July 2012


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Dance of Death in the ‘Largest Democracy’ Shames None in India!

Asian Human Rights Commission

Facing year after year a seemingly never-ending cycle of debt and
often feeling compelled to sell their harvests at low prices, among
other hardships, more than 14,000 farmers took their lives in India
in 2011, not a new phenomenon as more than 15,000 farmers
committed suicide the previous year.
(Photo from http://microcreditsummitcampaignblog.blogspot.hk)

Here are the statistics: nothing less than 14,004 farmers committed suicide in 2011 as per the data of the National Crime Records Bureau. This figure is more than 10.3 percent of the total number of suicides in India through the year. After factoring such issues as the huge underreporting of cases and the practice of never counting women as farmers, the actual number of incidents must be much more. This outcome should be enough to shame any country, let alone one that claims to be the “largest democracy in the world.”

Not really, however, for the State has not seemed to do so much as even take note of a situation that should have set off alarm bells. Moreover, it was not the first time that the government has found these many farmers—citizens otherwise—committing suicide. The corresponding figures for the previous year were pegged at an even higher 15,933. Unfortunately, there was not much to rejoice in the “decline” as the Times of India, a leading English daily, pointed out. It has asserted that the “dip” could as well be explained by the curious assertion of the state government of Chhattisgarh claiming that no farmers in the state committed suicide in 2011 as against 1,412 of them who had taken the extreme step in 2010!

The very fact that the figures are this high after almost half a decade of implementation of welfare schemes, like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), speaks volumes about the enormity of distress. All that MNREGA and other schemes seem to have arrested is less than 20 percent of the average number of suicides annually. Unmistakably, it is not merely the worst of times that the Indian peasantry has undergone but, in fact, is, as P. Sainath puts it, “the worst-ever recorded wave of suicides of this kind in human history.” The numbers substantiate the claim. With more than 15,000 farmers committing suicide annually and the total number marking the quarter million mark two years ago, the situation warrants a response on a war footing. The government, on its part, has chosen, however, to do not even as much as acknowledge the situation and pay lip service to it.

Here it differs significantly with its own track record of acknowledging problems even while making no attempt to address them. One can remember, for instance, even the ever-so-silent prime minister of India conceding the deteriorating status of child malnutrition in India as being nothing less than a “national shame.”

The governmental response to the issue of farmers’ suicides invokes a strange sense of déjà vu—strange, unlike the case of child malnutrition which the prime minister has acknowledged as a matter of “national shame” not long ago. The fact that the study that exposed the problem was commissioned by a non-governmental organization (NGO) lobbying for substituting wholesome meals with fortified food—something the Right to Food Campaign of India criticizes as another ploy of promoting commercial interests is beside the point. The message that this government responds only when corporate interests are involved was clear then; it is clearer now. It has not acted then, for it was moved by the plight of more than 42 percent of the country’s children being severely malnourished. Had it been concerned, it would not have been sitting on the Prime Minister’s National Council on Nutrition way back in 2008, set up for fighting malnutrition! Incidentally, the council has never met but once ever since. Adding insult to injury, the decisions taken in that meeting, like strengthening of Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), close cooperation and coordination among ministries dealing with different aspects of the issue and so on, were never implemented.

Unfortunately, one can safely assume that the death of farmers, in whatever numbers, is not going to move the corporations to act on the issue. For instance, the apex bodies of Indian capital, like the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), had opposed the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (that later became MNREGA), arguing that it would put heavy pressures on the Indian economy that was in the midst of a surge in those days. That it had the nerve of making this comment at the peak of annual suicides speaks volumes about its sensitivity. The same body later opposed the governmental plan of linking MNREGA wages to inflation, asserting that it would “distort the labor market,” which leaves any residual doubts over its sympathies to the dying farmers.

But then, the FICCI is not the State. Despite all its claims, it has never been civil enough to be treated as a part of “civil society.” One can therefore understand its silence over the issue. How though does one explain the deafening silence of a broad cross-section of the Indian population over the issue? More than 15,000 farmers committing suicide a year, or more than 41 a day, should have caused a disgust nothing less than one feels towards genocide. It should have generated popular anger to the extent of waking the government out of its slumber and make it act. Nothing like this reaction has happened though. Except for a tiny minority of social activists and civil society organizations, everyone else seems to have chosen to close their eyes and let the farmers die.

These suicides—murders, in fact—are almost never sudden. They follow a pattern that begins with, and remains, entwined with the cropping cycle that dominates in their area. The farmers have to get loans to buy seeds. Because they do not have anything to “guarantee” the repayment, banks treat them as “unreliable” and refuse to give them any loans. This experience with the banks brings them to the local, and illegal, moneylenders who charge exorbitant rates beginning with 10 percent per month to 60 percent per month! Sowing seeds, however, does not guarantee any result as the farmers are then forced to wait for the monsoons; and if the monsoons fail even by a few weeks, it signals the end of the road for the farmer. Unable to pay back even the interest—forget the principal—the farmer gets inhumanely insulted and hounded by the moneylenders, who, more often than not, are the strongmen of the area. The shame, the crippling sense of losing honor, sets in slowly and ends in suicide.

Unfortunately, the pattern remains the same even if the harvest is anything more than the average, just that the modalities of the exploitation change. Then, faced with excessive supply against lesser demand, many peasants find their crops unsold. The state governments are mandated to buy the harvest on a predefined minimum support price in case the farmers bring it to the procurement centers. However, government officials, always in tandem with what is termed the “Food Grain Mafia,” then will keep farmers waiting, citing factors from a lack of storage space to that of jute bags. Furthermore, even if the government buys the grain, the payments will reach the farmer only in installments that are spread over months. This situation though is one the farmer can ill-afford as they have requirements to repay their loans, buy basic necessities for the household and so on. The farmer will finally be compelled to sell his produce to the hoarders on prices much less than those stipulated by the government. It often might also be at a loss. The cycle of attaining loans to repay the interest on their previous loans will repeat itself to the extent of pushing the farmer to the wall and finally making many of them commit suicide.

This pattern, well established by meticulous research, is known to all stakeholders. What then prevents the government from taking corrective steps and arresting the deaths at least, if not the distress, altogether? This question is one that the Indian authorities will have to answer at the earliest opportunity even if all they want is to keep pretending they are part of a democracy, largest or otherwise.

* The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is a regional non-governmental organization monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984. More information is available on AHRC’s web site at <http://www.ahrchk.net/index.php>.