Caught in the cycle of debt and death, India's farmers drove home the severity of the agrarian crisis in 2018

In Karsod, (Palghar district) a village about 100 km from Mumbai, a middle-man buys cluster beans which are in season for Rs 10 a kg from adivasi farmers. He rests on a cot and behind him, in a makeshift tent, the mound of cluster beans is growing. He will sell them in the city for Rs 70 or 80 a kg while the farmer who grew them cannot even cover his or her cost of production. This year, farmers sold onions for a profit of Rs 2 per kg; they threw milk and vegetables on the road in Nashik, because selling it was too demeaning and fetched little money. This is what agriculture has come to. In Maharashtra, a farmer died while he was protesting outside a bank, or committed suicide because he did not get a loan: incidents like this are endless — the cry of despair from the farming community often ends in death because there seems to be no other way out. The wives of farmers who committed suicide from Vidarbha and Marathwada regions held a moving “condolence” meeting in Mumbai to share their grief and stories of survival.

The farmers have waited long enough. Jawaharlal Nehru once said everything else can wait but agriculture. That has been long forgotten. Pushed to the brink, from the start of this year, and all through 2018, thousands of farmers have made their voices heard by marching on the street to big cities like Mumbai or Delhi, conducting countrywide yatras and protests, and amassing outside Parliament in the hope that their demands will be heard and met. And they are not asking for much — only better prices for their produce, timely credit, right to land, and implementation of the law, so they can make a decent living.

A woman who marched to Mumbai earlier in March, had a bleeding foot like many marchers, who wore simple slippers. That foot threatened to make more news than the march itself, with stories of doctors attending to her and buying her new footwear. There was a follow up to this story — she had marched from North Maharashtra demanding rights to the land she was tilling under the Forest Rights Act (FRA). It is not known whether her march was in vain but most likely it would have been.

Farmers march towards the parliament house during a rally to protest soaring farm operating costs and plunging prices of their produce, in New Delhi. Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Farmers march towards the parliament house during a rally to protest soaring farm operating costs and plunging prices of their produce, in New Delhi. Reuters/Adnan Abidi

These marches served to bring the agrarian crisis home to city dwellers who have but a passing connection with agriculture or the farming community. The suicides of farmers and their grim lives are distant from the Starbucks coffee consuming, mall shopping, branded clothes sporting urbanite. What they saw horrified them — thousands of farmers marching with sore feet to ask for better prices and land. That the farmers had to undertake this arduous trek speaks volumes for our neglect of the rural sector in terms of policy, investment and attitude.

The country is still reeling from the aftermath of the Green Revolution, which instead of building on local, traditional and indigenous varieties of crops, promoted hybrids and water and chemical-intensive farming. The prevailing argument was that India needed these crops for food security, otherwise, her population would die hungry. Almost five decades after the Revolution, hunger is widely prevalent, as is stunting and anaemia. There is food in the godowns but access is limited despite cash transfers and a public distribution system, and now Aadhar has made it that much more difficult to get entitlements thanks to poor internet cover in rural areas, and the insistence on online transactions. Moreover, soils are depleted, and seeds are a monopoly of private companies. A report of the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) in 2015 said that despite GDP growth and increased agricultural production, ‘India has the second highest number of undernourished people at 194.6 million (FAO, State of Food Insecurity in the World, 2015).’*

The average income of farmers is a little over Rs 6,000-odd a month. Ten years ago it was around Rs 2,000, according to the National Sample Survey Organisation. In 2013 about 52 per cent of the agricultural households in the country were estimated to be in debt, as against 48.6 per cent in 2003. Among the non-institutional sources, agricultural/professional moneylenders (25.8 per cent) had the major share in terms of outstanding loans. Farming is ceasing to be lucrative and during the decade 2001–11 the Census results show a fall of about 9 million cultivators and an increase of about 38 million agricultural labourers.

