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Tamil Nadu farmers protest in Delhi: Is there a permanent solution to farmer debt and suicides?

For nearly three weeks now, more than hundred farmers from Thanjavur and Tiruchirappalli districts in Tamil Nadu have been protesting at Jantar Mantar, using macabre elements like bones and skulls to highlight and symbolise the problem of farmers suicides in the state.

They claim that the skulls belong to fellow farmers, who had committed suicide because of the adverse conditions in Tamil Nadu. More than 106 farmers had committed suicide in a month because of the worst draught to hit the state in more than a century, combined with debt due to high input costs.

The farmers want the Centre to announce a drought relief package of Rs 40,000 crore and to offer a better support price for their produce. The fact that Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath recently announced a loan waiver for farmers worth Rs 36,359 crore, adds further weight to their demand.

Farmers from Tamil Nadu protesting at Delhi's Jantar Mantar. Firstpost/TS Sudhir

Farmers from Tamil Nadu protesting at Delhi's Jantar Mantar. Firstpost/TS Sudhir

The first question that comes to mind is why are farmers of Tamil Nadu being treated differently from the farmers of Uttar Pradesh? The Centre has conveniently said that it will not provide any debt relief as it is the purview of the state and is defined as the responsibility of the state government.

However, in every budget, the Centre imposes agricultural policies that further burdens the debt on the states and the farmers of India.

Debts in agriculture are a result of increasing costs of production, because of the dependence on purchased inputs – seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, machinery – and the falling prices of farm produce. This traps the farmers in a negative economy, where cost of production outstrips their earnings.

The debt problem began with Green Revolution, an initiative based on chemical inputs. The debt generated during the Green Revolution period was public debt. Farmer organisations created Karz Mukti Andolans and demanded remunerative prices. Debt was forgiven and Minimum Support Prices were institutionalised.

However, with globalisation and neo-liberal reforms, which put global corporations in the driver seat for agriculture policy, costs of inputs rose further, and prices of agriculture output fell dramatically.

An assessment for the WTO Ministerial in Cancun had shown that Indian farmers were losing $25 billion annually due to the falling prices.

The issue of Monsanto’s (American agrochemical and agricultural MNC) monopoly on cotton seeds after the introduction of Bt cotton is now in the courts – in the Competition Commission, government departments. More than Rs 5,000 crore have been siphoned off from India, leaving farmers in debt. Most of the 3,10,000 farmers who committed suicide since 1995 belonged to the cotton belt.

Meanwhile, the stranglehold of the Global seed and chemical giants on Indian Agriculture has increased with every step of neo-liberal reforms. Instead of promoting sustainable low-cost farming, governments have been increasing the budget for credit in agriculture. In 2017-18, Rs 10 trillion was allocated for farm credit, up from Rs nine trillion last year.

While farmers do need credit, they do not need to be pushed into a debt trap through imposition of costly inputs. Farmers also need fair and just prices. They need support of public policy extension for sustainable, ecological agriculture that increases the resilience of the soil and cropping system to draught and climate change, and increases the nutrition per acre and net income per acre.

No budget allocation is being made for public investments, that would liberate farmers from debt. Over 30 years, Navdanya’s (a non-governmental organisation which promotes biodiversity conservation, rights of farmers etc) work based on biodiverse, ecological and organic agriculture, with zero purchased inputs, has shown that we can feed India twice over with nutritious food (health per acre) and increase farmers net incomes at least four times.

The government does mention doubling farm incomes, but fails to mention whether it is gross income or net income. Gross income can increase if a farmer grows a cash crop with high debt, without taking care of the family’s food and nutritional security. But in this case, the net income will go down. More often than not, with high debt, the net income will be negative. Net negative incomes are at the root of the debt crisis and the epidemic of farmer suicides.

Partial debt relief is equivalent to mopping the water leaking from a broken bucket. Our agriculture is broken because it is driven by increasing profits for the seed and chemical industry, not by concerns for the sustainability of the soil, the biodiversity, the water, and the sustainable livelihoods of our small farmers.

In fact, all indicators suggest that the crisis of debt will increase because of the increasing control of MNC corporations on our food and agriculture systems.

Courtesy: National Crime Records Bureau

Courtesy: National Crime Records Bureau

The NITI Aayog is now going to be run by corporate consultants, who will push farmers into deeper debt.
New forms of extraction as modern day lagaan are being "invented" – connecting the farmer to global cartels for every aspect of farming, from the seed to the market.

India has given the deepest knowledge of agroecology, soil and water conservation and rejuvenation, and breeding – that evolved 200,000 varieties of rice, 1,500 varieties of wheat, mango, banana, thousands of varieties of dals and beans, the richest diversity of animal breeds.

The corporate hijack of our food systems is the new colonialism, the new company raj, trying to create new systems of debt creation.

Monsanto has bought the world's biggest climate data corporation and soil data corporation. It has bought many Silicon Valley firms to create spyware to be put into tractors, and into drones for collecting farm data to sell back to farmers.

By linking climate data and insurance, Monsanto expects three trillion US dollars in profit from farmers annually. This profit will be based on deepening the debt crisis, the agrarian crisis, and the tragedy of farmer suicides.

Coercively connecting farmers to the global corporate market for seeds, chemicals, insurance, climate data is the colonisation of our times. Colonisation through these instruments destroys the Earth and our freedoms.

To quell this colonisation, a Satyagraha Yatra will be held to celebrate 160 years of the first freedom movement in 1857, 100 years of the Champaram Satyagraha, 75 years of the Quit India movement, to sow the seeds of Jaivik Bharat 2047 – a vision of a India which is poison free, debt free and suicide free.

The author is an environmental activist and commentator.

Updated Date: Apr 06, 2017 12:56 PM

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