4,850 farmer suicides in last four years: VJAS

31 Oct 2008, 1749 hrs IST, PTI

NAGPUR: As many as 4,850 farmers have committed suicide during the four-year tenure of the Congress-NCP Democratic Front (DF) government in Maharashtra from 2004 to 2008, though the trend is on the decline, an NGO said today.
From 456 farmer suicides in 2004 to 660 in 2005 which grew to 1,886 in 2006, the number of suicides has gone down to 1,213 in 2007 and further dropped to 635 in 2008, Vidarbha Janandolan Samiti President Kishore Tiwari said in a release here.
Admitting that suicidal tendencies among farmers in the Vidarbha region was fast reducing, Tiwari said that mounting debts, crop failure and harassment from private money lenders had multiplied the problems of farmers in the region.
Meanwhile, three farmers committed suicide during Diwali. They were identified as Arvind Madhavrao Deshmukh (Lakhanwadi, Amravati), Narendra Gulabrao Panchre (Kohla, Nagpur) and Atul Shriram Kale (Kandhli, Wardha), the release said.

Technorati Tags: ,

Manufacturing food crisis

Walden Bello, the Nation

When tens of thousands of people staged demonstrations in Mexico last year to protest a 60 percent increase in the price of tortillas, many analysts pointed to biofuel as the culprit. Because of US government subsidies, American farmers were devoting more and more acreage to corn for ethanol than for food, which sparked a steep rise in corn prices. The diversion of corn from tortillas to biofuel was certainly one cause of skyrocketing prices, though speculation on biofuel demand by transnational middlemen may have played a bigger role. However, an intriguing question escaped many observers: how on earth did Mexicans, who live in the land where corn was domesticated, become dependent on US imports in the first place?

The Mexican food crisis cannot be fully understood without taking into account the fact that in the years preceding the tortilla crisis, the homeland of corn had been converted to a corn-importing economy by “free market” policies promoted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and Washington. The process began with the early 1980s debt crisis. One of the two largest developing-country debtors, Mexico was forced to beg for money from the Bank and IMF to service its debt to international commercial banks. The quid pro quo for a multibillion-dollar bailout was what a member of the World Bank executive board described as “unprecedented thoroughgoing interventionism” designed to eliminate high tariffs, state regulations and government support institutions, which neoliberal doctrine identified as barriers to economic efficiency.

Interest payments rose from 19 percent of total government expenditures in 1982 to 57 percent in 1988, while capital expenditures dropped from an already low 19.3 percent to 4.4 percent. The contraction of government spending translated into the dismantling of state credit, government-subsidized agricultural inputs, price supports, state marketing boards and extension services. Unilateral liberalization of agricultural trade pushed by the IMF and World Bank also contributed to the destabilization of peasant producers.

This blow to peasant agriculture was followed by an even larger one in 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect. Although NAFTA had a fifteen-year phaseout of tariff protection for agricultural products, including corn, highly subsidized US corn quickly flooded in, reducing prices by half and plunging the corn sector into chronic crisis. Largely as a result of this agreement, Mexico’s status as a net food importer has now been firmly established.

With the shutting down of the state marketing agency for corn, distribution of US corn imports and Mexican grain has come to be monopolized by a few transnational traders, like US-owned Cargill and partly US-owned Maseca, operating on both sides of the border. This has given them tremendous power to speculate on trade trends, so that movements in biofuel demand can be manipulated and magnified many times over. At the same time, monopoly control of domestic trade has ensured that a rise in international corn prices does not translate into significantly higher prices paid to small producers.

It has become increasingly difficult for Mexican corn farmers to avoid the fate of many of their fellow corn cultivators and other smallholders in sectors such as rice, beef, poultry and pork, who have gone under because of the advantages conferred by NAFTA on subsidized US producers. According to a 2003 Carnegie Endowment report, imports of US agricultural products threw at least 1.3 million farmers out of work–many of whom have since found their way to the United States.

Prospects are not good, since the Mexican government continues to be controlled by neoliberals who are systematically dismantling the peasant support system, a key legacy of the Mexican Revolution. As Food First executive director Eric Holt-Giménez sees it, “It will take time and effort to recover smallholder capacity, and there does not appear to be any political will for this–to say nothing of the fact that NAFTA would have to be renegotiated.”

Creating a Rice Crisis in the Philippines

That the global food crisis stems mainly from free-market restructuring of agriculture is clearer in the case of rice. Unlike corn, less than 10 percent of world rice production is traded. Moreover, there has been no diversion of rice from food consumption to biofuels. Yet this year alone, prices nearly tripled, from $380 a ton in January to more than $1,000 in April. Undoubtedly the inflation stems partly from speculation by wholesaler cartels at a time of tightening supplies. However, as with Mexico and corn, the big puzzle is why a number of formerly self-sufficient rice-consuming countries have become severely dependent on imports.

The Philippines provides a grim example of how neoliberal economic restructuring transforms a country from a net food exporter to a net food importer. The Philippines is the world’s largest importer of rice. Manila’s desperate effort to secure supplies at any price has become front-page news, and pictures of soldiers providing security for rice distribution in poor communities have become emblematic of the global crisis.

The broad contours of the Philippines story are similar to those of Mexico. Dictator Ferdinand Marcos was guilty of many crimes and misdeeds, including failure to follow through on land reform, but one thing he cannot be accused of is starving the agricultural sector. To head off peasant discontent, the regime provided farmers with subsidized fertilizer and seeds, launched credit plans and built rural infrastructure. When Marcos fled the country in 1986, there were 900,000 metric tons of rice in government warehouses.

