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INDIA: Dance of death in the 'largest democracy' shames none!

July 5, 2012
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Here is the statistics. Nothing less than 14004 farmers committed suicide in 2011 as per the data of the National Crime Records Bureau. That is more than 10.3 per cent of the total number of suicides in India through the year. Factoring the issues like huge underreporting of cases and the practice of never counting women as 'farmers', the actual number of incidents must be much more. This must be enough to shame any country let alone the one that claims to be the 'largest democracy' of the world.

Not really, for the state did not seem to do even as much as taking note of a situation that should have set off alarm bells. More so, for it was not the first time that the government has found these many of farmers, citizens otherwise, committing suicide. The corresponding figures for the year before were pegged at an even higher 15933. Unfortunately, there was not much to rejoice in the 'decline' as the Times of India, leading English daily, pointed out. It has asserted that the 'dip' could as well be explained by the curious assertion of the Government of Chhattisgarh claiming that no farmers in the province committed suicide in 2011 as against 1412 of them who had taken the extreme step in 2010!

The very fact that the figures are this high after almost half a decade of implementation of welfare schemes like Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) speaks volumes about the enormity of distress. All that MNREGA and other schemes seem to have arrested is less than 20 per cent of average number of suicides annually.  Unmistakably, it is not merely the worst of the times that Indian peasantry has undergone but in fact is, as P Sainath puts it 'the worst-ever recorded wave of suicides of this kind in human history.' The numbers substantiate the claim. With more than 15000 farmers committing suicide annually and the total number has marked a quarter million mark two years ago, the situation warrants a response at war footing. The government, on its part, has chosen to do not even as much as acknowledging the situation and paying lip service to it.

There it differs significantly with its own track record of acknowledging problems even while making no attempts to address them. One can remember, for instance, even the ever so silent Prime Minister of India conceding the deteriorating status of child malnutrition in India as being nothing less than a 'national shame'.

Governmental response to the issue invokes a strange sense of déjà vu. Strange, unlike the case of child malnutrition which the Prime Minister has acknowledged as a matter of 'national shame' not long ago. The fact that the study that brought out the fact was commissioned by an NGO lobbying for substituting wholesome meals with fortified food; something Right to Food Campaign of India criticizes as another ploy of bringing in commercial interests is beside the point. The message that this government responds only when corporate interests are involved was clear then, it is clearer now.  It has not acted then for it was moved by the plight of more than 42 per cent of country's children being severely malnourished. Had it been concerned with that it would not have been sitting on the Prime Minister's National Council on Nutrition way back in 2008, set up for fighting malnutrition! Incidentally, the council did never meet but once ever since. Adding insult to injury, the decisions taken in that meeting, like strengthening of the ICDS, close cooperation and coordination among ministries dealing with different aspects of the issue and so on were never implemented upon.

Unfortunately, one can safely assume that the death of farmers, in whatsoever numbers, is not going to move the corporations forget making them act on the issue. For instance, the apex bodies of Indian capital like the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) had opposed National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (later MNREGA) arguing that it would put heavy pressures on the Indian economy that was on a surge those days. That it had the cheek of saying that at the peak of annual suicides speaks volumes about its sensitivity. The same body later opposed governmental plan of linking MNREGA wages to inflation asserting that it would 'distort the labour market' leaves any residual doubts over its sympathies to the dying farmers.

But then, FICCI is not the state. Despite all its claims it has never been civil enough to be treated as a part of 'civil society'. One can, therefore, understand its silence over the issue. How does, though, one explain the deafening silence of a broad cross section of Indian population over the issue? More than 15000 farmers committing suicide an year, or more than 41 a day should had caused a disgust nothing less than one feels at a genocide. It should have generated popular anger to the extent of waking the government out of its slumber and make it work. Nothing like this happened though. But for a tiny minority of social activists and civil society organizations, everyone else seems to have chosen to close his/her eyes and let the farmers die.

These suicides, murders in fact, are almost never sudden. They follow a pattern that begin with and remains entwined with the cropping cycle that dominates in their area. They have to take loans for buying seeds. For they do not have anything to 'guarantee' the payback, banks treat them as 'unreliable' and refuse to give them any loans. That brings them to the local, and illegal, moneylenders who charge exorbitant rates beginning with 10 per cent per month to 60 per cent per month!  Sowing seeds, however, does not guarantee anything as they are then forced to wait for the monsoons.  And if the monsoons fail even by a few weeks, it signals the end of the road for the farmer. Unable to pay back even the interest, forget the principal, the farmer gets inhumanely insulted and hounded by the moneylenders who more often than not are the strongmen of the area. The shame, the crippling sense of losing honour set in slowly and ends in the suicide.

Unfortunately, the pattern remains the same even if the harvest is anything more than the average, just that modalities of the exploitation change. Then, faced with the excessive supply against lesser demand many peasants find their crops unsold. The state governments, mandated to buy the harvest on a predefined Minimum Support Price in case the farmers bring it to the procurement centers. Government officials always in tandem with what is termed as food grain mafia, then, will keep farmers waiting citing factors from lack of storage to that of jute bags. Further, even if they buy, the payments would reach the farmer only in instalments spread over months. This is a situation the farmer can ill afford for requirements of repaying loans, buying basic necessities for the household and so on. He would, finally, be compelled to sell his produce off to the hoarders on prices much lesser than that stipulated by the government. It might often also be at a loss. The cycle of taking loans to repay the interest on the loans already taken will repeat it to the extent of pushing the farmer to the wall and finally making a lot of them to commit suicide.

The pattern, well established by meticulous researches, is known to all stakeholders. What then stops the government from taking the corrective steps and arresting the deaths at least if not the distress altogether? That is a question that the Indian authorities will have to answer at the earliest even if all they want is to keep pretending as a democracy, largest or otherwise.

For information and comments contact:
In Hong Kong: Samar, Telephone: +852 - 26986339, Email: foodjustice@ahrc.asia

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