Saturday, January 23, 2010

Smoke in the Air: Farmer Suicides Continue

The other day I read a comment on another blog complaining that too many bloggers seem to focus only on "bad news."  Well, I, for one, like good news every-bit-as-much as the next fellow.  And my mother taught me early on about the dangers of yelling fire in a crowded theatre.  However (and I've always agreed with her on this point), she also made it clear that in the event that one observes that the theatre is actually on fire, then the correct course of action is to inform someone who has access to a large supply of water! 

Now there are plenty of people who argue that one should first be sure to say something nice about the theatre's decor and the film currently being screened before politely suggesting that some experts somewhere set up a committee to study the problem of fire as it relates to public buildings (no need to single out the theatres, after all).  I suspect these are the people who tend to sit in the PVR Gold Class seats, but what do I know?

Still, like I said, I am not someone who will shy away from good news.  In fact, I had planned to write a breezy Saturday Special today, full of good news like this story that shows Dilli wallas can treat homeless dogs humanely.  And this one, that shows we can even treat homeless human beings humanely, though it may take an order from the Supreme Court to make us do it!

But I canceled that post when I opened Friday's edition of The Hindu to find this story on farmer suicides by the legendary P. Sainath.  Old news,  you say, but the problem is, it only seems to be getting worse. So here it is in a nutshell: according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 199,132 Indian farmers killed themselves in the 12 years from 1997 to 2008. When one considers how often "crimes" like this go unreported, one has to assume the numbers could be much higher. 

An autowalla with whom I frequently ride is fond of saying, "behind every man, there are so many others who depend on him." When you think about what 2,00,000 farmer suicides means in terms of the family members affected, the numbers become very large indeed.

The lion's share of the deaths continue to take place in the five states that comprise the "suicide belt":  Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh.   In Maharashtra alone from 2003-2008, an average of 11 farmers killed themselves every day. In 2008, the last year for which figures are available, more than 16,000 farmers committed suicide, in spite of loan waivers and other government aid programs.  One can only imagine what the 2009 numbers will look like, given the extreme weather we've suffered this year. 

There are many reasons why this news is deeply disturbing.  The first, most obvious, and most important is that the people who are growing the food we eat and the cotton we wear, are, quite literally, dying of desperation.  That should be enough to convince anyone with any sense of human solidarity or  compassion that something serious should have been done a long time ago.

But for those people who need reasons that have something more directly to do with their narrow self interests, here are two additional things to consider.  First, when farmers kill themselves in these numbers, it should be obvious that there are deep problems in our country's system of food production.  In a recent guest post at Youth ki Awaaz, I argued that the food inflation we are suffering is a symptom of an agricultural crisis in this country that is likely to get much worse in coming years.  Farmer suicides are another symptom of that crisis.  And since we all depend on food, we should all be concerned: food security must come first in any country's list of priorities.

Second, it should be clear that suicide in such large numbers is not just an act of desperation; it is also a desperate act of protest. Of course there are many other ways that desperate men and women might choose to protest instead.   The sons of farmers who drink poison may grow up angry enough to pick up a gun when they get a little older.

In Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country Sudeep Chakravarti argues that most of urban India is ignorant--in many cases willfully so--of the extent to which people are already taking up arms against the Indian state. Urban India may be content to let farmers kill themselves--or even to let them kill police in rural areas.  But violence, like any disease, has a way of spreading, doesn't it?

In an essay like this, it is customary to close with a simple solution.  I don't have one; it's a big, complex problem.  But let me say this: India is capable of achieving great things. We could solve this problem if we chose to.  P. Sainath argues we should expand the NREGS  and cut "the dessert from the menu of the unending corporate free lunch in this country." He points out that the "huge" loan waivers given to farmers in 2008 were dwarfed by tax breaks given to large corporations.  We could also scale back some of our big-budget, high-tech bomber, bomb and space programs. If you want more specific ideas about what to do on the farms, there is no shortage of them either. For a start,  Devinder Sharma and Vandana Shiva both have interesting things to say about how we can improve our agricultural system.

