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From debt trap to suicide

From debt trap to suicide
Father of the Green Revolution, Professor MS Swaminathan tweeted last week: "If agriculture goes wrong, nothing else will go right. That's why@AgriGoI should make farmers' wellbeing centre of all programmes & policies." The renowned agricultural expert took to social media soon after the farmers in Mandsaur, (Madhya Pradesh) resorted to widespread arson pressing for better price and loan waiver on June 1 after which five of them were killed and several injured.

The Swaminathan Committee's report of 2006 had highlighted unfinished agenda in land reform, quantity and quality of water, technology fatigue, access, adequacy and timeliness of institutional credit, and opportunities for assured and remunerative marketing as primary causes of the agrarian crisis. It had also recommended that Agriculture should be inserted in the Concurrent List of the Constitution and State-level Farmers' Commission should be set up to deal with their problems. The BJP, before 2014 general elections, had promised that it would implement recommendations of the MS Swaminathan Commission on the payment of an increased minimum support price (MSP) to farmers for their produce.

The plight of the farmers has come under the focus once again with the recent farmers' agitation in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and elsewhere demanding better prices for their produce and waiving of agricultural loans.

At Delhi's Jantar Mantar, farmers from Tamil Nadu staged a protest holding the skulls of farmers who had committed suicide in March.

The number of farmer suicides is also alarming. Top states for reporting suicides are Maharashtra, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Chhattisgarh. According to one estimate, every 30 minutes one farmer commits suicide. Over five lakh farmers have committed suicide since 1995. The latest National Crime Records Bureau's data reveals, 80 per cent of farmers who killed themselves had taken loans from banks and finance companies. According to the data, 5,650 farmers committed suicide in 2014, and it went up to 8,000 in 2015 with Maharashtra topping the list with 3,030 deaths.

The apex court had also come into the picture recently when it said: "This issue is of extreme importance. Tentatively, we feel that you are going in a wrong direction. Farmers take loan from banks, and when they are unable to repay, they commit suicide. The remedy to the problem is not to pay money to farmers after the suicide, but you should have schemes to prevent this. Farmers' suicides have been happening for so many decades, and it is surprising that no action has been taken to address the causes behind suicides."

It is clear that agriculture is no more lucrative and farmers are moving to other fields. The population of farmers declined by 15 million (about 2000 farmers lost per day), and most of them have been demoted to agricultural workers. Socio-economic caste census states that 75 per cent of rural families make less than 5,000 rupees a month and 90 per cent of rural families make less than 10,000 rupees a month.

There is also politics about the resolution of farmers problems. The farm loan waiver is one of India's most popular, often-used political tools. Political parties play lip service to their problems during the elections promising them all kind of relief. Prime Minister V.P. Singh government promised a waiver of loans up to Rs 10,000 for each farmer and came to power in 1989. Similarly, the UPA government came back to power in 2009 offering borrowers a bailout program in which 37 million farmers benefited from waivers of 522 billion rupees.

The Telugu Desam and Telangana Rashtra Samithi came to power in 2014 on the promise of a loan waiver in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The first decision of the new UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath was to waive off crop loans of up to Rs 1 lakh of small and marginal farmers in the state, a relief the party promised before the 2017 March Assembly elections. Telangana and Maharashtra also have joined the loan waiver relief list.

Chhattisgarh has offered interest-free loans to farmers. Farm loan waivers are only a "temporary necessity" and not a permanent solution to the problem, according to MS Swaminathan. It also results in rising fiscal deficit of State and Central governments. Former Reserve Bank Governor Raghuram Rajan observed in 2014 that such programmes ultimately constrained credit flow to the farmers.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, during this year's budget speech, reiterated the government's resolve to help farmers double their income in another four years. The measures suggested for doubling income include distribution of soil health cards, promotion of more crop per drop, increase in availability of credit, improved post-harvest processing and value addition and market reform.

What the farming community lacks are a visionary leader and a powerful movement. Gone are the days of Charan Singh, Mahendra Singh Tikait, Balram Jhakhar, Sharad Joshi and other tall leaders, who could speak for the community and influence policies. The Hardik Patels of today are no match to them.

India is still one of the leading top producers in wheat, rice, and cotton and also became the world's largest rice exporter in 2015, exporting 10.23 million tonnes and became a substantial exporter of wheat and maize in recent years. So all is not lost if the government addresses the concerns of the farmers. Swaminathan's suggestion to move from 'Green Revolution' to 'Evergreen Revolution' is one option. There is an urgent need for the Centre and the States to address the concerns of the farmers and the schemes devised reach the intended beneficiaries.

(The views expressed are strictly personal.)

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