Interview: Hannan Mollah

‘Governments are in denial’

Print edition : September 04, 2015

Hannan Mollah. "We cannot afford to ignore farmers' issues." Photo: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Interview with Hannan Mollah, general secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha.

IN THE national discourse on agriculture, one phenomenon that has been debated at length and yet has not attracted the attention of policymakers is the issue of farmer suicides in different parts of the country. In its election manifesto, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had promised to take steps to prevent farmer suicides, step up investment in the agricultural sector, and provide cheap agricultural credit. Farmer organisations are of the view that the party has only paid lip service to farmers’ issues and that the Central government headed by it and some State governments are in denial. The All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), which has been at the forefront of the struggle against the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s land acquisition ordinance, mobilised the widows, children and other immediate relatives of farmers who have committed suicide for a two-day rally in New Delhi on August 10-11.

Hannan Mollah, general secretary of the AIKS and a former member of the Lok Sabha from West Bengal, in an interview to Frontline spoke about the urgent need to address the issue. Excerpts:

What were the compelling reasons for the AIKS to take up the issue of farmer suicides?

Farmer suicides have been reported earlier, too, but in the past two decades, since the advent of the new economic policies, the phenomenon has assumed serious proportions. In the past 19 years, nearly 3.2 lakh farmers are reported to have committed suicide. No single segment of society has recorded such an increase in the number of sucides as the farming community. We found that economic distress was the main reason for their resort to the extreme step, but there was no humane response from the governments to address the problem. It is a national shame that our farmers are forced to end their lives, and so we felt the issue should be dealt with from a new perspective. Such an issue had never been part of the national agenda. We decided to visit the families of the farmers who had committed suicides in 12 States. I visited 18 families in Telangana. State leaders of the AIKS visited the affected families in their respective States. We prepared a detailed questionnaire to assess land ownership patterns, the types of crops cultivated, the minimum support price available for various produce, whether procurement had taken place or not, and the immediate factors that led them to commit sucide. We planned to bring 200 affected farmer families to New Delhi [for the rally] but managed to mobilise only 100 family members from the villages where the suicides have taken place. The farmers and their families are not political people. They were subjected to all kinds of pressures in their villages.

Farmer suicides have, as you mentioned, happened before. But this is the first time that any farmer organisation has mobilised the affected families. What did your survey reveal?

Yes, this was the first time that any farmer outfit had organised a sit-in of the surviving family members of the deceased farmers. We cannot afford to ignore farmers’ issues. They are our food providers. We found that the majority of the farmers who had committed suicide were middle-level, poor, marginal farmers, tenant peasants or agricultural workers. Some of them were landless peasants who had taken land on lease at huge rates of interest—Rs.20,000 to Rs.40,000 an acre. Most of the families we met had only a small parcel of land or no land at all. We also found that most of them had not taken bank loans. Most of the loans were taken from private moneylenders at very high rates of interest. The former Union Finance Minister said that farmers had been given loans to the tune of Rs.7 crore, but the truth is that only the agri-business benefited in the name of the Kisan Credit Card scheme. Besides, agricultural loans were disbursed from the city branches of banks. Nearly 80 per cent of the farmers fall in the middle or lower income group. They do not get the benefit of [institutional] loans. They cultivated crops such as wheat, rice, mustard and cotton, but the MSP fixed by the government was lower than the cost of production. For instance, the cost of production for a quintal of rice is Rs.1,400 while the MSP is Rs.1,360. Besides, fixing the MSP without procurement is meaningless. The government is not procuring at all. There are no procurement centres such as the Food Corporation of India [FCI], or the JCI [Jute Corporation of India] or the Cotton Corporation of India. Farmers resort to distress sale in the absence of such centres and fail to get proper prices for their produce. Added to this was the unexpected rain and frost in March and April this year, which resulted in damage to 1,80,00,000 hectares of crop area. But the farmers who suffered crop losses were not compensated by the government. Farmers defaulted on their loans, and this was one of the main reasons for suicide—some farmers consumed poison, some hanged themselves and others jumped into wells. And some died of shock.

You said that the government was in denial. Politically, farmers are an important constituency.

