Nidheesh J Villatt writes on the vicious cycle that tightens the noose around the farmer’s neck across the Indian countryside
Nidheesh J Villatt
NIDHEESH J VILLATT
He was humiliated and dehumanised. He wrote four suicide notes before killing himself. One was in his pocket, another under the pillow and one more was lying on the floor of the room. The fourth and the most disturbing one was scribbled on the wall of the room. It was probably written during his last moments,” says Suman Devi, a landless Dalit peasant from Dinod village of Bhiwani district in Haryana whose husband Madan Pal who committed suicide on 7 May.
Showing the photograph of Madan’s final farewell note on the wall, Suman says, “He was passionate about farming.” The graffiti reads like this: “Bhaiyon, mein bura nahi tha… inn logon ne bana diya (Brothers, I wasn’t bad but they turned me into that).” Following that is a list of the names of the moneylenders who harassed him.
Suman was in Delhi to attend a national convention of the family members of the farmers who committed suicide. The convention was organised by All India Kisan Sabha (aiks) to “protest against neoliberal economic policies unleashed by central and state governments that are pushing farmers to suicide”.
The life and struggles of this Dalit couple, punctuated by the untimely death of the husband, is a slap on the face of the Narendra Modi government, whose Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh infamously declared that “impotency and love affairs” are significant causes of the distress suicides that are ravaging the Indian countryside. Going by the logic of the Modi regime and State agencies such as the National Crime Records Bureau (ncrb), Madan’s death may not be a “farm suicide”. Of course, like most Dalits in India, Madan, too, was landless. But does that mean Dalits are not doing farming and they are not committing suicide because of agrarian distress? Mandarins in the Niti Aayog (which has replaced the erstwhile Planning Commission) and ncrb would say yes. So, are they right?
Official statistics on suicides exclude the most oppressed sections of the peasantry — tenant farmers, sharecroppers, women farmers (In India, land titles are mostly in the name of the men) — even if they had been tilling land for years. Formal credit agencies such as banks do not give credit to tenant farmers because most tenancy contracts are oral, with no formal documents. And the deep structural inequalities prevailing in India ensure that a disproportionate number of tenants and sharecroppers belong to the lower castes.
Take the case of the Madan, who had leased in 10 acres of farm land at an annual rent of 20,000 per acre. He borrowed from three local sahukars (moneylenders) at interest rates ranging from 36 percent yearly to very high monthly rates. In these parts of Haryana, you have to pay back 1 percent of the loan to the moneylender every day. Madan had been doing this meticulously until bad luck came in the form of the hailstorm this summer. His entire crop was damaged, but he did not get a single penny as compensation. Fed up with the constant humiliation by the moneylenders, Madan hanged himself to death.
“We voted for the bjp in the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections last year. But none of their leaders visited us,” says Suman.
Or take the case of the Ramendra Sharma from Pachoria village in Gwalior district of Madhya Pradesh. His father Devendra was regarded among fellow villagers as a model farmer, who died of a heart attack after severe hailstorm destroyed crops in the village and “even the buffaloes won’t touch the damaged wheat”. “On 19 March, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan visited our village with a huge contingent from the media in tow,” recalls Ramendra. “He promised ‘immediate relief’ and ‘personal attention’ to address the crisis. He also took my father to the fields and made him pose for photos. The CM’s public realtions machinery ensured that news, photos and visuals of this visit was played up in the regional media. But no relief reached us and my father died heartbroken in the first week of the April. I was outraged and decided to expose the duplicity of the government. When the local media noticed, a meagre amount, much less than what the cm had promised, was released as compensation.”
With debts piling up and the moneylenders’ hands at their throat, the Sharma family had to sell off their agricultural equipment and land. “My father always insisted that we should do farming. But what other option do we have now?” asks Ramendra.
