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No early relief likely for farmers in India
By TN Ashok
Nothing can be more distressing than reading media reports that our brothers in the countryside who feed us periodically commit suicide. Is there an government apathy or nongovernmental organisations don't care. The answer is neither. Everyone is concerned about farmer's suicide and the agrarian distress in general.

When the country liberated itself from the yoke of colonialism, in the early 50's too there were instances of farmer's suicides when the agriculture sector was contributing as much as 51% to the national GDP which has gradually declined to now 13.70 % in 2012-13. India is still largely an agrarian economy where 2/3rds of its population is engaged in agriculture and allied activities. It's still the largest sector of the economy which plays a dominant role in the socio economic development of the country.

India achieved self sufficiency in food grain production only a few decades after its political emancipation from the British rule. India's food grain production constituted mainly by rice, wheat and cereals touched a record 300 plus million tonnes in recent times from a meagre 57 million tonnes in 1950-51 soon after independence.

Agriculture is the most stressed sector for anyone engaged in. Global statistics show that outside of India, countries such as Sri Lanka, USA, Canada, Australia and United Kingdom recognise farming as the most stressed out profession associated with high suicide rates than other professions. Particularly true among small farmers after periods of high economic distress.

A review of some 52 scholarly publications, indicate that farming populations in the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States have the highest rates of suicide of any industry and there is growing evidence that those involved in farming are at higher risk of developing mental health problems. Their review claims a wide environment, family problems, economic stress and uncertainties. Significantly higher suicide rates are among farmers than general population in developed countries and the reasons behind farmer's suicide globally include mental health issues.

In 2006, a documentary by Indian film maker Sumit Khanna "Mere Desh Ki Dharti", did a comprehensive review of the way we grow our food. A well researched and in-depth understanding of the agrarian crisis, it won the national award for the best Investigative film, according to Wikipedia reports.

With so much exposure on the agrarian distress and the faults of the Green Revolution which focused on only Rice and Wheat and not other forms of food, it's clear how the farmer faces uncertainties if he opted out of the carbohydrate cycle. So, the farmer's suicides are only part of a larger malaise that is agrarian distress in India.

Media reports suggest that an estimated 90 farmers took their lives in Karnataka, even as they struggle to understand along with the government the immediate trigger. Suicides were not reported from the State's drought-prone regions, nor was there a sudden crop failure or similar emergency. Interviews with farmers in the region blame lack of institutional credit as one of the causes. This is an issue that affects farmers across the country, including in the suicide epicentres of Vidarbha and Marathwada in Maharashtra.

According to the National Sample Survey Office, the income of an average farm household is just over Rs.6, 400 a month. Obviously, grossly inadequate to meet consumption demands, not to mention rising farm input costs. Only households with over one hectare make more than they spend, and they constitute less than 35% of all farm households, according to a scholarly study. Half of all farm households are thus mired in debt. No small debts, the average amount outstanding for a farm household today is Rs.47, 000. Considered an extremely heavy burden. Farm suicides, whether owing to purely agricultural reasons like crop failure, or the complex pressures on an Indian farmer, must be tackled seriously on the basis of a comprehensive examination of the causative factors, and the context, the study says.

The first state that reported farmers suicides was Maharashtra. It was generally believed that mortality occurred among cotton growers of vidharbha in the state. According to the National Crime Records Bureau under the home ministry of the central government, more than 5000 farmers committed suicide between 2005 and 2009. And 17,500 farmers killed themselves between 2002 and 2006. Besides Maharashtra, other states which have reported farmer suicides are Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Punjab. Since 1997 some 1, 99,132 farmers have committed suicide.

But some NGOs and institutions dispute the figures released by NCRB even though its government controlled. They are mostly based on FIRs registered in local police stations. So one is not clear about the motive for suicide but generally attributable to that of a farmer due to crop failure of indebtedness.

In April 2009, Chhattisgarh reported 1500 farmers committed suicide due to debt problems and crop failure. At least 17,368 farmers killed themselves in 2009 itself, the worst case scenario in a decade. What are the causes for the agrarian distress in India? Rapid industrialisation , urbanisation has caused shrinkage of land under cultivation besides mass rural folk migration to urban conglomerates earn a fixed income instead of being dictated to by the vagaries of monsoon and consequent inability pay back farm loans.

