Gajendra Singh Rajput is dead. The Rajasthani farmer leaves us to find the bone-marrow truth of India's farmer suicides. We have to move beyond mere statistical jugglery and sanctimonious sympathies. Just as the barbarous murder of Nirbhaya made her the name of India's shame on sexual assaults and violent rape, Gajendra became the symbol of farmer distress. His grotesque death, captured remorselessly by 24x7 broadcast networks, was eerily reminiscent of the satirical film Peepli Live. His body had barely cooled when the political mud-slinging began. While one political party sarcastically observed that climbing the tree to save a human life in obvious jeopardy was not in their job description at that critical hour, another spokesperson put up a farcical performance, as if rehearsing for a stand-up comedy show. TV channels, forever peddling sleek SUVs and upper middle-class fantasies of designer labels, have little time to focus on rural catastrophe. In a nutshell, it was an appalling commentary on an India sold by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to global merchant bankers and FII investors. Smart Cities are in vogue. Collapsing villages can wait.
The Land Acquisition Ordinance worries farmers no end. There can be nothing more frightening than losing your ancestral occupation, daily livelihood and life itself. The attachment to land is deep, visceral. It is not just an economic relationship but an emotional investment. Selling that property (for no matter how fair a value), to some of them, means entering a world of nothingness. What can exacerbate miseries is if that land is forcibly acquired by giant corporations in cahoots with a magnanimous government. The helplessness is unimaginable. For projects concerning the defence sector or national security, the state anyway has primordial preferential rights. The farmer is now even more vulnerable.
"TV channels, forever peddling sleek SUVs and upper middle-class fantasies of designer labels, have little time to focus on rural catastrophe... Smart Cities are in vogue. Collapsing villages can wait."
What has accentuated rural distress has been the unseasonal rain that has wreaked havoc with planned harvesting and crop nourishment. Crops in over a humongous 11 million hectares have been destroyed. The result has been untold damage to potential produce. The deleterious repercussion on family cash flow is massive. The pressures of educating children, getting daughters married, spending on social customs and religious festivals mount. There is no contingency fund. One severe illness to a family member can cause further indebtedness. The avaricious local money-lender charges exorbitant interest rates; he is usually powerfully connected, politically. Thus, failure to repay loans results in not just loss of agricultural property, but physical intimidation. It is the loss of social prestige that finally causes huge psychological hopelessness. Suicide is a manifestation of that extreme despair.
Microfinance for all the hype has been a non-starter, and despite priority sector lending stipulations, cheap loans for farmers by commercial banks are a pipe dream. Less than 20% of farmers are insured. Agricultural productivity remains abysmally low, while farm output is egregiously volatile. Government subsidies, such as electrical use, are appropriated by wealthy landowners. Yet, roughly 55% of India's workforce is still dependent on farming, either fully or partially. The rich landowner farmer possessing high-end tractors, harvester combines and irrigation facilities is in fact the one creating a huge social chasm in the rural areas. About 80% of our farmers are marginal farmers with small holdings, which get further fragmented with the passage of time, until it gets uneconomical.
"[W]hat would have helped farmers would have been FDI in multi-brand retail, which the BJP vociferously opposes, thus inhibiting investments in the farm to fork model."
Modi's economic advisers include right-liberal economists like Prof Arvind Panagriya (Vice-Chairman, Niti Aayog) whose growth model is based on the principles of free-market fundamentalism -- let resource allocation happen through market forces, with minimal state intervention. Unfortunately this laissez faire approach has led the Modi government to allow the Food Security Act, passed in 2013, to languish. Thus, essential subsidised food-grains that would have alleviated hardships continue for the beleaguered farmer. To underestimate the role of state intervention is to invite peril. After 50 years and after spending US$ 20 trillion, the US poverty rate still hovers around 15%. India needs more, not less, state spending. Of course, it has to be efficient and minus those considerable leakages.
Interestingly, what would have helped farmers would have been FDI in multi-brand retail, which the BJP vociferously opposes, thus inhibiting investments in the farm to fork model. Modernisation of agriculture is necessary -- cold storage, sophisticated warehouses, quality control, contract farming, scientific processing, distribution chains, direct purchasing without corrupt third-party intermediaries etc. Besides better value, this reduces wasteful damage of fruits, vegetables and food-grains. But the BJP has sent disapproving signals for FDI, which could have facilitated all of the above. It is preposterous.
About 70% of India still lives in its villages. Gajendra was one of them. The fact that he came to India's national capital on a hot summer afternoon and died while the most repugnant political theatrics played out, tells its own story. It hasn't ended yet.
(Sanjay Jha is National Spokesperson of the Indian National Congress party. The views are his own).