Paradoxically, the next few years under the new democratic dispensation saw the gutting of government investment capacity. As in Mexico the World Bank and IMF, working on behalf of international creditors, pressured the Corazon Aquino administration to make repayment of the $26 billion foreign debt a priority. Aquino acquiesced, though she was warned by the country’s top economists that the “search for a recovery program that is consistent with a debt repayment schedule determined by our creditors is a futile one.” Between 1986 and 1993 8 percent to 10 percent of GDP left the Philippines yearly in debt-service payments–roughly the same proportion as in Mexico. Interest payments as a percentage of expenditures rose from 7 percent in 1980 to 28 percent in 1994; capital expenditures plunged from 26 percent to 16 percent. In short, debt servicing became the national budgetary priority.

Spending on agriculture fell by more than half. The World Bank and its local acolytes were not worried, however, since one purpose of the belt-tightening was to get the private sector to energize the countryside. But agricultural capacity quickly eroded. Irrigation stagnated, and by the end of the 1990s only 17 percent of the Philippines’ road network was paved, compared with 82 percent in Thailand and 75 percent in Malaysia. Crop yields were generally anemic, with the average rice yield way below those in China, Vietnam and Thailand, where governments actively promoted rural production. The post-Marcos agrarian reform program shriveled, deprived of funding for support services, which had been the key to successful reforms in Taiwan and South Korea. As in Mexico Filipino peasants were confronted with full-scale retreat of the state as provider of comprehensive support–a role they had come to depend on.

And the cutback in agricultural programs was followed by trade liberalization, with the Philippines’ 1995 entry into the World Trade Organization having the same effect as Mexico’s joining NAFTA. WTO membership required the Philippines to eliminate quotas on all agricultural imports except rice and allow a certain amount of each commodity to enter at low tariff rates. While the country was allowed to maintain a quota on rice imports, it nevertheless had to admit the equivalent of 1 to 4 percent of domestic consumption over the next ten years. In fact, because of gravely weakened production resulting from lack of state support, the government imported much more than that to make up for shortfalls. The massive imports depressed the price of rice, discouraging farmers and keeping growth in production at a rate far below that of the country’s two top suppliers, Thailand and Vietnam.

The consequences of the Philippines’ joining the WTO barreled through the rest of its agriculture like a super-typhoon. Swamped by cheap corn imports–much of it subsidized US grain–farmers reduced land devoted to corn from 3.1 million hectares in 1993 to 2.5 million in 2000. Massive importation of chicken parts nearly killed that industry, while surges in imports destabilized the poultry, hog and vegetable industries.

During the 1994 campaign to ratify WTO membership, government economists, coached by their World Bank handlers, promised that losses in corn and other traditional crops would be more than compensated for by the new export industry of “high-value-added” crops like cut flowers, asparagus and broccoli. Little of this materialized. Nor did many of the 500,000 agricultural jobs that were supposed to be created yearly by the magic of the market; instead, agricultural employment dropped from 11.2 million in 1994 to 10.8 million in 2001.

The one-two punch of IMF-imposed adjustment and WTO-imposed trade liberalization swiftly transformed a largely self-sufficient agricultural economy into an import-dependent one as it steadily marginalized farmers. It was a wrenching process, the pain of which was captured by a Filipino government negotiator during a WTO session in Geneva. “Our small producers,” he said, “are being slaughtered by the gross unfairness of the international trading environment.”

The Great Transformation

The experience of Mexico and the Philippines was paralleled in one country after another subjected to the ministrations of the IMF and the WTO. A study of fourteen countries by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization found that the levels of food imports in 1995-98 exceeded those in 1990-94. This was not surprising, since one of the main goals of the WTO’s Agreement on Agriculture was to open up markets in developing countries so they could absorb surplus production in the North. As then-US Agriculture Secretary John Block put it in 1986, “The idea that developing countries should feed themselves is an anachronism from a bygone era. They could better ensure their food security by relying on US agricultural products, which are available in most cases at lower cost.”

What Block did not say was that the lower cost of US products stemmed from subsidies, which became more massive with each passing year despite the fact that the WTO was supposed to phase them out. From $367 billion in 1995, the total amount of agricultural subsidies provided by developed-country governments rose to $388 billion in 2004. Since the late 1990s subsidies have accounted for 40 percent of the value of agricultural production in the European Union and 25 percent in the United States.

The apostles of the free market and the defenders of dumping may seem to be at different ends of the spectrum, but the policies they advocate are bringing about the same result: a globalized capitalist industrial agriculture. Developing countries are being integrated into a system where export-oriented production of meat and grain is dominated by large industrial farms like those run by the Thai multinational CP and where technology is continually upgraded by advances in genetic engineering from firms like Monsanto. And the elimination of tariff and nontariff barriers is facilitating a global agricultural supermarket of elite and middle-class consumers serviced by grain-trading corporations like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland and transnational food retailers like the British-owned Tesco and the French-owned Carrefour.

There is little room for the hundreds of millions of rural and urban poor in this integrated global market. They are confined to giant suburban favelas, where they contend with food prices that are often much higher than the supermarket prices, or to rural reservations, where they are trapped in marginal agricultural activities and increasingly vulnerable to hunger. Indeed, within the same country, famine in the marginalized sector sometimes coexists with prosperity in the globalized sector.

This is not simply the erosion of national food self-sufficiency or food security but what Africanist Deborah Bryceson of Oxford calls “de-peasantization”–the phasing out of a mode of production to make the countryside a more congenial site for intensive capital accumulation. This transformation is a traumatic one for hundreds of millions of people, since peasant production is not simply an economic activity. It is an ancient way of life, a culture, which is one reason displaced or marginalized peasants in India have taken to committing suicide. In the state of Andhra Pradesh, farmer suicides rose from 233 in 1998 to 2,600 in 2002; in Maharashtra, suicides more than tripled, from 1,083 in 1995 to 3,926 in 2005. One estimate is that some 150,000 Indian farmers have taken their lives. Collapse of prices from trade liberalization and loss of control over seeds to biotech firms is part of a comprehensive problem, says global justice activist Vandana Shiva: “Under globalization, the farmer is losing her/his social, cultural, economic identity as a producer. A farmer is now a ‘consumer’ of costly seeds and costly chemicals sold by powerful global corporations through powerful landlords and money lenders locally.”

