Mainstream, VOL LIV No 16 New Delhi April 9, 2016
Political Economy of Farmers’ Suicide A Case of Western Odisha
Sunday 10 April 2016
by Pradip Kumar Nath and Hemprabha Chauhan
“Kadaleepali farmer’s suicide still shrouded in mystery”—drew attention of many and revealed the nexus of agrarian crisis, poor governance, assurance of job and, above all, the media’s apathy kowtowing to the crony capitalists’ dictates. This is the story of Harihar Budhia. Age-45 years, Village-Kadaleepali, Block- Barpalli, Dist-Bargarh, Odisha. Known as Budhia, he was the adopted son of Bal Mukund Budhia, his father’s elder brother. On the morning of Sunday, July 19, 2015 he left his home telling his wife that he was to going to bring mushroom and the people later found him lying in his crop land after drinking pesticide.
Initially admitted to the Barpali hospital, he was later shifted to the VSS Institute of Medical Sciences and Research (VSSMSR), Burla and died while undergoing treatment. With three daughters and two-and-a-half acres of non-irrigated land, he had mortgaged one-and-a-half acre of land for performing the marriage ceremony of his elder daughter. He had to maintain his family and survive with cultivation of one acre of land and loan from multiple sources. He had already taken a loan amounting to Rs 1.5 lakhs from three banks. The suicide note, for the first time left by a farmer, revealed many complexities of the agrarian crisis leading to a farmer’s utter helplessness that ultimately resulted in ending His life.
With assurance of a government job in the local Post Office for the daughter Sushmita, one Shree Tarini Behera had taken one lakh rupees and had taken both the father and the daughter (Sushmita) to Bhubaneswar five times. Again one Shree Narayan Bhoi had lifted fertiliser worth of Rs 15,000 in his (Harihar’s) name and had not paid him back the amount for the last six years. After giving Rs one lakh to Tarini Behera, Sushmita was given a Laptop to work as a data entry operator in Barpali Post Office and the Post Master revealed to her that it was not a government job. A big racket operating behind such kind of assurance of government job has been revealed by the leading vernacular weekly Gana Isthar (dated 24-07-2015) published from Bargarh. Unfortunately the mainstream vernacular Odiya print media didn’t come out with this nexus.
Like the story of Budhia, more than 19 deaths have been reported in Bargarh, the greenery of Odisha in the Hirakud Command Area. Farmers’ suicide has continued unabated across several districts in the State.Starting with the outright denial of farmers’ suicide, the Odisha Government (Ministers as well as MLAs) has gone to the extent of making a mockery of the farmers’ plight. Somehow they link it to excessive liquor consumption, family disputes, love affairs, mental aberration and a host of imaginative causes. These are quoted as the cause of suicide and the district administrations’ reports are fabricated to corroborate the elected executives’ prognostications/assertions.
With ad hoc measures of drought declaration and relief packages of one thousand crore rupees for input subsidy, the government had attempted to take stock of the situation by sending the Ministers to different districts. In the meanwhile the Central Government team in its primary report estimated the kharif crop loss of 45.57 per cent with mention of Balangir as the worst affected and Dhenkenal, the least. The State Government came out with its report on 139 Blocks of 21 districts with severe damage to kharif crop in 5,32, 000 hectares of land. (Sambad, dt 05/11/2015, Farmers’ Suicide by Gobind Bhuyan—Edit pg)
With more than a hundred farmers committing suicide till November 2015, more than 70 per cent have been from Western Odisha alone. The scourge of their suicides (Indian Express, 16/11/2015, pg-9 report) has enveloped the entire State, not discriminating between infrastructure-deprived, nature-dependent, Western and interior districts and their slightly better equipped coastal region. (Indian Express, 16/11/2015, Srimoy Kar)
Compared to States like Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, there have been fewer reports of farmers’ suicide in Odisha because paddy cultivation was supposed to be a safer bet than sugarcane or cotton in terms of investment and loan burden. But the recent deaths of farmers in Odisha show that all is not well in the State’s farm sector that is mostly paddy-centric. (HT Priya Ranjan Sahu, October 20, 2015, BBSR Edition)
In contrast to the findings of studies (Reddy, Shroff, Deshpande, Suman Chandra, Nair and Menon, Revathi, S. Mishra) the present suicide in Odisha is directly linked to the tenancy system. Analysing the interlocking relationship between landlord-creditor-employer and his tenant-borrower-employee, Bardhan questions the possibility of the latter’s benefit if the inter-locking relation is replaced with functionally specialised relations with separate individuals. In case of the Western Odisha farmers’ suicide, this is exactly the case. In the absence of recording of tenancy arrangements, tenants had to develop specialised relations with various types of individuals and institutions. These individuals and institutions have failed them by throwing them into the dark dungeons of death.