There has been a general decline in agricultural productivity in all crops since the mid nineties. As rural nonfarm employment was limited in the countryside, as much as 64% of the population was either engaged in farming or agricultural labour activities. The decline in size of class holding and increase in the size of marginal holdings (2001-10), poor returns from cultivation and low farm yield incomes has contributed to the great Indian agrarian distress.

The much hyped Green Revolution focused on Rice and Wheat in irrigated conditions rather than on crops in rain fed regions of the country or dry land farming. The latter constituted 3/5th of the total area under cultivation, 141 million hectares as of 2013-14. There has been a failure in using new technologies such as those available from the frontier science of bio technology. Agriculture has been reportedly neglected from the plan resource allocation leading to lesser public investments in irrigation and other allied infrastructure.

Another major problem has been the supply of credit which has been lesser from institutional sources and more from informal sources leading to a higher interest burden on the farmers. With increasing use of technology and sector being linked to market conditions, the farmer is at risk of being subjected to vicissitudes or the vagaries of the markets.

Says popular social activist Vandana Shiva, the rapid rise in indebtedness is the root cause of farmers woes and consequent suicides. She says two major factors have transformed agriculture from a positive economy to a negative economy. They are : rising costs of production as in acquisition of inputs and falling prices of agricultural commodities. These are rooted in policies of trade liberalisation and corporate globalisation. These factors ensure spiralling indebtedness leading farmers despair.

According to the Madhya Pradesh Human Rights Commission, there are 25 other causes that cause a farmer to despair apart from crop failure or rural indebtedness. The process of recovery of loans from farmers through force and musclemen hurts them most. Says Deshpande Durkheim in his monumental work "La Suicide", says victims are mostly from nuclear families. Failure of social institutions has also led to lack of protection for the farmers.

It's not as if the central government or the state governments have been silent spectators to the agrarian crisis and farmers suicides. They have done their bit and are doing their bit, but that bit is not enough to problem which is quite large. For the record. In 2006, the Government of India identified 31 districts in the four states of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Kerala with high relative incidence of farmers suicides. A special rehabilitation package was launched to mitigate the distress of these farmers. The package provided debt relief to farmers, improved supply of institutional credit, improved irrigation facilities, employed experts and social service personnel to provide farming support services, and introduced subsidiary income opportunities through horticulture, livestock, dairy and fisheries. The Government of India also announced an ex-gratia cash assistance from Prime Ministers National Relief Fund to the farmers. Additionally, among other things, the Government of India announced: In the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, that had received considerable mass media news coverage on farmer suicides, all farmer families of Vidarbha in six affected districts of Maharashtra were given a cash sum of ?05 million (US$74,000) each, to help pay off the debt principal.

Some ?7.12 billion (US$110 million) in interest owed, as of 30 June 2006, was waived. The burden of payment was shared equally between the Central and the State government. Government created a special credit vehicle for Vidarbha farmer, to the tune of ?12.75 billion (US$190 million). Special teams comprising NABARD and banks were deputed to ensure fresh credit starts flowing to all farmers of the region. Allocation of ?21.77 billion (US$320 million) was made to improve the irrigation infrastructure so that the farmers of Vidarbha region had assured irrigation facilities in the future.

Government of India next implemented the Agricultural debt Waiver and Debt Relief Scheme in 2008 to benefit over 36 million farmers at a cost of ?653 billion (US$9.7 billion). This spending was aimed at writing of part of loan principal as well as the interest owed by the farmers. Direct agricultural loan by stressed farmers under so-called Kisan Credit Card were also to be covered under this Scheme.

But leading agricultural writer Surinder Sud observes that most of government's response and relief packages have generally been ineffective, misdirected and flawed. It has focused on credit and loan, rather than income, productivity and farmer prosperity. Assistance in paying off outstanding principal and interest helps the money lenders, but has failed to create reliable and good sources of income for the farmer going forward. The usurious moneylenders continue to offer loans at interest rates between 24 and 50 percent, while income generating potential of the land the farmer works on has remained low and subject to weather conditions. Sud states that the government has failed to understand that debt relief just postpones the problem and a more lasting answer to farmer distress can only come from reliable income sources, higher crop yields per hectare, irrigation and other infrastructure security.

So the government has to launch a scheme on war footing to rescue the country from the Great Agrarian Distress and Farmers Suicides which are intricately linked and the cycle does seem to break.

feedback@ashoktnex @gmail.com

—[IFS]


News Updated at : Tuesday, April 18, 2017
 
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