Wednesday, 16 January, 2008

The farm crisis: why have over one lakh farmers killed themselves in the past decade?

Part II of sainath's speech on The farm crisis: whyhave over one lakh farmers killed themselves in thepast decade?

PART II of Sainath's speech:

Right now, as I speak to you, there is a second sadpart ?V we are in the spraying season. There arethree seasons when suicides shoot up. It is notcommon across the year. In some months it is verylow. In the spike seasons they are very high. Thefirst spike comes in the credit season when the farmergoes out in April-May, looking for the money to buy their inputs for the new season, trying to get thatRs. 8,000/- or whatever amount it is. I have coveredfarmers who have committed suicides because they couldnot get Rs. 8,000/- at a decent rate of interest in2003 and in early 2004. Then, I have gone back to myhouse as an urban middle class professional and got aletter from a bank, offering me a loan to buy aMercedes Benz at six per cent rate of interest with nocollateral required. What kind of justice is there inthat society? Where is the humanity, where is thecompassion and, above all, where is our sense ofoutrage? Where is the outrage about this, that I can buy a Mercedes Benz for six per cent rate of interestwithout collateral whereas a farmer who could buy aproductive investment like a tractor is bankrupted bythe terms of loan? There is no fairness in the systemat all.

Credit expansion -- to whose benefit?

The indebtedness of Indian peasants, as I said, hasdoubled and I gave you the figures from some of themajor States. We have been told repeatedly that thereis a massive credit expansion and indeed there is. Ican assure you that it is not going to the farmer. Some of you know very well as to which cooperatives itgoes to and who runs what. All these things are verywell known. What has happened to the creditexpansion? How do you expand credit when you haveclosed 3,500 banks in the rural areas? Rural areashave witnessed the closure of over 3,000 banks between1993 and 2002. And more since then. Private banks areonly now beginning to come in. It was only thenationalised banks which worked in the rural areas. There expansion of food production associated with the'Green Revolution' would actually not have taken placewithout the banks being there and providing the creditfor the farmer to do that. Banks have systemically withdrawn from credit and bank branches have closed down in thousands.

There has been a diversion of credit to the uppermiddle classes, the consumption of all of us in thecities indeed. The so-called Gramina Banks areplaying with tens of crores of rupees in the MumbaiStock Exchange! The undermining and re-defining ofwhat we call priority sector lending has a lot to dowith it. We redefine it. Under agricultural loan, you can buy a Qualis or Tavera or Scorpio or other luxuryvehicle -- as an agricultural loan! Whilenon-agricultural loans go to farmers who paynon-agricultural rates of interest, non-farmers arebuying Taveras or Hero Hondas and Qualis with'agricultural loans' and this at reduced rates ofinterest. This is a very widely documented thing andI could place everything before you. It is also veryimportant in the whole crisis. Agriculture is not an island: Do not disconnectfarming from the rest of what is happening. The cost of living expenses have simply exploded across thisnation. Today, health is the second fastest growingcomponent of rural family debt. Health is the secondfastest growing component because we have the sixthmost privatised health system in the world. If you look at the NSS data, it suggests that nearly one inevery five Indians, nearly two hundred million humanbeings, no longer seek medical attention of any kindbecause they cannot afford it. This is not because of accessibility or distance. It is because they cannot afford it. The same nation boasts of boosting'medical tourism.' But that is the situation.

The farmer is hit on all fronts. The situation offarm labour is even worse. The landless labourers'plight is even worse, but he is not tied to the land(except where bonded). So, the entire series ofprocesses is buffeting the farmers in every case. Last year, Andhra Pradesh started jailing elderlyfarmers who were unable to ay their debts. Now, the APGovernment has called a halt to it. They were put injails for debt. Seventy-four- years orseventy-five- year-old farmers were put in jails, butthat is now being stopped.

India pioneered the concept of 'social banking.' Itwas a Gandhian idea. It was recognised that therewere some operations, some classes of people, who youadvanced loans without expectations of huge profits.Like marginal or subsistence farmers. We havewithdrawn from that idea of social banking. We alltalk about moneylenders. One of the things which I want to tell you is that the face of the moneylenderhas completely changed.

The new moneylenders of the countryside:

Please do not focus too much on your village sahucar. Sure, he is an exploitative creature. He is also avery pathetic creature in the new dispensation. Awhole new class of moneylenders have come to thecountryside. The village sahucar, the small sahucaris committing suicide because his clients arebankrupt. Some clients have migrated and they haverun away and nobody is repaying his debt. Who thenare the new moneylenders? They are input dealers, thepeople who sell seeds and who sell pesticides, fertiliser and other inputs to the farmer.

The people who own the shops that are selling the seeds are millionaires now. When you come topesticides, input costs have simply exploded. Let megive you an idea to prove how major it is. When wespoke about interest waiver, I begged at that time:"Do not do the interest waiver. It will be thecooperative banks that will benefit. If you want to doa waiver, do a loan waiver." After all, we havewaived loans of thousands of crores of rupees for ahandful of industrialists.

A non-performing Who's Who:

Look at your Non-performing assets (NPA) list. It isa "Who's Who" of the Indian industry. Running to tensof thousands of crores. But we could not waive theloan of Rs.25,000 per Vidharbha farmer which wouldhave wiped out 80 per cent of their bank debt. Ibegged at that time when the 'relief package' wasbeing formulated. I said: "It is more packing thanpackage." I said that the cooperative banks wouldtake the money. Indeed, the cooperative banks are, forthe first time in 10 years, on a hiring spree becausethey have so much money. They have got a Rs.712 croregift!