Sometime the institutional arrangement is sought to be explained by referring to the power of some dominant individuals or classes or other social groups. (Bardhan, pg. 89) After the economic reforms when the subsistence agriculture has become more and more un-remunerative and non-viable, the crop-sharing arrangement in Western Odisha and more so in the Hirakud Command Area has taken a new dimension. With assured irrigation, almost all tenants are in the fixed rent arrangements and the earlier relationship of landlord-creditor-employer to/and tenant-borrower-employee has been substituted by land owner-rent payer and in the presence of the absentee landowner, the creditor-borrower relationship has almost vanished. Borrowing from the landowner is hardly to be found any more. The functional agent to ensure credit vacillates between the local/village money lender to the formal and informal financial institutions, with a greater reliance/higher tilt towards the former. The SHG movement has not flourished due to several socio-economic and political factors in Western Odisha.
Looking into the status of agriculture in Odisha, R.S. Rao makes a five-class composition on the basis of labour disposition. (Rao, pg 193) Herein he defines a marginal farmer as one who spends more time in other’s farm than on his own farm. A smaller farmer is defined as one who is willing to spend his time on other’s farm to supplement his income from his own farm. The small and marginal farmer constitutes what can be called the historical materialist category of the poor peasant as both of them are surplus earners for the rich peasant and landlord. The “marginal farmer”, according to Rao, is more distressed compared to the small farmer and stands as a category between the agricultural labourer and small farmer. (Definition—Small and Marginal farmer, page 195)
In capitalist processes as developed in the capitalist society, one naturally expects that the growth of the agricultural labour force will be positively associated with the level of development. (Rao, pg 194) In case of Odisha this doesn’t seem to happen. The first explanation given by R.S. Rao on this fact is that land reform measures, which were put in the statute books, created a stir among the landholders, who did not permit the recording of tenancy arrange-ments. As a result, a good number of cultivators, who are tenants, are actually recorded as agricultural labourers in the record books. (p. 195)
The list of Farmers’ Suicide, investigated and confirmed by Gana Istahara in Bargarh District, is seen in the following page.
It provides the list of 19 farmers committing suicide in Bargarh since 0I/01/2015 reveals that all of them were marginal farmers and dependent on tenancy with crop-sharing. The institution of share-cropping being resilient in peasant agriculture (Bardhan) across the centuries, proletarianisation has increased with the rise in cost and credit intensity of cultivation and this has intensified after the new economic reform in 1991.
“More than 3600 farmers, including 474 women, have committed suicide in Odisha in the last 15 years between 1999 and 2013, State Agriculture Minister Pradeep Maharathy said in the Assembly on August 21, 2015. However, he asserted that the suicides had nothing to do with crop loss or related to other agricultural issues.” (HT, dt.20/10/2015).
Saroj Mohanty’s Assessment of Farmers’ Suicide in Western Odisha
With more than 3.5 lakh suicides since 1997, two-thirds of them were from the States of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. In these States the relation between cash crop and debt from money lender has been well-established and is known to all. Most of them are cotton, sugarcane or soyabean cultivators. But in Odisha farmers’ suicide is linked to failure in paddy cultivation. With detailed case study of 15 famers committing suicide in Western Odisha in 2009, Saroj Mohanty has brought out some common characteristics as follows:
1. All the farmers committing suicide were either small or marginal.
2. All of them were share-croppers either with fixed rent or a variable one.
3. Most of the farmers were from the un-irrigated areas.
4. Most of them had taken loan from private and non- government agencies.
5. None had income from any source other than agriculture.
6. Majority were BPL card holders.
(Source: Saroj Mohanty, “Krushi O Krushak : Sankata O Sambhabana”,Anwesa)
This proves the argument made above that the institutional arrangements developed with much hype during the post-reform era have failed the farmers in Western Odisha. (Krushi O Krushak: Sankata O Sambhabana)
Why Institutions Matter
“Economists like North and Thomas (1973) and Landes (1998) have argued that the rich world is rich today because, over the centuries, it has devised institutions that have enabled people to improve their material conditions of life. On the other hand the people in today’s rich country were able to fashion their institutions in ways that enabled those proximate causes of prosperity to explode there. One can safely ask whether it was the institutions or whether it was the enlightened policies of rulers that were responsible for the explosion. But then, policies are not plucked from the air, they emerged from consultations and deliberations within institutions.” (Partha Das Gupta)
The generic issue is: changes need to be brought in by consultations and deliberations among the people (named as human capital pejoratively by economists) who galvanise an institution.
