Unabated Farmer Suicides Point to a Looming Agrarian Crisis
Sheikh Saidul Haque
Before going into details about the present agrarian crisis in West Bengal that is leading to a number of farmers committing suicide in the last few months, let us look, in a nutshell, at the condition of the agriculture sector in our country. This sector is in a state of widespread and deep-rooted crisis. Its share in GDP has come down over the years. The agriculture sector, which contributes 17 per cent to nation’s GDP and employs around 60 percent of the population, grew by just 0.2 per cent in 2009-10 fiscal. The sector has suffered a serious setback in the last two decades, particularly from 1991 onwards when the neo-liberal policies were adopted and WTO regime started operating.
The agriculture sector has witnessed growth rate of only 2 per cent per annum during Ninth Plan period and about 2.3 per cent during the Tenth Plan against a target of 4 per cent. In the first few years of the current Eleventh Plan period, the average growth was 2.2 per cent, which is much below the expected rate. In fact, the average economic growth during the last four years ranged between 7 percent to 9 percent per annum, but there are hardly 2 to 2.2 percent growths in the agriculture sector during this period.
Plight of Farmers
Farming is no longer a preferred profession in India, especially among the new generation, due to a variety of reasons like the high degree of uncertainty in income; higher input costs and lower returns; high dependence on monsoon along with low irrigation; limited access to affordable credit; low productivity due to outdated techniques etc. Many times the farmers are forced to resort to distress sales at much below the minimum support prices. To add to these are the effects of the policies adopted by the Central Government in encouraging export oriented agriculture, corporate-led contract farming and forward trading of agricultural products. According to the findings of NSSO 59th round survey, an estimated 27 per cent of farmers did not like farming because it was not profitable. In all, 40 per cent felt that, given a choice, they would take up some other career. Out of 89.35 million farmer households, 43.42 million (48.6 per cent) were reported to be indebted.
The farmers are not getting remunerative price for their produce. The prices of paddy, potato, jute, cotton and many other agricultural products have fallen to a large extent. Even the farmers are compelled to sell their produce at rates that are much below the support price. Almost 2.5 lakh farmers have committed suicide all over the country in last few years. Out of 28 states, farmer suicides are going on unabated in 15 states. It is so increasing that two farmers commit suicide every 6 hours in any part of the country, i.e. 3 to 4 in a day.
The highest number of farmer suicides occurred in Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. In the last one year around 700 farmers committed suicide in the region. Around 90 farmers committed suicide in the last two months in Andhra Pradesh. In Karnataka, 956 farmers committed suicide in the last three years. In Mandya district of the state alone, during the last few months’ 11 silk farmers committed suicide because of fall in the price of raw silk .So also the case with the Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh. In Hoshangabad district of Madhya Pradesh, many soybean farmers have committed suicide. Even in Kerala, in the last six months 8 farmers have committed suicide in Wyanad district. The former LDF Government had given special support price and incentives on agricultural produce bringing down the suicides in the state. But the present UDF Government has not paid any special attention to the miserable plight facing the farmers that is mainly caused by the Free Trade Agreement policy adopted by the Union Government. The UPA Government has announced special packages for Vidarbha and Bundelkand regions, but that has had little impact on the ground.
West Bengal Scenario
The state of West Bengal had been immune to such cases of farmer suicides during the last 34 years when Left Front Government was in place. That Government stood by the side of the farmers and took all measures to extend support through higher MSP, providing loans etc. But with the change of Government in the state, these are being withdrawn throwing the farmers into a miserable condition. Their plight is deplorable as they resort to distress sales – may it be paddy, potato or jute. While the input cost of seeds, fertiliser, pesticides and equipment have shot up substantially; farmers are not even being paid the minimum support price. Farmers across the state are being forced to sell their produce in distress sales. This present crisis has been caused because of the wrong policies adopted by the present State Government and its careless attitude to farmers. This can be seen in regard to procurement of paddy. The State Government owned marketing federations like BENFED, CONFED and ECSC (Essential Commodity Supply Corporation) are not purchasing paddy to the desired levels. As against their target of procuring 9 lakh tonnes, so far they have procured only 50,000 tonnes. Overall, a mere 2 lakh metric tonnes had been procured so far as compared to the target of 20 lakh metric tonnes. The Food Corporation of India (FCI) is buying rice from rice mills and as per this decision of the Government, small and marginal farmers are forced to carry their paddy to the rice mills, often situated at long distances, to sell their produce. And the rice mills are paying the farmers only through cheques that are to be cashed only after two months. How funny and unrealistic is the procurement policy can be seen from the above. Corruption in the procurement system at several rice mills meant that farmers were being paid between Rs. 480 to Rs. 540 per sack of paddy, instead of Rs. 648 that has been fixed by the Government as MSP. Even in 2004, when the Left Front Government was in power, such kind of a situation occurred. But at that time the State Government engaged all Government and semi-Government agencies, including rural cooperatives and self-help groups to purchase paddy directly from the farmers by giving them sufficient funds. The Left Front Government had also declared bonus for small and marginal farmers. It also protected potato farmers from resorting to distress sales by supporting them. However, this year the paddy farmers are not even being paid rates they were paid last year when the minimum support price was Rs. 600 per bag of 60 kg. The present policies not only created hurdles for the farmers to sell their paddy but also created a new breed of middlemen in the form of ruling party cadres. Potato farmers are not even lifting potatoes from the cold storages. By some estimates, around 6 lakh tonnes of potatoes are lying in the cold storages in the state. The farmers are unable to pay the lifting charge because potatoes are now selling at Rs. 20 or less per 50 kg bag at the storage gate.
