Playing politics over farmer suicides
If the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data is to be taken seriously, on an average over 15,000 farmers commit suicide every year in India. Many farmers commit suicide because of crop failure and the subsequent pressure of high debts. The crime records list several other reasons for farmer suicides. They include ill health, personal and family problems. Between 1995 and 2013, the NCRB states that there have been 2,96,438 cases of farmer suicides. The number represents a little over 11 per cent of total suicide deaths in the country per year during this period. Considering that around 45 per cent of India’s population directly lives on farming, these numbers are anything but alarming. The largest number of farmer suicides took place in 2004-05 (around 18,000) when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government under Sonia Gandhi ruled the country. Of the last 20 years, the Congress party was at the helm of the national government for a full 10 years. In that period at least 1,60,000 farmers committed suicide. Such numbers therefore beg the question as to why Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi is suddenly trying to make a huge political issue out of farmer suicides. Is it to collect the sympathy of this largely impoverished community?
Politics apart, farmer suicides should be a cause of concern for any society. It is more so if they are linked with economic reasons such as crop failure or crop glut, unremunerative prices of crops, competition from genetically modified (GM) crops, pressure from the middleman, poor storage facilities, high debt burden and unsupportive government policies. Unfortunately, we possess negligible records to document the link between farmer suicides and the reasons behind them. Governments, both at the State and Centre, rarely engage themselves with farmers, especially poor and marginal ones, those who possess small land holdings and raise a single or double crop in a year. Negligible engagement between the State and marginal farmers amounts to ignorance about the reasons behind such suicides and measures that could to be taken promptly. Measures such as loans and interest write-offs are generally taken before elections mainly to woo the average farmer. In practice, the richer farmers make the most of government doles. Ironically, a section of these farmers, benefitting from government policies, are among the powerful politicians themselves. Many of them are linked with forming so-called land banks and taking lands of poor and marginal farmers on mortgage against loans.
Farmers and farm lands are increasingly becoming an increasing part of Indian politics although few politicians are concerned about the changing face of Indian agriculture. One such change is that educated children of farmers are fast fleeing farms for urban jobs. Farming in India today is increasingly mechanised – from preparing land to sowing and reaping – making it less and less employment intensive. Anyway, full-time, round-the-year farming jobs are rare. It is not that politicians are unaware of these changes. They, however, conveniently ignore these facts or twist them to suit their political objectives. The number of farmers is now over 90 lakh, fewer than it was in 2001, according to the census data. This is the first time in four decades that the absolute number of cultivators has shown a steady fall. As per the Registrar General of India records, based on the last census, cultivators formed the second-largest group at 119 million after ‘others’ and are now less than a quarter of the total workforce, a decline of over 7 percentage points over 2001.
It is surprising that political parties, opposing the new Land Bill, chose to ignore the fact that farming like any other business is becoming increasingly competitive in India. Younger people from rural areas are looking at industry for more secure jobs. What’s happening in India is nothing different from any other agrarian Asian economies of the past such as China, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Like India, all these countries were principally agrarian economies – China till 1980s, Indonesia and Vietnam till 2000. China was the first to industrialise and grew rapidly over the last 25 years to become the world’s second largest economy. Thailand struck a good balance between agriculture and industry. Indonesia and Vietnam are now industrialising at a feverish pace, through massive land reform and pro-industry policies. Long before the introduction of the ‘Make-in-India’ programme by the present government, much to the chagrin of the Opposition, China, Indonesia and Vietnam went all out to strengthen domestic production and export to boost their economies and create jobs for their skilled and educated youths. Land acts were changed without opposition not only in Communist-ruled China and Vietnam, but also in the democratic Islamic state of Indonesia.
Democratic India and its political parties must grow up. Irrespective of political affiliation, they must show the political will to fight poverty, malnutrition, destitution, illiteracy, unemployment and the high level of frustration that lead to suicides; and not play politics with them ostensibly to protect one community at the cost of the other. Children of old generation political parties, many of whom have gotten into politics under the influence of their parents, must work to change the format of the six-decade old Indian politics that chose to ignore the economic strength of the country and the massive growth of other regional powers in Asia. Nations such as South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, Malaysia and Indonesia witnessed exponential economic growth in the past, making them net investors in other countries in Asia and outside. The coming years may witness a much larger flow of youth from rural locations to urban areas in search of more job opportunities in the manufacturing industry and the services sectors. India needs a total re-look at its existing policies, including land acquisition, to arrest such migration by organising many job centres and smaller urban habitats across the country. Economy, not suicides, should be focal point of politics, and not vice versa.