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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 12 New Delhi March 10, 2018

Cultivating Loss Reaping Suicides: Perils of being a Farmer in the Republic of India

Monday 12 March 2018

by Annapurna and Navneet Sharma

People eat mango kernel for hobby.
—Agriculture Minister, Odisha

(seeking) Loan waiver has become fashion these days.
—Venkaiah Naidu, former Minister, Vice-President, India

Farmers have been uncared for ever since India got freedom. Of late, they have been pushed to the walls, their pain has been ignored and they are exploited in name of development policies. The growth rate in rural agricultural employment during 1983 to 1993-94 was 1.38 per cent and it further declined to 0.12 per cent during the post-reform period from 1993 to 2006. The data further shows a continuous fall in the agricultural investments per year since 2010-11. During the first two years of the Modi Government, it had a sharp fall of 3.8 per cent per annum. The fundamental issues have been repeatedly brushed under the carpet and cow and Diwali celebration with the cost to the exchequer is brought to the fore. The government seemingly has a nationalist-Hindu-socialist approach for the corporate(s) and for farmers, capitalism prevails.

Venkaiah Naidu has commented: ‘(seeking) loan waiver has become a fashion these days.’ This loan waiver was an important point in the BJP’s electoral agenda. It is worth asking Naidu: what would be the ideal situation under which this demand of loan waiver would be genuine and not a fashion? What, according to him, would be the emergency of a farmer jumping in the river along with his five-year-old son or hanging himself from the roof or swallowing some pesticide or celphos. Expecting an answer would be too much but sensitivity from a Cabinet Minister is at least desirable. Insect attack, a bad weather, drought, disease, flood or any other natural calamity which claim for all the efforts applied in his endeavour, washes away all his dreams and aspirations and what he is left with is a huge pile of debt. Having left with nothing to feed his family, to meet the bare necessities, no money left for marriage or death, the farmer again borrows and again the cycle revolves around the same points, again he loses to the vagaries of such mis-happenings...this goes on till he has courage and finally he surrenders to the loan and ends his life. The loan waiver can neither be a solution nor a fashion.

Farming in Capitalist Economy

When we deliberate upon the need and validity of the two, the farm loan versus corporate loan, many unhappy faces come to light. People like Naidu may call it a fashion as they don’t have to face the adversities at the hands of the government’s erratic policies, climaticaberrations, depleting soil conditions and increasing input costs. Not every farmer is eligible for loan waiver as most of them are landless or own a land below one hectare. Also the farmer has to have a good credit record to get a farm loan. Both (farm and corporate loan) are State subjects and prerogatives but when it comes to the latter, the government has no qualms about writing off the massive bad debt. The NPA in total amounts to Rs 6.7 lakh crores of which about one per cent is contributed by the farmers; the rest goes to the credit of the corporate world. RBI Governor Urjit Patel fails to recall the 14 per cent corporate loan while talking of farm loan waiver, calls it a moral hazard even though it is six per cent only. There is need for the state and government to understand that corporate loans are not given to the individuals rather they are given to the companies; hence their individual assets are not attached as collaterals unlike in the case of the farmer who is supposed to repay the loan from all the assets available with him. The government has hardly done anything to raise the share of agriculture/farm loan in the bank credit.

A report from the National Sample Survey Organisation points out that nearly 45 per cent of the farmers are not happy from their profession and want to quit provided an opportunity arises. The erstwhile ‘noble’ profession has lost its charm among its practitioners as it carries along with it huge pain and agony. The economic disparity encountered in farming has created a livelihood crisis where large masses of small and marginal farmers have to suffer by eating mango kernels or else they surrender to their unending debts and commit suicide. The Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan (Hail Soldier, Hail Farmer) sounds hollow and haranguing in a country where the jawan has to upload a video of pathetic watery daal reflecting apathy and kisan commits suicide because of water, whether flood or drought.