It is in such a dire situation that Bengal is witnessing farmer suicides, a phenomenon totally absent during the 34 years of Left Front rule. In the last three and half months (Oct 01, 2011 – Jan 15, 2012) as many as 21 farmers have committed suicide because of indebtedness and distress sale.
Most of the farmers committing suicides are small and marginal farmers and also agricultural labourers with meager holdings of patta land. Among the 21 farmers who have died, three belong to scheduled tribe. As many as 14 of those who committed suicide belong to Burdwan district, which is regarded as the granary of Bengal. Coming from a farmer’s family from that district, I know how the paddy farmers are in a state of dichotomy between what the State Government is propagating and what the real situation is. Any investigation will show what kind of predicament the farmers of Bengal are facing now.
Under Estimation of the Situation
The present TMC-led State Government instead of giving due importance to the causes for such farmer suicides in the state, is limiting itself to vehemently denying such incidents. Though its coalition partner, the Congress, admits the cases of farmer suicides and has also demanded compensation, the effort seems to be to cover up the anti-farmer policies of the present Central Government and also to gain some political mileage vis a vis TMC. The chief minister has engaged some bureaucrats and ministers to play that game of denying the reality. It has not taken any proper steps to buy paddy, potato and jute from the farmers by giving them proper minimum support price. This Government has failed to involve the Government agencies in directly procuring from the farmers and saving them from resorting to distress sales. They are not adding any bonus to the MSP on the plea that there is no money. But they have the money to increase the salaries and daily allowances of ministers and MLAs. They have the money to celebrate Digha festival by spending crores of rupees. At present the Government has left the paddy farmers to the mercy of the rice mill owners who are by and large harassing the them to sell their produce at distress rates. This is really horrifying. The under estimation and denial of farmer suicides by the State Government is a deliberate attempt to hide the administrative and systemic failures. It also shows political failure because the Government has shown no political will to stand by the side of the farmers, though they came to power with slogan of “maa-mathee-manush”.
More deplorable is the plight of the agricultural labourers who practically have no work for the last six months. MNREGA works have virtually been stopped in many parts of rural Bengal. Elected Panchayat bodies cannot function in the villages because of the threats and attacks by the ruling party supported hooligans. The present State Government has been able to provide just 19 days of work per household in the 100 days work scheme. Bypassing the elected bodies, the Government is now depending on bureaucrats to implement the scheme.
So, overall an agrarian crisis is looming large in Bengal with vast sections of the farming community in deep distress. On the one hand, they are not getting MSP for their produce; on the other hand many of them are in a debt trap. The Government shows no positive stand to address the crisis. It is resorting to gimmicks. The chief minister says that it is the Central Government that fixes the MSP and so her Government has no role to play. But it is the same coalition that is in power at the centre also. The chief minister keeps claiming that it was because of her pressure that the centre was forced to hold its decision regarding FDI in retail and from increasing fuel prices. Then the question arises why is she not pressing hard upon the Central Government to raise the MSP for farmers? Why is she not demanding the implementation of Swaminathan Commission Report? Why has she not objected when the Central Government raised the prices of fertilizers and also decontrolled it? Another question is even whatever MSP has been announced, why are the farmers of Bengal not getting even that amount? The suffering farmers of the state are demanding answers to these questions. The Government has failed to pay Rs. 3 crore as its share in the crop insurance scheme resulting in the affected farmers not getting any benefit. This shows how unconcerned this Government is to the plight of farmers.
With the present Government failing to protect their interests, the farmers are coming on to the streets to protest against the anti-farmers policy of this Government. They are holding rallies against the lackadaisical attitude of this Government in solving their problems. In Coochbehar, jute growers have set fire to their crops in protest. In Burdwan, Hoogly and other parts of the Bengal, potato growers did the same to express their protest. In many parts of the state, paddy growers have dumped paddy on the roadside and burnt it. Responding to the call given by four Left kisan organisations for statewide agricultural strike on January 4, 2012, many farmers across the state stopped agricultural works and stayed away from their fields during the day to protest against this anti-farmer policy. They are demanding remunerative prices and a proper procurement policy. They also want proper implementation of MNREGA scheme. They are demanding restoration of subsidies in agriculture, including fertilizers.
It is important thing to note here that because of the present agrarian crisis some farmers in Andhra Pradesh have declared crop holiday. Even in West Bengal, it is seen that in some parts of the state a section of farmers who have incurred considerable losses from the Aman crop are deciding against planting upcoming Boro crop. With full sympathy to their sentiments, there is a need to propagate that this should not happen. Because that would result in a national crisis where there shall be shortage of food and the country will be thrown back to the decades of 1960s when India had to depend on food imports from other countries.
In such a situation both central and State Governments should initiate urgent measures to provide relief to the agricultural sector. Steps should be taken for direct procurement from the farmers with proper MSP and also adding bonus to it. Measures should be taken to implement Swaminathan Commission Report for fixing MSP because at present MSP is not commensurate with the cost of production that has risen sharply. Both central and State Governments should come forward with compensation and rehabilitation package to the deceased families taking into consideration the human and social implications. Recently the State Government had announced compensation for those who died in AMRI Hospital fire accident and in the Hooch tragedy. Then, why is it not extending the same to families of farmers who have committed suicide?
Along with these demands for providing relief to those engaged in the agricultural sector, we must doggedly and unitedly fight against the State and Central Governments in order to make them change their neo-liberal policies and to promote a sustainable model of agriculture that will reduce the risks of farmers and protect their interests.