Yes, the Central and State governments are in denial. None of the governments in the States where farmer suicides had taken place has addressed the issue. The Narendra Modi government promised to check the spate of suicides. At least it recognised it as an issue before the Lok Sabha elections. But in the past one year, the rate of suicides has gone up by 20 per cent. Now the government is resorting to dubious methods to suppress the figures. The National Crime Records Bureau [NCRB] data are being manipulated and misinterpreted. There has been a continuous rise in the incidence of suicide by farmers in the past two decades. In 2013, 11,772 farmers committed suicide. In 2014, the figure came down to 5,650, down by 50 per cent. In the NCRB report [on accidental deaths and suicides], the data on suicides have various columns for different categories of deaths. Strangely the “others” category showed a 245 per cent rise in figures. Suicides by self-employed people showed an increase by 125 per cent, and farmer suicides declined by 50 per cent. Suicides by tenant farmers seems to have been shifted to the category of “suicides by agricultural workers”.

In India, we have a large number of tenant peasants. Many people are not aware of this fact. In West Bengal, they are recorded as bargadars. When the crop is destroyed, the tenant farmer does not get compensated. Only the land owner is compensated. Only an expert can differentiate between a tenant farmer and a farmer. A police officer recording a death will not go into such details, he will merely classify all deaths as unnatural.

In 2014, according to the NCRB statistics, 12 States and six Union Territories reported zero suicides. In 2010, not a single State declared itself a “zero suicide” State and only three Union Territories had done so. As farmer suicides are politically inconvenient, the government had to show reduced rates. In 2014, West Bengal, Rajasthan and Bihar reported no farmer suicides. How is this possible? We know that 87 rice growers and 37 potato growers in West Bengal committed suicide, but the State Chief Minister does not accept this.

A large number of suicides has taken place in Maharashtra, Telangana, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.

The Centre claims that it is sensitive to farmers’ issues. Does this belie the facts on the ground?

If you look at the statements made by BJP Chief Ministers, you will have an idea of how insensitive they are. Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis says no to loan waivers, which in effect means “let the farmers die”. Maharashtra accounts for one-third of all suicides. Union Minister Nitin Gadkari talks about his experiment in watering plants with his urine. Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar calls farmers who take their own lives cowards and criminals. Union Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh says suicides are happening because of failed love affairs. How can we sit back and hear them talk like this about farmers? We have demanded that a minimum compensation of Rs.10 lakh be given to each affected family to cover the crop damage and for daily expenses, and that old loans be waived. We also suggested that the interest rate for government loans should not be more than 4 per cent as per the recommendations of the M.S. Swaminathan Committee report on agriculture. If the formula for crop pricing is decided as per the report, that is production cost plus 50 per cent, farmers will get some assurance to live. During the election campaign, Modi said the BJP would implement the Swaminathan Committee report if elected to power. But the Modi government has told the Supreme Court in an affidavit that it cannot implement the committee’s recommendations. If agricultural workers get at least 200 days of work and Rs.300 as wage for every day of work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme [MNREGA], they will stop committing suicide. A minimum amount of Rs.3,000 as kisan pension should be given. The compensation for crop damage is low. In Haryana, we found that the State government promised to give a compensation of Rs.11,500 an acre but the lease rent for the land ranged from Rs.20,000 to Rs.40,000. Added to this is the cost of production. Both the Central and the State governments have a responsibility. In Karnataka, in one single day 17 people committed suicide. What we are seeing is the Anantapur model of denial. Fifteen years ago, there was a spurt of suicides in Anantapur. The Collector reported that the deaths were caused by stomach pain. Why was there pain in the stomach? Because the victims had consumed poison.

Do you think a good monsoon will bring some relief to agricultural operations this year?

If there is a good monsoon, it means that production will go up and prices will fall. It is ironical that every day the prices of industrial products go up, but the prices of agricultural products remain the same. We have seen the anti-farmer character of the Modi government in the way it has gone about with the land acquisition ordinance. The Prime Minister made BJP legislators and MPs campaign in their respective States for amendments to the Land Acquisition Act, but when farmers raised objections, the government re-promulgated the ordinance, and when that failed, it constituted the Joint Parliamentary Committee [JPC].

We campaigned hard to get people to send their representations to the committee and formed a Bhoomi Adhikar Andolan along with other farmers organisations. Even within the JPC, the BJP MPs are opposed to the changes in the land Act. This was the first major defeat for the Modi government, and the farmers’ movement can take credit for that.