Killing neglect

Print edition : May 29, 2015

Gajendra Singh, the farmer from Dausa, before he hanged himself from a tree at an AAP rally in New Delhi on April 22. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Members of the farming community at the Bhoomi Adhikar Sangharsh Andolan rally against the Land Acquisition Bill in New Delhi on May 5. Photo: Altaf Qadri/AP

Even as a group of political parties feels the NDA government is insensitive to the crop losses suffered by the farming community and is downplaying the extent of suicides by farmers, the government justifies the Land Acquisition Ordinance as a panacea to the crisis.

THE suicide of Gajendra Singh, a farmer from Bandikui in Dausa district of Rajasthan, on April 22 at a public meeting organised by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) against the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition Resettlement and Rehabilitation, or LARR, (Amendment) Ordinance, 2015, was tragic enough. But the bigger tragedy was that the real issues for which the farming community rallied in New Delhi got relegated to the background as claims and counter-claims and a blame game ensued. In a handwritten suicide note that was found on his person, Gajendra Singh outlined the reasons for taking the drastic step. He said he suffered severe losses because his crops were damaged by unseasonal rains and hailstorm during the harvesting season.

The victim was further victimised by the media and sections of the political class as a controversy arose over whether he was incited to commit suicide; whether the organisers of the rally had deliberately ignored him; and whether his next of kin was eligible for government compensation.

Meanwhile, another farmer of Sikar district in Rajasthan allegedly ended his life following the unprecedented damage to his chana (chickpea) crop. Some 10 million hectares of crops have been damaged across the country and reports of farmer suicides have started trickling in. The national debate had now gone beyond the LARR ordinance. A demand for land reforms and broader land issues was gaining articulation. But the government continued to justify the land ordinance, arguing that it was the panacea to the problems facing the farming community.

A broad coalition of political parties, led by the Left parties, their farmers’ organisations and several non-governmental organisations, was forged in April with the resolve to launch a campaign across the country not only against the ordinance and its dilution of consent and compensation clauses but also on the crisis facing farmland and the farmer. At a massive public meeting in New Delhi on May 5, held under the banner of the Bhoomi Adhikar Sangharsh Andolan, Left leaders and representatives of the Trinamool Congress and the Janata Dal (United) addressed landless labourers, small peasants and farmers.

The Congress, which organised a rally on April 19, chose to focus on the land ordinance and sought to re-affirm the position of vice-president Rahul Gandhi in the party.

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government remained in denial mode for long. It underestimated the extent of not only the suicides but also the crop damage. Some 11 districts in Maharashtra reported suicides. Finally, on April 28, a full six months after rain and hailstorms wreaked havoc on crops, Union Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh informed Parliament that crops on 189 lakh hectares suffered damage and that the government was relaxing the compensation norms. On April 22, he was accused of misleading Parliament when the area on which crop damage took place was quoted as 80 lakh ha.

On May 1, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who visited Bundelkhand which had reported farmers’ suicides, said the compensation norms would be relaxed. Earlier, farmers were given compensation only if half of their crops were damaged; now they were eligible for compensation even if 33 per cent, or one-third, of their crops are lost. Farmers in rain-fed areas were also eligible to claim assistance in the form of input subsidies but the relief to farmers was limited to 2 ha.

Harpal Singh, former Member of the Haryana Legislative Assembly and general secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), said: “Today, when the yield has been only 10 per cent and the expenditure has gone up 16-fold, limiting the compensation to only 2 ha is not realistic. Every district has suffered more than 55 per cent crop damage. It is that tension that is driving farmers to suicide. We have had cases in Haryana, too.” He said the survey or the girdawari did not cover the real extent of the damage. “The patwari [village land revenue official] does not have the skill to do damage assessment. Besides, every village does not have a patwari. The survey is being done only in areas where our organisation is present and is able to raise the issue aggressively,” he said.

In Haryana, some 65 lakh ha has been affected although compensation has been declared for only 13 lakh ha. In Sonepat district, two farmers reportedly committed suicide.

“Farmers in Haryana are never known to commit suicide. They would eat the bark of the tree but never contemplate suicide. The present situation is pushing them to it,” said Balbir Singh, a farmer who attended the rally. He and other farmers Frontline spoke to said the crop insurance scheme was seriously flawed as it was calculated on the basis of total losses in a revenue block. Tara Singh Sidhu, AIKS spokesperson from Rajasthan, said food and cash crops suffered severe damage in Kota, Barmer and Jalore. Standing crops of cumin and fennel were lost. “The Rajasthan government has not completed the girdawari process. It takes time, but there has to be some urgency,” he said, adding that there were two rounds of hailstorms and unseasonal rains —first in January-February and then in March. “The block-level compensation is unrealistic—we are demanding that wherever there has been crop damage and whoever has been affected be compensated.” He said there were several land acquisition-related disputes in the State.