In the light of the above understanding about the role of institutions, it is imperative to critically examine whether the institutions created in Odisha for any specific purpose have enabled people to improve their material conditions of life or it has proved to be another stumbling block in that path.
MSP, Paddy Procurement and the Marginal Farmers
The farmers’ suicides in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh speak about the cash crop and high credit intensity followed by huge expenditure incurred in education and health needs of the family members/sector (with high expectation of return from agriculture). But in Odisha’s case all the hundred suicides reported so far are of paddy cultivators and 90 per cent of them are tenant farmers. In the absence of any tenancy law or rules, the verbal agreement and beliefs run the entire tenancy show putting the real peasant in jeopardy. Neither does the tenant get any compensation for the crop loss nor any relief. He is not assured of the Minimum Support Price (MSP) without the Farmer’s Identity card and he remains at the mercy of the middle man.
With strong reports of distress sale of paddy, it is the non-Odiya rice millers who have really benefited from the irrigation facilities in the Hirakud Command Area known as the rice bowl of Odisha; with nearly 20 per cent of total paddy procurement in the State, Bargarh’s farmers suffer from the real vagaries of poor governance with perceived regional disparity. The honey-moon between the procurement agencies (civil supply corporation, FCI and the Revenue Department officials) has put the small and marginal farmers in a precarious position. Time and again the custom milling has been shrouded in mystery. Western Odisha continues to be the green pastures for the coastal employees of the Odisha Government reaping bounties through these corrupt practices with explicit/implicit support of the political party in power.
Revenue Administration—a Scar on Governance: Why the Consolidation Operation Failed
As of today, if a farmer X wants to sell or mortgage his property Y, in reality he does this with property Z, which is in his Records of Rights (RoR). He enjoys the usufructuary rights of Y and he physically transacts the same property for any sale or mortgage by showing this plot of land. He pays the water cess for Z and all government transactions are made for the property Z for which he has the RoR. He does not have any RoR for property Y which he has been enjoying generation after generation. With consolidation operations being completed and people possessing the consolidated patta (RoR) in Bargarh district (like many other districts in Odisha), in reality they make all transactions with the government, banks and private parties with the RoR—recorded—property. Even the crop loss, input subsidy, bank loan and MSP are determined by his RoR and this is not in his usufructuary rights. The imposed distri-buted patta (RoR) has neither been withdrawn nor new settlement operations been commenced in the last two decades. The people have never accepted the consolidation operations imposed by the Odisha Government dominated by people from the Coastal Odisha districts in the Revenue Departments.
Cultural Difference between Western and Coastal Region in Odisha
The computerisation of land records and digitisation of maps, though claimed to have been completed in Odisha, is yet to be linked to the Registration Office for updating the data. The user-friendly and economic way of collecting one’s certificates (of all kinds, namely, Caste, Income, Solvency and a host of other miscellaneous certificates) has not fructified (like Karnataka, AP) in Odisha, thereby compelling the poor farmers to encounter a lot of hardships and agony. The vested interests greasing the palms of revenue officials by manual handling of issuance of different certificates (income, caste, solvency and other miscellaneous certificates) do not allow computerisation thereby obstructing trans-parency of dealings, duly supported by the political power. As such Odiyas (specifically the people of the Coastal districts) are ill-famed for being very litigant, with the proverbial “I shall show you the Red building/ I shall show you the Red road“ with the meaning that I shall drag you to the Court of law, that is, the High Court. This phraseology is often used as a common form of abuse or use of words in anger in the Eastern costal districts of Odisha. This is the reason why a Circuit Court has not been allowed to be opened anywhere in Western or Southern Odisha. Having the High Court in Cuttack, there is a systematic hegemonisation of the justice delivery system and the people in remote areas are very often denied justice. More than a decade has elapsed since the closure of all offices in all district headquarters in Western Odisha during the last three days of each month to lodge protests against the government’s apathy to open a circuit court anywhere in Western Odisha. Even there is strong resentment about the Chief Minister’s letter for inclusion of Sambalpuri/Koshali language in the Eighth Schedule to the Constitution (official memorandum given by Chief Minister-D.O No. UM-5/2014-10 dt 01/03/2014 to the Home Minister). A leading linguist from Eastern Odisha, Debiprasanna Pattnayak, reacting to this issue, wrote in The Telegraph daily that he has suffered immense pain when he came to know that the Chief Minister had written a letter to the Home Minister for including Sambalpuri/Koshali in the Eighth Schedule. He was vehemently against the proposal, since separate language identity may inflame the demand for a separate State for Western Odisha.
