Book excerpt: Forget farmer suicide, are we looking at the death of farming?


May 1, 2015 13:22 IST

by Harsh Mander


Editor’s Note: The death of Gajendra Singh Rajput at the AAP rally has suddenly turned the national attention back to farmers. As political parties fight to use that tragedy, or maneuver around it, when it comes to the proposed Land Bill, the heated rhetoric drowns out a quieter tragedy. Even when a farmer does not commit suicide, the odds are stacked against those trying to work the land and will only get worse. Human rights worker Harsh Mander tells the story of one man who tried to make a living as a farmer and what happened to him. “This generation will pass somehow, but what about the next?” asks Mander. This essay appears in the new book Looking Away- Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India by Harsh Mander (Speaking Tiger).


Back in 2009, I lost a very dear friend, Narendranath Gorrepati, to brain cancer. In life, as in death, my friend taught me many lessons in human goodness. I also learned from him the impossibility of life as a farmer in new India.


Naren was in university in Delhi with me in the 1970s, a few years my senior. He joined as an officer in the State Bank of Hyderabad, but was restless from the start. He resigned in five years and initially worked for Lokayan—a forum established by political scientist Rajni Kothari for dialogue between intellectuals, practitioners and political activists for alternate development and politics—in Delhi in 1980 at half the salary he was receiving from the bank. He voluntarily reduced his salary further because of the financial difficulties the organization was facing. He then moved to Hyderabad, with his wife and lifelong soulmate Uma Shankari. A series of personal tragedies—the loss of Uma’s father, and Naren’s mother in an accident—pushed them to take the next decision, changing their lives forever. Uma recalls, ‘Somehow death became certain, life very, very uncertain. We realized that life may be short, and whatever good things we want to do we should do today, now. We planned therefore to follow our hearts: to go to our village, to look after the lands with organic farming, and continue Naren’s social work.’ So in 1987, the family returned to Naren’s ancestral village, Venkatramapuram, Andhra Pradesh, where they lived until Naren took ill in 2009.


Naren was born into a family of landlords. His father, unwilling to alter the rules of caste observed in the village, was against allowing Dalits to enter the kitchen or sit with them at the table. Naren too was stubborn, but in his own gentle way. The solution he crafted was uniquely Naren’s: in all the years that he lived in the village while his father was alive, he ate his food on the kitchen floor, not at the dining table, and when there were Dalit visitors, they ate with him on the floor. His wife and two young daughters joined him in this practice. Naren would sit with his father at the table when he had his meals, but not eat at the table himself. Later, he would sit on the floor with his food. This was Naren’s daily satyagrah for social equality in his home.


A firm believer in organic and eco-friendly farming techniques, Naren experimented a lot by cultivating his own fields with organic technologies, without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. He also wrote extensively on his observations of the agriculture sector, especially of the travails of dry-land farmers. He contributed to village self-rule by reviving and participating in the internal settlement of family and land disputes. He fought the destruction of crops by elephants in ways that would protect both the elephants— by creating a corridor for them—and the victims by repeatedly pleading with government officials for enhanced compensation. He resisted and helped reverse heavy electricity tariffs on farmers.


Much more important than what he contributed to his people was how he related with them. Dalit families recall how Naren used to routinely visit their homes, eat with them and wash his own plate. He helped educate many Dalit children and youth, and encouraged inter-caste weddings. In his own home, everyone was welcome and fed generously, even as Uma sometimes argued with him about how they would make ends meet. He sent out mangoes from their orchard every year to all: to comrades and officials, but never forgetting all the poorer people who had no mango gardens of their own—the washer-folk, barbers, potters, smiths, carpenters, mechanics and school teachers. Our friend Rajni Bakshi recalls how he uniquely crossed all boundaries; everyone was his friend—the police, government officials, Naxals, the RSS, Communists, Ambedkarites, Dalits, casteists, even the very people whose lands they were claiming to hand over to the poor. Human rights activist K. Balagopal, who himself passed away soon after Naren, recalled when Naren died, ‘To Gandhians he spoke of class struggle. To Naxalites he spoke about the immorality of violence.’ Both mourned him inconsolably when he died.


