Agrarian crisis: Gone are days of Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan; the debt-ridden farmer is now a liability

It was August last year, when a suicide note left behind by a 22-year-old graduate student, Gopal Babarao Rathod, questioned the very premise behind the prevailing economic policies in India. The son of a small farmer from Yavatmal in Maharashtra, Rathod, in his own humble way, laid bare the plight of farmers in the country.

"A teacher's son can easily afford to pay a fee of Rs one lakh to become an engineer but tell me, how can a farmer's son afford it?", asked Rathod."Why is it that the salaried employees get dearness allowance without even asking for it, whereas farmers are denied adequate compensation for their produce?"

More recently, in April this year, another 21-year-old student, the daughter of a Maharashtra farmer, decided to end her life. Unable to bear the stress her parents were undergoing in trying to find a suitable match for her, Sheetal Yankat decided to end her life by jumping into a village well.

 Agrarian crisis: Gone are days of Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan; the debt-ridden farmer is now a liability

Representational image. Reuters

In her suicide note, she wrote: "My parents are extremely poor and have been unable to raise money for my marriage. I am committing suicide because I don't want my parents to come under a debt burden. The economic condition of my family has worsened over the last five years because of the failure of crops. My two sisters got married somehow, with very simple marriage ceremonies. My father is trying his best for my marriage. But since the middlemen are not able to lend money, my marriage got delayed for two years. Therefore, I am ending my life with the hope that my father will not be burdened by any more debt and perhaps my death will also end the dowry practice."

A few months back in Punjab, a young farmer named Jaswant Singh committed suicide. He owned three acres of land and had an outstanding debt of Rs 10 lakh. The distress he was undergoing was clearly visible and one fine day, he took his life when he was out for a bicycle ride with his five-year-old son.

Eyewitnesses say that he tied his son to his waist and then jumped into a nearby canal. In a suicide note, he said that he regretted carrying his son to the watery grave but categorically stated that his son would not have been able to repay the outstanding dues and that his life wouldn't have been worth living.

The tragedy that struck these families symbolises the agony the entire farming community is living with. There is hardly a day when farmer suicides are not reported from one part of the country or other. The serial death dance on the farm continues unabated. A majority of these suicides are because farmers are unable to pay back their loans.

They are unable to pay back these loans as agriculture in India has, over the years, turned uneconomical. The farmers are buried under piles of credit taken from multiple sources. In the absence of adequate income, they have no option but to rely on this line of credit. After all, they too have to bring up their families; they too have to educate their children; they too have to provide for health expenses, and they too have to meet the aspirations of their children.

The Union Minister of State for Agriculture Parshottam Rupala in November 2016 had acknowledged in Parliament that farmers are reeling under an outstanding debt of Rs 12.60 lakh crore every year.

In the past 22 years, mounting indebtedness has pushed an estimated 3.30 lakh farmers to take their own lives. Those who have refrained from taking the extreme step are no better. They continue to somehow survive, living in acute distress, and hoping against hope. Several studies have shown that almost 58 to 62 percent farmers sleep on empty stomachs. They are the victims of an economic design. While the policy emphasis has been on increasing crop production, the more important issue of whether this is accompanied by a rise in farm incomes has been simply pushed under the carpet.

For all practical purposes, debt and farming have now become synonyms. Seventy years after Independence, and 55 years after the Green Revolution was launched, economic freedom continues to elude farmers. Economic Survey 2016 made it abundantly clear. Accordingly, the average income of a farming family in 17 States of India does not exceed Rs 20,000 a year. In other words, farming families in roughly half the country are surviving on less than Rs 1,700 a month. Knowing that it is not possible to rear a cow in the same amount, I shudder to think how these families survive year after year.

Year after year, farmers have toiled hard to produce a bumper harvest. But little do they realise that when they cultivate a crop, they actually cultivate losses.

In order to keep food inflation under control, successive governments have denied farmers their rightful income. The entire burden of keeping food prices low has been very conveniently passed on to farmers. In other words, it is the farmers who are bearing the entire cost of subsidising the consumers. Farm incomes remain almost frozen or are barely enough to cover the cost of production. Over the past few decades, agriculture has been deliberately kept impoverished.

The Commission for Agricultural Cost and Prices (CACP) computes the net returns. Let's try to see whether the net returns have increased. In Maharashtra, which has been faced with massive silent protests by Marathas, and which I believe is the primary reason for the discontent, the net return per hectare for paddy is Rs 966, which means if worked on a monthly basis it will come to less than Rs 300 a month. For ragi, Maharashtra farmers actually incur a loss of Rs 10,674 per hectare; for moong (minus Rs 5,873); for urad (minus Rs 6,663). Even for cotton, the net return is only Rs 2,949 per hectare. Considering that cotton is sown in June and its harvesting begins in October, with the pickings going on to November, December or even January, the average income per month from cultivating cotton comes to a paltry Rs 700 per hectare.

Viewed from the national level, the net returns for crops like paddy, sugarcane, maize, and cotton have actually declined in the past three years. For most of the dryland crops, the returns are in the negative. If the farmer is destined to harvest losses, I wonder what kind of technological and financial support can bail them out. Giving them more credit, even if it comes from institutional agencies/banks, has only pushed them further into a debt trap. As former Prime Minister Chaudhury Charan Singh had once remarked: A farmer is born in debt and dies in debt.

Keeping food prices low is in consonance with the dominant economic thinking aimed at drastically reducing the work force in agriculture. This is what the World Bank had desired way back in 1996. It had expected 400 million people to be moved out from the rural to the urban areas in India by the years 2015. Successive governments have therefore created conditions of economic hardship to make it possible. Public sector investments have declined over the past few decades, especially after the economic reforms were unleashed in 1991.

Former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan used to say that the biggest reforms would be when farmers are moved out of agriculture, to meet the ever-growing demand for cheaper labour for the infrastructure industry. The National Skill Development Council already has spelt out plans to bring down the population in farming from the existing 52 percent to 38 percent by 2022.

It is all going as per the design.

The farmer is no longer seen with pride. Gone are the days of Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan. Today, the farmer has become a burden on the nation, and the entire effort of policy planning is to off-load the burden as quickly as possible.

Updated Date: Aug 15, 2017 14:07:18 IST