The language barrier has often created havoc in the life genre of the poor and downtrodden in Western Odisha. The worst victimisation is through information asymmetry knowingly created by the decision-makers at the helm of affairs in the State capital, that is, Bhubaneswar. It is a well-known fact that Western and Southern Odisha is home to nearly 62 Tribal categories and 12 from them belong to Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs). There are even two to three linguistic categories within one Tribal group. Necessarily language is a big barrier in communication irrespective of the State’s imposition of Odiya as the mother tongue for all. The rich and diverse language culture has been a real issue with the monolingual administrative imposition. Odiya never being their mother tongue of the farmers in Western Odisha, they have a tough time to avail any agriculture extension services. The language in vogue in Western Odisha has been Sambalpuri/Koshali since time immemorial. The Krushi Khabar, Mausam Jankari (News on Farming and Meteorological prediction) etc. are broadcast in chaste Odiya language which the farmers hardly understand. The Sankar Kisam Paddy (HYV Paddy) is understood to be “Mahadev Dhan” or the Paddy of/for Lord Shiva or the word Mayee deba is understood to be the month of May. Mayee Deba in chaste Odiya is flattening the mud in the paddy fields. (‘Regional imbalance in Odisha, Media and Government’s Role’, Vidura, Jan.-March 2011, pp. 42-46, PII)
The agricultural extension service in Odisha is provided by the input seller or supplier. One hardly comes across an agricultural famer who is even a graduate all over the State. The information about seed variety, pesticide, insecticide and other farm inputs are provided by the supplier or seller of the same. In such a scenario, the small and marginal farmers find no solution for any problem within their reach.
Even after the ill-famed Rs 750 crores financial embezzlement reports in the MGNREGS in Odisha by the CAG, there is hardly any institutional reform in the implementation of major flagship programmes like MGNREGS, housing schemes (IAY) and others. From the beginning till date the primary focus in the MGNREGS is yet to be a demand-driven one and the requisite institutional framework/mechanisms could not be evolved. To bring home the point the institution of “Mate” as modified by the Odisha Government from time to time can be a good illustrative example. With a Government circular (vide letter No. 4324(30)/PR.Dt 30/01/2008, of PR Department Government of Odisha) the Government of Odisha introduced the concept of Gaon Sathi (the name of which the present writers have found in a book—”Gaon Sathi Experiment in Extension” compiled by the Extension Project of the Allahabd Agriculture Institute, published with the assistance of Ford Foundation in 1956).
Then the Odisha Government went on to engage seven Gram Sanjojaks in each Panchayat (vide letter No. 2439 Dated 29/07/2009 of PR Department). With 14 pages of duties and responsibilities of the Gram Sanjojak, supposed to work as a “work site supervisor” as per the guidelines, almost made mockery of the MGNREGS programme and the unemployed rural youth.
Again it went back to the original structure of Mate superseding all earlier orders (Punar Mushiko Bhava) and the nomenclatures of Gaon Sathi and Gram Sanjojak were abolished (letter No. 24897 dated 05/10/2013 of PR Department).
Even in the 2009 elections the BJD declared during electioneering and tom-tomed their achieve-ment of giving appointments to more than 10,000 Gaon Sathis. With seven Gram Sanjojaks engaged in each Panchayat (with 6227 Panchayats in Odisha), it would have been a milestone in employment creation in rural Odisha. But on what basis? The election campaign speech was a blatant lie and the entire government machinery was engaged for selection of Gram Sanjojaks, making secondary the core objectives of the MGNREGS to guarantee wage employment to every household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work and this would in turn enhance the livelihood securities in rural areas. This could have also created durable assets ensuring livelihood security. From the beginning (in post-independence Odisha) if one analyses the policy-planning and priorities of the Odisha Government, what is observed is a systematic attempt of neglect of both the primary and secondary sectors even though there is an extraordinary resource base as the State’s natural endowment. The State enjoys a far greater comparative advantage in resources like land, water, forest and varieties of mineral resources starting with iron ore, coal, manganese, lime stone, bauxite to rare earth and gem stone.
