Farmers’ crisis is now a humanitarian crisis

The National Herald investigates the misconceptions surrounding farmer suicides in India

Farmers applying for loans less than Rs 2 lakhs has dropped (photo: National Herald archives)
Farmers applying for loans less than Rs 2 lakhs has dropped (photo: National Herald archives)

P. Sainath

I’m told economists Arvind Panagariya and Jagdish Bhagwati are experts. But they don’t even know who the farmers are in India. They write: 200,000 farmers have committed suicide, but so what, when 53 per cent of India’s population are farmers. This is absolutely false.

Less than eight per cent of the Indian population are farmers — i.e. 95 million are full-time farmers. Then there are the marginal farmers who cultivate crops for less than six months a year, who account for one to two per cent. 22 per cent are farm labourers. All of it adds up to a mere 25–30 per cent.

They [the experts] don’t even know the difference between farmers and the farming community. The farming community is 53 per cent. This includes weavers, mechanics, manual labourers, all those whose livelihood depends on the agricultural economy. Right now, farmers are less than eight per cent. The new census might reveal a lower or higher figure, including those villagers who went back during the pandemic and stayed on.

And what kind of morality leads them to say 200,000 deaths don’t count in a country of 1.42 billion people? By that logic, 20,000 people dying in the Bhopal gas tragedy was meaningless as the country’s total population at the time was merely 800 million! Not only is this immoral, it’s insane.

Women contribute 60–65 per cent of farm labour, but are not recorded as farmers. Their suicides are not counted as farmer suicides. This is our Indian society. Until women, Dalits and tribals are considered farmers, we have no chance of resolving the farmers’ crisis.

This is a crisis created by faulty policies. The diversion of water from the villages to the cities means there is not enough water for agriculture, which triggers the exodus to the cities. In the last 15–20 years I have increasingly become aware of this injustice. These days I don’t say ‘food security’, I say ‘food justice’, ‘water justice’, ‘climate justice’. City dwellers get 400 per cent more water than rural people. This is injustice. Even within cities. Just compare the per capita supply of water in South Delhi with areas like Janakpuri and Jahangirpuri. This discrimination is both classist and casteist.

I believe that, over almost two thousand years, access to water in this country has been regulated by caste hierarchy. Savarnas use the ‘headwater’ for cultivation, intermediate castes the ‘middle water’, shudras the ‘tailwater’, while Dalits have no access to water at all. Even the villages are structured that way. Dalit bastis tend to be located at the southernmost corner because the water in our country largely flows from north to south. In Rajasthan it’s different. There, water flows from west to east. The water crisis is now linked to climate change. That’s why it has doubled.

Take Uruguay. Such a small country with barely three to four million people. In 2003, it made a Constitutional amendment prohibiting the privatisation of water. This is what India must do. Simultaneously, it should prioritise access. Hospitals and schools should be first on that list. At the very least, every single person’s right to water should be identified and met.

The centre and states are bringing in different laws for the privatisation of water. This will make smaller farmers slaves to the bigger farmers. This is the main agenda of the NITI Aayog. Over the last 10–15 years, the farmers’ crisis became a societal crisis; then, a civilisational crisis. Where does this country’s civilisation originate? Clearly, with our farmers. Our small farmers. What began as an agrarian crisis is now a humanitarian crisis. If we don’t see it for the much bigger crisis it is, we will never find a solution.

The number of farmers applying for loans less than Rs 2 lakhs has dropped. Are we to deduce from this that they are not getting funds? If so, who is? They say NPAs (Non-Performing Assets) are going down. This is because the NPAs of big corporates are being written off. Not because farmers are any less in debt. This is the flashpoint of the farmers’ crisis, which flared ever since farmers’ loans were diverted into the corporate world.

NABARD prepares a potential-linked credit plan for each state. In Maharashtra, this has been going on for the last eight to ten years. All commercial banks work on the basis of this scheme. 53 per cent of loans are given to the people of Mumbai. It’s obvious, there are no farmers in Mumbai but there are many engaged in agri-business. How can there not be a crisis?

Even today, many farmers borrow from moneylenders and merchants. There is an existing system of micro-credit schemes. While staying within the ambit of the law, they loot the farmers. The original idea of micro-credit was different, where poor women would form and run groups in their village. The women did not want to deal with bankers, moneylenders, bureaucracy. But what happened is that bankers and moneylenders muscled in, and began running the micro-credit groups. Micro-credit became a maxi-racket. Just see the interest rates, which are as high as 30, 34, or even 50 per cent. It became part of the problem rather than the solution.

There was indeed a time when I had called for a 10-day session of Parliament to exclusively discuss the greatest crisis of our times. I no longer believe that a 10-day session will be sufficient. It’s time for Parliament and every state assembly to have a special session, entirely devoted to the agrarian crisis and allied issues affecting women farmers, Dalit and Adivasi farmers. If this doesn’t happen, what kind of democracy are we?

What is happening now can be called the consolidation of the corporate state. When the farmers staged their protest in Delhi, not a single newspaper or TV channel reported that the Ambanis’ personal wealth is higher than the GDP of Punjab, and Adani’s greater than the entire state of Haryana. Like the transfer of wealth from the hands of the poor to the rich, the water due to the poor goes to the rich. It flows upwards.

Every major sector should have a minimum wage. Otherwise, how will people survive? The minimum support price is a must for farmers. The government promised farm incomes would double. The 77th round of the NSS (National Sample Survey) has come and gone, but where’s the increase in income? What with the upkeep of animals and daily wage labour, their income has dropped by 8 per cent. Sharecroppers are the worst affected.

This is the age of market fundamentalism. In India, the marriage of socio-religious fundamentalism and market fundamentalism has been a happy one. These people are running the country. If you speak to the farmers, they say they have only two things left: their lands and their debt. Everything else, seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, is in corporate hands.

The present government enacted laws to make the cattle trade difficult. Farmers get lynched while buying or selling cattle, especially cows, whose market rates have crashed. Stray cattle are wrecking crops. Indigenous breeds are heading towards extinction. The rearing of foreign breeds of cows is proving expensive for farmers. The <desi> cows of Tamil Nadu, and our western states, are small, but they don’t need cover, come rain or shine. They have evolved over thousands of years. I have seen Jersey cows and Holsteins being brought into Yavatmal, trembling in temperatures of 45 degrees, dying in a couple of months. Success lies in breeding indigenous cows, as seen in Karnal, Haryana, not foreign cows. Most of the cheetahs imported from Africa have died. This is the result of ignorance.

For the farmer, the farm labourer and the industrial worker, the future is catastrophic. The disaster is already here, it can only get worse.

P. Sainath is an author, award-winning journalist and founder of PARI (People’s Archive of Rural India)

Edited and translated excerpts from a conversation with Atal Tewari for the Kitabi Duniya portal

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