June 13, 2021

Agricultural Workers: Forced to Live and Die in the Dark`

Vikram Singh

THE impact of the agrarian crisis on agricultural workers lead to their precarious conditions and even forces them to commit suicide. The policy changes in agriculture also affects the lives of agricultural workers who are at the lowest rung of the social and economic life of rural India.

Suicides of agricultural workers were not even recorded until 2013. In 2014, recording the suicides of agricultural workers was initiated and the information publicly released. In 2014, suicides by 5,650 farmers and 6,710 agricultural workers were recorded, a hint to the stressful conditions, they are living in.

There are various kinds of misconceived notions about agricultural workers. It is a common perception that they do not own land; hence, they do not take loans, so why will they commit suicide. It is true that agricultural workers do not own land but their pitiable conditions force them to take loans for even small household needs. They have very little income and almost zero savings; therefore, they are forced to take loans for any small additional expenses of the family, such as marriages, social functions, children’s education, treatment of the patients in the family, and numerous similar reasons.  They do not own land to provide security for loans from formal banks forcing them to depend on private moneylenders in the villages. These moneylenders do not have concrete conditions of the loan and never concretize the interest rates but in reality, charge high rates of interest.  It becomes very difficult for agricultural workers to repay the loan resulting in continuous pressure from moneylenders and even public humiliations. The whole family has to suffer and are finally left with suicide as the only option to escape routine torture and pressure.

The report by Professor Sukhpal Singh and his team from Agriculture University Ludhiana shows the trend of suicides among agricultural workers. A total of 7303 agricultural workers were forced to commit suicide during the period of the study. As per the study, debt was the primary cause of these suicides. In 79 per cent of the total cases, the cause of suicide was debt. The plight of the workers escalates when they fail to meet the small routine needs of the family and under the strain choose to commit suicide. This was the cause cited by 18 per cent of the total suicides. The head of the family is responsible for arranging expenses; when there is a need for medical treatment or a marriage. They do not have savings owing to irregular and insufficient incomes. The failure to arrange money and the mental and social strain associated with leaves them no other choice but suicide. Their helplessness takes their life.

Agricultural workers mostly hail from socially deprived communities, the majority of them are dalits and tribals. According to a study conducted in Punjab, among the total suicides, only nine per cent were from dominant castes. In Punjab, anyone selling land is socially downgraded and those who sell their land for whatever difficulties, leave their villages. They prefer to work as manual labourers in urban areas than stay in the village and work on others’ farm.  

The study also throws light on women agricultural workers. The study revealed, out of the total workers who committed suicide, 12.43 per cent were women agriculture workers. Generally, the male in the family is considered as the head of the family and the burden of financial affairs rests on his shoulders. However, the number of women farmers who committed suicide is 1.5 times more than their male counterparts. A significant number of people committing suicide are youth.

It is a common perception that those people who consume alcohol and other intoxicants normally commit suicide. The study casts apprehensions on this perception where only 23 per cent of the total cases who committed suicide were addicts.

The misery of the families of the agricultural workers does not end with suicide but a new chapter of hardships and miseries begins. Analysis of the total suicides shows that for 50 per cent of families who have lost the sole earning member of the family, survival becomes an ever-bigger challenge. When the earning member commits suicide, children are worst affected, where they are forced to leave their education. The study shows, in the case of 12 per cent of families, children attending school were forced to leave their education after the causality in the family.

The state government has made provisions for compensatory schemes and announced them with fanfare but in reality, the family of the victim who commits suicide fails to get any kind of compensation. Awareness and difficulties in getting compensation owing to various technicalities being the main reasons for this failure.

In Punjab, the government provides compensation of three lakh rupees if any person commits suicide due to debts, but the families rarely get the compensation. The first hurdle is to ascertain that debt is the main reason for suicide. The officials generally declare addiction or personal matters as the reason for suicide. There are no records about the debt as the agricultural workers do not get loans in a formal set-up and are dependent on moneylenders for the loans, who do not maintain any paperwork. This leaves the families without any documentary proof.

The post-mortem and death certificate are mandatory for claiming compensation. The family members of agricultural workers are generally poor and illiterate with no/insufficient knowledge about administration. It is an onerous task for them to procure any paper from government officials. The government schemes are ornamental and only decorate the shelves in government offices. They do not provide succour to the needy.

These conditions prevail not just in Punjab but are similar in nearly all the other states. The condition of agricultural workers in all the states needs in-depth study and reportage.

The implementation of neoliberal economic policies has brought massive changes in the agriculture sector adversely affecting the lives of agricultural workers. The landless workers continue to wait to get their legitimate share of the land, whereas the huge mechanization reduced the number of working days drastically.  

The sustained agrarian crisis every year forces a large number of small and marginal farmers to sell their land. It means reduced work; and an exponential increase of landless farmworkers in the last decade. It has also directly affected the wage rates of agriculture workers and the real wage continues to shrink. This made the lives of agriculture workers more uncertain and difficult.

The unemployment rate is drastically high outside the agriculture sector, wherein people displaced from agriculture work are not getting any alternate work. The cost of living has increased and the social welfare state is withering. With the privatisation of education, health, electricity and the weakening of PDS and other social welfare schemes, people are forced to pay for these services, which were earlier provided by the government.

These have become huge additional expenses to their lives, unavoidable and basic necessities. With low-income opportunities, loans or debts have become the only alternatives to cope up with the situation. Agriculture workers have no choice but to either die (suicide) due to poverty and without money or take a loan and then commit suicide failing to repay. The irony is that despite an increasing number of suicides of agricultural workers they fail to be covered by the media or policymakers. In this way, more than 13 crore agricultural workers in India are forced to live and die in dark without any recognition for their work, life and death (suicide).