We also gave a moratorium of two years instead ofgiving a loan waiver. What is the result? The two-yearmoratorium comes to an end in March 2008. With theexisting loan plus the pending loan plus the currentloan, the farmer is in for a gigantic shock in March2008. There is no chance of repaying. But we did notdo that. Only in the case of Tamil Nadu, there was amajor waiver. You can reason out why Tamil Nadu wasgiven that privilege. I am very happy that they weregiven that privilege and I just hope that thatprivilege would be extended to all the others and theother Governments do the same.

Input costs now killing:

Input costs have gone up to a point where there is noreturn. If you look at cash crops, you can find it. Iwill just take input cost in respect of seeds. Takethe case of di-ammonia phosphate (DAP). One bag of DAPcost Rs.120 in 1991. It costs four times as much now. Seeds were available at Rs.7 a kilogram of localvariety. I mean, in Vidharbha, local cotton seeds wereavailable for Rs.7 per kilo. You could get the bill(for transactions of that time) even now. Just Rs. 7for a whole kilo. It was Rs.1800 for the BT cotton seed (per 450 gram packet) in 2004 before the AndhraPradesh Government took Monsanto to court. It got theprice dropped down to Rs.725. I give full credit tothe Government of Andhra Pradesh for having taken thataction. Today, the utility prices have gone up;electricity prices have gone up and the farmer isbuffeted by the entire series of price shocks. At thesame time, the output prices have crashed. The littledistrict of Wayanad in Kerala lost Rs.6,000 crore on two products of coffee and pepperwhich are not doing that badly at the global level. Injust four or five years, they lost that much.Somebody else is making the money because they havebeen locked into a trade where the Spices Board, allour institutions, are operating on behalf of theprivate corporations and not on behalf of the farmers.

When I went to the Coffee Board in Wayanad, Kerala,they were very nice to me. The moment I entered theiroffice, the Coffee Board people offered me a cup oftea! That is how they promote coffee. The farmers inthis part of Kerala are growing the coffee. Coffeedoes not grow in most Western climates. Your farmer isgrowing coffee and he gets pathetically less than 10per cent of the turnover of what goes on at the globallevel. In 2001-02, thousands of people were beguiledinto growing Vanilla. Why? It fetched Rs.4300 akilogram at the time - at the start. This is alsoone of the tricks of the corporate farming andcontract farming. It fetched Rs.4300, per kg meaningthereby $100 per kg of Vanilla. That was the price thefarmer got. I do not know what is the exact pricetoday. I think it is around Rs.86 a kg. It is not afluctuation. That is an annihilation. This volatilityhas killed them. However, we have chained our farmersto all these things. Are there solutions tothese problems? Yes, I have not covered a lot ofissues. I can take the questions from you on that.

We can turn it around:

For one thing, I would appeal to you to read thereports of the National Commission on Farmers. Thereis something very important about the reports of theNCF. They have wide acceptance. Almost every majorfarm union in this country has supported it regardlessof party ?V whether it is the Congress or theCommunist or the BJP or the Dravidian parties. Acrossthe political spectrum, people have supported therecommendations of the NCF. Then, what prevents usfrom moving ahead on at least the majorrecommendations? What prevents us from creating aPrice Stabilisation Fund for important agriculturalcommodities the way we have it for petroleum. We do have a Price Stabilisation Fund in the case ofpetroleum. The State kicks in when the price becomesunbearable and withdraws when it stabilises. Whatstops us from using social banking techniques?

There is a rule, a law in this country that 1 per centof all loans (at 4 per cent interest only) has to goto the poorest of the poor. Over the last 10 years, wehave not even fulfilled that one per cent, accordingto the bank unions of this country. The industrywideaverage is 0.25 per cent! We have given no protectionto the farmers against dumping and the Westernsubsidies. We have not sought the revival of theagricultural universities as the National Commissionhas appealed for. We could do a five-year creditcycle. You can give the farmer a loan over afive-year cycle instead of making him go back on hisknees to the corrupt bank manager every six months, every season. In five years, you will have two goodyears, two bad years and one neutral year. So you might manage.

There are many such recommendations which we coulduse. They are really very sincere ones. As I said, itis not politically difficult to get them accepted.They have been accepted across the farming politicalspectrum. You are talking about 600 million peoplehere. There are three broad principles which are onthe larger canvass.

?? First, do not treat agriculture as a headacheor a cancer. It is not. It is central to thelivelihoods of hundreds of millions of people. Wehave to approach it with reverence for what itrepresents.

?? Second, declare agriculture as a publicservice and treat it as such. Those who work inagriculture, they lose out a lot. Average incomes inagriculture are much lower than any other sector. Letthem be compensated for the food they put on ourtable. They lose out a lot. Those remaining in thesector should be compensated by society.

?? Third, let us end the hypocrisy of subsidies.There is no part on the globe where agriculture existswithout State subsidies, without State intervention. In fact, the richer the country, the greater the subsidies -- but they are not going to the farmers -- they are going to the corporations. What we give our farmers does not even qualify for subsidy but aspathetic life supports. Let us not remove them. Let us honour those who put food on our table.