Uma returned to their village after Naren’s passing away, determined to continue their experiments with sustainable and just farming. Feisty and determined as ever, although touching sixty, she persevered bravely for many years in a near solitary struggle. But then in 2013, she made an announcement to her family and friends, which left all of us pensive and grieved. She had resolved to return permanently to live in Hyderabad with her daughter and son-in-law, and leave behind in the village a hired hand to look after their fields. Uma wistfully described to us emptying villages, hollowed out of their young people, leaving behind only those too old to move, or those with whom their grown children in cities were unable to share their poverty. The government schools in the villages Uma left behind were closing down one by one because there were fewer children left; all of whom were moving in droves to residential schools in towns, their parents convinced that they had no future in the countryside. Venkatramapuram was once served by a decent public bus service, making five to six trips a day. Within a decade, these were reduced to two trips and, by the time Uma left, there were none. There weren’t enough passengers to justify a service.


Until the 1970s, a third of the farmers irrigated their fields with water from wells that were merely 9 to 15 metres deep, or that which collected in small tanks. The rest relied on rain-fed agriculture, and the soil was moist. But since then, the electric pump literally became a watershed in the history of their village. People started drilling borewells, and dug deeper and deeper to access ever-receding water. In Venkatramapuram today, almost all the borewells have run dry. Some people, in insane desperation, have gone down to 200 metres without striking water.


‘Agriculture is firstly about food,’ says Uma, a truism which nearly everyone has forgotten. ‘Farmers, planners, consumers have all come to believe that farming is mainly about making money. Money is of course important, but it is a by-product of agriculture. The primary goal of agriculture is to provide ourselves with good, nourishing, safe variety of foods. But no longer!’


With electrification, pumpsets also introduced the epochal, lifechanging idea of cropping for cash. In Naren and Uma’s region, sugarcane, milk, meat and mango became the main generators of cash. In the past, people would grow a wide variety of crops on both wet and dry lands—paddy, millets, pulses, oil seeds, sugarcane, coconut, vegetables, herbs and spices. Meat, fish and milk were all a part of the diet, even for the poor, because little was sold in the market. Cash payments to workers were rare; they were mostly paid in kind—grain, clothes and the like. There was year-round farming.


Farmers and farm workers, for the first time in history, are today forced to buy much of their food, dependent on a creaky and corrupt PDS, or volatile and inflationary private food markets. The largest numbers of persons who sleep hungry each night are, ironically, food growers. When people grew the food they ate, there was also more sharing of food.


Uma says, ‘The first thing people would say at any time of the day to a visitor is, “Come and eat.” There was enough food left over to give to beggars, cows, dogs, cats, birds and so on. These days, women calculate and cook just enough food for the family, because everything has to be purchased and the incomes are meagre and uncertain. Beggars have become rare; they too seem to have moved greener pastures, to the traffic signals in the cities…’


Even as the groundwater was steadily receding, disaster struck. In the seven years between 1997 and 2004, four years were officially declared drought years all across India, and the other years also saw severe rainfall shortages. This further spurred mass migration. Farmers and farm workers became convinced that there was no future in agriculture or in rural areas, and started sending their children away to urban residential schools. Committed family labour became scarce.


Since 2006, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act helped double agricultural wages. But it would offer employment in Venkatramapuram for hardly twenty to forty days in a year; and the scheme in that village was riddled with corruption and delays, with a lot of uncertainty about when and whether people would receive work. Therefore, landless agricultural workers fled even faster than the farmers to the cities, as they cannot live or work on hungry stomachs. Even the drinking-water bore-well had dried up; they received a small amount of water in tankers once every two days, and Uma could not carry water every day from the tanker to the house. She was alone most of the time and felt lonely.


And unlike when Naren was around, she found herself unable to enthuse the people of the village to work together to battle the challenges of water and land. ‘Even now people have not lost hope,’ she told me, ‘it is just that their hopes have shifted to urban areas and urban jobs; people are educating their children and moving to cities. If people lose hope, then what is left?’


Uma was saddened but in no way vanquished. In Hyderabad, she began volunteering time with the Kisan Swaraj movement to demand a Farmers’ Income Commission and resist genetically modified seeds and the corporatization of agriculture. She engaged a worker for a monthly salary to look after a few head of cattle and grow some rainfed jowar and horse gram on their land. In 2013, she spent 11,600 rupees to grow groundnut and received6,000 worth of product and fodder in return!


This generation will pass somehow, but what about the next? The Indian countryside has transformed into this wasteland of near terminal despair and increasingly impossible survival, by new technologies, forced integration with globalized markets, and an uncaring state. For a sector which employs half the population, contributes a sixth of the GDP, the state allocates as little as a twentieth of total public investment. It is no wonder, then, that tens of thousands of farmers each year poison or hang themselves; and millions of the young flee, when they can, to wherever they can, while they still can.