African Agriculture: From Compliance to Defiance

De-peasantization is at an advanced state in Latin America and Asia. And if the World Bank has its way, Africa will travel in the same direction. As Bryceson and her colleagues correctly point out in a recent article, the World Development Report for 2008, which touches extensively on agriculture in Africa, is practically a blueprint for the transformation of the continent’s peasant-based agriculture into large-scale commercial farming. However, as in many other places today, the Bank’s wards are moving from sullen resentment to outright defiance.

At the time of decolonization, in the 1960s, Africa was actually a net food exporter. Today the continent imports 25 percent of its food; almost every country is a net importer. Hunger and famine have become recurrent phenomena, with the past three years alone seeing food emergencies break out in the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, and Southern and Central Africa.

Agriculture in Africa is in deep crisis, and the causes range from wars to bad governance, lack of agricultural technology and the spread of HIV/AIDS. However, as in Mexico and the Philippines, an important part of the explanation is the phasing out of government controls and support mechanisms under the IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programs imposed as the price for assistance in servicing external debt.

Structural adjustment brought about declining investment, increased unemployment, reduced social spending, reduced consumption and low output. Lifting price controls on fertilizers while simultaneously cutting back on agricultural credit systems simply led to reduced fertilizer use, lower yields and lower investment. Moreover, reality refused to conform to the doctrinal expectation that withdrawal of the state would pave the way for the market to dynamize agriculture. Instead, the private sector, which correctly saw reduced state expenditures as creating more risk, failed to step into the breach. In country after country, the departure of the state “crowded out” rather than “crowded in” private investment. Where private traders did replace the state, noted an Oxfam report, “they have sometimes done so on highly unfavorable terms for poor farmers,” leaving “farmers more food insecure, and governments reliant on unpredictable international aid flows.” The usually pro-private sector Economist agreed, admitting that “many of the private firms brought in to replace state researchers turned out to be rent-seeking monopolists.”

The support that African governments were allowed to muster was channeled by the World Bank toward export agriculture to generate foreign exchange, which states needed to service debt. But, as in Ethiopia during the 1980s famine, this led to the dedication of good land to export crops, with food crops forced into less suitable soil, thus exacerbating food insecurity. Moreover, the World Bank’s encouragement of several economies to focus on the same export crops often led to overproduction, triggering price collapses in international markets. For instance, the very success of Ghana’s expansion of cocoa production triggered a 48 percent drop in the international price between 1986 and 1989. In 2002-03 a collapse in coffee prices contributed to another food emergency in Ethiopia.

As in Mexico and the Philippines, structural adjustment in Africa was not simply about underinvestment but state divestment. But there was one major difference. In Africa the World Bank and IMF micromanaged, making decisions on how fast subsidies should be phased out, how many civil servants had to be fired and even, as in the case of Malawi, how much of the country’s grain reserve should be sold and to whom.

Compounding the negative impact of adjustment were unfair EU and US trade practices. Liberalization allowed subsidized EU beef to drive many West African and South African cattle raisers to ruin. With their subsidies legitimized by the WTO, US growers offloaded cotton on world markets at 20 percent to 55 percent of production cost, thereby bankrupting West and Central African farmers.

According to Oxfam, the number of sub-Saharan Africans living on less than a dollar a day almost doubled, to 313 million, between 1981 and 2001–46 percent of the whole continent. The role of structural adjustment in creating poverty was hard to deny. As the World Bank’s chief economist for Africa admitted, “We did not think that the human costs of these programs could be so great, and the economic gains would be so slow in coming.”

In 1999 the government of Malawi initiated a program to give each smallholder family a starter pack of free fertilizers and seeds. The result was a national surplus of corn. What came after is a story that should be enshrined as a classic case study of one of the greatest blunders of neoliberal economics. The World Bank and other aid donors forced the scaling down and eventual scrapping of the program, arguing that the subsidy distorted trade. Without the free packs, output plummeted. In the meantime, the IMF insisted that the government sell off a large portion of its grain reserves to enable the food reserve agency to settle its commercial debts. The government complied. When the food crisis turned into a famine in 2001-02, there were hardly any reserves left. About 1,500 people perished. The IMF was unrepentant; in fact, it suspended its disbursements on an adjustment program on the grounds that “the parastatal sector will continue to pose risks to the successful implementation of the 2002/03 budget. Government interventions in the food and other agricultural markets… [are] crowding out more productive spending.”

By the time an even worse food crisis developed in 2005, the government had had enough of World Bank/IMF stupidity. A new president reintroduced the fertilizer subsidy, enabling 2 million households to buy it at a third of the retail price and seeds at a discount. The result: bumper harvests for two years, a million-ton maize surplus and the country transformed into a supplier of corn to Southern Africa.

Malawi’s defiance of the World Bank would probably have been an act of heroic but futile resistance a decade ago. The environment is different today, since structural adjustment has been discredited throughout Africa. Even some donor governments and NGOs that used to subscribe to it have distanced themselves from the Bank. Perhaps the motivation is to prevent their influence in the continent from being further eroded by association with a failed approach and unpopular institutions when Chinese aid is emerging as an alternative to World Bank, IMF and Western government aid programs.

Food Sovereignty: An Alternative Paradigm?

