Are we working harder to make India's farmers suffer?

Suraj Kumar Thube
Suraj Kumar ThubeAug 22, 2016 | 16:44

Are we working harder to make India's farmers suffer?

"How many deaths does it take to know that too many people have died?"

- Bob Dylan, singer and songwriter.

Farmer suicides in India crossed the 8,000 mark in 2015. Compared with 2014, it is roughly an increase of 40 per cent. The situation shows no signs of abating as the current year has witnessed more than 400 suicides in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra alone.


Fields have been a persistent site of killing for more than a decade now. In fact, since 1997, the time from when official records are available, the numbers have increased, unabated. The majority of them have happened in five peninsular states, namely - Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Farmer suicides in India crossed 3,00,000 in 2014, out of which more than 63,000 happened in the prosperous state of Maharashtra, especially in the perennially poor regions of Marathwada and Vidarbha. The data is terrifying to say the least.

As we continue to bask in the glory of 25 years of economic independence, one sector that continues to remain out of the success story is agriculture. The data set for farmer suicides is enough to make us realise that the economic reforms have largely failed the farmers.

It can be said that suicides failed to garner public attention in the early period of the opening up of the economy. In the present day, they are largely being perceived as a "public phenomenon", which is drastically different from the individualised nature of the act in the previous times.

Fields are used to make the killing site visible for the larger public. The act, more often than not, is laced with a political message directly hinting at the lackadaisical government policies of both the Centre and the state.


Unfortunately, even after a perceptible increase in the information of the deceased, building awareness about the agrarian distress over the years and a partial acknowledgement of the callous disregard of the plight of the farmers by government officials, the issue at hand fails to be understood in its entirety.

AR Vasavi, one of India's leading social anthropologists, has assiduously dissected the myriad reasons behind the spurt in farmer suicides in her book Shadow Space: Suicides and the predicament of Rural India. The term "Shadow Space" is poignant in so far as it captures the wanton invisibilisation of the helplessness and the destitution of our farmers.

She makes an evocative case for looking beyond the simplistic reasoning behind suicides like indebtedness in order to take a panoramic view of their rapidly changing agrarian social and cultural practices. The knowledge dissonance of the farmer, which mounts the debt burden in the long run alone cannot suffice the reasoning behind such an act.

The whole distress engulfing the sector has to be seen in the wider framework of  being incumbent to follow the guidelines of the neoliberal institutional frameworks, which has led to rampant commercialisation and individualisation in agriculture. Land is no longer a mere site attached to the primitive notions of production practices. It is largely a marketised commodity being usurped by the corporate elite under the garb of "development".


The marginalisation of the farmers is rendered a blind eye, the government bodies continue to drag their feet in awarding adequate compensation and the conclusion is their eviction from the lands. "Resettlement" is really a euphemism for "displacement" and makes a complete mockery of a farmer's life and dignity. David Harvey's concept of "accumulation with dispossession" has been a widespread practice in India.

Jaideep Hardikar's A village awaits  doomsday is one such book of the recent past that documents the agony and gruesome consequences of displacements and the mental scars they leave behind forever.

Other equally critical reasons like changing crop patterns, increasing fragmentation of land, decrease in acreage productivity and the declining credit facilities have exacerbated the existing misery of farmers' lives.

Much of the naturalisation of the suicides has also got to do with the urban perception of rural areas in general and rural lifestyles in particular. The oriental imagination still does not cease to colonise our minds in terms of perceiving the rural as a stagnant and unchanging space characterised by the divisive notions of caste-consciousness.

A village in the 21st century is reduced to being a site of such primordial tendencies at one extreme and the repository of all the acceptable cultural and civilisational practices by the majority on the other. This retrograde outlook is more perceived than real.

At the same time, the change has been sought only in the economic realm at the cost of making sense of the dynamism of the local socio-cultural practices of  everyday village life. Suicides are bundled out to entirely being an outcome of these "retrograde" practices, unhinged by the economic aspects.

Whereas it is the priorities of the government, big farmers and the multinational corporations that have changed and suppressed the marginal farmers by pushing them even further to the peripheries of our democracy. The spurt in farmer suicides can never be understood sans contextualising it among these motley factors of local, national and international levels.

At a time when profits are seen as legitimate goals for enhancing the overall growth in the country, the farmer fails to get the bare necessities of life. The cravings and desire for basic requirements like electricity, water, road connectivity and freedom from rapacious moneylenders still seem a largely distant dream.

A failure to get each and every one of these necessities can be huge and leads the farmer one step closer to death. A loss of crop is nothing, but a loss of the self. The most seething life stories of everyday farmers is captured brilliantly by P Sainath in his book Everybody Loves a Good Drought.

In 2015, he was among the first observers to point out the tweaking of the methodology adopted by the National Crime Records Bureau to register suicides in India. As is well known, the NCRB merely collects the figures sent to it by the state level bodies. The drastic fall in the suicides seen in 2014 as compared to 2013 ( coming down from 11,772 to 5,650 ) was accompanied by a rise in the category of "Others ", courtesy the new methodology.

Interestingly, the numbers in the case of Karnataka have  shot back to 1,130 after it had seen a precipitous decline to 321 in 2014.

What is now being followed is a similar method that makes dubious distinctions between terms like "cultivator", "agricultural farmer", "tenant" and "labourer/peasant". All those who do not own a piece of land are not considered actual farmers and, thereby, the family of the deceased fails to find the farmer's name in the final list. Women as farmers are another community that cease to get their rightful recognition even in the midst of the phenomenon of "feminisation of agriculture".

A two-year drought is surely one of the crucial factors for their worsening conditions.

Like household work, their strenuous labour in the fields fails to get the attention of the concerned authorities.

With all these flaws, and states like Chhattisgarh even coming up with the audacious claim of having "nil" suicides in 2014, the truth about the situation at hand is anybody's guess.

If Karnataka has been some sort of a mess and Chhattisgarh exercising a politically expedient ploy to maintain its "clean image", Maharashtra has persistently wronged the agricultural sector at large. It finds itself in a paradoxical state of having only 18 per cent of irrigated land along with having the largest number of dams in the entire country.

However, the latter has not come to their rescue as it is primarily a rain-dependent state where primary succour has always been provided in the form of "cure" and not a holistic and inclusive idea of improving their working conditions.

The conditions are reminiscent of what Shalini Randeria calls the Shamiana State that throws crumbs of governance in times of distress.

The recent beef ban has compounded their predicaments even further as the selling of non-lactating cattle to slaughter houses has become a more arduous task. They now act as an economic burden, which they purportedly should bear to satiate the upper caste cultural sentiments. A two-year drought is surely one of the crucial factors for their worsening conditions.

However, a blatantly anti-farmer policy as this has surely added to their existing pool of worries.

Talks about a second Green Revolution loom large on the horizon, where envious figures are being quoted from across the quarters, if the existing structure is put to good effect. It is, perhaps, adequate for the present to keep the government data of more than 8,000 suicides in 2015 fresh in our minds, at a time when gargantuan figures are acting as a benchmark to measure greatness.

The division roughly comes to 21 suicides per day.

Is it enough to answer Bob Dylan's question?

Last updated: August 22, 2016 | 17:20
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