I just want to tell you one thing. Many causes have been advanced why farmers are killing themselves. One is, they are killing themselves to get compensation. This disgusting explanation is in voguein Maharashtra. I do not know what to say about it. What do you do with Rs. one lakh? Do you have a wildparty when you are dead? Another thing is they are called mentally unstable. Well, I might be mentallyunstable and depressed if three people in my familyhave killed themselves and one is starving. However,the Government in its wisdom last year constituted amano vaigyanik dal ( A team of medical experts).Psychiatrists, psychologists, some very good people,very fine people, highly qualified intellectuals, weresent to the villages to find out why the farmers arekilling themselves. They did a lot of research andstudies. Finally, one old farmer got up and addressedthese top doctors from top institutions. He saidtypically in the Indian fashion: "Such an honour to have such big people come to my small village. I honour you. I touch your feet. You have asked us so many questions. You have given us such good advice. You have asked us this question: Do you drink too much? Doyou fight with your wife? You have given us goodadvice. You have said: Do not drink too much. Do not fight with your wife. Do yoga. Remove your stress." He said: "Ask us one more question. Ask us why the farmers of this country, who place the nation's foodon its table, are starving?" There was total silence.One of the doctors told a journalist much later: "Weshut up. There was nothing to say. We had all theanswers but he had the right question."

By P. Sainath

Thursday, 10 January, 2008

The farm crisis: why have over one lakh farmers killed themselves in the past decade?

Ist Part

We, as a nation, are in the worst agrarian crisis infour decades. It is impossible to cover such a largeissue in full. So I am going to be dealing with it infragments today. I would like to stress that thecrisis is so deep, so advanced that: firstly, no State, nobody, is exempt from this and it is not tobe seen as the crisis of one State or one Governmentor one Party. It is a national crisis and we need torespond to it as such. It is a huge thing. In thatcrisis, the suicides are merely, however tragic, justa symptom and not the disease. They are aconsequence, not the process.

Millions of livelihoods have been damaged ordestroyed in the last 15 years as a result of thiscrisis. But you will know, if you look at your media,that it is only in the last three or four years thatwe widely used the word 'farm crisis' or the 'agrariancrisis.' Earlier, there was a complete denial of anycrisis. At least today it is established that there is one.

We can sum it up in one sentence -- the processdriving this crisis: the predatory commercialisationof the countryside (int he words of Prof. K. Nagaraj of the Madras Institute of Development Studies –MIDS). The reduction of all human values to exchangevalue. As this process unleashes itself across agrarian India, millions of livelihoods have collapsed. Lakhs of people are migrating towardscities and towns in search of jobs that are not there. They move towards a status which is neither `worker'nor `farmer.' Many will end up as domestic labour, like over a lakh girls from Jharkhand in this city of Delhi working as domestic servants.

World-wide crisis of small-holder farms:

However, having said that, I want to say that thecrisis is by no means restricted to India. It is aworld-wide crisis of small holder farming. Small,family farms are getting wiped out across the planetand it has been happening for 20-30 years. It is justthat this has been very intense in India in the last15 years. Otherwise, the farm suicides have causedmajor concern in Korea. Nepal and Sri Lanka have highrates of farm suicides. In Africa, Burkina Faso, Malietc. have had high rates of farmers' suicides as thecotton product there gets wiped out by the UnitedStates and EU subsidies.

Incidentally, suicide rates among farmers in theUnited States Midwest and other rural regions havealso been extremely high from time to time. In fact,in the eighties, suicide rates amongst farmers inOklahoma, for instance, were more than twice thenational suicide rate for men in the United States --and it is rare that rural suicides are higher thanurban. I spent time last year on American farms andcould see how they're going down.

We are witnessing in many ways the decline and deathof the small holder farm. It is very important thatwe do something about it because we are the largestnation of small holder farms where the farmer ownsthat land. We are also probably the largest body offarm labourers and landless workers. If you look,there is a lesson to be learnt as to what has gone on in the United States.

In the 1930s, there were six million family farms inthe United States. At that time when India was just adecade or so away from gaining Independence, over aquarter of the American population lived and worked onthose six million farms. Today, the US has morepeople in prison than on farms. It has 2.1 millionpeople in prison and less than that on its 700,000 family farms.

We are being pushed towards corporate farming:

So what is this process driving towards? In two words:It is driving us towards corporate farming. That isthe big coming picture of agriculture in India andacross the planet. We have been pushed towardscorporate farming, a process by which farming is takenout of the hands of the farmers and positioned in thehands of the corporates. That is exactly whathappened in the United States and that is what exactlyhappened in a large number of other countries. Thisprocess is not being achieved with guns, tanks,bulldozers and lathis. It is done by making farmingunviable for the millions of small family farmholders, by just making it so impossible for you tosurvive in the structures that exist. But there is acontext to this that I am absolutely going to insiston framing that context. All these unfold in thecontext of the fastest growing inequality that Indiahas seen in her history as an independent nation. Andunderstand this, when inequality deepens in society,the farm sector takes the biggest hit.

In any case,it is a disadvantaged sector. So when inequalitywidens, the farm sector takes a hit. Devastating growth of inequality in India:

Ø Fourth rank in Dollar Billionaires: In Indiain 2007, I am sure you all will be very thrilled toknow, we have the fourth highest number of dollar-billionaires in the planet. We are ahead of allcountries in the number of billionaires except theUnited States, Germany and Russia. Incidentally, ourbillionaires are richer than those of Germany andRussia in terms of net asset worth. You can look upall these numbers on The World's Billionaires – the Oracle of global billionaires.

Ø 126 th in Human Development: We have thesecond richest billionaires in the world in dollarsand we have the fourth largest number of billionairesin the planet. But we are 126 th in humandevelopment. The same nation that has ranks fourth inbillionaires is 126th in human development. What doesit mean to be 126th ? It means that it is better tobe a poor person in Bolivia (the poorest nation inSouth America) or Guatemala or Gabon. They are aheadof us in the UN's Human Development Index. You canget all these figures in the Parliament Library fromthe United Nations Human Development Reports of thelast 10 or 15 years.