It is not only defiance from governments like Malawi and dissent from their erstwhile allies that are undermining the IMF and the World Bank. Peasant organizations around the world have become increasingly militant in their resistance to the globalization of industrial agriculture. Indeed, it is because of pressure from farmers’ groups that the governments of the South have refused to grant wider access to their agricultural markets and demanded a massive slashing of US and EU agricultural subsidies, which brought the WTO’s Doha Round of negotiations to a standstill.

Farmers’ groups have networked internationally; one of the most dynamic to emerge is Via Campesina (Peasant’s Path). Via not only seeks to get “WTO out of agriculture” and opposes the paradigm of a globalized capitalist industrial agriculture; it also proposes an alternative–food sovereignty. Food sovereignty means, first of all, the right of a country to determine its production and consumption of food and the exemption of agriculture from global trade regimes like that of the WTO. It also means consolidation of a smallholder-centered agriculture via protection of the domestic market from low-priced imports; remunerative prices for farmers and fisherfolk; abolition of all direct and indirect export subsidies; and the phasing out of domestic subsidies that promote unsustainable agriculture. Via’s platform also calls for an end to the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights regime, or TRIPs, which allows corporations to patent plant seeds; opposes agro-technology based on genetic engineering; and demands land reform. In contrast to an integrated global monoculture, Via offers the vision of an international agricultural economy composed of diverse national agricultural economies trading with one another but focused primarily on domestic production.

Once regarded as relics of the pre-industrial era, peasants are now leading the opposition to a capitalist industrial agriculture that would consign them to the dustbin of history. They have become what Karl Marx described as a politically conscious “class for itself,” contradicting his predictions about their demise. With the global food crisis, they are moving to center stage–and they have allies and supporters. For as peasants refuse to go gently into that good night and fight de-peasantization, developments in the twenty-first century are revealing the panacea of globalized capitalist industrial agriculture to be a nightmare. With environmental crises multiplying, the social dysfunctions of urban-industrial life piling up and industrialized agriculture creating greater food insecurity, the farmers’ movement increasingly has relevance not only to peasants but to everyone threatened by the catastrophic consequences of global capital’s vision for organizing production, community and life itself.

But in America we don’t have peasants. We’re all entrepreneurs. We’re all global capitalists in the local cupcake market. So we have no need to organize, or even think about globalization. We’re Americans. It’s great for all of us.

I guess it’s been pretty great for the Clintons, anyway.

Debt Waiver necessary but not Sufficient-Jadhav Committee

Kumud Das


The Narendra Jadhav committee, constituted by the Maharahstra government on various farmer-related issues, has said that debt-waiver cannot be a permanent solution to farmers’ woes. Also, the committee has pointed out a host of issues related to the scheme in the light of its implementation in Maharashtra and other related issues like farmers’ suicide and the cropping pattern in the state. The report, which has been submitted on July 29, has been sent to the Prime Minister’s Office in New Delhi as well.

Under the prevailing circumstances, the debt-waiver is absolutely necessary but not sufficient. It would be inappropriate to assume that the debt-waiver scheme would be the panacea for all the problems facing the agricultural sector, says the report.

The fundamental malady behind farmers’ indebtedness and distress is the uneconomical state of farming. As long as capacity and willingness towards repayment is not created among the farmers through medium- and long-term measures, the possibility of farmers receiving a debt-waiver and again getting back into the debt-trap, certainly remains, adds the report. In that case, the financial burden would have to be placed again on the state and the central government. No government can possibly afford to bear this vicious circle and therefore concerted efforts would have to be made to avoid getting into this vicious circle in the first place, suggests the report.

The government of Maharashtra had appointed a one-man committee in November last year under the chairmanship of Narendra Jadhav, vice chancellor of the University of Pune, to look into the grave phenomenon of farmers’ suicides’ in Vidarbha.

The distribution of land holdings across different regions of Maharashtra is highly skewed. In Vidarbha and Marathwada, landholding per farming family is much more than in Western Maharashtra. In respect of irrigation facilities, the situation is exactly the opposite: relatively low in Vidarbha and generally abundant in Western

Maharashtra. As a result, availability of bank credit facilities is much more in western Maharashtra than in Vidarbha. It follows that the absolute number of eligible account holders is much more in western Maharashtra than in Vidarbha.

Consequently, the suicide-prone Vidarbha is likely to receive significantly smaller benefits than western Maharashtra, says the report.

Also, the committee has proposed that the state government should extend the scheme backwards to cover all those farmers whose loans became outstanding before March 31, 1997. The short-term crop-loan extended during the year 2007-08 has become outstanding as on

For food security, farmer, not the scientist, should be our focus

By Bhavdeep Kang

Sops are easily handed out. Strategies for the empowerment of the small farmer are far harder to implement. Since 1967, the grey eminences who presided over the Green Revolution and its fallout— cancer epidemics, poisoned water and debt-drive suicides—have pushed agricultural policies that serve the interests of industry and hurt those of farmers.The discussion on food productivity focuses exclusively on quantity with quality given the go-by. That sustainable agriculture produces better quality food is beyond argument. The “NPK” approach to agriculture has failed; similarly, the calorie-count approach to food does not address the issue of nutrition.

The wheel has turned full circle and we must now look to the farmer instead of the scientist for sustained food production. Technological solutions alone, divorced from social and political structures geared to universal benefit, cannot deliver the goods. Instead of seeking a surplus to feed industry, we must economically empower the widest possible cross section of farmers.

A bag of urea will last the farmer one season. Cattle will last all his life. Urea alone will not assure a good harvest but it will degrade the soil, undermine crop pest-resistance and pollute the ecosystem. Cattle alone will not assure him a good harvest either, but it will improve soil fertility and crop pest-resistance, preserve the environment and provide him with food, fuel and power.


“Annadaata”, a respectful term for the farmer, recognises him as the basis of the nation’s food security. Contemporary governments, be it the UPA or NDA, are encouraging big business to usurp that role. The farmer, representing 58 per cent of the population but only 18 per cent of the GDP, is increasingly marginalised and distressed as the economy “matures.”

