer. For another lot of 246 farmers who committed suicide for other reasons, the average outstanding amount standing against their name was Rs 79,935. As far as farm labourers are concerned, the average debt was Rs 70,036.
In Bathinda, the average outstanding due against farmers who could not sustain the growing indebtedness, was Rs 2.94 lakh. As many as 550 farmers belonged to this category. For another lot of 223 farmers who too committed suicide but for other reasons, the average outstanding debt was Rs 85,825. For the workers, the outstanding amount against their name was Rs 47,347 on an average. The report also provides a list of such households.
Meanwhile, another report in The Independent, London, says 1,500 farmers in Chattisgarh State have committed suicide. It blames crop failure and the falling water table to be responsible for the serial death dance. If this is true, I don’t see why the Punjab farmers, who are endowed with assured irrigation, have to commit suicide. That means lack of irrigation alone cannot be the reason. The PAU report blames growing indebtedness for the spate of suicides. Indebtedness comes from various reasons, and somehow I find we shirk from pointing to the real causes.
Reports about suicides in Vidharba belt in Maharashtra also ascribe it to lack of irrigation and distress sale of produce. While all this may be true, but I sometimes wonder why are we all reluctant to dig it deeper and find out the real causes that triggers indebtedness.

Devinder Sharma Groundreality

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1,500 farmers commit mass suicide in India

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Over 1,500 farmers in an Indian state committed suicide after being driven to debt by crop failure, it was reported today.

The agricultural state of Chattisgarh was hit by falling water levels.

“The water level has gone down below 250 feet here. It used to be at 40 feet a few years ago,” Shatrughan Sahu, a villager in one of the districts, told Down To Earth magazine

“Most of the farmers here are indebted and only God can save the ones who do not have a bore well.”

Mr Sahu lives in a district that recorded 206 farmer suicides last year. Police records for the district add that many deaths occur due to debt and economic distress.

In another village nearby, Beturam Sahu, who owned two acres of land was among those who committed suicide. His crop is yet to be harvested, but his son Lakhnu left to take up a job as a manual labourer.

His family must repay a debt of £400 and the crop this year is poor.

“The crop is so bad this year that we will not even be able to save any seeds,” said Lakhnu’s friend Santosh. “There were no rains at all.”

“That’s why Lakhnu left even before harvesting the crop. There is nothing left to harvest in his land this time. He is worried how he will repay these loans.”

Bharatendu Prakash, from the Organic Farming Association of India, told the Press Association: “Farmers’ suicides are increasing due to a vicious circle created by money lenders. They lure farmers to take money but when the crops fail, they are left with no option other than death.”

Mr Prakash added that the government ought to take up the cause of the poor farmers just as they fight for a strong economy.

“Development should be for all. The government blames us for being against development. Forest area is depleting and dams are constructed without proper planning.

All this contributes to dipping water levels. Farmers should be taken into consideration when planning policies,” he said.

This article is from The Belfast Telegraph

The dull days of White Gold

P Sainath , 08 Apr 2009

Across India, cotton growers make up the largest group of the over 180,000 farmers who committed suicide between 1997 and 2007. There’s nothing like an election to spur policy change, though, notes P Sainath.
08 April 2009 – They called it White Gold. In 1972, you could buy 15 grams of gold with what you earned from producing one quintal of cotton. In Vidarbha, for instance, you made Rs.340 for that quintal (long staple). And gold went at Rs.220 for 10 grams (Rs.330 for 15). True, the cotton growers were even then subsidising rich textile barons in Mumbai. They still do – a lot more, in fact. But ‘back then’ seems a lot better right now, relatively speaking.

By the 1990s, that trend had been reversed. From the 1970s to mid-1985, cotton was, as Vijay Jawandia calls it, “the poor man’s cloth.” Man-made fabric was all the rage. By the end of the 1980s, however, a growing bias towards natural fibre saw cotton emerge as the rich man’s cloth. All the big brand names were cashing in on cotton. Yet, cotton farmers in the poorer nations were doing worse. Corporations and traders were doing better. By the mid to late 1990s, obscene subsidies to cotton growers from the United States and the European Union were already pulling the prices downwards.