Ø 836 million live on less than Rs. 20 a day: Weare the emerging 'tiger economy.' But life expectancyin our nation is lower than it is in Bolivia,Kazakhstan and Mongolia. We have 100,000 dollarmillionaires, out of whom 25,000 reside in my city ofMumbai, I am proud to say. Yet, 836 million people inour nation exist on less than Rs. 20/- a day accordingto the Government of India. There is no such thing asIndian reality. There are Indian realities . Thereis a multiplicity of realities.

Ø Slowing down of infant death rate decline: Thegrowth rate of our country is indeed the envy of many.But the rate of decline of infant mortality actuallyslowed down in this country in the last 15 years. Thelargest number of infant deaths 2.5 million takesplace in this country, followed by China.

Ø CEO's salaries set all time records: ChiefExecutive Officer 'packages' grew like never before inthe last ten years. Indeed, the Prime Minister ofthis country felt constrained to make some remarksabout the salaries of CEOs. You can remember the kindof pasting he came in for in the media as a result ofhaving dared to question that maybe a CEO could liveon a million less a year, or whatever it was. Butwhile CEOs salaries have gone through the roof, farmincomes have collapsed.

Ø Appalling MPCE of farm households: Accordingto the National Sample Survey, the average monthly percapita expenditure (MPCE) of the Indian farm household(across zamindars and your half acre wallas), is Rs.503.

Ø Miserable expenditure patterns: Out of thatRs. 503, 55 per cent or more is spent on food, 18 percent on fuel, clothing and footwear leaving preciouslittle to be spent on education and health. What isspent on health is twice that of what is spent oneducation because we now have the 6 th most privatisedhealth system in the world. Therefore, the MPCE showsRs.34 as expenditure on health as against Rs.17 oneducation. Rs.17 a month on education means 50 paisea day on education. That is the spending of the Indianfarm household. That is the national average. I willcome to state-wise figures a little later.

Ø Incidentally, we are very proud to tell youthat labour productivity in the decade of the reformswent up to 84 per cent according to the ILO. The sameILO report informs me that while labour productivity went up to 84 per cent, the real wages of labour inmanufacturing declined by 22 per cent (at a time whenCEO salaries were going through the roof). So, in thelast 15 years, we have seen the unprecedentedprosperity of the top of our population. And at thesame time, the net per capita availability offoodgrain actually declined for over a decade. Ø Rising hunger at the bottom: The State of foodinsecurity in the world report of the FAO of theUnited Nations shows us that from 1995-97 to1999-2001, India added more newly hungry millions thanthe rest of the world taken together. Hunger grew at atime when it declined in Ethiopia. A new restaurantopens everyday in some city of this country but asProf Utsa Patnaik, our leading agricultural economistpoints out, the average rural family is consuming 100kgs less than it did 10 years ago. The availabilitysituation figure is one placed every year inParliament in the Economic Survey which gives the netper capita availability (NPCA) of foodgrain containedin Table 1.17 (S-21). You get the numbers all the wayfrom 1951. You can see how it has declined in thelast 15 years. The NPCA was 510 in 1991, on the cuspof the reforms. That fell to 437 grams by 2003. The2005 provisional figure was 422 grams. There may be aslight rise in one or another year, but the overalltrend has been that of a clear decline over 15 years. A fall of 70-80 grams sounds trivial -- until youmultiply it by 365 days and then again by one billionIndians. Then you can see how gigantic the decline is. Since those at the top are eating much better thanever before, it raises the question of what on earththe bottom 40 per cent are eating?

Ø Two-nation theory passé. Its Two Planets now: Today, for the top 5 per cent of the Indianpopulation, the benchmarks are Western Europe, theUSA, Japan and Australia. For the bottom 40 per cent,the benchmarks are the Sub-Saharan Africa (some ofwhose nations) are ahead of us in literacy.

Ø Indebtedness has doubled in the past decade:The NSSO's 59th round tells us that while 26 per centof farm households were in debt in 1991, that figurewent up to over 48 per cent – almost double by 2003. There have been huge migrations, as I said, as aresult of this chaos and collapse of incomes,explosions of cost of living. Why is this framework ofinequality so important to our understanding? We aregetting further and further into the divide. What do Imean by predatory commercialisation of thecountryside? I will come to that soon. But manythings have happened. Policy-driven devastation of agriculture: One is that as every Minister and every PrimeMinister admits, public investment in agriculture hasdeclined very sharply to the point of collapse over aperiod of 10-15 years. It is one of the things thatthe Government now feels that it is trying to reverse. Our foremost agricultural economist, Dr. Utsa Patnaik shows us that while total development expenditure as ashare of GDP was fourteen and a half per cent in1989-90, it was 5.9 per cent by 2005. That is acollapse of Rs.30,000 crore per year or an incomeloss of Rs.120,000 crore. I have often felt it'ssimpler to send out the Air Force and bomb thevillages It would probably cause less lasting damagethan that withdrawal of investment costs us! There has been a crash in employment. Only the requirement of the last year and a half hassomewhat (but far from adequately) been met by theNREGP, a programme which I am very supportive of. Thathas not opened up anywhere as much as it should. I hope it deepens and grows because it is a vital programme for the crisis in the countryside. It is oneof the great things that we have done in the last two years. But very far from enough.

SEZs but no land reforms:

Another problem is the rack renting of tenants. Inthe Andhra Pradesh suicides, you will find that manyof those (in some regions) who have committed suicidewere actually tenant farmers. Out of the 28 bags ofpaddy they harvested, they parted with 25 bags as thetenancy or lease rate. If there is a cyclone or damageor anything else, incidentally, the reparations andthe compensation go to the absentee landlords. We haveno tenancy reforms. It seems appalling to me that wecan clear an SEZ in six months but we cannot do landreforms in 60 years across this country! Except inthree states.