Electoral math dictates that agrarian distress cannot be ignored. After four years and 40,000 suicides, the crisis is addressed through an eye-poppingly large loan waiver, instead of structural reforms aimed at assuring farm livelihoods and adequate food stocks. This faux charity charms no one. Not only does it fly in the face of good governance, but fails to assure the majority its entitlements.

Sops are easily handed out. Strategies for the empowerment of the small farmer are far harder to implement. Since 1967, the grey eminences who presided over the Green Revolution and its fallout – cancer epidemics, poisoned water and debt-drive suicides – have pushed agricultural policies that serve the interests of industry and hurt those of farmers.

The result is commonly referred to as an “agrarian crisis”. Its socio-economic dimension, manifested in farmers’ suicides, has attracted international and perhaps because of that, national attention. The second aspect, the collapse of our food security, is only now beginning to worry policy-makers as grain prices go north.

Food security depends both on adequate food production and on its appropriate distribution. We have neither. Despite the mushrooming of fast food chains and the sheer abundance of processed foods in departmental stores, the unalterable fact is that we are consuming more food than we produce. The apparent glut underlines inequities in food distribution. The super-entitled middle-class fights obesity even as the poor fight hunger. More than half our children are mal-nutritioned and the majority of women are anaemic.

The total annual requirement of grain for the Public Distribution System is 75.6 million tones. As the Department of Food & Civil Supplies observed, PDS procurement is falling and offtake (and leakages) increasing. Despite this, multi-national corporations and their front companies are permitted to stockpile Indian grain.

The projected demand for food grains in 2010 is 270 MT, against current production of 216 MT. A 25 per cent increase in productivity, at a time when per unit yield is falling, begs a miracle. Expensive food imports are a poor basis for food security. What we need is food sovereignty.

The current shortage was predictable given that the four basic determinants of food production – soil, water, seeds and farming practices – are under unprecedented stress.

Land and water: Industry, urbanisation and resource-intensive agriculture thrive at the cost of cultivable lands and groundwater resources. Climate change, fuelled by industrial agriculture, has materially affected productivity.

Seeds: Traditional open-pollinated varieties have fallen victim to government policies aggressively promoting one-time use only hybrids and genetically modified (GM) seeds, without regard to health safety or bio-diversity. Farmers, instead of saving and improving their own seeds, are dependent on seed companies.

Farming practices: Capital-intensive “industrial” farming failed to produce yields comparable to those obtaining in the early 20th century! Farming based on Indian Traditional Knowledge Systems not only produces higher yields over the long term but is more importantly, environmentally sound and therefore sustainable.

But armchair opinion-makers, lacking interaction with genuine stakeholders, prescribe quick-fix technologies. Laboratory-engendered miracle seeds to boost productivity without depleting natural resources! This is precisely how the Green Revolution was presented, as a benign, scale-neutral technology based on “miracle seeds”. It was no such thing. Common resources were plundered to profit a few and all farmers now have to pay the price.

Even if miracle seeds are developed, lengthy trials must be conducted to ensure that apparently innocent technologies do not have crippling side effects and introduce potent environmental threats. We dare not to promote the agricultural version of Thalidomide, the “safe” drug for pregnant women which resulted in horrifically malformed infants.

Interestingly, the discussion on food productivity focusses exclusively on quantity with quality given the go by. That sustainable agriculture produces better quality food is beyond arguement. The “NPK” approach to agriculture has failed; similarly, the calorie-count approach to food does not address the issue of nutrition.

A fifth determinant of food production is land ownership. The direct correlation between ownership and improved productivity did not escape our constitutional fathers, who paid lip service to land and tenancy reforms but did not follow through.

The wheel has turned full circle and we must now look to the farmer instead of the scientist for sustained food production. Technological solutions alone, divorced from social and political structures geared to universal benefit, cannot deliver the goods. Instead of seeking a surplus to feed industry, we must economically empower the widest possible cross section of farmers.

The first step is liberation. Not just from debt in the short term, but from the burden of high input or industrial agriculture, through the adoption of Low External Input Sustainable Agriculture (LEISA) systems. High cost of inputs like laboratory-made seeds, factory-made agro-chemicals, diesel and power-driven machines and pumps makes farming non-viable for the majority of farmers. Typically, industrial agriculture focusses on yields while sustainable systems promote crop diversity and nutritional self sufficiency at the farm level.

Critics of organic farming and other LEISA systems claim their productivity is low. But studies have established that LEISA produces higher net returns per unit of land, labour and capital, besides being far more energy efficient and environment friendly. In terms of ecological economics, there is no valid arguement against LEISA. However, these are knowledge and labour intensive systems and hence, do not benefit industry.

Structural reforms in agriculture – a changeover from industrial to sustainable farming – demand a shift in subsidies, away from the fertilizer companies and directly to the farmer, giving him the option of adopting modes of agriculture more suited to his needs. A shift in R & D and agricultural technology is also called for, geared towards the farmer rather than industry. Reform requires monitoring of credit flow so as to build the farming community’s asset base in the form of cattle, low-cost & clean fuel and energy systems and small-scale agri-processing infrastructure, instead of investment in one-time inputs.

To put it simply, a bag of urea will last the farmer one season. Cattle will last all his life. Urea alone will not assure a good harvest but it will degrade the soil, undermine crop pest-resistance and pollute the ecosystem. Cattle alone will not assure him a good harvest either, but it will improve soil fertility and crop pest-resistance, preserve the environment and provide him with food, fuel and power.

Investment in the standardisation and popularisation of low-cost rural technologies like bio-gas, non-conventional energy and drought energy based units – which, unlike “miracle seeds”, already exist – can render villages self-sufficient in power and fuel and boost small-scale industry.