Earlier there existed a rice-wheat system to which agricultural scientists said that it is mono-cropping and affects soil health. Farmers were convinced to grow cash crops with high returns, like cotton and other high-value crops which need a higher amount of investment and are vulnerable if not added with huge quantities of pesticides, irrigation and nutrients thus making it a costly affair for them compelling them to borrow. The land reforms have been violated in every State as predatory capitalism and legalised land grab was and is on rise. With amendments in the Land Ceiling Act, large land holdings are allowed and agricultural land is being converted into non-agricultural land. Working behind this is the World Bank’s structural adjustment pressure thus ending the efforts made to abolish the zamindari system and making the tillers the owners of land, a step towards social justice. In the last 25 years, in the name of trade, globalisation and economic reforms, they have made the small and marginal farmers marginalised again and deprived them of their only possession—a small piece of land.

Monsoon and the Agriculture Ministry

The former Agriculture Minister Chaturanan Mishra once said: “Monsoon is the real agriculture minister.” A good monsoon is awaited as most of the area in the country being rainfed, a few degrees rise in temperature in the growing season causes crop failure. The graphs of yields fall and witness a soaring number in farmers’ suicides as financial distress, increasing indebtedness and hopelessness leaves them with no other option. Scanty rainfall, falling commodity prices, shrinking farm income, and on top of these demonetisation proved to be the final nail in the coffin. Demonetisation of high value currency notes affected the purchase capacity of the market trader and farmers were forced to go for distress sale. Also for a very crucial time-period the farm input costs either increased or remained stagnant forcing the farmer to fall back upon the local money lender and other non-institutional sources of debt for day-to-day needs in farming. Another faulty policy of the government was the memorandum signed with Mozambique for production and procurement of pulses. At the same time, the government assured the farmers to get bonus over MSP and as a result the farmers toiled hard to get a bumper crop of 22 million tonnes of pulses. The government purchased only enough to maintain its buffer stock and the farmers were left to the cruel whims of the market.

An yearly income of a farm household on an average, in more than 17 States in India, is less than Rs 20,000. Even if the allowances are simply ignored, even then the salaries of State and Central Government employees have been raised 150-170 times since independence. Farmers don’t get a considerable share in a bumper crop but are the sole bearer of losses. While working out the MSP the cost of production is taken into account; this rarely amounts to the actual cost involved in production. It has always remained a ‘minimum’ that does not even support the bare necessities of the family. The branded bag of wheat flour is being sold at Rs 35 per kg whereas in 2016 wheat flour was sold for Rs 10.70 per kg. While till date, the MSP for wheat has increased only 19 times since independence.

There are 24 crops which need to be paid equal attention to as wheat and rice. The state should purchase all the 24 crops from the farmers. A Farmers’ Income Commission needs to be established and this must ensure a minimum wage of Rs 20,000 per month, which should include the basic allowances, that is, education, house, travel and medical.

To increase the minimum per capita availability of vegetables and fruits to people (as per the ICMR) and to raise the graph of profit, the need to shift to horticultural crops from rice-wheat system was advocated but the government failed to comprehend the idea that these perishable crops need proper storage and transport facilities which can’t be available at the farmer’s individual level. After a bumper yield each year, be it any crop—potato, tomato, cauliflower, onion, soybean—farmers are compelled to either sell at such a meagre price which does not cover even the transportation cost to the mandi or to burn it in the field only or throw it away on the road.

Ever since we are a free country, farmers have been exploited in the name of development policies, and the promise of cheap and adequate food supplies to the ‘citizen’ (?!) has been kept on priority to win elections and the farming community is made to pay for this. The PM’s promise of getting the farmers’ income doubled by 2022-23 will not transform into reality but history will repeat itself and the farmer will keep on cultivating losses unless policy interventions are made and governance moves beyond rhetoric. In election campaigns, political parties express concern about raising MSPs, investments in agriculture and doubling the incomes but as and when they climb to power, farmers are left helpless in the fields to be herded to the election booth in the next season or caste, religion and Bijli, Sadak aur Pani and chest size become the agenda. In a span of 21 years 3.18 lakh farmers have succumbed to this distress and committed suicide.

This manifold problem has been brewing since long but has been repeatedly ignored just because the solutions to these questions are very complex. There has to be a better farm and market integration and price intervention strategy for crops which are not covered under the MSP. The recent steps like climate-based crop insurance scheme or this loan waiver may prove to be a temporary relief to help the farmer in distress but these will also add feather in the cap of the political party and may be claimed to win a political mileage. There are less than even a dozen programmes in agriculture to actually benefit the farmers and whatever yojanas are there, most are recasted programmes.