The farmer today is in debt, finds it difficult to get credit; rural banks have been shut down and agriculture credit is high in metropolitan cities where there are few farmers — thanks to the new rules of lending. A bizarre situation to say the least. And after 3,21,428 farmers have committed suicide between 1995 and 2015 (according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB)), what has the government done? It didn’t come up with any radical changes to policy or rural investment, apart from sundry loan waivers and sops. It stopped releasing the annual data on suicides and accidental deaths since 2015. The NCRB was already playing around with data since 2014 when it introduced a new category for suicides, that of agricultural labourers — and other categories, thereby reducing the number of farmer suicides. This happened again in 2015. And from 2016 onwards there is no official data available on its website.

Already some agrarian states had reported zero farm suicides. So the way out of a massive crisis is to deny that it exists. But even the available numbers are alarming. The government can withhold data but it cannot prevent farmers from making their voices heard and many years since the onset of the agrarian crisis in the 1980s, such large numbers have been mobilised to protest and make demands and hold the government responsible, culminating in the thousands who protested outside Parliament in New Delhi. That the government has to pay attention to farmers and agriculture is rubbed in by the crushing defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, two major agrarian states, grappling with acute distress. Chhattisgarh was among the states which has skewed the data by including farm suicides under other categories.

That voters have favoured the Congress Party which is in no small way responsible for the crisis, indicates the desperation. Farmers are a vital constituency that can no longer be ignored, something the BJP’s Hindutva politics and Ram temple proponents did not perhaps factor into their expert poll calculations. The delusion that handing out gas connections or opening bank accounts and launching a Swachch Bharat scheme would satiate the poor has been set at rest. Demonetisation and GST torpedoed a largely cash economy by trying to make it cashless. Prices have spiked due to the change in tax and the poor continue to struggle in a cycle of debt and death. The present government did make a feeble attempt to reorient the minimum support prices (MSP) as suggested by the Farmers Commission, but in the absence of a firm procurement that is meaningless. Before the Telangana elections in December, the Telangana Joint Action Committee issued a people’s manifesto which called for a Farmers Pay Commission which would decide and structure payment on the lines of the numerous Pay Commissions for government employees. A demand that makes a lot of sense.

Prof MS Swaminathan’s National Commission on Farmers reports gather dust and his recommendation of an MSP that was 50 per cent higher than the cost of production was not implemented because of the feeling that it would skew the market. We treat markets with tender loving care, lest they get skewed, but that’s something we have in short supply for crisis-ridden farmers. It is not only the government that must accept the blame for poor returns to the farmer, it is also you and me as consumers. We drive a hard bargain while shopping for groceries and grains and the lesser priced the better. Our system is geared for the middleman to make money, not the farmer. And we as consumers add to that by wanting to pay low prices for farm produce while we happily fork out extortionate rates for coffee, pizza and what not, and branded overpriced goods. Low-cost Udipi hotels in Mumbai are making way for large fast food chains and giant malls are replacing small grocery stores. Yes, organic produce sold in the market is priced “high” but in comparison with what we pay for other things, it is comparable. We pay for what we value, we do not as yet place a value or are willing to pay a premium for farm produce, notwithstanding the efforts to sell organic and farm fresh goods which is attracting a steady stream of conscious buyers. But it is still a niche market.

The fact that farmers can now sell directly to the consumer in cities has helped small groups (provided they have transport and can tie up with city-based people) interface with buyers and make a little profit, since there is no middleman involved. However, some places charge the farmers for displaying and selling their goods, defeating the whole purpose. But these efforts are too small and seasonal to make a dent and it will need a massive push and political will (not grand announcements but realistic plans) from the state to streamline them and involve farmers if it has to make any real difference.

Farmer’s protests and their demands are no longer subdued – they deserve serious engagement and attention and cannot be restricted to election promises of loan waivers or sops. That’s the lesson of 2018 and political parties would do well to heed that or perish.

* From a Frayed History-The Journey of Cotton in India, by Meena Menon and Uzramma, Oxford University Press, 2017

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Updated Date: Jan 02, 2019 17:14:48 IST

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