A participatory as opposed to a top-down approach to agriculture alone can ensure sustainability. For instance, restoration of pastures is critical to animal husbandry and can only be achieved through community effort. Ask the farmer what he wants. Adopt empirical methods.

The current picture is grim. The farmer has not been merely economically undermined but socially and psychologically as well. He is no longer a desirable Pati in marriage and has come to regard himself as downtrodden. Small wonder the majority of farmers finds agriculture unviable and are looking for exit routes.

It is imperative to let the farmer reclaim his self-sufficiency and self-respect and the nation its food sovereignty. If Ms Sonia Gandhi and Mr Rahul Gandhi have the small farmers’ interests at heart, let them take a Gandhian view of agriculture.

(The author is a senior journalist and can be contacted at bhavdeepkang@yahoo.co.in)

Anatomy of a health disaster

By P Sainath

Janreddy’s family survived crop failure. But debts of Rs 300,000 to cover health costs have nearly destroyed them. Loans taken to cover health costs have been a major contributor to the debt-suicide cycle in Andhra Pradesh

Janreddy sat wracked with pain, a picture of ill health. “Why isn’t this man on his way to hospital,” we asked the neighbours crowding around his bed. “Well,” they said nervously, “we just brought him home from one. He was there for days. This family has already lost all its money on hospitals.”

Janreddy died hours after we met him. His daughter-in-law, who became a bonded labourer to keep the family afloat, will remain one till debts of Rs 500,000 are paid off. Over Rs 300,000 of that was incurred on medical costs. His wife, who donated one kidney to her son — both of his had collapsed — does any work she can find. The son, Narsi Reddy, confined to the house, has to drink only the purest water in a place where there is none. His medicines cost around Rs 1,000 a month.

The huge medical bills of this family of six were incurred despite the son getting free operations at the Osmania Government Hospital in Hyderabad. They had first gone to private hospitals for check-ups, a biopsy and other tasks. As the costs mounted they sold off land and cattle to meet them. That Narsi Reddy had sunk four borewells didn’t help. All of them failed. Crisis on their four-acre farm in Chelliagudam village of Nalgonda district saw Janreddy’s health also cave in. “They might just have survived the crop failure,” say the neighbours, “but their medical costs destroyed them.”

Health spending is amongst the fastest growing components of rural family debt. More so in Andhra Pradesh. For years, the state boosted the private sector in health, promoted corporate hospitals and pioneered the ‘user fees’ system in government ones.

“The Chandrababu Naidu government dismantled the public health system,” says M Geyanand, a leading doctor from Anantapur district. Dr Geyanand is also state president of the Jana Vignyana Vedika (JVV), a body that aims to promote popular science and the scientific temper. “Ninety per cent of patients who go to public hospitals are poor. When that system fails them, they turn to private ones at a huge price. Health costs often count for as much as 20-25% of the total expenditures of such households. And a single medical emergency can ruin them.”

A common thread running through the farmers’ suicides plaguing the state has been very high medical spending. Just five households affected by such deaths had health costs totalling around Rs 400,000. All of them farming families who held between half-an-acre and three acres of land (some of that mortgaged). Janreddy’s family has not seen a suicide. But it fits this profile rather well.

As do countless other poor households. Even last year, we ran into a farmer who had attempted suicide in the Nallamada mandal of Anantapur district. His friends managed to get him to a hospital just in time. The rescued farmer abused his saviours. The reason: The four-day stay and treatment in hospital cost Rs 45,000. “I tried to commit suicide because I could not pay debts of Rs 150,000,” he said bitterly. “Now I owe even more.”

Many of those who succeeded in taking their lives in 2004 had huge medical bills. P Hanumantha Reddy’s family in Nizamabad district owes Rs 200,000. The survivors of A Narasimhalu in Medak have to rustle up Rs 70,000 plus interest. The tab for K Shivarajaiah’s family in the same district is Rs 50,000. All this was money borrowed at absurd rates of interest.

“There is a link between the suicides and the crisis of health in Andhra,” says Dr Geyanand. “The collapse of the public health system is crucial. In any poor village, you can see people dying of diseases that should not kill them. Malaria is just one example. For years now, all their support systems have been slashed. The costs are so high, they run out of money halfway through treatment. Those who fall ill are selling land, gold, cattle and other assets to pay medical bills. They also take loans they can never repay.”

In the past decade, the little access the poor had to health sharply declined. So Gunala Kumar discovered when he had to fork out Rs 40,000 in medical costs to private hospitals in Medak. That remains a big chunk in his total debt of over Rs 200,000. A debt that caused him to take his own life in Meerdoddi village this month. Like his father who committed suicide last year.

“Maybe it is better to die,” says Yekalapu Husein of Shabuddlapur in Nalgonda. “How will we pay the fees they ask us to at these hospitals?” A toddy-tapper who suffered a fall from a tree while at work, Husein has run up huge bills himself. Then came his malnourished wife’s illness. His ‘medical debt’ now stands at Rs 200,000. “Even if we get free care at Osmania Hospital,” he laughs, “we do not have money for the bus fare to Hyderabad and back.”

In G Edavalli village in the same district, the local rural medical practitioner sold all his land to pay his own treatment costs of Rs 400,000 at a corporate hospital in Hyderabad.

In the years these dramas unfolded, public hospitals were starved of funds, medicines and drugs. Given Rs 600 crore by the World Bank for public health, the Naidu government spent this mostly on buildings. Very few doctors or nurses were recruited. The buildings now show decay for lack of maintenance. Naidu also authored a government ‘tie-up’ with corporate bodies. Under this, employees of the state went to corporate, not public hospitals. The government reimbursed their costs. This meant a windfall for those hospitals. It also meant many scams in the shape of inflated reimbursement bills. Meanwhile, health institutions in the public sphere suffered.