By 2005, you needed to sell five quintals of cotton to buy 15 grams of gold. By early 2008, gold was at Rs.12,125 for 10 grams, cotton at Rs. 2000 a quintal. You now needed to sell nine quintals of cotton to buy 15 grams of gold. The living standards of farmers in cotton-growing regions like Vidarbha had fallen sharply. Cotton prices and incomes were crashing, debt and cultivation costs soaring. The 2004 Lok Sabha polls saw a wave of farmer anger – and the BSP’s rise – bludgeon the Congress. The BJP-Shiv Sena alliance won 10 of the then 11 seats in Vidarbha.

But in the Maharashtra Assembly polls just months later, the Congress did better. It took 30 of the 66 seats from the region. True, Sonia Gandhi’s visit had a huge impact in this traditionally pro-Congress cotton belt. Turning down prime ministership further enhanced the respect she enjoyed there. But the Congress campaign captured voters with a single promise. It would raise the cotton prices – then Rs.2200 a quintal – to Rs.2700. That promise was to be betrayed just months after the polls – with terrible consequences.

In Maharashtra, cotton never received the support that sugarcane did. It was grown in poor regions by dryland farmers with far less political clout than the Pawars of western Maharashtra. As India embraced neo-liberal globalism, that clout waned further. On the one hand, cotton-growers were locked into the volatility of global prices. On the other, input costs were exploding. Local seed cost around Rs.9 a kilogram in 1991. By 2004, commercial seed had taken over and could cost as much as Rs.1,650 to Rs.1,800 for just 450 grams, thanks to Monsanto’s Bt cotton. State intervention later brought the price down to half that. But the damage had been done. And even today’s price of Rs.650-850 for less than half a kg is still many times higher than Rs.9 a kg. In Maharashtra, the State actively promoted the costly Bt seed, its own agency being a distributor. Huge sums also went to promoting it by using film stars as “brand ambassadors.”

Other inputs, fertilizer, pesticide, utilities like water and electricity, all saw a big rise in costs from the mid to late 1990s. Cotton covers about 5 per cent of cultivable area in India, but accounts for 55 per cent of all pesticides used. (That is in itself a huge problem with alarming long-term consequences for agriculture, environment and health as a whole.) With the massive spread of these, it is no surprise that most farmers taking their lives swallowed chemical pesticides to do so. They are so easy to access, perhaps far more so in this sector.

In Maharashtra, cotton has never received the support sugarcane has. It is grown in poor regions by dryland farmers with far less political clout than the Pawars of western Maharashtra.

Successive Indian governments did nothing to stop the dumping of subsidised U.S. cotton in this country. There are no duties on import of cotton today. India is the second biggest producer of what is one of the world’s most widely traded commodities. Yet between 1997-98 and 2004-05, we imported 115 lakh bales. That is, over three times the number we did in the preceding 25 years. This cheap imported cotton further devastated growers here. At the same time, like millions of other small farmers, they found bank loans harder and harder to access as rural credit shrank – by policy. Credit was increasingly diverted towards urban-metro consumption. Many farmers turned to moneylenders, ending up mired in debt.

While poor cotton farmers never developed much political and electoral clout, traders and textile barons did. Even if the barons were to pay a slightly better price – say an additional Rs.2 per metre of raw material went to the farmer – it would make a difference. It never happened.

By 2005, cotton prices collapsed. That’s when the Maharashtra government withdrew the Rs.500 per quintal “advance bonus” normally tagged on to the minimum support price (MSP) in the State. This saw the price plunging to Rs.1,700 a quintal. (Gold was at Rs.6,180 for ten grams.) Suicides in Vidarbha, already rising, shot up massively.

By September 2006, farmers in that region were killing themselves at the rate of one every six hours on average. The Vilasrao Deshmukh government had withdrawn the advance bonus in 2005 despite appeals from cotton growers, the National Commission for Farmers and many others. The next year, Vidarbha, indeed all of Maharashtra, recorded its worst rise in farm suicides ever. If the Deshmukh government could get away with that, it was because cotton had no strong lobby. Its electoral clout was feeble.

