Death as a way out

Print edition : December 30, 2011

THE GRIEF-STRICKEN FAMILY members of T. Ramulu, a debt-ridden farmer who committed suicide at Velamakanne village in Nalgonda district, Andhra Pradesh, in January 2010. - SINGAM VENKATA RAMANA

It is clearly the absence of political will rather than a paucity of ideas that is responsible for the country's agrarian crisis.

EXACTLY seven years ago this month, the Commission on Farmers' Welfare, appointed by the government of Andhra Pradesh, submitted its report to the then Chief Minister, Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy. His Congress government assumed office earlier that year replacing the Telegu Desam Party regime led by N. Chandrababu Naidu, which lost the popular mandate largely because of public dissatisfaction with the economic conditions in the State. This was reflected in poor and fragile employment prospects despite much talk of development in the capital city, Hyderabad, and a growing agrarian crisis, which was evident from a high incidence of farmers' suicides. True to its electoral promise to make agrarian rejuvenation the centrepiece of its economic strategy, the Congress government appointed this commission to make recommendations accordingly.

The report, which was submitted in 2004, began as follows: Agriculture in Andhra Pradesh is in an advanced state of crisis.... Drought-affected areas in Rayalaseema and Telangana bear the brunt of the burden, even though even farmers in irrigated areas have been facing problems. In addition, the burden has fallen disproportionately on small and marginal farmers, tenant farmers and rural labourers. The most extreme manifestation of this crisis is in the suicides by farmers, who are typically driven to this desperate act by the inability to repay debt incurred in the process of cultivation, which has become a volatile and economically less viable activity. But this is only the tip of the iceberg of generalised rural distress which had become prevalent across the State, and has also been expressed in severe cases by kidney sales and hunger deaths in certain areas. The problems of farming are evident, ranging from frequent droughts and soil degeneration, to lack of institutional credit and insurance leading to excessive reliance on private moneylenders, problems in accessing reliable and reasonably priced inputs to problems of marketing and high volatility of crop prices. But the crisis is also reflected in other features of the rural economy: the decline in agricultural employment and stagnation of other employment, leading to reduced food consumption and forced migration of workers; the evident decline in per capita calorie consumption even among the poor.

The commission noted: The economic strategy of the past decade at both Central government and State government levels has systematically reduced the protection afforded to farmers and exposed them to market volatility and private profiteering without adequate regulation, has reduced critical forms of public expenditure, has destroyed important public institutions, and did not adequately generate other non-agricultural economic activities.

Seven years later, despite this commission's report and many other detailed policy recommendations and declarations of intent on the part of both Central and State governments, it is shocking to realise that little or nothing seems to have changed in the situation on the ground. Furthermore, farmers' suicides, which indicate the extreme despair and desperation of the farming community, have continued and even increased in number despite a fall in the number of those who say they are engaged in farming. In 2004, around 2,000 such suicides were reported; in 2010 there were 2,525, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.

It is a different matter that the State government's own records show only 158 such deaths in 2010. This is largely because the paperwork required to establish that the death of a farmer is a suicide has become vastly more complicated ever since the State government introduced a system of compensation for the families in 2005.

Currently, no less than 13 documents are required to establish this. Five documents have to be obtained from the local police station: a first information report, a panchanama report, a post-mortem report (which has to be paid for by the family), a forensic science laboratory report and a final report. In addition, other documents are required: private loan documents and/or bank loan documents as proof that the farmer was indeed indebted, the Land Pass Book, dependents' certificate, ration card and three years agriculture pahani. Then there has to be a report from the mandal-level verification committee, which consists of the mandal revenue officer, a police sub-inspector and the agriculture officer, and finally, a division level verification committee report from the Revenue Divisional Officer, Deputy Superintendent of Police and Assistant Director of Agriculture. Is it any wonder that only 158 cases could meet these stringent criteria?

In fact, it seems that the problem is now possibly even more acute than before. A report recently released by the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (Farmers Suicides and Agrarian Crisis in Andhra Pradesh: A report of fact-finding visits November 2011) found that in the month between October 7 and November 8, there were 95 farmers' suicides in six districts, Medak, Anantapur, Mahboobnagar, Karimnagar, Adilabad and Khammam. Disturbingly, the causes the report identifies for such distress are very similar to the factors described in the 2004 commission's report. They include changing cropping systems with more reliance on cash crops, whose prices are uncertain; delayed and unreliable rainfall; high costs of cultivation, reflecting an unsustainable model of cultivation with high-input, high-risk mono-cropping; unremunerative prices; policy neglect of rain-fed areas all resulting in high indebtedness, which is made worse by the farmers' inadequate access to institutional credit.

What has happened at the State level has been replicated and the tragedy therefore multiplied at the national level as highlighted by P. Sainath in a series of recent articles in The Hindu. It is striking that this problem has persisted despite a period of boom in agricultural prices. However, the perception of policymakers in Delhi is that in general farmers are doing very well.

Indeed, only two States have experienced declines in the incidence of farmers' suicides (which, despite all protestations to the contrary, have become a kind of proxy for the state of distress of the peasantry). The two States, Kerala and West Bengal, under Left Front governments took active measures to make peasant cultivation viable. In Kerala, a debt commission was appointed to reduce the crushing burden of debt in a feasible way.

The inaction elsewhere cannot be ascribed to a lack of ideas. Seven years ago, the Andhra Pradesh commission suggested interventions in six important areas:

correcting spatial inequities in access to irrigation and work towards sustainable water management;

bringing all cultivators, including tenant farmers, into the ambit of institutional credit;

shifting policies to focus on dry-land farming through technology, extension, price and other incentives;

encouraging cheaper and more sustainable input use, with greater public provision and regulation of private input supply and strong research and extension support;

protecting farmers from high volatility in output prices;

emphasising rural economic diversification, to more value-added activities and non-agricultural activities.

The report had provided detailed proposals in each of these six areas, covering issues such as land relations, rural credit, irrigation and power, agricultural research and extension, input provision, crop prices and markets, the special problems of drought-prone areas, non-agricultural employment, and the health, nutrition and education of farmers. When the report was first submitted, it was welcomed by the State government and roundly criticised by the representatives of the previous government, now in opposition. A few years later, the tables were turned: the same opposition that had condemned the report then began demanding that its recommendations be implemented, while the State government sought to downplay it. (Incidentally, the report was never formally published by the State government although it is available online at pol/apr05/pol070405 Andhra_Pradesh.htm).

Similarly, more than five years ago, the National Farmers' Commission submitted to the Central government an excellent and meaningful set of detailed recommendations to deal with the agrarian crisis. The government has used various means to delay or avoid implementation, including setting up yet more committees to examine ways to implement the proposals. Clearly, it is the absence of political will rather than the paucity of ideas that is to blame.

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