But for me, today, I think it's enough to say this: the theatre is crowded. And I smell smoke.

On another front, it's not too late to sign this on-line petition against new nukes in India. It will be turned in on 30 January.


  1. Interesting post.
    "Red Sun" is an amazing documentation of Naxalism where the author has tried to explore the reasons behind people taking weapons. The book is a lesson for government and common masses to mitigate the violent threats.
    The farmer suicides in recent years have shown that the Indian state has failed terribly.
    It is a right time to look for alternatives.

  2. @Kabir. Thanks for reading. It couldn't be clearer--something is burning.

  3. Enlightening and thought provoking post.

    We have similar problems here in the US, with farmers, indentured to corporate agriculture and no longer able to bear the burdens "big agriculture" places on them, committing suicide.

    You are correct, this is often a desperate final act of protest against a system of commerce and industry that dehumanizes all of us.

    We are reduced to numbers in an accountant's ledger - assets or liabilities, one and all. The implications for India, the US, and the rest of the world are huge, yet these stories go virtually unreported (at least in the US).

    Uncontrolled fire is destructive, but when properly managed it can be a very useful tool for change. Thanks for bearing the torch and shedding light on this subject.

  4. @Thurman, Yes, something inhumane is going on. And you are right: big agriculture is pushing GMO foods, and fertilizer intensive systems of agriculture--and that results in debt, and rising pressure. This story keeps popping up here: how could it not? But it's not getting the attention it needs. (Don't worry, however, we will do whatever it takes to make sure the Commonwealth Games come off succesfully!

  5. Why has nobody mentioned the route cause of all these suicides: Monsanto's campaign to take over India's agriculture by forcing farmers to use its Roundup Ready seeds?

  6. @Council,
    Thanks for stopping by. You are right about Monsanto. FWIW, the link to the piece by Vandana Shiva that I posted above does talk about the Monsanto connection. That's not the only thing going on, but it's certainly very important. Right now the government is considering whether to let in Bt Brinjal. I hope to have more on this in coming weeks.

    On a side note, it's nice to have a sympathetic North American here. Earlier this week, I posted a constructive comment on an American environmental blog (the no impact man). I just stopped back and saw that I'd been told by another commentator, "In conclusion your (sic) a moron and the reason your country sucks is because of the people in it not the rest of the world."

    A little bit defensive, no?

  7. Required reading: "Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World Food System" by Raj Patel (2007, Harper Collins) especially chapter 6 ("Better Living Through Chemistry")

  8. Nothing drives home the point better than the methods used by some of these farmers--i.e., drinking the very same pesticides they use on their crops. It's unclear what the fix for this is, either. The Indian middle class consumer could conceivably shift its consumer alliegiences, no? Can you imagine TV cooking shows (Khana Khazana) pushing for heirloom (as we say here) and organic varieties of vegetables and grains? We don't even have that extent of insight here in the U.S. Or perhaps it is on the legal front that Monsanto et al can be pushed back. Boycott btBrinjals!?

  9. @Council, thanks for the book tip.
    @Waist deep in the Big Muddy, Thanks for stopping by. You are right about the pesticides being used in suicides--it is horrifying, and telling.
    There are a lot of efforts going on to stop the BT Brinjals; many are fasting today, Jan. 30 and that is part of a larger campaign.

    To be really effective, I think a movement needs to get beyond the middle class here, which is proportionately very small; though it's good to see more members of the urban middle class buying organic foods and eggs, it's not likely to be enough. The government needs to be involved in a more positive way, and that will probably take a movement of farmers. There are some bright spots; am posting links today on this for further reading.

  10. ...and then the opposite also exists.

    Where there's a crowded fire, most people do nothing except create theatre.

    ...the dhaba's menu is looking delicious btw.

  11. @plastic--so true what you say about theatre!

    Nice to have you back!


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