"What would you say if 12,500 lawyers committed suicide in one year?" the moderator asked the upmarket Gurgaon audience as they sat around round tables, whiskeys, vodkas and Bloody Marys in their hands.
A hush fell on the crowd.
She continued, "And what would you say if 12,500 doctors committed suicide in one year?"
The silence grew deeper.
The moderator pressed on. "And what would you say if 12,500 businessmen committed suicide in one year? Would you say there was something fundamentally and deeply wrong with the system?"
By this time, the silence was complete.
"Twelve thousand and sixty-two farmers committed suicide in 2015. How many of us even noticed it, much less went out and protested on the streets? I'd like to welcome Devinder Sharma on stage to talk about the biggest crisis to date facing India today."
I had no idea that a farmer ends his life every 41 minutes in India. Or that 12,602 farmers had ended their lives in 2015.
To be honest, I had never heard of Devinder Sharma before. I had come to this event to listen to the next speaker, Devdutt Patnaik, author of Devlok, My Gita and The Leadership Sutra. But Mr. Sharma's talk had me sitting on the edge of my chair and leaning forward for the next 45 minutes and I learned some startling, inconvenient, and downright damning truths which sufficiently rearranged the way I see India.
For example, I had no idea that a farmer ends his life every 41 minutes in India. Or that 12,602 farmers had ended their lives in 2015. Or that between 1995 and 2015, a period of 21 years, a total of 3,18,528 farmers have committed suicide!
Devinder Sharma, a food and trade policy analyst and journalist who holds a master's degree in plant breeding and genetics—and who gets trolled regularly for his views—punctuated statistics with stories of individual farmers. One that I am quite sure neither I nor the rest of the audience will forget anytime soon was about a farmer who jumped into a canal with his ten-year-old son tied to him. Both drowned. In his mind, he wasn't trying to harm his son. In a note that he left behind, he said he was simply trying to save his son from a debt that he would never be able to repay.
And here I was thinking the Gurmeet Ram Rahim story was the big story of the year!
The average income of a farmer across 17 states continues to be ₹20,000 a year! That breaks down to ₹1666 a month.
Agriculture is not a sexy subject. Very few people in our turbo-charged television, print and social media spaces actually want to listen to facts and figures about (furrow brow and then roll eyes) farming! When I was a kid (in the 70s) my father used to religiously watch a Doordarshan programme called Krishi Darshan on our little black and white Televista TV. (No, he wasn't a farmer. He was an educational psychologist.) I remember groaning fairly loudly every time he sat down to watch the programme. I would say exasperatedly, "Who on earth even cares about tomatoes and potatoes and fertilisers?" And my dad would fix me with a long look and say, "The farmers do. And you should too."
I didn't get it then. I certainly do now.
I had an idea but was not aware of the extent of the bias that exists for the rich and against the poor. For example, I did not know that the total outstanding loans of public sector banks—Non-Performing Assets (or NPAs, as they are called)—stand at ₹6.8 lakh crores; of these, 70% belong the corporate sector, and only 1% of the defaulters are farmers. The Gujarat government loaned ₹558.58 crore to the Tatas to set up the Nano plant at Sanand at an interest of 0.1%, and to be paid back in 20 years! One would be hard pressed to find a clearer way of saying, "I love you."
But, according to Devinder Sharma, if a poor woman in a village wants to buy a goat worth ₹5000, she will have to pay back a loan at an interest rate of 24% to 36% or even more to a microfinance institute! Imagine the number of livelihoods that could potentially be sustained if banks showed the same largesse to poor entrepreneurs as they do to the rich.
Imagine the number of livelihoods that could potentially be sustained if banks showed the same largesse to poor entrepreneurs as they do to the rich.
Here's another shocker—from 1970 to 2015, says Mr. Sharma, the basic salary of government employees has increased by as much as 150 times, for college teachers and university professors by as much as 170 times, for school teachers by up to 320 times and for top corporate executives by 1000 times! Meanwhile, the average income of a farmer across 17 states continues to be ₹20,000 a year! (Yes, you read that right.) That breaks down to ₹1666 a month. Tell me, what would you do if your income was ₹1666 every month?
What I found out at Algebra Conversations (the forum that hosted the talk), was that there has been a concerted, state-sponsored effort afoot for decades now to actually make agriculture unprofitable and unviable and push farmers off the farms and into the cities, and turn them into cheap labour for infrastructure, construction, and real estate projects! In fact, projections being made by the National Skill Development Council make this abundantly clear, according to Mr. Sharma. In the next five years, by 2022, it aims to reduce the work force in agriculture from the existing 57% per cent to 38%.
I also learned that this process began as far back as the Narasimha Rao government in the early 90s, under the directive of the World Bank. In an article that Mr. Sharma wrote for The Wire last year, he notes:
"The (Indian government's) growing reliance on cheaper (and highly subsidised) imports of agricultural commodities—including pulses, edible oils, wheat, apple, rubber, coconut, silk, fish, a horde of fruit products and juices—are linked primarily to the policy imperative that aims to drive farmers out of agriculture. This approach follows the World Bank's prescriptions from way back in the 1990s—that India needs to move 400 million people from rural to urban areas by 2015. To achieve this, successive governments have been systematically squeezing public investments in agriculture and impoverishing farmers by denying them a fair and remunerative price."
Speaking of the 90s, I've often thought about one of the last speeches former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi gave. It appeared in a now-extinct magazine called The Illustrated Weekly of India. I was in my early twenties and the speech had such an impact on me, I actually cut it out of the magazine and pasted it in a scrapbook.
[T]here has been a concerted, state-sponsored effort afoot... to actually make agriculture unprofitable and unviable and push farmers off the farms and into the cities, and turn them into cheap labour...
Rajiv Gandhi had said words to the effect that the greatest danger to India lies in consumerism as much as it does in communalism. The subjugation of one country by another which used to happen by military means now happens by economic means. Our materialism and consumerism will cost us our national sovereignty if we are not careful.
Prophetic words. The Prime Minister was assassinated shortly thereafter. The World Bank opened its office in New Delhi one month later.
I did not stick around for Devdutt Patnaik's talk. I went straight home, turned on my laptop and read every article I could find on the state of agriculture late into the night. I also read Devinder Sharma's blog, "Ground Reality", which contains exhaustive information about the state of Indian agriculture in India.
The conclusion I have reached is that the plight of the farmer is India's greatest problem and I will vote for anyone who will walk his or her talk and initiate the massive and systemic changes needed to address it.
The big question on my mind right now is—does anyone actually care enough or have the courage to do so?