: Andhra Pradesh is in the midst of an agrarian Emergency. The tragic farmers' suicides are, finally, an extreme symptom of a much deeper rural distress. The result of a decade-long onslaught on the livelihoods of millions. The crisis now goes way beyond the families ravaged by the suicides. And beyond the farming community itself. There is an urgent need to end the suicides. But doing so without addressing the larger distress is to try and mop the floor dry with the taps open.
Over 300 farmers have taken their lives these past six weeks. And thousands since the structured assault on agriculture in Andhra Pradesh began years ago. For every farmer who has committed suicide, countless others face morale-sapping despair. Large numbers of people are also in a zone marked by growing hunger and a fragile equilibrium. There have been hunger deaths, too, this year. One more bad season could push many over the edge.
Much as sections of the media would like to believe, this is not a new development. Nor something that can be pinned on a month-old Government. The suicides have been occurring for over seven years now. And in some periods, with even greater intensity. So too has hunger been growing. Even last year, this publication reported that crisis in the state. (A gruel-ing season) And the callous indifference of the Chandrababu Naidu Government to what was going on. (Hi-tech, Low Nutrition). This year, the chickens have come home to roost.
A survey this month, covering scores of rural households across many districts, strengthens that picture. These include dozens of families whose breadwinners have committed suicide. The issues are complex and the linkages many. And cannot be reduced to that old favourite: drought. Sure that's a big problem. But one amongst others. Farmers are taking their lives in better-irrigated regions too.
The rural landscape is a shambles. Agricultural credit and finance systems have collapsed. Taking their place are new entities that can make the village moneylender seem relatively less coercive. Prices have pushed most inputs beyond the reach of the small farmer. For many, the move from food crops to cash crops proved fatal. In some cases, the shift was towards high-outlay, water-guzzling crops such as sugar cane. All this, in an era of huge power tariff hikes. A steady shrinking of local democracy further deepened the chaos.
Add to this, big drops in purchasing power. And the worst performance in rural employment seen in years. Both landed farmers and agricultural workers have taken a terrible beating. The people of Andhra Pradesh are paying the price for a 'Vision' that sought to displace 40 per cent of those in agriculture from that sector. Without a clue as to where to take them next.
All the households surveyed had incredible levels of debt. Many had failed to gain the credit needed at the start of this season (one reason driving the latest suicides). All have seen crop failure for two or more years. Almost every one of them had made distress sales of land or cattle or both in the past few years. Just 20 of them combined had health expenditure running into a few lakhs of rupees. Most had changed crops in recent years. All of them had spent unbelievable sums in their search for water. Mainly sinking borrowed money in borewells. All were selling their produce to creditors of some sort at well below market price.
This is the canvas that Prof. K. Nagaraj of the Madras Institute of Development Studies calls "a predatory commercialisation of the countryside." The farmers have been its prey.
The new awareness of the media is welcome, if ironic. Journals that never once said a word on the suicides when they were most intense now do body counts. Maybe the media are trying to make up for their silence but cannot admit it. The suicides, though, have been going on for years. Some journalists in the Telugu press did a magnificent job of keeping the issue alive. It was the 'national' media that treated it with scorn, even disbelief.
To lay the deaths at the door of the new Government, as some have sought to do, is to ignore the fundamental evidence: That the victims gave up after years of trying to cope with a situation made impossible by others beyond their control. After seven or more years of being crushed, defeated and ruined. People did not wake up one morning and say: "Hey, the government has changed. I think I'll take my life today." Theirs was a heart-breaking, ultimate protest against a society that showed no concern for them. It would be right to haul up the new Government if it fails to give the state a fundamental directional change. But the latest suicides have roots that lie in years of past failure. About the most cruel thing being said, though, is that people are taking their lives to `gain' from the compensation. What a contradiction in terms. Lose your life and gain from it.
Suppose for one moment this crazy thought is true. That people are taking their lives because a government has announced compensation for their families. What does it say of the society that we've built this past decade? That a farmer would rather take his or her life and get Rs. 1 lakh for the children rather than go on living amongst us? It speaks far less about them, far more about us. It also ignores the fact that there were a huge number of suicides in 2000-01 when the 'compensation' had long been stopped.
This notion measures not the 'gain' of the farmers but the loss of our own humanity. The profound indifference to the suffering of others that the 'me-first decade' has legitimised. The idea that a mother and father both end their lives leaving behind aged parents and tiny infants to 'gain' is a heartless one. Or, as in one case, a father and son commit suicide within a year of each other. To make money out of it?
Why has this happened more in Andhra Pradesh than anywhere else? After all, the basic economic model we see here did and does exist across the country.
For one thing, Andhra Pradesh under Mr. Naidu was far more aggressive than any other state in pushing that model. With the national - and global - elite backing him, he acted without compunction. Most of the support systems the poor in the state had (some put in place by N.T. Rama Rao) were ruthlessly dismantled. Also, no other state and leader were so totally exempt from critical scrutiny. The media didn't just hail the Emperor's New Clothes. It was so busy weaving them, it failed to see Andhra Pradesh's fabric being torn apart. The Emperor could do no wrong. So why look? The farmers' suicides never made the cover of a national magazine in the years they were most intense.
For another, the decline of democracy in the state. The 'Janmabhoomi' model of development sidelined the panchayats, robbed them of resources and demoralised local democracy. This meant a collapse of collective action at the village level. The panchayats have played little or no role in dealing with the crisis. The dying of local democracy had a clear corollary. Extreme external interference. Andhra Pradesh was not run by or for its people, or on their wishes. It was run on the blueprints of McKinsey, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the DFID and others of that fraternity. By thousands of expensive 'consultants.' All, unelected and extra-constitutional centres of power.
There have been farmers' suicides in other states too. Karnataka saw a large number last year. They have also occurred in Maharashtra, Punjab and Rajasthan. Even Kerala. Maybe with a change in media attitudes now, we could learn more about what's happening elsewhere.
The new Government has at least acknowledged that the deaths continue. You can dispute its numbers but it has not tried to deny the suicides. Its short-term measures include several that are a must. Like help for the affected families. And the proposed six-month moratorium on debt. But the problem won't end there. Even in the short term, there's an urgent need for food-for-work programmes. And the Government must use the six-month period to work out more lasting moves on debt relief. It has to plan on raising incomes and purchasing power amongst the poor. On restoring support systems. On building rural employment as never before.
The new Government at the Centre must surely also have a sense of how deep voter anger ran in this election. But does it know just how intense the crisis is? Seems doubtful. Parliament met on June 2. The first day of the new session, eight farmers took their lives in Andhra Pradesh. By the time the session ended on June 10, 69 had died the same way. It was a new Lok Sabha meeting after a historic election. Yet the Finance Minister was absent from the House on the very first day. He was busy drying the tears of the distraught millionaires of Dalal Street. Not the happiest signal of this Government's priorities.
Almost every sector of Indian democracy failed the Andhra Pradesh farmer; the Government and the political class; the tame intellectuals and planners. The human rights groups and a once-activist judiciary. And a media that failed in their simplest, yet vital duty in a democracy: to signal the weaknesses in society. (Courtesy: The Hindu)