“I have a feeling that I have lost both my hands and legs,” says Veerpal Singh, a marginal farmer from the Kalena village of Bulandshahr district of UP. The frail-looking farmer cuts a sorry figure; his words are hardly audible with helplessness written all over his face. In his late 60s, Veerpal Singh, like most of the marginal peasants in the most populous state of India, is drowning in a veritable vortex of alienation and anomie. Puffing a beedi and squatting in a peculiar way with one hand supporting his head, demonstrating his pitiable situation, he asks, “Why should I live now? How should I live now?”
When Tehelka visited several villages of this western UP district to understand the agrarian conditions after the recent unseasonal rain and hailstorm which destroyed crops, it was evident that the question raised by Veerpal precisely sums up the anxieties of the farmers in this agrarian belt. “The hailstorm had a devastating impact on the livelihood of farmers. Crops are severely damaged. And due to flawed policies of central and state governments, farmers are not going to get the right compensation. But it is absolutely wrong to say that the farmers were otherwise fine. They are immersed in an unfathomable crisis and hailstorm havoc has acted as a catalyst,” says Jagweer Singh, a small farmer and district secretary of All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS).
Veerpal Singh’s life is testimony to ‘immersion in crisis’ as well as uncertainties faced by Indian farmers due to global climate change. Crushed after successive crop failures and price fluctuations, Veerpal decided to focus more on the dairy sector. He approached public sector banks and other institutionalised credit agencies to make that happen. Unable to get credit, he approached the village ‘Sahukar’ (moneylender). He borrowed Rs 60,000 at a monthly interest of 3%. He managed another Rs 5,000 from relatives and his meagre savings and purchased a milk-yielding buffalo last year November. But unfortunately buffalo died after two months.
“I have to pay Rs 1,800 per month to the moneylender. Now I’m unable to pay the amount. So after 6 months, my principal amount will be Rs 70,800 and corresponding monthly interest. I thought I will pay the interest once Rabi crop harvesting is over. Now with hailstorm destroying my entire wheat crop in one acre farm, I don’t know what to do. I feel suffocated. I have tilled the land from my childhood. I don’t want to leave farming. But I don’t know how I will survive. Hope my two young buffalos will grow and give milk,” he says, the slight glimmer of hope visible in his teary eyes.
“His dream of surviving with young buffalos may not work out. Our cattle is perishing as if symbolic of deep agrarian crisis,” says Ajith Kumar, another small farmer. “This is a cattle belt. But you cannot find veterinary services nearby. Buffalos cannot go to doctor and doctors won’t come to buffalos until they are bribed beyond our means.”
Taking advantage of the situation, a veterinary quack mafia is active in these areas. They adopt primitive methods of diagnosis and treatment. The farmers are forced to depend on quacks at the time of emergency. “Bhori, my pet cow fell ill last October. There was no veterinary help available and I couldn’t watch suffering. Getting a hint of my pathetic condition, a quack appeared from somewhere. He injected wrong medicine and she died. Later I came to know that scientific medicine could have saved her life,” says Ajith. One can find large number of farmers whose cattle died due to treatment by quacks in the villages of the surrounding area. Quacks have been making huge money exploiting the desperation of the poor farmers. This should be viewed in the context of diminishing services in the agriculture sector and increased focus by the state on ‘industry’.
Farmers’ attachment towards cattle, lack of institutional support and mushrooming of quacks are consequently leading to land alienation. Life of Malook Singh, 40, an unmarried farmer from the same village testifies this fact. Malook took a loan of Rs 70,000 from the village moneylender to buy a pregnant buffalo hoping on possibly making a living out of selling milk. “The buffalo died during delivery after I consulted a quack and since I have been rendered helpless. After two years, moneylender told me that your land cost is equal to principal amount of loan added with interest. I lost my farmland of more than half acre. Now I do whatever odd jobs that I get. But other farmers in village are also decreasing the practice of hiring labour. Somehow I’m managing two meals a day by offering help in fields.”
“Prime minister is saying that we should give our land to corporates. If the crisis continues like this, corporates will get our farm land without bloodshed. Farmers will be forced to leave agriculture en masse,” says Ravi, a middle-income farmer from a nearby village, who lost a significant portion of his crop during recent rains. “You won’t believe. I have not purchased new clothes in the family for the last four years. I haven’t painted my house for the last ten years. I’m unable to give my children the same facilities that I used to get in my childhood. Even after successive crop failures and drastic price fluctuations, we are not ready to leave farming because we don’t have other option,” he says.
To understand the gravity of the situation, Ravi explains with an example of Basmati rice, this region’s masterpiece crop. “Last year this time around, price of Basmati rice varied between Rs 4,000 and Rs 5,000 per quintal. Now it’s just Rs 1300. I cannot even meet my production cost. Heavy rains have destroyed major chunk of my wheat cultivation. To harvest the rest semi-damaged crops, I have to spend three times the normal labour cost,” he says.
There are several farmers like Ravi in this belt who had a past of “decent and content life” but were gradually rendered impoverished in the post economic reform period. Unpainted houses, old clothes and footwear used by family members, colourless festivals and marriages without celebrations, increasing school and college dropouts, etc, explain the situation. There is also a marked decrease in food consumption, especially of items like meat which needs to be bought from market. Some of the youngsters from these families migrate to cities like Noida to do highly underpaid jobs in the informal sector.
