Never has the Maharashtra Government been this active on the agrarian crisis in Vidarbha as the past week. Could this possibly have something to do with the Prime Minister's arriving here shortly? Officials are rushing out to pay compensation to suicide-hit families whom they have ignored for months, even years. Villagers likely to have VIPs visit are being coached in their lines. (With compensation being handed over at about the same time.)
There will have been more than 600 farm suicides before Prime Minster Manmohan Singh sets foot in the region. And that's only since June last year. For once, the suicide index gets near equal billing with the Sensex. (Well not quite, and only for a week.) A top bureaucrat from Mumbai warned cowering minions in Nagpur that suicides 'must stop' by the month-end. That's an order. (How simple that sounds. And if it is, why did they not turn off the tap earlier?) Some officials, ordered out into the villages, have phoned journalists to ask: "Where should we go?"
'Guardian Ministers' are visiting places they've never heard of or seen in years. 'Briefs' are being prepared for Ministers whose attention span is well described by that very word. The Governor himself has hopped over to the region.
The poor Banjara household that saw three weddings and a funeral in 24 hours had important visitors this week. They had none at all at the time of their tragedy on May 9 or any day since. They are now getting Rs.1 lakh. Earlier, compensation was denied to the most genuine cases of suicides driven by agrarian distress. To the extent that an angry High Court rattled the State Government more than once. This week, compensations are being paid out with little or no verification at all. Time is of the essence. Get things under control for when Dr. Manmohan Singh is here. This is what matters most. The State has figured out a vital point the Prime Minister's visit implies. For long the Chief Minister and Union Agriculture Minister have suggested that All's Quiet on the Western Front. Dr. Singh's visit calls that into question.
Only a month ago, the Chief Minister wrote on the front page of the Maharashtra Times to rebut pesky journalists out to smear the Shangri-La his regime had so lovingly built. His first target was distinguished journalist Govind Talwalkar (editor of that newspaper for 27 years). A distressed Mr. Talwalkar had scorched the State over its failure on the farm crisis.
For his pains, the well-known editor was mocked for handing out advice while residing (after retirement) in the United States. There is rich irony in this. Mr. Talwalkar's physical distance from Maharashtra is far less than Mr. Deshmukh's mental distance from Vidarbha. The brief visits made by the Chief Minister to the region saw several farmers take their lives during the very hours he was there. Meanwhile, Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar insisted that, on average, the number of farm suicides in the country was 'normal.' Both now seem far more concerned about the farm deaths. Perhaps due to the growing sense that their relief 'packages' are more about packaging, less about relief.
To that extent, the Prime Minister's visit to Vidarbha has had an impact even before he's reached the place. It would, however, be a limited and transient impact if he does not see through the charade. Cracking down - as will surely happen - on officers in Vidarbha for their 'failure' is an evasion. The mess there starts right at the top. The lower orders merely toe the line their bosses lay down. Vidarbha's condition is the product of design, not decay.
There is no need to rediscover the main reasons for farm suicides. You can leave that sort of quibble to media and market analysts. Governments know why they are happening. Large numbers of such suicides have also occurred in Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka, Punjab, and elsewhere. Besides, Vidarbha has seen a lot of 'suicide or distress tourism' from official quarters. This came after the visit of the National Commission on Farmers whose findings are too hard for government to swallow. (Even now, there is a National Commission for Farmers draft national policy for farmers inviting comment and debate. It is not a closed matter nor a secret document. It's up on their website and goes beyond relief and immediate steps. You can agree, disagree, attack, suggest alternatives. But there is not a word on this at the top. A debate is not welcome.)
Over a dozen teams of one kind or another have since landed up here to produce one report or another. The hope, in part, was that someone would throw up a report soft on the government. That did not happen and most were damaging. However, needless time was wasted even as hundreds of more farmers took their own lives.
It's also clear that too many in power do not want to look at the reports of the NCF. These contain sound advice on some of the vital issues. A bit of this advice, alas, runs counter to market fundamentalist theology and thus cannot be entertained. Agriculture is no longer just a hostage to the monsoon. It is held to ransom by a mightily rigged Market. And there is direct personal gain for many making decisions. In this State, where so many in power are among those who profit from farmer misery. And at the centre, where lobbyists of the World Bank and WTO within government also get to line their pockets nicely, thank you.
All in all, Dr. Singh's visit to Vidarbha has set off a process that has the State Government on its clumsy toes. Yet, there's a long way to go. The visit raises hopes - from a trough to a new high. From their State Government, people in that region have learned the hard way to expect little. The massive numbers of suicides, after all, also speak of a breakdown in trust. A total loss of faith.
The Prime Minister's visit could well re-kindle the dying embers. But then it's got to deliver. Or the outcome will be most painful. Ever since he said he intends to visit the region, the pressure has been on to hijack his tour schedule. Demands to open memorials to eminently forgettable people. To address meetings and visit ashrams. Fair enough - that's part of the game. It will be a sad game though, if this does happen.
Sending out a message
Were Dr. Singh to focus on agrarian distress and nothing but, his visit would at least send out a message. To the people of Vidarbha and Maharashtra. To the State Government. Maybe even to his own Cabinet colleagues. Yet, it's got to go beyond such a statement. What he announces at the end of his trip must meet the most basic demands of farmers here. And elsewhere too. Leave aside long-term solutions for the moment. The bandaids had better be good. The higher the hopes are, the harder they'll fall.
For weeks now, those in power have bristled at the very mention of a loan waiver. Yet, it has got to happen. Even the colonial Raj, with all its cruelty, did take such steps in times of acute mass misery. And like it or not, it will happen at some stage. Not just in this region, but across the country for farmers who have been destroyed by policy. In any case, there is not a murmur of protest when tens of thousands of crores of NPAs are written off for a handful of industrialists. But write off the tiny amounts of millions of farmers? That's heresy.
Meanwhile, intense lobbying is on. One plea is that all problems would be solved if irrigation in Vidarbha were set right at once. Sure, irrigation is a major issue. It does need a focus. One that is sustainable and affordable to the farmer. That's hard to do in today's Maharashtra. And is made almost impossible by that regressive piece of legislation: The Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority Act. This World Bank-driven Act makes it impossible for small (even big) farmers anywhere in the State to afford irrigation in the future (see here and here for more).
It would be nice to see a few of the region's eight irrigation projects, some pending for decades, completed. But such schemes in this state have seen cost overruns of several hundred per cent long before completion. In the Tembhu project in Karad, as a devastating NDTV report pointed out, the cost of irrigation could be well over Rs.20,000 an acre. What happens when the new Act kicks in? Watch this space.
Debt waiver. Fresh crop loans based on current costs. A new line of credit. Urgent help with free and cheap inputs. Return of the 'advance bonus' and a proper minimum support price for cotton. Steps to stabilise prices. Higher state procurement. Duties to prevent dumping. These are just a few of the measures Dr. Singh could and should announce in Vidarbha. They won't solve the problem, but will reduce the misery. What he finally does will have an impact not just on that region, but on Indian farming as a whole.