Rigging costs in agriculture:

Another issue is the exploding cost of agriculture, aprocess quite heavily controlled and rigged. Yetanother one is the exploitative internationalagreements that we have entered into that areseverely damaging to the interests of our farmers.Yet another aspect is the crashing output prices asglobal corporations have taken control of trade inagriculture commodities and rig prices. Even whenWhile the coffee prices boom in the West, the men andwomen who grow coffee in Kerala commit suicide,especially between 2000 and 2003. The suicides are appalling. How many suicides havebeen there? I do not want to get into the numbersgame. We are coming with a very major story on thatin The Hindu in a while. I won't pre-empt it. However,you were given last year, I believe, a figure ofover one lakh suicides since 1993. That is ahorrifying figure in 10 years. Yet, you will find itwrong. It is not true. For several reasons. I found that four years have been included in the number forwhich firm data on farm suicides do not exist. Youbring down the average by bringing farm suicides inyears which are irrelevant! We only started collecting farm suicide data from 1995in the National Crime Records Bureau. Any new systemof reporting takes time. Most States do not reportproperly for the first two years. It takes time forthe States to get into the mode of reporting data.Real or stable data started from around 1997. So, theover one lakh suicides that you are looking at are notfrom 1993 to 2003 but they are from 1997 to 2003. Thatis an appalling figure. It is still a hugeunder-estimate for a variety of reasons which I willcome to. Suicide figures misleading and confusing: But what is important is that the numbers are not thecrucial issue . I think even the figure of over onelakh is appalling enough. What is frightening isthat if you look at the data, two-thirds of thesuicides are occurring in half-a-dozen States thataccount for just about one-third of the country'spopulation . Most of the suicides are occurring incash-crop areas. The number of food crop farmerscommitting suicide is less as compared to those incash crops. For the last 15 years, we have drivenpeople towards cash crops. We have told them toexport. Exports lead to growth. Regardless of the factwho is in power, we have pushed them towards cash cropand now we are paying the price of that movement. Wehave locked them into volatility of global pricescontrolled by rapacious corporations. It is often doneby corporations whom your farmers cannot see, who arenot accountable to your people. The other frightening thing is that thefive or six States are also, in a sense, contiguous.There are other States which are pretty bad. These arethe worst states. Maharashtra is the worst. Some ofthese States are showing an ascending trend. Someshow a descending trend. What is frightening is thatin some of the States showing an ascending trend,their numbers might double in six years. Zero farm suicides in Vidharbha? Farmer suicides in Vidharbha stopped entirely inAugust because the news came in July that the PrimeMinister was to visit them. So, people thoughtfullystopped committing suicide. There was not a singlesuicide in Vidharbha in August. In official count, atleast. They knew the Prime Minister was coming.Everybody said: "We will not commit suicide till heleaves." This is a nation deluding itself. It does nothelp you. I am not trying to point at one ChiefMinister or one party Government. It is a nationalcrisis. The more honest we are with ourselves, thebetter positioned we are to sort it out. What do the figures actually suggest? If we projectfurther the figures of the National Crimes RecordBureau, it is closer to about one-and-a-half lakh suicides in the 1997-2005 period. And that excludeseight categories of people because, for instance, inthis country whatever you do, whatever laws you pass,our machinery will not accept women as farmersbecause there is no land in their name, there are noproperty rights for them. Many suicides not recorded as farm suicides : In Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh, 45 per centof farm suicides in 2001-02 were women farmers. Manyof the households in Anantapur rural areas arewomen-headed since the men have migrated. There aremuch larger numbers. Even nationally, 19 per cent ornearly one-fifth households in this country arewomen-headed. But we do not count women as farmers. Wecount them as the wives of farmers. So, it iscounted as a suicide but not as a farmer's suicide. Of course, farm labourer suicides will never becounted in the list of farm suicides, so that bringsit down further. Incidentally, countless eldest sons have not beencounted as farmers committing suicide because, in ourtraditional society, the land remains in the name ofthe aged-old father, who may be 75-80, until he dies.So, the elder son may be 50 or 51. He is running thefarm. He faces the pressure. He cracks and killshimself. The tehsildar says that this man is not afarmer because there is no farm in his name. InYavatmal district last month, every single claim ofsuicide was rejected by a six-member 'independent'Committee consisting of top Government officers in thedistrict plus two non-officials chosen by thegovernment! Many of these cases were rejected on the basis thatthere is no land in those names. The guy was theeldest son, he was running it and looking afterperhaps even three family units. But the land was notin his name. How do we accept him as a farmer? Thatis the criteria. I could go on about that. If youdie and if you are found to be in debt, that debt hasto be a bank debt. If it is a private money lenderdebt, it is not accepted. The Committee in Yavatmalwill not accept it. They will ask: what is therecord on that? There is no document to show it. Inthis way, thousands of people have been kept on thelist of suicides but not in the list of farmerssuicides. There is also misclassification. There are migrantfarmers who are not counted in it. People leave theplace and kill themselves in the city. I do not evenwant to conjecture what the real figure would be. Itis impossible physically. Secondly, I think thenumber (the official count, however flawed) isappalling enough to move this nation. It should movethis nation. If we have only these Governmentnumbers, I will accept them at face value. If you canaccept that it is a horrible figure, we should movethe nation forward. Common factors across regions: What is common in these areas where the crisis istaking place? Cash crop, high water stress, hugeindebtedness way above the national average. If youmake a map of