Noted agriculture scientist MS Swaminathan has recently said that agriculture, as a profession, was losing its appeal to the new generation in Punjab. This apparently innocuous statement implied something serious and as Swaminathan has said, the government must look into it.
A pressing crisis has engulfed the country's agricultural sector today. The crucial sector, which contributes 17 per cent to the nation's GDP and employs around 60 per cent of the population, has witnessed a microscopic growth over the last few decades. The scenario has been particularly bad since the late-1990s, a period which saw a tragedy unfolding in the form of farmer suicides. The fact that over a few lakh farmers committed suicide between 1995 and 2010 suggests that something has gone wrong.
Farmer suicides initially plagued the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh (which was shaped out of MP in 2000) but slowly spread to other states of the country, including those which have been agriculturally rich.
The largest number of farmer suicides has been recorded in Maharashtra, which is ironically, the home to the country’s Agriculture Minister, Sharad Pawar. Over 40,000 farmers have committed suicide in that state alone since the mid-1990s. Providing relief packages and visit by top officials have not succeeded in yielding any results. The media, too, has failed to create any major impact on the issue, like it did, for example in several terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
The problem is indeed a big one. The five states mentioned above account for just around a third of India’s population but an alarming two-third of the farmer suicides. Farmer suicides are rising even as the number of farmers has reduced in the last two decades.
The reasons for such unabated cases of suicides are many. Scholars often say that neo-liberal economic reforms in India have increased the farmers’ debts to such levels that life turned practically impossible for them. Studies say most of the overburdened farmers who committed suicide were mainly growers of cash crops (like coffee, cotton, sugarcane, vanilla) and not food crops. Chasing the idea of ‘export-led’ growth forced several farmers in the country to shift to cash crops (like rice, wheat, pulses) and ultimately pushed them into their graves.
The shift to cash crops meant that the farmers had to bear much more expensive cultivation costs and that gradually pushed them to take loans and getting indebted. They also fell prey to volatile global commodity prices. Massive subsidies provided to the rich farmers in the western world by the US and EU also saw prices of the produce of the cash crop-growers crash.
Introduction of new foreign seeds replacing the cheaper, traditional ones, did them in further. The Bt Cotton, for example, had seen Indian farmers losing one billion rupees due to crop failure. This was not compensated in any form.
While these were financial hardships created by external compulsions, the farmers’ community also had to face domestic assault. Ruthless commercialisation in the rural sector proved to be a curse on the farmers. Healthcare cost shot up, so did prices of other essentials like food, fuel, and clothes. Millions of Indian farmers are dependent on food grain for consumption and not self-dependent and even if a food crop grower can manage to survive by some means, a cash crop grower can not.
One of India’s prominent economist once warned that an average poor family’s share of food has got reduced by about 100 kg. There is no shield to protect the rural folks (small farmers or landless ones) from the assault. Even the average youngsters of farmers’ households, no matter how meritorious they are, have had to give up education to take up the parents’ occupation to deal with the financial hardships.
Corporatisation of various sectors, including inputs, outlets, marketing, prices and even the intention to privatise an essential resource like water have not created a conducive environment for the farming community.
Reduction of rural credit also gave a deadly blow to the farmers. A consumption-driven state system cares more about its aspiring elites and is ready to sacrifice the needy. The fact that several rural bank branches shut down in the past one-and-half decade says the plight of agriculture in India. This deadly blow to the financial infrastructure pertaining to agriculture has pushed the farmers into the debt trap. Failure of the co-operatives has forced them to fall back on moneylenders to keep up with the high input costs.
These moneylenders charge exorbitant interests, sometimes even as high as 60 per cent and failure to pay off such loans see the farmers often taking the most drastic step in their life.
Moreover, key issues like improving the irrigation system, providing fertilizers and training farmers on their use, essential soil testing and conservation and others have been systematically ignored. Agriculture also lost its appeal as an investment sector, thus endangering its financial prospects further.
The problem does not end here. Job opportunities are rare in the agrarian sector due to poor growth, which has resulted in forcing large number of rural people to the urban areas or increase the pressure on land, resulting in further fragmentation of land and continuation of their poverty.
But what has been the state doing, if at all, to address the menace? Unfortunately, it is doing not much to bail out the farmers and agriculture, except providing periodic financial packages. But since the problem is a structural one, such populist measures are not going to settle the issue.
Leaders and officials, surprisingly, refuse to accept that farmers at all suicide. The debate soon gets diverted to who is a farmer and who's not. The West Bengal government recently involved itself in such a debate following the death of a quite few number of farmers in districts like Burdwan and Malda. According to the officials, those who committed suicide were individuals disturbed by some form of problems, psychological, social, family, but not by any agrarian crisis.
There is hardly any alternative livelihood option for the farmers, either, thanks to the widening urban-rural divide. Tamil Nadu can be cited as an example where despite an agrarian crisis around the late-1990s, farmer suicides never reached an alarming level. This is mainly because the state has a sound urban-rural linkage. High-scale of urbanisation, distribution of a number of cities and towns across the state accompanied by good road network help farmers in finding alternative employment during times of crisis and hence not face a desperate situation.
India, today has come a long way from the days of slogans like Jai Jawan, Jai Kishan. The country, with a gigantic consumers' market, has turned into an urban-industrial society with a crucial sector like agriculture almost pushed into oblivion. There has been no comprehensive state initiative to address woes of agriculture. Farmers are not getting due prices for their produce and often have to rely on middlemen for their survival.
Even for poor farmers who live at far-off places, there is no state assistance to ensure that their crops are bought and sold in the market in an orderly way. There is no system to counsel the farmers to help them find a way out of difficult situations. Lack of strong farmers' movement against the suffering has also not helped their cause.
In a way, the agricultural sector in India has been grasping for breath. But we have not bothered to exhibit some care for those who feed us and our families. If this way the sector is allowed to suffer, the day is not far when we face the tragic consequences of some drought-hit African states. Youngsters of the Punjabi farming families have learnt it fast, it seems.