For farmers, it’s now or never!

Farmers want to be heard but not even govt is willing to hear them. Among educated Indians, there is little understanding and even less empathy. Jaideep Hardikar’s book provides rare insights

For farmers, it’s now or never!

Jaideep Hardikar

Around the mid-1990s, a liberalised and globalised economy engulfed great many unsuspecting farmers in problems that were beyond their comprehension. India’s economy was now fuelled by sectors other than agriculture. Local farmers’ markets were invaded by global markets. Rapid economic mobility of sections of the population was leading to a perception among the peasantry that they were losing out. The fast-changing economic conditions were also altering longheld social equations. Landed farmers, once among the respected classes in a village economy, were now unable to meet their ever-growing needs while the non-landed classes migrated out of their villages to urban centres for better wages and work, doing marginally better than they once did as farm labourers. There was a growing perception among the rural peasantry in Vidarbha that the new economic realities were doing them more harm than good.

Cotton farmers, for example, saw their production costs multiply many times as energy, inputs and fertiliser prices soared. While the cost of living—health, education and so on— went up, their real income stagnated. Government subsidies were tweaked or withdrawn. The declining incomes and the rising costs of living, they rued, were by design and not coincidental. The state and central governments, they believed, were biased in favour of the rich, and that living in villages had become difficult.

They came up with sensational ideas of protests to draw the attention of authorities. There were villages that put themselves up for sale. Some put up signboards saying that they were willing to sell their kidneys. Thousands of farmers took to the streets just to be heard. They still do, now increasingly across the country.

Over the last two decades, I witnessed what agrarian distress really looks like, up close and in the isolation of individual households. I met villagers who had pooled in money to cremate the dead because their families could not afford to do so. I read farmers’ suicide notes addressed to Collectors, Chief Ministers, Prime Ministers and Presidents.

For farmers, it’s now or never!
For farmers, it’s now or never!

There was one in which a newly married young farmer asked his soonto-be-widowed wife to get remarried, but not to a farmer. I witnessed a village coming together to celebrate a wedding and perform three funerals within a span of 24 hours. I also reported on women farmers’ suicides, suicide by young children.

Thirty years of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation have helped a class of Indians live the dream life, but for vast sections of the peasantry and rural populations, this has been a tumultuous and deathly period, like a never-ending recession.

The chasm has grown so vast that the former does not care if it does not rain one season, affecting farm yields and pushing inflation. There was a time when, as my father recalls, the middle classes would keep an eye on the monsoon because it had a bearing on their own family budgets. Not any more. Today, these two worlds are starkly different. The universe of the top 10 percent and that of the bottom 50 are sharply unequal. One example is how much gold upwardly mobile urban Indians buy every year while farmers sell or mortgage it—one to invest surplus money, the other to generate desperately needed cash to keep farmlands productive.

Nearly 4,00,000 farmers committed suicide in India between 1995 and 2018. But the story of agrarian distress is turning stale. Political parties promise doles, shiny new schemes. Economists call for more reforms. State and central governments, while shedding crocodile tears, push for new technologies and call for embracing modern systems even as farmers quietly carry on with work-all the while sinking deeper into debt, year after year.

The day he consumed poison was Holi, 17 March 2014, a Monday. “The night before, I had switched on the electricity to keep the wild boars away from my green gram and brinjals, but the temple cow got stuck in the fence instead and died,” Ramrao recalls.

The brinjals were ready for harvest but prices in the market had collapsed. Ramrao decided he would pluck them in a few days, hoping that prices would recover. But he is overcome by the guilt of accidentally killing the cow. “I could not stand that sight. I had committed a horrible sin.”

The event pushed him over the edge. He had lost his wife to a prolonged illness; her treatment costs had bled him dry. His daughters’ weddings had further drained his savings. For four years crops had been below par and he owed a lot of money to his creditors, most of them were friends and relatives. What would they say?

He finally turned his anger inwards. That is perhaps what most farmers go through before they kill themselves— anger and helplessness.

‘Angry?’ I ask. ‘Why? With whom?’ ‘I don’t know…I could not save my wife. I could not educate my daughters. I could not repay my loans. And I feared seeing my friends and relatives, asking for their money back when I have none.’

‘I grabbed a bottle of insecticide and drank all of it.’ Ramrao felt a slow, burning sensation envelop his body as the liquid chemical slithered down his throat. ‘Then I felt very cool. As if there was ice melting in my stomach.’

He describes the sensation but cannot remember the taste.

‘Then I swallowed the second bottle.’ Two 150 ml doses of Coragen, an insecticide meant to be sprayed on his standing brinjal crop. Two bottles, dissolved in two large drums of water, would cover two acres. He had bought the expensive chemical on credit only the previous day.

‘Two bottles!’ I exclaim.

‘Just in case the first one did not accomplish the task’. Ramrao’s quip is in line with the searing dark humour that is characteristic of the Vidarbha countryside. I am reminded of a farmer’s blunt reply to a fact-finding team of the erstwhile Planning Commission that came on tour of Vidarbha. One of its erudite members asked a group of farmers in a village in Wardha district, ‘Why do you consume alcohol?

Why do you drink so much?’

An old farmer present at the gathering had shot back, ‘You can’t drink Monocrotophos neat.’

