Farmers' suicides: Supreme Court is right; state and central govts must galvanise efforts to address issue
The Supreme Court indicated recently that paying compensation or ex-gratia payments to the next of kin was not a preventive measure for farmers' suicides.
Earlier this year, in March, the Supreme Court asked the Centre to present and file a roadmap and detailed plan of action to deal with the issue of farmers' suicides. The apex court termed it a "sensitive issue of public interest and human rights" and stated that a national policy to tackle farmers' issues and protect their rights would be a best practice.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the total number of suicides in the year 2013 was 1,34,799 and out of this 11,722 were suicides by self-employed persons in farming/agriculture – 8.73 percent of total suicides in the country.
From 2015, NCRB also started publishing the reasons for suicides and this indicated that there is a big difference between non-farmer and farmer suicides: While a small number of non-farmers committed suicide because of economic distress, a majority of farmers' suicides were because of economic distress – poverty, bankruptcy, crop failures being leading factors.
The Supreme Court also indicated in March that the suicides may be linked to some deep-rooted deficiencies in the National Policy for Farmers, 2007. The Policy looks at implementing a number of mechanisms such as social security schemes, food security schemes, support services for seed and soil health as well as the use of information and communication technology. However, it does not consider the protection of a framework of farmers' rights, and without a comprehensive human rights approach, there is little possibility of allaying the situation.
On 6 July, the Supreme Court passed an order, after hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) petition filed by Citizens Resource and Action Initiative (CRANTI), highlighting farmers’ issues and how their failure to repay loans often forces them to commit suicide. The Bench, led by Chief Justice of India, JS Khehar, granted six months to the Central government to take care of the farmers’ issues.
Currently, farmers’ schemes such as the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Yojana have covered 40 percent of the farmers and the court order stated that in the next six months, these schemes would have to cover about 50 percent of the target population. Therefore, presently, out of the 120 million farmers, only 53.4 million farmers are receiving benefits accruing from government schemes, and only 30 percent of total farmland has been secured through the crop insurance schemes of the Central government.
The focus of the apex court was the prevention of suicides by farmers, and it indicated that paying compensation or ex-gratia payments to the next of kin of the deceased farmers was not a preventive measure. "Paying compensation is not the solution at all to deal with farmers' suicides," the court said.
It added that a humane, comprehensive policy and its consequent implementation is imperative for the welfare and protection of farmers’ rights. In another case decided last week, that dealt with farmer suicides in Tamil Nadu, the apex court asked the state government to adopt a preventive approach, rather than a compensatory one.
Presently, there is an urgent need for the various governmental institutions in the country to galvanise support to respond to the crisis at the agricultural level. The problems of poverty and suicides amongst farmers need to be exigently addressed by the combined efforts of the state and central governments.
The report of the National Commission of Farmers (Swaminathan report) chaired by MS Swaminathan published during 2004-2006 charted out preventive measures for alleviating farmers' livelihoods and providing them with a better standard of living and as a result, preventing suicides.
These included affordable healthcare insurance and revitalising primary health care centres, setting up of state-level farmers' commissions with representation of farmers in them, restructuring of microfinance policies with support services in technology, market and management, provide for social security and old age support, provide for mechanisms for rainwater conservation for times of drought and a price stabilisation fund as well as Village Knowledge Centres (VKCs) at farmers’ distress hotspots.
The focus of the Swaminathan report was to improve financial services, infrastructure, investments in human development, agriculture and business development services as well as institutional development services (forming and strengthening producers' organisations such as self-help groups and water user associations).
The United Nations Independent Expert on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty, Dr Arjun Sengupta had in 2004 highlighted the link between poverty, human dignity and farmer suicides. "Any society would recognise that poverty is something repugnant and unacceptable because it represents a denial of human dignity. However, in order to make the eradication of poverty a human rights entitlement, there has to be a categorisation of the social forces that would be prepared to make the necessary sacrifices by redistributing resources or by mobilising special services and targeted programmes," he had said.
It cannot be denied that farmers' suicides are a blatant violation of human rights, and what is problematic here is that there is no framework of rights presently for farmers to actualise.
The administrative institutions need to understand how to approach the issue as it becomes the duty of institutions such as the National Human Rights Commission and State Human Rights Commissions to take cognisance and respond to this.
An engagement with the state and central governments should be mandated for further response and redressal, and most significantly, prevention of the issue. Lastly, where there is no framework of rights, a parliamentary intervention must be mandated to institutionalise one. What is imperative here is the consolidated response of the Judiciary and the Parliament, where the issue is discussed and legislative policies regarding farmers' issues are created and implemented.
Lastly, a redressal mechanism consisting of a special rehabilitation package must be instituted as an immediate response to farmers' issues. Without a comprehensive intervention, there will be no end to farmers' suicides and human rights development for agricultural workers will be a distant dream.
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