, Nagpur - For New Year revelers five months ago, it was just the beginning of a party a bash sunk in spirits and lined with a vulgar display of firecrackers, which burst one by one and illuminated the moonlit skies all over to announce the onset of Day One.
Not far from the dazzling display by the city's noveau rich, in the dusty by-lanes of a village in Vidarbha's countryside, one more farming family sat mourning the suicide by its headman. The farmer had finally decided to call it quits from a long-drawn struggle that looked endless. He lay dead in peace. For his family though, it looked like a long journey ahead on a road that would be full of thorns.
Reports by Jaideep Hardikar
And it's true. For the market players, it was a good year. But that's exactly what lies beneath the suicide crisis, which is beginning to match the great Indian depressions of the late 19th and early 20th century: hunger on one side, and endless free lunch on other.
At least sixteen committees and panels from the National Farmers Commission led by Professor M S Swaminathan to the Planning Commission's fact-finding-mission led by bureaucrat Adarsh Misra came this year in to Vidarbha, apparently peeved by and concerned over the appalling if explosive situation. This was apart from the tens of journalists from the esteemed national and international media-houses who made a beeline for special stories on farmers' suicides and who are still pouring in. A small difference though between bureaucrats' visit and that of the journalists was that the former caravan spent a little more time than many of those journalists did on the field.
Many reporters, save exceptions, simply came rushing by the morning or evening flights (and thank God for that, there are flights to and from Nagpur these days), and went equally rushing back to the places they came from. But they did this time in their respective publications. Most of them confused whether to write about families' problems, or sorry state of widows, or poverty plaguing the cotton farmers, or private moneylenders (whom the government made out to be the draconian villains in the whole game), or as one national newspaper concluded with strong 18-point-bold headline lack of market reforms in Vidarbha region. Never mind that the writer reportedly a leading farm expert did not have a single quote of a suffering farmer in the series that appeared in the newspaper. Many journalists also discovered that Vidarbha is an eastern part of Maharashtra, and a Maharashtra bigger than Mumbai. The bureaucrats thankfully knew that already.
And then there were independent researchers and study panels in addition to the ones commissioned by the Maharashtra Government. They too studied the situation, and submitted voluminous reports with some recommendations. Those who missed the bus earlier are making up for the loss now a new expert drops in as a paratrooper every day to research the "issue" and "find solutions to crisis." In May, my guess is, fifty reports would be ready as the farm deaths touch 500. But that's normal; we know that from the electronic media doing saturation coverage on everything from the Mumbai deluge to Ambani brothers' feud.
Poor scribes and visitors, many of them had to simply come as a part of their duty some one ordered so they came. Leading journalist P Sainath has termed this in one of his essays as "distress tourism." Poor farmers are dying, so we need to know why? All of them came to study problems, when the cause was much near them, at the places they came from, in the huge corridors of power.
It was not that nothing has come out of the studies. The NCF's recommendatory suggestions could help in a big way in reversing the situation. The commission had first recommended an immediate restoration of Rs.500 as an advance bonus that the state government had withdrawn from the guaranteed price to the cotton growers; and as long term measures, it has suggested formation of a price-stabilisation fund, a complete relook at the credit policies, protection measures in terms of hike in import duty, and so forth. The NCF has prepared four voluminous reports so far and the last report is to be submitted in October with a draft national policy for farmers.
The NCF apart, a few other study committees have mapped the complex problems with magical finesse. But the sum total of all that exercise is zero. The governments at the state and centre aren't unduly disturbed by the suicides or keen to act decisively.
Why? Is that because there aren't any elections now? Or is it because there are no opposition parties to corner the governments on the issues? Or is it also because the media are making no noise, as they do over the other flimsy issues? Thanks to Salman Khan, media could do some stories on the state of Indian prisons. Someone might even research the subject and quote Salman as a prime source. Or who knows! Even Salman himself might take to penning the century's next bestseller "Three nights in prison." And the media would take pride in reviewing that.
Amidst the brouhaha, the rage among farmers is growing, the distress deepening and the hope sinking. Crisis, in the meanwhile, is spreading. In Marathwada, a region similar to Vidarbha, cotton and soybean farmers are dying at an equally alarming pace. In western Maharashtra, onion farmers are in trouble; to a large extent, the great dairy business has also taken a stick. Tens of farming families in Vidarbha aren't sure whether they would be able to cultivate their land next year.
But what about the seething anger, which can erupt with violence? Only a few days ago, angry farmers hurled onions at Sharad Pawar, the Union Minister of Agriculture, as he spoke from a huge dais in a public meeting at Nasik. A week after that incident, he announced in Hyderabad that the government is drafting a special package for four states witnessing a spate of suicides by farmers. We will all eagerly wait for that, and its implementation, as we await the implementation of much-publicised package announced by the Maharashtra Government four months ago. Between the date of announcement and now, close to 250 farmers have committed suicide.
Pawar did not dare to come to Vidarbha and address cotton farmers ever since he took over as the agriculture minister of the country, even though he did come to Nagpur before the BCCI elections (ostensibly to draft his strategy for the elections of the richest cricket body). And you can't hurt the minister with a cotton boll
Suicides are just an underlining aspect of the Vidarbha's agriculture crisis, and not the only. The farm crisis is about much more than that. It's about an inequality that breeds exploitation and legitimises oppression. It's about the state slowly withdrawing itself from its bounden responsibility for the welfare of all people, lower castes, tribes, and poor. And it's about the state's withdrawal from essential sectors water, power and a fostering a climate for sustained employment - to name a few. It is not just the number of farm-related suicides that is mind-boggling. And the way the governments have reacted or not reacted to the situation is equally baffling.