| Posted July 13, 2004
-- CropChoice news -- Devinder Sharma, ZMag, 06/28/04: Andhra
Pradesh chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy is in a quandary.
Ever since he took over as the chief minister more than a month,
on May 14, more than 300 farmers have committed suicides. This
was the official death toll in the suicides register till June
25. Unofficially, the death toll is estimated to be much higher.
The spurt in farmers’ suicides, which unfortunately
has failed to move the state as well as the Congress-led Coalition
at the Center, is the outcome of the utter neglect and apathy
of the former Chandrababu Naidu's government in Andhra, voted
out after nine years in power. The situation in several other
states, including the frontline agriculture states of Punjab
and Haryana, and even in the left-ruled West Bengal and Kerala
is no better. Thousands of farmers have ended their lives
in the past few years. What has meanwhile baffled the new
government is that the spate of suicides shows no signs of
ending even after it announced a series of routine packages
- free electricity and more credit -- aimed at relieving farmer's
The package also includes an ex-gratis payment of Rs 1 lakh
each to the next of the kin of the deceased, and Rs 50,000
for a one-time settlement of the loans of indebted farmers.
The erstwhile government too had started paying an ex-gratis
grant of Rs 1 lakh to the affected families after suicides
were initially reported in 1997-98. After giving the assistance
to some 250 farmer families, the payments were stopped on
the plea that such an ex-gratis would prompt more farmers
to take their lives. The Congress, then in the opposition,
had stepped in by collecting donations for providing assistance
to the grieving families.
Although the newly-elected government of Andhra Pradesh (and
followed closely by Tamilnadu) have moved in quickly by announcing
free power to farmers, what is more depressing is that the
governments are clueless of the reasons that forces farmers
to commit suicides. Nor is there any effort from the so-called
distinguished agricultural scientists, economists, and social
scientists to come out with proposals to put an end to this
shameful blot on the country's image. The reason is obvious.
No one has the political courage to point a finger at the
real villain -- industrial farming model that shifts the focus
on cash crops and thereby plays havoc with sustainable livelihoods.
Mr. N. Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh was swept away
by a tidal wave of the angry farmers. The small and marginal
farmers, in tandem with the landless laborers, who constitute
nearly 80 percent of Andhra's 80 million people, gave their
verdict: the industry-sponsored economic reforms are anti-poor.
In Karnataka too, where the farmers’ suicide rate is
equally high, the over-emphasis on technology had only alienated
a large percentage of farming populations from economic growth
and development. Both the States had relied heavily on the
British consultancy firm, McKinsey India Ltd., to draw the
blueprint for economic reforms. In addition, McKinsey's services
are also being utilized by West Bengal for re-designing the
economic model of growth.
Blindly aping the World Bank model of agriculture (as suggested
by McKinsey India Ltd.), Karnataka and Andhra had pumped in
huge finances to push in an industry-driven agriculture that
has not only exacerbated the crisis leading to an environmental
catastrophe but also destroyed millions of rural livelihoods.
The biggest tragedy being that both the States had turned
into a national capital of shame for farmers' distress, visible
more through the increasing rate of suicides in the rural
areas. Making available cheap credit to these marginal farming
communities, as has been announced by the Finance Minister,
will not be helpful. What these poor and marginalized need
immediately is income support.
In reality, Andhra as well as Karnataka were only making
it smoother for the industry to move into the rural areas.
APs Vision 2020 document talked of reducing the number of
farmers in the state to 40 percent of the population, and
did not have any significant program to adequately rehabilitate
the remaining 30 percent of the farming population. The objective
was to promote the commercial interests of agribusiness companies,
foreign financial institutes, international bankers and the
IT hardware units. All benefit would have accrued to these
companies in the name of farmers. In fact, these two sectors,
along with biotechnology, were being heavily subsidized in
the name of efficiency and infrastructure whereas the poor
farmers were being divested of their only source of income
- their meager land holdings.
Andhra in reality was fast turning into a BIMARU state (a
euphemism for backward states). Thousands of farmers were
migrating every season looking for menial jobs in the urban
centers. Mofussil newspapers in the heartland of the cyberstate
- that's how Mr. Naidu wanted the state to be called - were
full of advertisements inviting people to mortgage their gold
and silver belongings. Livestock deaths and the plight of
dalits and other landless and marginalized no longer adorned
the headlines. Farmers were asked not to produce more rice
(the staple food) as the State had no place to stock it. Farmers'
suicides had become so common that Mr. Naidu had actually
sent a team of psychiatrists to convince them against taking
their own lives.
Believe it or not, daily wage workers in AP can still be
hired at a price that their counterparts in Bihar would scoff
at. Such was the extent and level of poverty that AP also
topped the country in the percentage of women entering prostitution
and trafficking. Mr. Naidu on the other hand ignored the writing
on the wall and went about holding web conferences with his
bureaucracy much to the chagrin of the national media, which
painted him as the poster boy for economic reforms.
The Naidu model has failed. It also means failure of the
McKinsey's model of economic development. To talk of 'Naidu
Plus', as some economists have said, indicates the level of
arrogance among a school of economic thought that refuses
to see anything except the industry.
No wonder, newspapers have already quoted the secretary general
of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry
(FICCI), Mr. Amit Mitra as saying "economic initiatives
in the IT and services sector should be extended to the rural
areas and to such industries as food processing and rural
industry". Unfortunately, the industry refuses to accept
that it was because of its own over-indulgence that Mr. Naidu
paid a heavy price. In addition, the Confederation of Indian
Industry (CII) and the newly emerging biotechnology industry
were the beneficiaries of the state's largesse in the name
of improving agricultural productivity and enhancing rural
incomes. The new government has focused on agriculture but
refuses to look for the real causes behind farmers’
distress. All its efforts are directed towards convincing
the markets that Sensex (India’s stock market) will
not be allowed to slip any further.
The tragedy is that while farmers have delivered their verdict,
economists and policy makers are not willing to accept it.
The nation is not only clueless but does not even want to
know how to resurrect agriculture and farming. This is where
the politico-economy equations have gone wrong; this is where
the Indian democracy has reached superficial heights. The
CII and FICCI have already ensured that their breed of economic
thinkers and supporters are in each political party. The tragedy
therefore is that the policy directions between the ruling
party and the opposition has blurred. Both follow the same
economic prescriptions that have no connection with the ground
realities. The Congress-led coalition too will easily fall
into the trap of pushing for more economic reforms, and provide
the same direction for the agriculture sector that Mr. Naidu
falsely banked upon.
The ground realities are far removed from the rhetoric and
the statistics that have bred immunity against compassion.
We are all part of a global food system, which perpetuates
poverty and deprivation. The food industry makes tall claims
of nutritious diets while millions are dying of obesity and
related problems. We make tall claims of improved technology
for agriculture by pushing stark realities of increasing indebtedness,
growing poverty, resulting human suffering and hunger from
the public glare. We are, therefore, in reality, the cause
behind hunger and the resulting farmers suicides. Behaving
like an Ostrich is surely not going to eclipse hunger and
death from the politico-economic radar screens.
It requires policy makers, agricultural scientists, academicians
and even the civil society groups to first accept the fundamental
flaws that force farmers to the gallows. And then it needs
determination - both political and scientific -- and there
is no reason why farmers’ distress cannot be turned
into a scourge of the past. Economic gimmicks like announcing
free electricity and enhancing bank credit will otherwise
continue to force farmers to take the fatal route by drinking
Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based food and trade policy
analyst. Among his recent works include the book In the Famine