“The introduction of ‘user fees’ made health even less accessible to the poor,” says a senior IAS officer. The fees have since been withdrawn by the new state government. Also dumped was an idea of handing over some super-specialty departments of public hospitals to ‘private management’. That is, to corporate hospitals.

The damage, though, has been done. The medical costs of those who preferred death to debt still plague the living. We pass Janreddy’s wife at the bus stand, looking for any ‘coolie work’ she can find. There are, after all, bills to be paid.

This article originally appeared in The Hindu , July 1, 2004

(P Sainath is Rural Affairs Editor of The Hindu.  He received the A H Boerma Award, in 2001, for his contributions to the development debate in the Indian media. This article first appeared in The Hindu)

Budget 2008-09 Wolf in sheep clothing

By Dr. Vandana Shiva

Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, delivered his 2008-09, budget speech in Parliament on February 29, 2008 as revolutionary and path breaking and a solution to farmers distress. However, it continues on the path of trade liberalisation, corporate control and debt creation that has led to massive dislocation of farmers and the epidemic of farmers suicides. The budget is in fact a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Why are farmers committing suicide? The reasons are clear—rising costs of production and falling prices of agricultural produce. The government’s pride in announcing that agricultural credit has reached Rs. 2,40,000 crore by March 2008 hides the fact that more credit means more debt. Instead of promoting low cost sustainable farming systems based on principles of agro ecology, which frees the farmer of debt the government’s policy thrust is to continue financing high cost, non-sustainable agriculture, and hence a debt creating agriculture.

The highlight of the budget was the loan waiver of farmers debt to the extent of Rs. 60,000 crore. This is a mere four per cent of all bank loans. What happens to the remaining 96 per cent? And most farmers are indebted to money lenders, not to banks. The Finance Minister’s speech was totally silent on the private debt that farmers are victims of.

The Finance Minister referred to the loan waiver as “discharging a deep debt of gratitude to farmers”. However, the debt to farmers is far from discharged in the present budget. Farmers need fairness and dignity. All aspects of fairness and dignity for farmers are missing. Farmers are in distress because seed has been monopolised by corporations like Monsanto selling toxic Bt. Cotton to farmers on credit and trapping them in debt. Not a word in the budget addressed the seed rights and seed sovereignty of farmers or the need for action to prevent monopolies over seed, the first link in the food chain. The Finance Minister in fact announced tax exemption for the seed industry and equated a gene giant like Monsanto with small and marginal farmers. Nor did the Minister pay a debt of gratitude to farmers by announcing an increase in Minimum Support Prices (MSP). If the Finance Minister had announced for farmer run community seed bank, it would have been an indication that he understands the causes of the agrarian crisis and has some sense about real solution of farmers need.

The budget speech referred to the volatile global economy and its impact on domestic prices of wheat. Yet the government has continued to import high cost wheat, linking the food rights of the poor in India to a global casino economy based on betting on commodities future markets. The reference to the Prime Minister’s statement that “we are determined to become self-sufficient in food grain” becomes vacuous in the context of failure to increase MSP for farmers, and in the context of the governments continued preference to create markets for global MNC’s rather than our own farmers. Three vital elements for ensuring the nations food security and food sovereignty are-


Stopping wheat imports,

bringing back Quantitative Restrictions (Q.Rs)

scrapping the U.S India Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture which in effect is a plan to hand over control of India’s seed sector to Monsanto, domestic and International grain trade to agribusiness corporations such as Cargill, Conagra, Levers etc and the retail market to Walmart and Reliance.

The budget has been put forward when North India has had massive crop damage due to frost and floods. Yet the weather related crop insurance is a pathetic 50 crore. There is no anticipatory strategy for adapting agriculture to climate change. In fact the very systems of small scale, biodiverse, organic agriculture which will solve the problem of farmers indebtedness will also help small and marginal farmers adapt to climate change. And instead of mitigating climate change, the budget actually is a recipe for increasing emissions. The Minister made a commitment to continue and increase subsidies for chemical fertilizers, even though chemical fertilizers emit nitrogen oxides, which are 300 times more lethal than carbon dioxide. The Ministers reference to raising more loans from the World Bank for large irrigation projects portends threats of water privatisation as shown in all World Bank water sector loans. How much of the Rs. 20,000 crore irrigation budget is redressing of the failed River Linking Project was not clarified.

Over all, the budget is more of the same. It is the policy wolf that has created the agrarian crisis parading as a sheep offering rescue to our distressed farmers.

(The author is a respected social activist and founder director of Navdanya and can be contacted at vshiva@vsnl.com)