“Successive governments are competing to give subsidised electricity to industries. But in our district, electricity is a VVIP in farming belts. He will come according to his whims and fancies. Even if he is coming, every 10 or 15 minutes he will take a break. On an average he won’t stay with farmers for more than four hours a day. How will we do irrigation and other related activities where we need electricity?” asks another farmer called Vishnu Nath Tyagi.
How farmers enter the vicious circle
When farmers are drowned in crisis, there are sections of parasitic classes who exploit their pathetic condition. Peculiar rural power structure and helplessness of farmers make a ‘good’ combination for exploitation. Parasitic classes consists of public sector and other scheduled bank officials, money lenders and loan brokers who arrange bank loans for farmers.
Tehelka visited a village called Faranna in Khurja Taluk, where there was severe crop loss. The village is also known for a significant presence of moneylenders. “Banks are insensitive to farmers. They won’t give us credit when we need it. So we are forced to depend on moneylenders. They charge exorbitant rates and in several cases farmers have to mortgage their land to repay their debt. But you will get money when you need it urgently, if you approach the local moneylenders,” a group of farmers explained.
Then the next logical question would be why these farmers are not availing facilities of the prestigious official government project of farming credit called Kisan Credit Card (KCC). Initiated by central government, RBI and NABARD, KCC helps to overcome the technical delays of normal bank credit.
“Banks in this area won’t issue KCC unless we are paying commission to the bank officials through loan brokers. Normal commission is 25% of the principal amount. If farmers are in urgent need of credit, the commission will go higher. So after all natural disasters, commission amount will be high. In all banks, loan brokers who are connected with the dominant political parties are present. These brokers won’t allow farmers to meet bank manager. And if you succeed in meeting the manager, he will suggest you to ‘meet’ loan brokers,” says Narendhar, a small farmer.
Experience of Satyander, a marginal farmer from the village, shows us the inhumane traits of rural corruption. Some months ago, he applied for KCC. Initially, he went to meet the officials of Punjab National Bank (PnB), the local service provider in the area. “I was refused and officials told me to meet loan brokers. I met them and they said they will arrange KCC if I pay 50% as commission. I was in urgent need of money for farming hence I agreed to their condition and I got the KCC worth Rs 2 lakh. I had to pay Rs 1 lakh as commission,” he says.
The cruel fact in his case is that he will have to pay interest to the bank for the principal amount – Rs 2 lakh until he repays his debt. But in reality, a mafia consisting of bank officials and loan brokers has siphoned half of his loan amount as commission. Satyander also lost 50% of his crop in the current disaster. So to repay his KCC debt, he will have to borrow money from moneylenders. The grim reality is that he may not be able to come out of this vicious cycle in the near future. One can meet large number of farmers in the area who received kcc after paying commission to loan brokers.
Bank officials also demonstrate the same eagerness (in taking commission) when it comes to harassing ‘defaulters’- farmers who lost crops or who got impoverished due to drastic price fluctuations and high input cost. This ‘eagerness’ made Sudheer Sharma, a passionate mango farmer to commit suicide by hanging from a mango tree in his farm, in a neighbouring village called Fatekhroli. His crop failed and he couldn’t repay the loan amount to the bank. “My father was publicly humiliated by revenue officials because of his debt. Government did not officially declare it as an agrarian suicide,” Rashmi, his daughter tells Tehelka.
Sudheer’s wife had to sell their cattle and jewellery to repay portion of his debt. They also had to borrow from moneylenders. “Moneylenders gave us money on a particular condition that for the next three years, they will cultivate and harvest our land as part of collecting the interest. So currently, we are not having any means to repay our principal amount.”
There are several unreported cases of farm suicides in all agrarian regions of UP. The crisis in sectors like sugarcane seems to be very serious. “Sugarcane farmersare suffering primarily because of the wrong policies of the central and state governments. Governments are focusing on short-term gains. A powerful lobby of sugarcane mill owners are siphoning off the revenue generated by farmers,” says Ajay Vir Jhakar, leader of Bharat Krishak Samaj.
A total of 97.29 lakh hectares has been devastated in the current crisis. “The agrarian crisis in UP should be seen in the context of the larger political economy of neoliberal reforms and climate change. The recent rain disaster in UP and other states should make us critically evaluate the status of agricultural insurance in the country. According to the Situation Assessment Survey and National Sample Survey Organisation, the share of households not insuring their crop is in some cases up to 100 percent and in most cases over 95 percent. We are demanding a ‘All-Risk Agricultural Insurance’ which should absorb the shock of crop failure by providing a cushion that assures the farmers of adequate protection against crop losses as well as fall in incomes. The unit for insurance should be the revenue village. Now the assessment is done at Taluk or Mandal level, leading to denial of reimbursement of losses to genuine farmers. Insurance should cover all farmers, including tenant farmers and sharecroppers. UP, which is undergoing severe agrarian crisis. needs a compehensive insurance package,” points out Vijoo Krishnan, national joint secretary of All India Kisan Sabha.
Farmers in UP, it can be said, are in a condition of “advanced marginality”, which social scientists describe as the condition “of a group being isolated from the larger society and the oversight of their needs and rights by the state and the leading economic players”. The Modi government’s move to pass the Land Acquisition Bill has accelerated their alienation.