Hailing from a remote village in Bhind district in Madhya Pradesh, Grandh, a Jatav Dalit farmer whose younger brother Janved killed himself in February after losing their crop to the hailstorm, rues that no matter how bad things get, quitting farming is not an option for people like them. “We have the title deeds to some land, but upper-caste landlords have encroached upon it,” says Grandh, “So, to make ends meet, we are forced to take land on lease from the same people and also borrow money from them or their relatives. We have no other way to fill our bellies because Dalits like us are denied access to the PDS (Public Distribution System) in our village.”
aiks activist Rajeev Dikshit points out that “feudal lords in these parts cannot stomach the idea of Dalits owning land and doing farming without depending on them. This historical discrimination becomes lethal when it is combined with the anti-farmer policies of the government.” It is not easy for marginal and small farmers to get cheap institutional credit under the government’s Kisan Credit Card (KCC) scheme. “If you are determined to get a card made under this scheme, you will only wear off the soles of your shoes. Bank managers won’t let you benefit from the scheme until you pay them a commission ranging from 10 percent to 25 percent of the loan you seek.”
Some other marginal farmers from Bhind claim to have paid exorbitant interest to moneylenders for getting loans to pay commissions to bank officials. “The same bank that refuses to give loans for agriculture is generous to the rural rich when it comes to giving loans for setting up petrol pumps or buying cars,” says Dikshit. “It seems that the agrarian crisis comes in handy for the rural rich and the bureaucrats to further marginalise the rural poor. By next year, several marginal landholdings in our place would be sold out at distress prices.”
Om Prakash, an Adivasi farmer from Rajasthan who lost his younger brother, Premshanker, in similar circumstances, complains that the BJP led state government has been burying its head in the sand on the issue of farm suicides.
In Maharashtra, another BJP-ruled state notorious for distress suicides, “the families of victims have to fight a prolonged battle with the government to get the death classified as distress suicide”, says Vicky Vadgedge, a teenager who lost his father Manohar in July. Maharashtra witnessed 45 percent of the total farm suicides in the country in 2014.
Farm suicides are not confined to BJP ruled states alone. “All states that implement neoliberal policies in agriculture are witnessing massive distress suicides. While governments at the Centre and the states are busy implementing pro-corporate policies, they have even been accused of fudging data to show that suicides have come down. The number of farmer suicides has come down in the NCRB’s recent suicide data, while the number of ‘others’ who committed suicide has risen exponentially, even more than 100 percent in states such as Andhra Pradesh,” says aiks leader Vijoo Krishnan.
Cut to Congress-ruled Karnataka to understand the policy roots of the crisis. AIKS activists have estimated that there were 211 farm suicides in the past two months in the state. The crisis is clearly visible in the sugar belt, including Mandya district, and those districts where sericulture is a prominent form of cash farming. Anti-farmer import policies, price fluctuations, lack of minimum support price (MSP) and specific policies that help industrialists who own sugar mills are accentuating the plight of the marginal sugar farmers. It is manifested in violent forms of suicide such as that of Ninge Gowda, who set fire to his sugarcane field and burned himself to death.
Moving on to Telangana, where loan waivers to farmers was a major pre-election promise on which K Chandrashekar Rao and his TRS rode to power. Family members of the victims point out that since the government failed to fulfill the promise, now the banks are bluntly refusing to issue fresh loans. “Farmers have to depend on moneylenders. If the crop fails, then you have to face their terror,” says Adivasi farmer P Mangalamma, whose husband Sreenivas committed suicide after the moneylenders threatened him.
Other southern states such as Tamil Nadu and Kerala are also witnessing the crisis, though in a somewhat lesser magnitude than Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Tenant farmers who lease in irrigated fertile lands in the Cauvery belt seem to be the worst affected in Tamil Nadu. Because of the high lease rate, crop failure can seriously impact tenant farmers.
By official estimates, there were more than 3.5 lakh farm suicides in the post reform period. Critical academic studies that debunk the conservative nature of official statistics estimate the actual number of farm suicides to be much higher. According to data furnished by the National Statistical Office, there has been a 26 percent increase in the suicide rate after the BJP under Modi took power in New Delhi. Despite this unprecedented human tragedy, the ruling classes are competing with each other to somehow gloss over the crisis, while some leaders say that farmers commit suicide because they are greedy for compensation. What can be more insensitive than that?