By Moin Qazi
At least 217 farmers in Maharashtra ended their lives in the month following the government’s farm loan waiver announcement on June 2 this year. The number of suicides this year has now shot up to 1,327. This figure is only marginally lower when compared to that in the same time period last year. In June 2016, the total number of cases had reached 1,541 in the first six months.
Farmer suicide is a wrenching and contentious issue and the number of lives lost to this has seen a hike in the last couple of years. It is a two decade-old national affliction that is as tragic as it is complex; it is also one that poses a serious threat to India’s most critical economic sector.
Probable suicide triggers
The roots of despair for the Indian farmer have been well-researched and well-documented. They speak of a toxic blend of livelihoods drained by spiralling debt, soil afflicted by heavy doses of chemicals, crops and livestock destroyed by droughts and monsoons owing to climate change, plummeting water tables due to relentless water mining, and the loss of agricultural land to economic development. The agricultural sector has been the slowest sector in India in terms of growth—averaging around 2 per cent a year. This only exacerbates the crisis.
There are certain triggers for these suicides. At the time of sowing when the cash strapped farmer is pushed to buy seeds he can ill afford, he takes credit. The next time, during the harvest season, he arrives in the market and realises that he may not get the desired price for his product—the money that would have enabled him to repay the loan. That’s when the desolate fellow feels that he has no option but to consume pesticide.
The aching soul of the Indian economy
A closer look would suggest that there is a broader pattern to farmer suicides. Most of these farmers had little appetites for risks earlier in their careers. They were happy with the modest yield which kept their home and hearth running. Lured by the promises of new foreign seeds, the farmers started availing big ticket loans to invest in expensive seeds which promised excellent yields. This is what they saw as a fair commercial risk. While the risk is fairly alluring, it is also a miscalculated one at that. This is because, unfortunately, we don’t have sophisticated financial risk-hedging instruments for farmers. Neither do we have super-efficient supply chains that can support these type of savvy ventures.
While farmers, particularly those with small parcels of land, continue to work out strategies to keep their age-old bond with their land alive, the new generation finds farming unsustainable. This is the key reason for their influx into cities despite the fact that the new utopian world the migrants hope to discover, is a vain chimaera and is, in reality, just another hard venture. The realisation of this painful discovery further adds to the social stress these farmers go through. What should become clear today itself, is that the worsening woes of Indian farmers can hardly be neglected by the leaders of a country that has two-thirds of its population living in the countryside. Gandhi’s declaration that agriculture is the soul of the Indian economy is a fact that has to be paid cognisance to.
A grim picture on an already cracked canvas
When India became independent, the contribution of agriculture to the economy was 50 percent. Now, it is only 15 percent. Employment in the agricultural sector used to be up to 88 percent. Now, that has dropped to 66 percent along with rural wages that have fallen to their lowest.
For every Indian farmer who takes his own life, a family is hounded by the debt he leaves behind. This typically results in children dropping out of school to become farmhands and surviving family members themselves committing suicide out of hopelessness and despair. The Indian government’s response to the crisis—largely in the form of limited debt relief and compensation programmes—has failed to address the magnitude and scope of the problem along with its underlying causes. If the government is at all serious about reviving agriculture, it ought to act fast. We have the tools but we need to summon the political will. This is the only way we can save thousands of farmers from the deadly noose.
India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said in 1947, “Everything can wait, but not agriculture“. What India is witnessing today is exactly the contrary. All the other sectors in the Indian economy are surging ahead with big time developmental prospects; agriculture is moving in the opposite direction. Within this self-perpetuating cycle of misery, wrapping a noose around the neck is tragically all too common among farmers. While their deaths might bring a promise of personal escape, in reality, they leave behind crippling emotional, financial and physical burdens, inherited by those left to wipe up the dust.
Moin Qazi, a former banker and an accomplished poet and writer, has extensively contributed articles to leading publications around the globe and has authored several books.
Featured image source: Flickr
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