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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 1 New Delhi December 23, 2017 - Annual Number

No Country for Farmers

Sunday 24 December 2017

by Naren Singh Rao

Over three lakh farmers from various parts of the country marched to Delhi on November 20, 2017. While the ‘nation’ of politicians and television anchors was busy discussing whether the film Padmavati should be allowed to release or not, the farmers with dedication to their demands, protested against the spiral of miseries and sufferings being imposed upon them by the government of the day.

The protest was indeed a massive one, organised by as many as 184 farmers’ unions of the country. Thousands of farmers, including women farmers, while chanting slogans and holding banners, flags and posters in their hands, protested at various streets in central Delhi. “Free farmers from all debts” and “farmers have been robbed” read their posters.

The protest by the farmers was called for in order to express their deep anguish against the step-motherly treatment being meted out to them by the Narendra Modi-led BJP Government at the Centre. Modi, during his election campaign, repeatedly assured a fifty per cent profit over the cost of production as recommended in the Swaminathan report and thereby doubling farm incomes by the year 2022; but he has done nothing to fulfil the promise as yet. Rather the Modi Government has taken a U-turn now and submitted in the Supreme Court that it is not possible for the government to implement the recommendations of the Swaminathan report. In turn, the farmers are now feeling betrayed and taking to the streets to vent their angst.

As a matter of fact, the growth in the agriculture sector has nose-dived consistently during the past decades. The farmers have not been able to recover their cost of production, let alone earn any profit. The consistent rise in input cost and rampant slashing in subsidies and stagnant low prices of the crops are pushing farmers into the debt-trap.

In one year it is drought, in another it is famine; the farmers are in debt neck-deep while the government looks the other way.

Today there is no State in India where farmers are not committing suicides. Even the States that are perceived as agriculturally prosperous, such as Punjab, are also witnessing rampant farmer suicides. In the last three years, thirtyeight thousand farmers have committed suicides and the farmers’ suicide rate has increased by a whopping 45 per cent. Notwithstanding the fact that these data are provided by the Government of India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), that certainly do not reflect the actual numbers of farmer suicide cases (which are much higher) due to inherent bias in the methodology. For instance, the NCRB’s data do not reflect the suicide cases of those farmers who do not own title to the land. And there are millions of women farmers and agriculture labourers whose suicide does not find mention in the NCRB’s data simply because they do not own title to the land.

It is indeed a travesty of fate that the farmers who feed the country are themselves dying of hunger.

One of the porters in Shakespeare’s 17th century play, Macbeth, welcomes a farmer saying in his dream, “Here’s the farmer who hanged himself on the expectation of plenty”. It seems times have hardly changed for India since the times of Shakespeare.

The mainstream political discourse pertaining to agriculture is only confined to reduction in the rate of farmer-suicides. As a matter of fact, farmer-suicide points to a deeper malaise: it is a symptom of the deeply stressed agriculture sector. It can only be tackled by addressing the agriculture sector’s burning issues seriously and structurally rather than through adhoc, knee-jerk measures that governments in India often take as a face-saving exercise.

The need of the hour is immediate relief to the pressing needs of the farmers. Time is running out for them and they can’t afford to think that far ahead into a future which appears as dismal as the present.

Surely, there is an urgent need for a concrete, fool-proof social security plan for the farmers to ensure that no farmer is ever forced to take the extreme step of suicide. It is indeed the height of apathy on the part of the powers that be to turn a blind eye to the travails of the farmers for so long.

As a student of the Indian economy one came across a common saying about the plight of the Indian farmer, “A farmer is born in debt, lives in debt and dies in debt”. And this sounds as true today as it must have when coined.

Naren Singh Rao is a Delhi-based media academic.

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