As many as 416 farmers have committed suicide in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region so far this year. Farmers keeps dying in dribs and drabs almost on a daily basis across the country. Some swallow pesticide, some jump into wells and some just hang themselves. In some cases, they decide to die along with their small kids. Numbers don't quite map the extent of the miserableness of their existence. A huge proportion of those ending their lives are young people, in the productive age group 25-45. It's a continuing human tragedy of epic proportions.
Yet, we don't get to see farmers in national media often. They are rarely subjects of a heated debate on television channels. Farmer deaths are normally routine inside page story in popular newspapers. We don't have the civil society seething in righteous anger over the plight of farmers, forget a fast. We still don't know whether it is a running scandal of gigantic proportions that is driving people in the countryside over the edge. We have not even started acknowledging that we have a serious problem at hand.
The reason is obvious. The farmers are another class of people altogether. They are uninteresting people, not sexy enough for television cameras. They cannot spew juicy bytes on demand. When they are desperate, they chose to die, not fight back. They are cowards. They give up when there's poor rainfall, they throw their hands up when there's excessive rainfall, when they don't get bank loans and they don't even have the courage fight the exploitative moneylenders. Clearly, they belong to another world.
Yavatmal does not quite ring a bell. It is the district which accounts for most of the suicides in the Vidarbha region. Marathwada, another region of Maharashtra which had more farmer suicides than the Vidarbha region last year—more than 400—also does not register easily on the national consciousness. Farmers are committing suicide in Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka too -- these states along with Maharashtra account for nearly 65 percent farmer suicides in the country. Where is the national outrage over this?
The government has been pouring in money to stem such suicides -- in 2006 the Centre had announced a Rs 3,750 crore relief package for the Vidarbha region and it has initiated several other schemes to save the farmers from bankruptcy, obviously the government's intervention has not helped enough. According to a Planning Commission finding nearly 2.8 million of the 3.2 million cotton farmers in Vidarbha are defaulters. And a major chunk of the money they borrow from different sources goes into servicing old loans.
The irrigation scene in the region is dismal too with irrigation covering less than five percent in cotton growing areas. The prime minister's assistance in 2006 put special emphasis on irrigation facilities. However, in the six years hence nothing much has changed on the ground. The groundwater level in the region has dipped alarmingly, aggravating the agrarian crisis as has the introduction of Bt Cotton. There are problems everywhere and there seems to be are no clear solutions in sight. Why don’t we see overwhelming national concern over these issues?
The purpose of the article is not to get into the specifics of the Vidarbha farmer suicides, but to focus on the general apathy towards farmers. The television media with its fascination for loudness, theatrics on streets and the concept of the 'big story' has effectively pushed the 'other India' into irrelevance. Farmers are a misfit in the TRP hungry television's scheme of things. They are just too boring. The other media have, with the illustrious exception of a few newspapers, have managed to bring in the same disdain into their approach.
We have too many economists talking about abolition of subsidies for farmers and other disadvantaged groups, the ill effects of the schemes such as MNREGA and the need to make land laws industry-friendly. Where are the farmer and other poor, the ultimate beneficiaries of these, in the debate? Did someone ever ask him what exactly he needs?