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India's Farcical Love for Farmers

Manu Joseph

A day after farmers took to the streets and marched to the capital of India, here's a take on why India loves a dead farmer more than a living one

A typical Indian farmer, when alive and toiling, is among the least productive workers in the world. Economists mutter that the nation spends trillions of rupees in subsidies to keep people like him, who form about half of India’s work force, happy. In return, the urban upper classes mutter, the farmer votes for semiliterate rustics who would continue to keep him happy. Environmentalists mutter that he devotes an inordinate amount of land to crops that consume a lot of fresh water, because the government promises to buy them from him at a guaranteed price to keep him happy. The farmer mutters that, in any case, he is not happy.

India has never told its poor, “Don’t be a farmer. Save yourself.” As though it had attended a creative writing course, India never tells, it shows.

No matter how much money the state throws at farmers, most of whom have small holdings of land or are landless laborers, farming in India has bleak prospects. To save themselves from farming, the rural young migrate to cities to perform menial tasks and live in conditions that are worse than in many prisons in the West.

 

Every year thousands of farmers, predominantly men, commit suicide. That is when they become the beloved of the nation. Television crews visit their villages. Socialists blame capitalism. The government gives the families of the dead money or grain. The urban elite tweet that it is a shame that the noble farmer must kill himself.

Last week, a dead farmer endeared himself to the nation more than all the dead farmers before him. Gajendra Singh, who was skilled in tying turbans and had a keen interest in politics, was not exactly a poor farmer. He attended a political rally in the capital, climbed a tree, tied a piece of cloth to a branch and a noose around his neck, and shouted slogans about the plight of farmers. What happened after that is disputed. Some say he fell by accident, some say he hanged himself. There was enthusiastic news coverage until the earthquake in Nepal deflected attention. Politicians visited his family. The government announced it would name a farmer welfare program after him. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted that the nation was “deeply shattered.”

That Indian farmers kill themselves because of financial distress has acquired the status of a factual phenomenon. This notion was first promoted by the type of activists who have a morbid fear of genetically modified organisms. They claimed that the use of Monsanto’s modified seeds was impoverishing Indian farmers, leading to their suicides.

There are studies that point out that the suicide rate among Indian farmers is lower than among other professions, and that the chief cause might be depression. Activists say that these studies are wrong, and that farmers kill themselves because of the failure of the state.

Suicides as a direct consequence of financial shocks is a theory anti-Monsanto activists and developmental economists wish to believe because it strengthens their own philosophies. To the news media it is a better story than the banal possibility that some people kill themselves primarily because they are prone to killing themselves. After all, most of the farmers who commit suicide are indeed poor. It is a mystery, though, why far fewer women than men in farming communities commit suicide because of financial distress.

There are studies that point out that the suicide rate among Indian farmers is lower than among other professions, and that the chief cause might be depression. Activists say that these studies are wrong, and that farmers kill themselves because of the failure of the state. The extent and the reasons for “farmer suicides” are a matter of belief.

Meanwhile, Mr. Modi has been trying to liberate impoverished farmers from farming. He has been trying to pass an act that would make it easier for the government and corporations to acquire land from farmers at reasonably attractive prices. That way small farmers and their progeny can be herded toward low-skill manufacturing, and land can be freed up for infrastructure and more robust industries.

His logic, it appears, is that if there were no poor farmers in the first place, there would be no farmer suicides.

The article first appeared in The New York Times in April, 2015 and has been penned by veteran journalist and author Manu Joseph.