Across India, cotton growers make up the largest group of the over 180,000 farmers who committed suicide between 1997 and 2007. The cumulative impact of all these processes was crushing farmers locked into this model of production and into neo-liberal economics. In Vidarbha, for the first time ever, farmers grew more soybean than cotton as losses on the latter were killing them, literally.

There’s nothing like an election to spur policy change, though. In the run-up year to the polls, the Union government came through with its Rs.71,000 crore loan waiver for indebted farmers. In Maharashtra, the lion’s share of that waiver’s benefits went to just seven of the State’s 35 districts, none of them in the poor cotton-growing regions of Vidarbha and Marathwada. Most of them within the power base of Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar. And all this was about bank debt. Moneylender debt was not touched. Still, there was some relief.

The main loan waiver excluded those owning more than five acres. This penalised some of the poorest farmers. In unirrigated regions, even poor farmers tend to own more acres as productivity is so low. The government did respond to demands that dryland cultivators not be penalised for having more than five acres. After all, polls were now months away. The write-off that followed of Rs.20,000 for such farmers did help a significant group of growers in Vidarbha. And there was also some money that trickled down from even the awfully flawed packages.

Then came a healthy rise in cotton prices. The shifting of huge swathes of land in the U.S. to bio-fuel production pushed up prices last year. And a nearly 50 per cent rise in the MSP for cotton took the price to Rs.3,000 per quintal. In Vidarbha, it meant that about seven months of 2008 were the best period the region had seen in years. No basic problem had been resolved, but it brought some relief and reduced the stifling pressure. A pity it took so many deaths – and election year – for that to happen.

The rise in MSP to Rs.3,000 was also an admission of how disastrous the Deshmukh government’s torpedoing
the price to Rs.1700 a quintal had been. And the removal of that Chief Minister also won the region’s approval.

To what extent this helps the Congress in these Lok Sabha polls is hard to gauge. There is the BSP factor that is very real and could mess up all bets. (It played a big role in 2004, too. In four seats, the BSP polled far more votes than the margin of defeat of Congress-NCP candidates.) But the Congress faces less hostility than it did three years ago. Whether it can play that to its advantage is another question. And the long-term future of White Gold here is an even bigger one.

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P. Sainath is the 2007 winner of the Ramon Magsaysay award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts. He is one of the two recipients of the A.H. Boerma Award, 2001, granted for his contributions in changing the nature of the development debate on food, hunger and rural development in the Indian med

Farmers' demand for conditional cash transfer scheme is justified

By – P S M Rao

As politicians lend their ears only on the poll eve, those who are working for the cause of people too seek to bring in pressure during that time and try to articulate their demands. A similar exercise is seen in AP from the farmers’ associations and groups working for the betterment of the lives of the farming community.

Almost all the farmers’ unions in the state and some 100 NGOs working in the areas of sustainable agriculture have endorsed a manifesto for the farmers. The Centre for Sustainable Agriculture has articulated their demands in the manifesto, particularly for income support, a cash transfer scheme, to the farmers. The demands are interesting to examine closely not only in the context of the Telugu Desham taking up the proposal of Cash Transfer Scheme but also because they are relevant for the farming community all over India.

To ensure sustainable income and livelihood security, the farmers’ groups are asking for ensuring a minimum income to them through agricultural operations. Towards this end, they want the appointment, by the government, of an Income Commission as a statutory body that would examine the real incomes of the farmers every year and would come out with recommendation to ensure minimum income to support their life.
Income Commission to farmers

MS Swaminathan too is advocating for an arrangement like this. He wants the government to focus its attention in the regular budget for 2009-10 on appointing an Income Commission for farmers. Justifying his claim, Swaminathan argues that the recommendations of the 6th Central Pay Commission, which provide benefit to 4.5 million central government employees and 3.8 million pensioners, were not only accepted but were improved upon by the government. So, he suggests that the major political parties should commit themselves to establishing a Farm Income Commission which can go into the totality of the income of farmers from crop and animal husbandry, fisheries, agro-forestry and agro-processing, and suggest ways of ensuring a minimum take home income to farmers.