indebtedness of India and the map of allsuicides, they will converge very neatly. Thehighest number of indebted households in the countryis in Andhra Pradesh which is at 82 per cent, Keralahas 64 per cent and Karnataka has 62 per cent of allfarm households in debt. The list is endless. You cansee how the suicide map matches that of indebtednesswhich is one of the important single major causes. I would like to say that almost every suicide has amultiplicity of causes, not just one. What we do inrecording them, though, is to record the last cause. I am indebted. My son drops out of college. I amunable to get my daughter married and I am humiliatedby the money lender every day when I go to the market.My crop collapses and the bank refuses to give me aloan. I go home getting drunk. I fight with my wifeand then commit suicide. The next day, it isrecorded that the reason for the suicide is that hehad a fight with his wife and, so, he killed himself. The last cause gets recorded. That is natural and thatis how it is structured. But it conceals more than ittells. The other common thing in the suicide-hit regions iswithdrawal of bank credit. Agriculture tends to bemore deregulated in these areas as in parts ofVidharbha and Maharashtra. You have a very highcultivation cost. That too, is common in these areas. Extremely high cultivation costs. In Vidharbha,in 1991, it cost Rs. 2500 to cultivate an acre ofcotton. Today it costs over Rs. 13,000 per acre usingthe new BT brand. You are talking about a 500 percent increase in the cultivation cost per acre. It iskilling. It cannot be borne. If you want to understand how gigantic input costsare, if you want to understand how massive is theindustry for seeds which we have left open to ahandful of corporations to control and loot, see whatis happening in Andhra Pradesh. You would understandhow major a cost it is. Andhra Pradesh, my own home State, is so proud of itssoftware exports. But, the seed and other input industry of Andhra Pradesh is worth more than AP'ssoftware exports. That is how big, how huge, the seedindustry is. People in this country spend more onseed than AP earns exporting software. We are running after software markets overseas,which is fine, but while allowing the seed market tobe taken away absolutely by a bunch of corporations.Which is not fine at all. That is how I said that weare moving already, at this level, towards corporatefarming. Farm incomes have collapsed: Look at income. Income collapse was a major part ofthe crisis. In several regions, farm incomes havesimply collapsed. The national average monthly percapita expenditure (MPCE) of the Indian farmhousehold, as I told you, was Rs. 503. It is prettyclose to the below poverty figure of Rs. 425 or so ofrural India. Six States on an average have been belowthe poverty line It is below Rs. 425 figure. Five orsix States exist in the country like that. There are many households existing on a monthly percapita expenditure of Rs. 225. This is according tothe National Sample Survey Organisation. The percapita monthly expenditure is Rs. 225 which translatesinto Rs. 8 a day. In that, you are going to manageyour food, clothing, footwear, education, health andtransport. What does it leave for any kind of life? You are always in debt. 55 per cent has gone tofood, 18 per cent to fuel, footwear and clothing. Inall these areas, you will find a very high proportionof school and college dropouts. People with B.Sc.degrees have dropped out to work as farm labourers onthe family farm in order to get it somehow going,while our Agricultural Universities have simply takenup the job of doing research for other parties likeprivate corporations but not for our farmers anymore. Elite view of the rural crisis: How do the elites look at the crisis at the bottom? Let me quote from a leading economic newspaper of ourcountry. One of its commentators says this with somedisappointment. "The bottom 400 million are adisappointment. " Why? They do not buy enough. I donot know what they will buy with Rs. 8 as per capitaexpenditure. She says that they do not buy enough. But they have a responsibility. "It is a difficultmarket to tap," the commentator concludes. The Vidharbha crisis: What about Vidharbha from where so much of reportinghas been done on the suicides in the last few years? As Mrs. Alva has said, what you see in the media isvery little. Dozens of local journalists have keptthis issue alive. They have to be given credit forit. How many suicides have there been in Vidharbha? Have they declined? According to one section of themedia, they have stopped. The government has in factput out several sets of figures over time which arequite contradictory. The Government has not put itsname or signature to any figure of decline at thehighest level. Why? It is because the Governmentwill be in serious trouble. There is an order from the Nagpur Bench of the HighCourt that the State Government must maintain awebsite with all the figures. It is in response to apublic interest litigation. If you look at theGovernment website, you do not need to read any of thereports. The figures in the website are so obsceneand what do they do to bring a decline? Let me tellyou the actual number from the Commissioner ofAmravati's own report and how these are thenpresented. In Vidharbha, the number of total suicides , not thefarming suicides , in six districts was not 1500. Since 2001, in the crisis years, it was not 2000, itwas not 1300 and it was not 1700. The police stationsrecord it as 15,980 for the six districts. Not allof these are farm suicides . But here is the fun. From 15,980, they will bring it down to 578 orwhatever figure is finally arrived at. We can bringthis down. Incidentally, these are 100 per cent ruraldistricts. But the final tabulation shows that lessthan 20 per cent of these 15,000 suicides werefarmers -- in 100 per cent rural districts! It isa mystery then, who those committing suicide were andare. These were not industrial districts. If just2939 were farmers, that is less than 20 per cent of15,980, then who were they? It almost as if onlyfarmers were doing well! Indeed, very well. Everybodyelse is committing suicide. Largest state distress survey ever: I give full credit to the Maharashtra Government forone thing. They did the biggest study on farminghouseholds in the state. It is only that peopleshould take some time to read that study. It willjust chill you to the marrow of your bones. Thanks tothe Prime Minister's visit due to which everybody gotbusy. They surveyed every one of the 17.64 lakhhouseholds (nearly ten million human beings). Everysingle farm household was surveyed in the sixdistricts of Vidharbha the government believes areaffected. (In all, Vidharbha has 11 districts.) Whatdoes that figure show? These are figures based on thesurvey which appear in the report of the Commissionerof Amravati (which document I have promised to giveyou.) Five of the six affected districts come underthe Commissioner of Amravati. But the data he isciting includes even the sixth, that is Wardhadistrict. It (Amravati Commissioner' s report) says that: Ø close to 75 per cent of the farm households inthese nearly two million households (17.64 lakh) arein distress.