The progress for development of individual land for the individual beneficiary has been very low. The present exercise of IPPE (Intensive Participatory Planning Exercise) in the MGNREGS which demands a lot of field level exercise by the villagers lacks the requisite participation due to poor capacity building. Even the rights and entitlement-based programmes lack real partici-pation from the people with more bureaucratic red-tapped rules and procedures without any logical and reasonable amenability. The very public notice of conducting a social audit by the BDOs through newspapers (with dates and venue specified) shows how dictatorial the social audit can be and questions are often raised how social “the social audit is”. Why should a government officer dictate the venue, time and date for the conduct of social audit in a Panchayat/Village?
With party based (though not explicitly) three-tier Panchayati Raj Institutions, the same is not leveraged through the right process of gover-nance. With the kind of structure of governance provided by the government from time to time it is hardly conducive for a participatory decision-making exercise through the Gram Sabha. With the changing colours of the Panchayat Secretary, appointment, role and responsibilities assigned to them, they hardly fit into the dynamics of changes in the rural society in Odisha.
Role of Media
Extreme biasedness against the happenings of Western Odisha has been observed by the vernacular print media. It is the concern of a few leading national dailies (The Telegraph, Hindustan Times, Indian Express) and some investigative journals like Down to Earth, Mainstream,EPW that the human dimension of many issues gets some coverage in the national and International media with the right echo in the different spectrum bands. The best case in point was the proportionate coverage of the 12 Gram Sabhas to determine the legitimacy of the Vedanta company in and around Niyamgiri Hills. The actual role of the print media has not been played due to the causal role of its stringers through news collection by mobile phones or secondary sources. None of the reports of suicide deaths brings the complex agrarian distress coupled with social upheavals originating from natural resources grab (Land, Water, Forest, Mining, Wildlife and the Commons) by the multinational corporations with the aid and abetment of the local crony bureaucrats and politicians in power.
The present crisis is going to be aggravated with the mainstream development agenda focused on industrialisation through resource grab. The proof of the same has come through the attempted deliberate dilution of the Social Impact Assessment (SIA) and Consent Clause of the RFCTLARR 2013 Act. After failing to pass the ordinance the Central Government has opened up a new era of competitive federalism in the guise of cooperative federalism. It is the responsibility of the respective State governments how competitively they can sacrifice/sell out the citizens’ livelihood bases/resources through the exercise of eminent domain with suitable definition of “Public Purpose”. Herein the role of the civil society, enlightened citizens, media and NGOs will be of paramount importance with regard to how best they can reduce the asymmetry of information on resource usurpation by the State.
Govinda Bhuyan, 2015, Sambad, Sambalpur, 05/11/2015
Kobad Ghandy (2015), “Farmers’ Suicides, Rural Distress and a Dying Nation”, Mainstream, September 5, 2015.
Pranab Bardhan, “The Economist’s Approach to Agrarian Structure” in Institutions and Ineqalities: Essays in Honour of Andre Betille (1999), ed. by Ramachandra Guha and Jonathan P. Parry, Oxford University Press.
P.K. Nath and Hemprabha Chauhan (2011), ‘Regional imbalance in Odisha—Media and Government’s Role’, Vidura, Jan.-March, 2011, Press Institute of India, Chennai.
Prasanna Mishra, (2015), Gana Istahar, Bargarh, 24/10/2015.
Priya Ranjan Sahu (2015), Hindustan Times, Bhubaneswar, 20/10/2015.
Partha Dasgupta (2009), ‘Selected Papers of Partha Dasgupta’, Poverty,Population and Natural Rsources, Vol-II, Oxford University Press (Pg. 451).
R.S. Rao, “A growth Profile of Agricultural Sector in Orissa” in the book Towards Understanding Semi Feudal Semi-Colonial Society (1995)—published by Perspectives—Hyderabad (a paper presented to the 18th International Summer Seminar at the University of Economic Science, Bronoleushner, Berlin).
Sreemoy Kar, (2015), Indian Express, Hyderabad, 16/11/2015.
Saroj Mohanty (2010), ‘Krushi O Krushak : Sankata O Sambhabana’,Anwesha, Sambalpur.
Pradip Kumar Nath is Adjunct Faculty, Centre for Planning Monitoring and Evaluation (CPME), National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj (NIRDPR), Rajendranagar, (Hyderabad). He can be contacted at e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Mrs Hemprabha Chauhan is a freelance journalist, NIRDPR, Rajendranagar (Hyderabad). She can be contacted at e-mail: email@example.com