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2015 Was a Terrible Year for Indian Agriculture
Epidemic of Farmer Suicides / Continuing Agrarian Crisis

by Devinder Sharma
Chandigarh Area, India

Devinder Sharma.
It was a bad year for agriculture. Not that it was anything better earlier, but 2015 was particularly a bad year. Bruised by the continuous battering received since the beginning of the year, and dumped by an apathetic government, the continuing agrarian crisis has only worsened.

With a back-to-back drought for the second year in a row, the summer rainfall deficit touched a high of 14 per cent, the highest in six years. Nearly 40 per cent of the country’s cultivable area recorded deficit monsoons with Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, eastern Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Telangana being the worst affected. Punjab and Haryana too received less rainfall but escaped being negatively impacted because of a wide network of irrigation.

Before the summer rainfall seasons began in June, an unexpectedly long spell of unseasonal rains, accompanied by strong winds and hailstorm, had lashed western Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, parts of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. The standing wheat crop that was almost ready for harvest was extensively damaged with a spate of farmer suicides hitting the hailstorm affected belt. Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan saw a rise in farmer deaths, with many farmers dying from shock after seeing a flattened crop.

Far away in Karnataka, in what appears to be an unprecedented reflection of the severity of a continuing agrarian crisis, more than 600 farmers (and still counting) have taken their own lives since June. In fact, self-immolation by some farmers, a few of them even jumping in the burning sugarcane fields, is seen as an expression of extreme indignation against the apathetic and farmer-unfriendly agricultural policies of the state. Such has been the pace and spate of suicides that Karnataka has suddenly joined the category of farm suicide hotspot of the country.

The situation is the worst in Maharashtra. More than 2,950 farmers had committed suicides till October from the beginning of year. A year earlier, according to official estimates, 1,611 farmers had ended their own lives. Besides the suicide-prone Vidharbha region, the worsening plight of farmers in Marathwada has turned the region into a new suicide hot spot of the country. In December alone, 112 farmers committed suicide as per official records. Not knowing what else to try, the Maharashtra chief minister had earlier roped in film actress Deepika Padukone to apply a psychological approach in minimizing the death toll. Later, he announced a relief package of Rs 10,512-crore. Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh too witnessed a spurt in suicides. In Madhya Pradesh, it was primarily the attack of yellow mosaic virus on soybean that compounded the prevail crisis. But what came in as a bigger shock was the spate of farmer suicides in Odisha. Almost close to 100 farmers have taken their lives prompting the State BJP to launch a campaign seeking the ruling BJD to address the issue.

In Punjab and Haryana, the food bowl of the country, two to four suicides on an average are happening every day. After unseasonal rains in March-April, a crash in potato prices followed forcing farmers to distribute potato free of cost at various places. The prices of basmati rice were the next to slump, with farmers not being able to get more than Rs 1,200 per quintal for the early maturing variety. Two years earlier, basmati had fetched a handsome return of Rs 4,000 per quintal or more. The price for basmati at that time was even less than the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for rice. To add to their woes, approximately Rs 5,500-crore of paddy MSP has not been paid to farmers even a month after the procurement was over.

As if this is not enough, whitefly, a tiny insect, which was till recently considered a minor pest, took a devastating form to devour nearly 75 per cent of the standing cotton crop. Much of the damage was on Bt cotton, the genetically-modified strain. Agriculture Radha Mohan Singh has informed Parliament that cotton crop in 3.32 lakh hectares had been destroyed from whitefly attack. Some estimates point to Rs 4,600-crore loss for farmers. Irate farmers had resorted to rail rook at a number of places demanding a compensation of Rs 40,000 per acre for the damage done by whitefly. They also are seeking a relief of Rs 20,000 for farm workers who were laid off due to the insect attack. The rail rook protests were later discontinued but farmers still continue to resist the entry of ruling party politicians into the villages.

It is not only the weather that played havoc with the farming systems across the country, but what has systematically added on to the agrarian crisis is the prevailing apathy and neglect. At a time when the farmers were the worst hit, I had expected the Central government to come up with a higher MSP for wheat and paddy, and in addition announce at least a Rs 2-lakh-crore economic bailout package for farmers. Instead the government has ignored the cries of the farming community and has decided to provide a three-times increase in the monthly emoluments of the government employees through the 7th Pay Commission. While the MSP for farmers has been raised by a paltry Rs 50 per quintal, which corresponds to an increase of 3.5 per cent or so, the lowest government employee -- chaprasi -- has been given a jump of 260 per cent in basic salary.

I am of the firm opinion that the underlying intention is to drive farmers out of agriculture. Make it so uneconomical that farmers are left with no choice but to abandon farming. This is the better way rather than forcing them out. Niti Ayong deputy chairman Arvind Panagariya and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) Governor Raghuram Rajan has often said that the biggest reform will be when population from agriculture is moved to the urban areas. The Confederation of India Industry (CII) on the other hand has been seeking cheaper labour for infrastructure which can come only if farmers are forced out. An indication of this process comes from a news report which says around 500 farmers in Sonepat district (adjoining Delhi) are offering their land being acquired for setting up an educational institute. Another news report talked of how 3,000 villages in Uttarakhand have gone empty with people migrating in search of jobs.

This is a telling insight into the deliberate effort over the years to keep the farmers impoverished. But if you think farmers have suffered unknowingly, you are simply mistaken. For a country to grow economically, the economic prescription is to reduce drastically the dependency on agriculture. Therefore the entire effort is to create such pitiable conditions that forces people on their own to abandon farming and migrate to the cities. Government needs cheap work force -- dehari mazdoors. But what is being forgotten is that agriculture is the biggest employer. All efforts should be to make it economically viable and environmentally sustainable.

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Published in In Motion Magazine January 13, 2016