Sidhu’s claims were corroborated by Amra Ram, president of the AIKS. Amra Ram of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), a former legislator from Sikar, told Frontline that crops in 27 of the 33 districts in the State were affected. “The restriction of compensation to 2 ha would not be sufficient to even cover the cost of sowing,” he said. Fifty-five persons had lost their lives in the past few months, either in heart attacks due to stress caused by crop damage or in suicides. He said even in the worst drought years, farmers were never known to resort to extreme steps or succumb to stress. He said nearly 40 per cent of the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) would fall in Rajasthan. The acquisition of one kilometre land on either side of the corridor, as provisioned in the LARR ordinance, would be resisted by farmers. S.R. Dharapuri of the All India People’s Front said the demand for a National Land Commission and a National Land Use Policy, apart from abrogation of the LARR ordinance, was unchanged. Vijoo Krishnan, joint secretary of the AIKS, said the government’s estimate of crop loss across 13 States was a conservative one. “The trail of destruction is unprecedented when one considers the fact that the total area under rabi cultivation is around 6 crore ha. Around one-third of the total area under rabi cultivation has been affected. Two days after the Agriculture Minister reported that crops were damaged on 180 lakh ha, the Centre reduced 75 lakh ha and presented “revised” data charging the States with over-estimation and over-reporting. What greater insensitivity can be displayed in times of such a national calamity?” he asked.

Hannan Mollah, a former CPI(M) Rajya Sabha member and general secretary of the AIKS, said the government figures did not include the crop losses in Bihar, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Odisha, Delhi, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and the north-eastern States. Jammu and Kashmir was affected by a second round of floods. The NDA government, he said, was downplaying the magnitude of the destruction. The AIKS, which took the lead in organising the Bhoomi Adhikar Sangharsh Andolan, demanded that a special session of Parliament be convened to discuss the calamity; all farm loans be waived; payment of crop insurance be calculated on the basis of losses in every field; time-bound compensation which should not be less than twice the cost of production be paid to peasants and sharecroppers; compensation equivalent to minimum wage for three months be paid to agricultural workers; and employment be provided to them under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.

In a letter addressed to the Union Agriculture Minister, the AIKS said the agrarian distress added to the woes of the farmers who were already reeling under volatile global market prices. The fall in the prices of agricultural commodities, it said, was a regular phenomenon. In the case of several crops, prices were below the minimum support price (MSP), which itself was non-remunerative, it said. The letter pointed out the defects in the present status of agricultural insurance. The share of households not insuring certain crops was up to 100 per cent: in the case of most crops, over 95 per cent of households did not insure them. National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) data showed that lack of awareness was one of the reasons for this. There was undervaluation of losses and undue delays in the settlement of claims; besides, the coverage and indemnity payments were biased towards a few regions and crops.

The AIKS pointed out that any crop insurance scheme should be comprehensive, covering both income and yield risk for all farmers, including tenant farmers and sharecroppers. It said the National Agricultural Insurance Scheme (NAIS) was limited to less than 15 per cent of the gross cropped area and only select districts and crops were notified in each State under the NAIS. Weather-based insurance was applicable only in a few States and that, too, to a few pockets. Krishnan said there were restrictions on crops that could be insured in a district although there was evidence of some crops being traditionally grown in the area. “All crops, food, horticultural and plantation, should be covered and income losses to agricultural workers should also be covered,” he said.

Insurance premium

Another area of concern was defaulting by private insurance companies. The AIKS received complaints about collection of high premiums. It has demanded that public sector insurance companies be engaged in insurance collection with support from Central and State governments. It demanded a white paper on the functioning of private insurance providers. The AIKS also suggested that the Central and State governments bear the entire expense incurred for the payment of premium by poor, small and marginal farmers at a 70:30 ratio as revenue-deficit States were unable to bear the expenses. For assessment of losses, the revenue village should be taken as the unit and not the taluk or mandal, it said. “The underlining principle should be that even if there is crop loss on one plot of land, the farmer must be able to get compensation,” Krishnan said.

All calculations of cost of production, he said, should be based on the latest information available, and the MSP should be calculated according to the Swaminathan Commission’s recommendations. The AIKS experience was that the cost of production was always shown far below the actual costs. Further, insurance cover for failure of agricultural facilities such as borewells should be given and in areas prone to droughts and floods, and the yields for normal years should be taken into consideration to fix the threshold level for loss assessment. The organisation said that a special budgetary subsidy for regions with erratic rainfall and indemnity levels, threshold yields and other yardsticks should be amended to safeguard the interests of peasants in arid and semi-arid zones.

Even as the NDA government backed the LARR ordinance inside and outside Parliament and underplayed the extent of agrarian distress, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, in a recent report, noted that of the 45,635.63 ha of land allotted for special economic zones until 2014, work had begun on only 28,488.49 ha. Huge tracts of land were lying unutilised in 17 States. In Odisha, 96.58 per cent of the SEZ land remained unused. More than Rs.75,000 crore was raised by mortgaging such land illegally in the State. Since the enactment of the SEZ Act, 2005, 576 formal approvals for SEZs covering 60,374.76 ha were granted, of which 392 SEZs, covering 45,635.63 ha, were notified until March 2014. Of these notified zones, only 152 became operational, and the SEZs had no noticeable impact on the national economy, the audit said. It was estimated separately that nearly 40 per cent of agricultural land would face the threat of forcible acquisition under various proposals such as the DMIC, which would pass through six States, or the proposed capital city for Andhra Pradesh, the Coastal Corridor, the Yamuna and Ganga Expressways, the dedicated freight corridor or the proposed 100 smart cities.

The NDA government, which completes one year in office in May, believes that the land ordinance will benefit farmers and agriculture although there does not seem to be any clear evidence of that. Many of its constituents and allies are opposed to the LARR ordinance.

The Shiv Sena launched a State-wide agitation in Maharashtra, and on May 5 the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch protested against the ordinance. By the look of it, any party found defending the ordinance will run the risk of being labelled anti-farmer. The NDA’s approach to the agrarian calamity is incomprehensible but not very different from that of its predecessor. The difference, if any, is only in the degree of indifference.