Exit Policy for Farmers

As India is dumped with cheap agricultural products, farmers are being squeezed out of their livelihood, putting the nation’s food security at stake
Devinder Sharma Delhi
When Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram said the other day that India could do with 20 per cent of the existing farmers, he was merely echoeing what the World Bank/IMF have been saying for long. No wonder, the government seems to be in a tearing hurry to lay out an ‘exit policy’ for farmers.
From food self-sufficiency to market economy, the world has come a long way since the days of Green Revolution. But some 20 years back with the World Bank/IMF clearly tying up credit under the structural adjustment policies with crop diversification, the agricultural policies began to change. It is now forcing India to shift from staple foods (crucial for food security needs) to cash crops that meet the luxury requirement of the western countries. In the process, India, like other developing countries, is being forced to dismantle state support to food procurement, withdraw price support to farmers, and relax land-ceiling laws that enable the corporate sector to move into agriculture.
As I flip through the pages of the World Development Report 2008, I realise how meticulously the corporate takeover of Indian agriculture has been planned. The language used in the report may be fancy and seductive, but the message it conveys is crystal clear. Amidst the talk of sustainable agriculture and restoring soil fertility, it actually talks of providing appropriate training to the rural population to move them out to the cities. It also talks of encouraging land rentals, and thereby moving the agribusiness companies to gradually take over farming. Contract farming, food-retail chains and corporate agriculture are the ways it suggests for making agriculture more competitive.
This reminds me of what a former vice-president of the World Bank and the then chairman of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), Ismail Serageldin, had warned way back in the mid 1990s. Addressing a conference at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai, he had quoted a 1995 World Bank study, which had predicted that the number of people migrating from the rural to the urban centres in India by the year 2010, which is not far away now, would be equal to twice the combined population of UK, France and Germany.
The combined population of UK, France and Germany is close to 200 million. In other words, 400 million are expected to be taking the distress migration route. It now dawns on me that the 1995 World Bank study was not intended to be a warning. It actually laid out a roadmap, that was subsequently strengthened in the annual reports from the World Bank. The World Development Report 2008 only takes us to the final step. With the process to exacerbate the exodus from the rural to the urban centres already in place, it now suggests setting up industrial training institute where farmers could learn to be factory workers.
Facilitating the process is the plethora of national policies that are either being amended or recast at a frantic pace. Ever since economic liberalisation was ushered in 1991, every policy worth the name is being either amended or recast. Whether it is the seed policy, water policy, biodiversity policy, forest and tribals policy, environment policy, biotechnology policy, trade policy, food safety policy or the kisan policy, the underlying objective is crystal clear – pave way for private control. As far as agriculture is concerned, the policies framework is to facilitate the entry of the agribusiness industry.
Let me illustrate. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had sometimes back addressed a full meeting of the Planning Commission. He had stressed on a speedier amendment of the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Act to “allow for contract and free marketing, organised retailing, smooth flow of raw materials to agro-processing industries, competitive trading and adoption of innovative marketing system,” so that these are in tune with the demand of the domestic food industry. This move is also aimed at integrating Indian agriculture with the global economy, something that is spelt out by the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
By simply tinkering with the food management system, so assiduously built over the years, the government allowed private companies to make purchases directly from the farmers. The result: unwarranted wheat imports – touching 55 lakh tonnes in 2006 and another 35 lakh tonnes in 2007 – basically aimed at dismantling food self-sufficieny, the hallmark of national sovereignty. More importantly, wheat imports are coming at a time when there is no shortfall in its domestic production. Within a matter of few months, India has turned into world’s biggest importer of wheat.
Not only the Planning Commission, the prime minister has also been holding brain-storming sessions with the chief executives of key industries and stakeholders. No wonder, the Indian industry and business is upbeat at the potential of agriculture (read agribusiness). What, therefore, repeatedly comes out is the urgent need to invest Rs 1,50,000 crore in the next 10 years to provide a boost to the agro-business industry so as to achieve an annual growth rate of 10 per cent in food processing. Isn’t it strange that while there is no money for bailing out farmers in distress, there are no dearth of resources for the agri-business industry?
While the negative impact of WTO Agreement on Agriculture has not been studied in full, the government is preparing to enter into still more exploitative trade treaties with the Asian countries. The Free Trade Agreement that the government is contemplating to sign with the ASEAN countries puts four of India’s major commodities – oilseeds, tea, edible oils and pepper – on the chopping block. India has promised to further reduce the import duties thereby turning the country into a dump yard.
Setting up a time-bound National Food Security Mission by enhancing production of wheat, rice, pulses and edible oils comes at a time when the government itself is lowering the custom tariff, thereby allowing cheaper imports. Take the case of edible oils. India was almost self-sufficient in edible oils in 1993-94. Ever since the government began lowering the tariffs, edible oil imports have multiplied turning the country into the biggest importer. Small farmers growing oilseeds and that too in the rainfed areas of the country had to abandon production in the light of cheaper imports.
Liberalisation of the farm sector has already seen import surges. Agriculture commodity imports have gone up by 300 per cent between 2000-2004. Coconut oil imports for instance increased from 7,291 metric tonnes in 2004-05 to 22,307 metric tonnes in 2005-06. The import of pepper similarly increased from 2,186.3 tonnes in 1995-96 to 17,725.3 tonnes in 2004-05. These are not isolated cases. Imports of spices and plantation crops, including tea and coffee have been on an upswing. Importing food commodities is like importing unemployment.
A Indo-US agriculture technology cooperation is being put in place without first ascertaining the reasons behind the terrible agrarian crisis, much of it is the result of imposing environmentally-unfriendly alien technology, as the government embarks on the faulty promise of a ‘second’ green revolution. Coming at a time when the commerce ministry is on a fast track to bring in Special Economic Zones, the Indian industry is moving ahead to set up ‘rural hubs’ that will displace a large population of farmers. Fertile land is being increasingly acquired for industrialisation and real estate.
Privatisation of mandis, opening of food retail trade to foreign direct investment and pushing aggressively the highly controversial ‘contract farming’ is part of the agricultural reforms being undertaken. Budgetary support to the states undertaking such reforms has already been spelt out. In the name of increasing food production and minimising the price risks that farmers continue to be faced with, encouraging contract farming, future trading in agriculture commodities, land leasing, forming land-sharing companies, direct procurement of farm commodities and dismantling the procurement system have little or nothing to do with revitalising agriculture.
It is certainly time for farmers to exit agriculture. With farmers already disappearing from the US and with EU fast keeping pace, it is now India’s turn. What is, however, not being realised is that with cheap agricultural products swamping India, and with farmers being deliberately pushed out of agriculture, we will soon be a witness to probably a much bigger and heinous environmental displacement. This time it is not going to be for big dams and hydel projects but agriculture. And still worse, it is not happening inadvertently, it has been part of the design. Wait and watch for the resulting consequences.