It was Bhimrao who had informed of Ramrao’s suicide bid.

‘He consumed a full bottle of poison and survived. God knows if that’s because of luck or adulterated insecticide.’ These company wallahs sell anything, he said, to make money. “Sale the gadhyeche mut suddha aushadh mhanun viktil”, he said bursting into laughter. The farm-input companies can even sell donkey’s urine as an insecticide.

The new generation chemical pesticides and farm inputs involve a complex world of biology and chemistry that has taken farming to a whole new, incomprehensible plane for farmers. And they are expensive.

Ramrao spends a minimum of a lakh or two on pesticides, insecticides, weedicides, growth promoters, fertilisers and much more, and so do other farmers. Collectively Hiwara’s farmers spend large amounts of money on farm inputs (seeds, fertilisers, chemicals), on energy (diesel for a tractor, power for the pumps) and labour wages (which fluctuate depending on demand and availability).

One day, at my request, he tabulates how much he has to spend per acre to grow cotton. In the late 1990s, it was Rs 4-5 thousand. In 2017 his per acre production cost is over 10 times that amount. He spends more money today than he did two or three decades ago to grow a quintal of cotton, tur, chilli or any other produce, but his income from it remains more or less stagnant.

Ramrao has not mechanized his farm. He thinks it is important for him to give work to the bullock owners. Investing in big machines is a risk in the countryside anyway. They are energy and cost intensive. Unless you are a big landholder with bigger yields, or you can rent your machines to other farmers round the year, that investment does not make any sense. This year most farmers, he tells me, will hire bullocks and not tractors for farm operations because diesel and petrol prices are surging and the previous year’s pest attack left the farmers reeling under losses.

Cultivating a farm is not easy. I once tried my hand at running the plough clamped to a pair of huge humped bullocks. This was soon after the first rains when the fields were muddy and humid. Ramrao hesitated. He didn’t want me to do it. I would fall sick, he warned. And I did.

In fifteen minutes I was dehyradated. I came down with fever, fatigue and exhaustion after only an hour or two of working the plough. Farmhands, men and women, do it for days, months and years. Ploughing. Sowing. Weeding. Plucking. Picking. Cutting.

Fifteen-year-old Vishal Khule consumed poisonous weedicide in Akola. Eighteen-year-old Monica Bhise hanged herself to death at her home in Latur. Both belonged to debt-ridden households. Both had dreams and simple, bare-minimum needs—they wanted to study and better their lives.

Vishal did not leave a note, but Monica did. In her beautiful, neat handwriting, she wrote to her father, asking him not to consume liquor, and arguing against selling their land to raise dowry for her marriage. Both of them saw no future for themselves and were exhausted by the status quo. They wanted to hope, to dream and to escape lives filled with grave inequality. Monica wanted to become a nurse, fend for herself and support the education of her siblings but her father wanted to sell their land and marry her off to get rid of their filial duty.

Seventeen-year-old Swati Pitale committed suicide. In her last note she explained why she was choosing death.

She could no longer watch her father suffer, she wrote in Marathi, and didn’t want to be a burden on him. She would soon be of marriageable age and knew her father was gong to incur huge expenses on her wedding. In the note, she pleaded to the banks and lenders to whom he owed money to not harass him. She said he would surely repay all his debts once her elder sister was married. Swati had to stop attending college for a while, her monthly bus pass had expired and her parents had no money to renew it.

While there is no specific data on suicide by children in India as a result of agrarian distress, several studies and reports have pointed to the impact of debt and distress on children in peasant households. Many adolescent children of farmers inherit their parents’ debts and are forced to take on adult responsibilities, dropping out of school, tilling fields, succumbing to depression and, in the case of girls, being married off early.

Nineteen-year-old Neeta Bhopat in a neat, handwritten suicide note wrote in Marathi, “If I don’t commit suicide, my father will.”

The Modi Government has not been able to assuage the pain of farmers, but they continue to have faith in the man. They queued up during demonetization for days, faced unprecedented hardships, bore losses but believed the move would bring them prosperity in the long run.

Nothing much has changed in the Vidarbha countryside—farmers suicides continue, incomes remain embarrassingly low. These issues don’t make the prime-time news. We talk of doubling farmers’ incomes without finding out what has happened to real incomes. We revel in announcements from the new Government…Pradhan Mantri Kisan Sanman Yojana which promises a princely dole of Rs 16.44 a day to 12 crore farming households in India.

The central and state governments’ focus remains vague; sometimes they announce they want to push processing; other times they say they are going to transform rain-fed farming into irrigated farming; these days they talk about forming farmers’ producer companies.

Ramrao stares at me and laughs when I ask him when he will fully repay his loans. There is no escaping the loans, he says. Old loans will go away. New ones will come. ‘Loans are a part of life’.

But, I persist, “You must have considered a time-frame to repay your loans. When will you be finally relieved of your burden?”

‘Dole Mitlyavar’, he quips with a suggestive smile. When I close my eyes forever.

(Edited excerpts from ‘Ramrao—The Story of India’s Farm Crisis’ published by Harper Collins. Jaideep Hardikar is a multiple award winning journalist who has chronicled the plight of farmers in Vidarbha for the past two decades).

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