October 11, 2015

Unabated Farmers’ Suicides and Distress: Where Does the Solution lies?

A Prasad Rao

UNABATED farmers’ suicides and intensified distress in Telangana state is causing serious concern among everyone concerned with farmers, development and well being of the people. According to published list of farmer’s suicides, district wise along with names of Mandal and village by daily newspaper Nava Telangana, over 1168 farmers have committed suicide between 2nd June 2014 (State formation day) and 28th September 2015. The state government, which was in denial mode all along, under pressure from various organisations, including National Human Rights Commission, and State High Court, had to recognise at least some of these deaths as farmer suicides. Ultimately, it was the unified resistance of people against the government apathy that forced it into action mode though not fully. THE TURNING POINT Moved by unabated farmers’ distress and the trend of their rising suicides as also the systematic indifference of the state government, the Left farmer’s organisations took initiative to form a Joint Action Committee at the state level with former High Court judge, Justice Chandra Kumar, as its chairman to force the government to take action to prevent farmer’s distress. Unfortunately, some wanted inclusion into the JAC of those very political elements which were responsible for these policies and actively pursued them while in power. This was not agreed to by the Left farmer’s organisations. This led to formation of second joint front. But these did not contradict with each other so far while conducting their activities. They went into action with their own perceptions. The Left JAC wants a lasting solution to the vexed problem through policy correction. Left JAC formed its committees at the district level and below. The activity of the JAC has proved to be the turning point to force the government to rethink and respond in the manner it is doing now. Yielding to the mounting pressure, the government has agreed to a two day debate on farmer’s problems in the state legislature. It changed some of its earlier stands fearing its own isolation. Just on the eve of state legislature meet, the government announced on 19th September its decision to pay ex-gratia of Rs 6.00 lakhs to the dependents of suicide victim families in place of the earlier Rs 1.50 lakhs with effect from 19th September only. Seeing united opposition, both inside the House and outside, to its illogical decision about the cut-off date, the government quickly changed its stand. The agriculture minister made a statement in the House preponing the cut-off date for ex-gratia payment to the State’s formation day on 2nd June 2014. LACUNA IN G.O. 421 Identification of farmers' deaths by a committee, as ordered through earlier Government Order (G.O.) No. 421, is continuing to be a problem. As per this G.O. it needs submission of as many as 13 documents, which is arduous and difficult to many. Much ground work will be needed to get identification to all farmers’ suicides. The main lacuna in this G.O. is that it does not recognise all forms of distress manifestations in a crisis ridden farm family. Experience shows that this is often reflected as wife-husband quarrel and disputes in the family. It also does not recognise that increasing indebtedness and consequential stress is also resulting from incurring higher family expenditure to continue children’s education or for health emergencies. This indebtedness is because farm income has decreased due to crisis with attendant social indignities -- all resultant of policy changes. Ignoring these realities, the government has now attributed farmers’ distress almost exclusively to drought that has been prevailing in the state since last year. If this is true, as now admitted by the minister, why drought affected mandals were not identified as such last year itself and why assistance was not extended to the affected farmers, in spite of such demand by all political parties, except the ruling party? PRIVATE INDEBTEDNESS THE MAIN CAUSE During the debate on farmer’s suicides in the legislature, almost all members pointed out that continuing distress and suicides are due to heavy private indebtedness of farmers at high interest rate. The lenders were forcing the farmers to clear the debt. Further, the method of implementing of present debt waiver scheme announced by the state government also came in for sharp criticism. The government decided to waive the debt in four annual installments. While agreeing with the criticism, the minister promised to favourably consider payment of the remaining two installments in one lump sum next year. He also clarified that the government will bear interest component for the interim period. The opposition parties warned the government that if it does not deliver on this promise they will consider calling for a state bandh on this issue. This lacuna in debt waiver denied intended benefit to the farmers. In fact, farmer’s access to institutional credit got worsened. No fresh bank credit flowed to the farmers. Much of the so called bank loans became loan renewal on paper. As a result, dependence of farmers on private money lenders increased much more during this period, creating a difficult and helpless situation to the farmers. Despite this, no commitment was made by the government to give any relief to farmers from private indebtedness. Assuming that the government agrees to all its commitments and also agrees to private debt waiver, will it help in preventing farmer’s distress in a lasting manner? This needs detailed consideration. EXPERIENCE THUS FAR The Government of India implemented Agricultural Debt Waiver and Debt Relief Scheme in 2008 at a cost of about Rs 65,300 crores. It excluded private lenders debt in spite of specific recommendation by Radhakrishna Expert Group on Farmers’ Indebtedness in July 2007 itself. It wanted that private money lenders debt component must be also addressed through one time consolidation and converting it into long term bank debt. It further recommended that the interest component be borne by central and state governments equally. Had this recommendation been implemented, there would have been real relief to the indebted farmers, at least for a while, as shown from Kerala experience. The Kerala government gave real debt relief to its indebted farmers through “The Kerala Farmer’s Debt Relief Commission Act, 2006 (Act No. 1/2007). Relief covered both institutional and private money lenders debts. Total debt was consolidated through Debt Relief Tribunals constituted at district and taluq levels. Work of these tribunals gave real relief to the indebted farmers and prevented suicides, at least for a while. Soon, the Act had to be amended in 2012 extending relief for the debts prevailing up to 2011. This has become necessary as the underlying cause(s) for farmers indebtedness remained unaddressed, for whatever reasons that might be. MORE CREDIT – NOT A SOLUTION One of the points strongly made by the Congress-led UPA was that it had increased the farm credit size substantially during its regime. The present BJP-led government says it has also increased farm bank credit to Rs 7.50 lakh crores. It is thus saying that it is helping farmers though this credit poo. This is no solution at all. This has not and will not reduce farmer’s distress and suicides. In fact, interim review during the first six months of NDA rule has shown that the number of suicides have increased during this period by a significant 26 per cent. The reality of credit access to the small and tenant farmers at the ground level has not changed in any significant manner through this increase. The National Sample Survey Report of 70th round clearly shows the reality of credit access to various categories of farmers. WHERE LIES THE SOLUTION? Hence, giving more credit to already highly indebted farmers or giving relief through one time waivers will not help to solve debt related crisis of farmers. Also, this does not cover the most of the small and marginal farmers in any case. Very soon, indebtedness will reappear leading to recurring distress and suicides. Such a course will lead to several undesirable developments in the economy. Unless underlying causes for such high farmer’s indebtedness are addressed, distress and suicides will soon reappear. Keeping the present farming situation and the condition of farmers in view, relatively lasting solution needs to be implemented. The starting point for such a course will be restoration of primacy and sustainability of small farmer economy in policy formulation. This will also help in meeting the problems of climate change. In these, selection of appropriate technologies and marketing strategies (including processing of the produce) is very critical. Small farm agriculture needs to be given all needed support keeping WTO requirements in view. A “Livelihood Box” is needed to be created on the model “Green Box” policies. In short, implementation of Swaminathan National Farmers’ Commission Report at the national level and Professor Jayathi Ghosh Famers’ Welfare Commission Report at the state level is absolutely needed and unavoidable. Any other course will only lead to prolonged farmer’s distress and much social unrest in the country.