Low farm income cause of suicides

Low farm income cause of suicides

While all sectors continue to get a salary hike, farmers are being deprived of an economic price.

The death of Surjit Singh, who had met Rahul Gandhi a few days before he committed suicide, has once again brought the focus back on the tragic but unresolved issue of farmer suicides. A few days after Surjit Singh consumed sulphos tablets, another 36-year-old farmer, Baljinder Das Bairagi from Sangrur, hanged himself from a ceiling fan. He carried an outstanding loan of Rs 7 lakh.

A survey done by three universities had shown that in the 10-year period between 2000 and 2010, a total of 6,926 cases of farmer suicides were recorded, which averages to two farmers taking their own lives each day. But the recent spurt in farm suicides, with 11 suicides reported from Sangrur district alone since April, will surely push this rate to a still more discomforting level.

Punjab Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal has time and again assured all help to farmers, and still the serial death dance goes on unabated. So much so that after Gajendra Singh hanged himself to death at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was forced to acknowledge that he is shattered and disappointed, and in a subsequent tweet wrote: “At no point must the hardworking farmer think he is alone. We are all together in creating a better tomorrow for the farmers of India.”

While the politicians are battling it out in and outside parliament, blaming the other party for ignoring the farmers, the fact remains that the major political parties as well as the regional political parties have blood on their hands. Farmer suicides are not a recent phenomenon.

According to the National Crime Record Bureau, farmer suicides have gone up by 26 per cent in 2014-15 against the death toll recorded a year earlier, in 2013-14. I have always said that those who were committing suicide, and it does require tremendous courage to take your own life, were actually trying to make a political statement with their death.

Farm suicides have unfortunately failed to shake-up the callous and indifferent policy planning, and at the same time failed miserably to make agricultural scientists and economists think afresh.

Agricultural Universities across the country, including the Punjab Agricultural University, have continued to emphasise on increasing crop productivity as the solution to the continuing agrarian crisis. The answer however does not lie in raising crop productivity but in providing a remunerative and assured monthly income to farmers.

I have repeatedly been saying that the primary and the most significant reason behind the continuing farmer suicides over the past two decades are the declining farm incomes. As if this is not enough, I see a concerted effort being made even now to see that the minimum support price (MSP) for paddy is not raised.

Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan had, while releasing the latest credit
policy, cautioned against raising MSP saying that this will once again increase inflation to 6 per cent or more. Earlier, the government had, in an affidavit filed before the Supreme
Court, made it abundantly clear that it cannot raise MSP because that would lead to market disruptions.

Low economic prices

In other words, while all sectors continue to get a salary hike, farmers are being deprived of an economic price. They are being deliberately kept impoverished. The tragedy is that no agriculture university wants to acknowledge this harsh fact.

None of the 53 expert committees that have been constituted at the national and the regional levels to look into reasons behind the agrarian distress and farmer suicides has come anywhere near admitting that the primary reason for farmer suicides is the deliberate policy to keep farm incomes at the starvation level.

Delivering a talk on “Why are farmers committing suicide?” at the Panjab University the other day, I made a simple illustration. In 1970, the MSP for wheat was Rs 76 per quintal. Forty-five years later, in 2015, wheat procurement price is Rs 1,450 per quintal.

In other words, in 45 years, wheat price has been raised by approximately 19 times. I am aware that MSP alone is not the only factor but it comes in handy to understand how farm incomes have been deliberately kept low.

In the same period, the average salary of Central government employees has risen by 110 to 120 times; of school teachers by 280 to 320 times; of college/ university teachers by 150 to 170 times; and of mid to high class corporate sector employees by 350 to 1,000 times.

In the same period, school fees have increased by 200 to 300 times; medical treatment cost has gone up by 200 to 300 per cent; and average house rent in cities has risen by 350 times. I am sure if the university teachers/ professors had their salaries still fixed at the pre-fifth Pay Commission levels, many would have committed suicide by now.

The farmer, therefore, is bearing the burden of keeping food prices low. He is being penalised for growing food. Unless this grave historic injustice is corrected, I see no end to farmer suicides.

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