Reverting to the AP farmers’ demand, they want the proposed Commission should adopt a multi component approach. The components include: i) Remunerative prices should be fixed for agricultural produce. The pricing for agricultural commodities should be based on the real cost of production, that is through neutralising the effect of inflation. The minimum support price should be 50% more than the actual cost as recommended by the National Farmers’ Commission. The determination of support should be transparent and be announced before the beginning of the crop season. They also want a state-level agricultural costs and prices commission and a price stabilisation fund.
ii) Labour wage support should be provided for agricultural operations. It is ironic that the agricultural workers are unable get employment while the farmers are not able to afford agriculture workers due to increasing costs of living. The government should therefore provide input subsidy in the form of labour wages (up to 100 days in a calendar year) to the farmer to monetise the use of family labour or to pay external labour engaged on the farm in order to support both the farmers and farm labourers. The activities to be supported should include all agricultural operations, from sowing to harvesting. This can be operationalised on similar lines as NREGS, or by suitably increasing the number of days covered under NREGS and extending it to agricultural work.

iii) Steps should be taken to increase rural employment opportunities. This should be done through systematically promoting post-harvest operations and value addition enterprises at the village level; the net income of farmers can thus be directly increased. By promoting agriculture-centred small scale rural industry, the rural economy can be given a big boost, correcting the rural-urban imbalance and migration.
iv) There should be an arrangement for the social security measures like pension and insurance to the farmers and farm labourers.

Cash support to farmers
Finally, and more importantly, arrangement should be made for direct income support to farmers. Even after implementation of measures listed above, farmers are not expected to get living income. The direct cash support is, therefore, necessary. They want this support in the form of a fixed amount per family, given to all cultivators including tenant farmers. This direct cash support, together with other measures, should ensure that every agricultural family can maintain a fair living standard. This could be set at Rs 15,000 per family and revised every year by the Commission.

The farmers want support for sustainable ecological farming to ensure food security and livelihood support on a sustainable basis. Small and marginal farmers in many parts of India have achieved success through low-input sustainable methods which not only helped them but also boosted soil fertility.

Farmers want the government to promote sustainable agriculture to maximise the use of local resources. Farmers adopting organic/ecological farming should also receive financial support from the government for their own input use. They also want restrictions on agrochemicals that are banned the world over and a ban on GM crops till their bio-safety is proven beyond doubt. Also, they want support for research in organic farming, demonstrations by agricultural department on the success of organic farming and strengthening the farmers’ training centres in which the experienced farmers should be used as resource persons.

These demands of the farmers are not at all unreasonable, particularly for the direct cash transfer. This is because they are not asking for the support without working. They want to engage in farming activity and want support only to allow them to be in the profession; in other words they want a conditional cash transfer scheme.

In fact there have been repeated claims in the discourse on agriculture that farming on a small scale is not viable and as much as 50% of the farmers can be withdrawn from the occupation without affecting the total production. That means about 30 crore people are additionally depending on agriculture. Considering this to be true and, as many farmers are willing to come out of agriculture, where are the avenues of employment to them in the non-agricultural activity? If such employment is guaranteed, there is no problem, but it is impossible for the government to do so. It therefore should support the farmers and meet their reasonable demand including the cash support.

Besides this need, the bad state of agriculture in AP also calls for an urgent action to protect the farmers and farming. As many as 16 of the 32 districts identified by the central government as worst affected are in AP. As many as 1797 farmers have committed suicide in 2007 (2607 in 2006) – AP occupies the second place after Maharashtra in farmers’ suicides. Similarly, 82% of the farmers in the state are indebted and 66% to non-institutional sources, as per NSSO data. The input costs of farming have risen by 300% in the past five years and the prices of produce have not kept pace, leading the farmers into a crisis situation.

So, the cash support to 1.2 crore farmers of the state, which is estimated to cost Rs 25,000 crore or 25% of the state’s budget, is quite reasonable and warrants a serious consideration from political parties. In reality, the actual cost may be much less than this estimate because the government is going to save on the schemes of indirect support which are not found beneficial to the farmers. Even otherwise, this cost which should be treated as an essential social cost for the enormous social benefit of supporting the farmers will not be too much. Neglecting agriculture and avoiding timely measures will only lead to a catastrophic situation. After all, it was agriculture, as admitted by the UPA government, that saved India f
rom falling into a deeper economic crisis.