Policy Interventions and the Planned Apathy

The policy shift has been observed from a people-centric concern to a trade and corporation centred-one. India, being a developing country, has a huge market for international trade and it has been targeted in the name of two international treaties CBD and TRIPS under the WTO. The traders are set free to sell their products wherever they want but the farmers are restricted to sale their produce within the State boundaries. The Indian farming system is targeted with a plan. The produce is exported from India and again it is dumped back in the same market with four-time prices. The government has withdrawn its support from procurement and price regulation.

The international treaties CBD and TRIPS have robbed off the farming in Indian seeds and bio-diversity. Private companies have control over seeds and bio-diversity in the name of trade. The seeds were free of cost to the farmers but now in the name of advancement of agriculture, are obtained with a much higher cost due to hybrid seeds from foreign seed companies. The seeds are not perennial, they have to be purchased new every time; these are corporate seeds which are sterile by nature so as not to let the grower be self-sufficient by perpetuating it and thus making the farmers dependent on the company. Such non-renewable seeds are very vulnerable and require more fertilisers and pesticides which are again costly hence modern cultivation costs more.

As a consequence of removal of the price and import regulation, induced upon by trade liberalisation, production has become costly and the produce price collapsing raises indebtedness; and economic displacement has become the fate of the peasantry played out in its most tragic expression. In an instance, evidently an erratic policy decision, a memoran-dum was signed with Mozambique featuring production and procurement. At the same time the government encouraged the farmers to grow more pulse proposing a bonus over the minimum support price of pulses; as a result we had a bumper yield of 22 million tonne pulses. What the government then did shows its opportunist and biased approach towards the poor farmers. It simply purchased enough to maintain its buffer stock and left the farmers to their fate..

The policy changes have consistently reduced the government’s role in the food security of masses and livelihood security of farmers. There are mass starvation deaths whereas the government warehouses are overflowing; and hence drought and climatic conditions are not solely to be blamed. During the harvest period, prices are kept low and the MSP rates are not enforced; this helps the government procure for filling up the godowns for future use for the public distribution system. This procured stock is stored with the FCI godowns. The FCI lost a substantial amount of about 4.72 lakh tonnes of wheat worth Rs 700 crores—this was declared unfit for public distribution during 2007-13. Getting a huge amount of grain, that is, 1,94,502 metric tonnes, worth crores of rupees, owing to poor storage conditions, being left in open, exposed to rodents and birds, in leaking chambers and packed in torn sacks left to vagaries of weather. With amendment to the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Act and 100 per cent foreign direct investment (FDI) introduced in the Indian agricultural market, it has been reduced to a more risky and least profitable venture.

Where a significant share of the population is undernourished and the country is ranked high on the global hunger chart, and with nearly 3000 children dying of hunger-related causes every day, the time is ripe for the country and government to hear the farmers’ mann ki baat.


Chitnis, Purva (2006) In Charts: Maharashtra’s Farm Loan Crisis Worse Than It Appears. Retrieved from: https://www.bloombergquint.com/business/2017/06/06/maharashtra-farm-loan-waiver-the-crisis-is-worse-than-it-appears

Jain, Mayank (2006) Farm loan waivers are not the same as corporate NPAs — and it’s tough to say which is worse. Retrieved from: https://scroll.in/article/841436/farm-loan-waivers-are-not-the-same-as-corporate-npas-and-its-tough-to-say-which-is-worse

Sainath, P. (1996), Everybody loves a Good Drought,Penguin, New Delhi

Siva, M. (2010) All You Wanted to Know About Farm Loan Waivers. Retrieved from: https://www.thehindu businessline.com/opinion/columns/slate/all-you-want-to-know-about-farm-loan-waivers/article9627811.ece

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Annapurna, Ph.D, is a freelance consultant and an activist for women SHGs. She has received the doctoral award in Horticulture from the Banaras Hindu University.

Navneet Sharma, Ph.D, is an Assistant Professor, Department of Teacher Education, School of Education, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala. He can be contacted at navneetsharma29[at]gmail.com

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