Ø It says that 4,31,000 households, if you takethe rural households having five to six people in eachhousehold, are in "maximum distress." That is theword of the Government. The other category is "mediumdistress." I have no idea what that means. But itadmits 75 per cent of the households are in distressof one kind or the other. Ø Astonishingly, over three lakh families arehaving severe problems on the marriage of daughterswhich is a big cause in several suicides. Over threelakh farmers are not able to get one or more daughtersmarried. This is an explosive situation. Ø The Government's own study shows thatindebtedness was also a factor in 93 per cent of thesuicides that it looked at. Ø Last year suicides were supposed to havedeclined after the package. Last year the policestation records show 2,832 suicides as against 2,425in 2005. It is an increase of 407, which is a verysignificant increase. Because that's an increase ofover 60 suicides per district in each of the sixdistricts in just one year. And there's a lot more in similar vein. How do they then make out a 'decline'? I think it isthe Indian national genius of handling numbers. Ijust love numbers. The first category (police stationrecords) states 2,832 suicides last year. The secondcolumn says, out of these "farmers' suicides" from2,832 it falls to 800-odd. The third column sayssuicides by "farmers' relatives" as if others on farmare not farmers. That becomes 1600. So, suicide byfarmers is different from suicides in farminghouseholds!. Then comes "cases under inquiry." Then, other tables which list cases due to "agrariandistress." With each column the number comes down. The final column is the masterpiece. It does notexist anywhere in the planet. We have a column called"eligible suicides", like eligible bachelors orbrides, etc. It means those suicides where thefamilies are deemed by government to be eligible forcompensation. So, from 2,832 it comes down to 578 inthe last column. It is this last figure of 'eligible'suicides that is put out by officials as the suicidesfigure! This month (August was the month just concluded) we donot have suicides at all because if you let ourmathematicians pursue it further, they will redefinesuicides out of existence. But the total number keepsincreasing. You can see it. This year when therewere no suicides, or suicides were in steep decline,there were 700 plus suicides according to theGovernment of Maharashtra website. Why does not theGovernment put its signature to the number? It isbecause that website is maintained under the courtorder. Then you are running into serious problems ifyou contradict your own data. We can play games withthat endlessly. Misery in the households: I'd like to narrate three personal episodes from theaffected households. For me the most painful thing isthat second and third suicides are happening in thesame households. In the 700 (suicide-hit) householdsthat I have gone to and seen over the years, the mosthurting thing is that when you are leaving thehousehold, when you make eye contact with the lady ofthe house or the eldest daughter, you know – do notask me how I know – that she is also planning to takeher life. You know that for all your boastfulnessabout the might of the Press and the power of the pen,I cannot do a damn thing to stop them because that ishow we are today as a society. That is the mostpainful thing for me. I've started avoiding that eyecontact because I do not want to see in the person'seyes that she is also going to take her life. When ayoung widow takes her life, she might kill her girlchild also because she does not want that child forcedinto prostitution. Last year, when Prime Minister came, there was totalchaos because everybody was kept on notice, becausethe Prime Minister was really worried about what wasgoing on. He took a trip which was not reallyscheduled. One month before he came there, I was inthe house of Gosavi Pawar. This was a very differentkind of Pawar, a less privileged Pawar, an adivasiPawar and not to be confused with more the illustriousPawars. Gosavi Pawar was from a Banjara family. Theclan is so poor. Incidentally, that day I was sitting in his house Ihad also read about the wedding of daughter of India'srichest man, Lakshmi Mittal at a cost of 60 milliondollars or pounds. It is obscene in whichevercurrency it is translated. Poor man, Mr. Mittal, hecould not get a wedding hall in Paris! It is verydifficult to get one there in that season. So, hehired the Palace of Versailles and held the weddingthere. But in the house of Gosavi Pawar, the clan isso very poor. They had come all over the country forthe wedding and decided to have three weddings at thesame time in order to afford them. They decided tohave three weddings at the same time because peoplehad come from different regions and states. They hadall gathered there. Gosavi Pawar, the patriarch ofthat clan, was unable to raise the money required forthe sarees for those weddings. Humiliated by themoneylender, by the bank manager, and others, GosaviPawar took his life. I saw two things. One that depressed me enormouslyand one that inspired me about the poor people of thiscountry. One that depressed me enormously is the poorhousehold had three weddings and a funeral on the sameday, because they could not cancel the wedding. Itwould have bankrupted the clan had they gone back toRajasthan, Gujarat and Karnataka or wherever and comeagain. So, they held the weddings. The brides andbridegrooms wept. The most heart- breaking moment waswhen the wedding procession went out and on thehighway met the funeral procession. Dr. Swaminathanwould remember that when he came to Yavatmal heencountered a similar situation, when suicides werebeing brought to the hospitals even as the NationalCommission on Farmers (NCF) team were holdingdiscussions with the Government officials. So, thewedding procession ran into the funeral procession ofGosavi Pawar. Then, people who were carrying his bodyran into the fields and hid so that they would notcast a bad omen on the wedding. But there was also something very inspiring. Some ofthe poorest people on planet Earth made those weddingshappen. Everybody contributed Rs. 5, quarter kilo of wheat, half a kilo of rice, one sheaf of banana, acoconut, whatever they could. They held thoseweddings. They did not have the resources to do it, Iam afraid, in the Palace of Versailles. But they heldthose weddings by community action, by public action. I felt so proud at that moment that our people showedthe decency and dignity that the elite have socompletely forgotten. When governments cheat on poll promises: Coming back to 'eligible suicides' in Vidharbha, thereis nothing that prevents the Government of Maharashtrafrom implementing its poll promise of Rs. 2700 perquintal of cotton. What did they do after coming topower? I am not singling out one Government. Let memake it very clear agriculture is in desperate shapeacross the country. All Governments are culpable. Everybody is fragile. No State is exempt. But inthis particular case, they made a promise of Rs. 2700rupees, but they lowered it by Rs. 500. They withdrewRs. 500 of the so-called 'advance bonus' payment. With that, it removed Rs. 1200 crores from thefarmers. After removing Rs. 1200 crores from thefarmers, the Chief Minister announced a package of Rs.1,075 crores. A package of Rs. 1,075 crore is beinggiven to people from whom you have taken away Rs. 1200crore! US-EU subsidies destroy cotton prices: At the same time, the US, the European Union weredrowning their cotton growers in subsidies. Cottongrowers of the US are not small farmers, they arecorporations. How many cotton growers do we have inMaharashtra? It is in millions. How many cottongrowers are there in US? It is 20,000. When weremoved Rs. 1200 crore from our farmers, how much didthe US give to its corporations? On a crop value of 3.9 billion dollars, the UnitedStates gave its cotton growers a subsidy of 4.7billion dollars. It destroyed the bottom of theinternational cotton market. The cotton price at theNew York exchange ruled at 90 to 100 cents in 1994-95fell to around 40 cents and from that date suicidesbegan all over the world as prices crashed and farmersran up horrible losses. In Burkina Faso, hundreds of cotton farmers killedthemselves. In July 2003, the Presidents of BurkinaFaso and Mali wrote an article in New York Times,"Your Farm Subsidies are Strangling Us". We were notable to take action against such subsidies, them. While our duties on cotton are 10 per cent, if youare a Mumbai textile magnate, then you do not pay eventhat ten per cent. You get it waived in lieu ofexport of garments. Incidentally, if I am a Mumbaitextile magnate, I can even get the cotton freebecause private corporations dumping cotton in India would give me six months' credit. In six monthscredit, I can run the entire cycle from cotton tocotton garment. So, I am essentially getting an interest-free loanfrom you which I return in six months and I have madehuge profits. All these games are played around thelives of millions of people. Role of the media: For me the saddest thing is your (Mrs. Alva's) commenton the media. As a journalist, I totally endorse this.The saddest thing last year that happened was whenless than six 'national' journalists were covering thesuicides in Vidharbha. Five hundred and twelveaccredited journalists were fighting for space tocover the Lakme India Fashion Week. In that FashionWeek programme, the models were displaying cottongarments while the men and women who grew the cottonwere killing themselves at a distance of one hour'sflight from Nagpur in the Vidharbha region. The ironyof it should have been a news story, but nobody didthat story except one or two journalists locally. We withdrew the money of the advance bonus of Rs. 500a quintal at the time when the US and EU wereincreasing their subsidies. I went last year to US andvisited American farms. Including corporate styledairies. The subsidy per cow every day is twice yourNational Rural Employment Guarantee Programme minimumwage. It is around three dollars per cow which is Rs.120. Double your National Rural Employment GuaranteeProgramme wage which is Rs. 60. That is why myfriend, Vijay Jawandia from Wardha, put it sobeautifully in a television interview. He was asked –Jawandia saab what is the dream of the Indian farmer?He said the dream of the Indian farmer is to be bornas an American cow because they are getting threetimes the support that we do. We have locked thefarmer into global price shocks while removingwhatever safety nets they had. We have not been ableto fight the EU-US cotton subsidies. Seed companies are being allowed to run riot: We have deregulated agriculture to an extent where thequality of seed has now been graded much lower. Inthe sense, when you bought a bag of seed, on the backof seed, it will be stamped – 85 per cent germinationrate guaranteed. That is now 60 per cent. It meansif a village buys 10,000 bags of seed, they are payingfor 10,000 bags, but they are getting 6,000 bagsbecause we have lowered the standards through MOUswith companies. The seed industry, as I said earlier,is bigger than software exports. The agriculturaluniversities have collapsed. The extension machinery,as the Government of India itself says, is in a stateof complete disrepair. At the time the advance bonuswas withdrawn, we begged the government: Please do notdo this as suicides could double. We were wrong. Insome places, they tripled. We begged - do not dothis, do not do this, do not remove this, it willreally kill these people who are in a very precariousstage. Vidharbha Vs. Mumbai: Incidentally, by the end of 2005, there was a uniqueG.O. in Maharashtra. I do not know if you are aware ofit. In Maharashtra, it has 14 hours' or 15 hours'power cut whereas the best localities of Mumbai havenever a problem of power cut, not even for one minute.The beautiful people cannot be subjected to powercuts. Incidentally, a 15-minute power cut in Mumbaiwould give two hours of power to all the 11 districtsof Vidharbha, but the children of Vidharbha were notgiven that concession even during the exams. That iswhy Vidharbha's performance in HSC exams will alwaysbe worse, though the topper is from Vidharbha. Soalongside the withdrawal of the bonus, a new G.O.came. We have exemptions for power cuts. Do you knowwhat was exempted in the new GO of 2005? Post-mortemcentres were exempted from power cuts because so manypeople were being wielded in for post-mortem. Theyexempted post mortem centres from power cuts alongwith Armed Forces, Police Stations, Fire Brigade etc.

By P. Sainath
Rural Affairs Editor,
The Hindu