Those who enter commercial circuits are more vulnerable

Recurrent farmer suicides and the recent farmers’ marches in Delhi and Mumbai have made agrarian distress a political issue. Populist posturing and offerings such as loan waivers and income support are a ploy to retain electoral alliances and will only appease a section of farmers without addressing the foundational problems of rural and agrarian India. Suicides by farmers in the relatively richer and wet belts indicate that it is largely the commercialisation of agriculture and the integration of cultivators into a web of risks that is making them susceptible to high distress.

The promotion of the Green Revolution model of agriculture with its emphasis on productivity has meant that agriculture now defies any ecological specificity and is largely an endeavour to grow commercial crops at any cost. As numerous studies have shown, dwindling landholding size, the use of expensive external inputs (such as fertilisers and pesticides), overdependency on new technologies, especially on tube-wells that have exhausted the water table, the instability of the market that assures no remunerative prices, increasing labour costs, and the vagaries of climate have enhanced cultivators’ risks. Farmers in the irrigated belts or those seeking to enter into such commercial circuits of production and sales have become the key victims rather than those in the drier belts or those retaining low-productive but non-commercial agriculture.

Interlinked loans

Agri-business agents now scour the countryside offering interlinked loans for constructing tube-wells, producing commercial crops and using a range of commercial and chemical inputs. Indebtedness and failure to repay loans, which often have punitive interest rates, especially those from non-institutional lenders mean that a sense of desperation has set in among farmers. At a time when non-agricultural incomes, even for casual labour, have increased, farmers have seen sharp declines in their own earnings and indebtedness marks much of their economic efforts. Is it any wonder that a majority now see agriculture as a losing proportion and their lives as redundant? The average cultivating household is now enveloped by inadequate income, ecologically degraded land and increasing social pressure. Households that have children with aspirations to be educated or have members who are ill face the double-burden of bearing these costs at extortionist rates.

Addressing such issues will require several significant changes in the agricultural policy. Since agriculture is a state subject, it is up to the states to initiate these changes. Moving away from the Green Revolution model that has fostered ecological degradation, economic instability and social disturbance should be a priority. The increasing financialisation of agriculture with its attendant chemical inputs of pesticides, weedicides, fungicides, hybrid seeds, and the use of large and inappropriate technologies should be challenged. In its place, decentralised, ecologically appropriate agricultural practices should be promoted. Drawing on ecological diversity and the rich, evolved knowledge base of farmers, the state should promote pluri-agricultural models that draw on local ecological conditions and which do not degrade soil, decrease the water table or lead to a loss of biodiversity.

Tiding over risks

Such localised models will also enable farmers to adapt to climate change which with its fluctuations in temperature and rainfall are now the key problems in agriculture. Promoting group farming where farmers can pool their land into production units will address the problem of sub-optimal landholding sizes and labour costs. Linking these to the establishment of farmer producer organisations will enable smallholders to tide over the risks of marketing and distribution. Instead of loan waivers and subsidies, the government needs to design schemes that will focus on the restoration of soils and conservation of water and agrobiodiversity. This will also facilitate moving farmers to sustainable agriculture and address the problems of overproduction of certain produce, which also often leads to sharp declines in prices.

Attention to local production with an emphasis on local food crops should also enable policies to ensure that local food security rather than dependency on a macro food provisioning scheme, such as the Public Distribution System, should be made. Recognising women’s rights to land and promoting and sustaining their significant role in agriculture will also address the problem of labour shortage and usher in better equality for women. To address both the problem of seasonal employment in agriculture and the population size, which cannot be absorbed into urban areas, it is important that new rural and agricultural industries be set up. Most importantly, while the issues of basic food and housing have been addressed by recent programmes, there is an urgent need to provide assured and high-quality education and health to rural residents. In place of poor quality mass higher education and urban-oriented skills programmes, it is important that relevant, rural-oriented education and training be given to all rural youth.

The suicides by agriculturists are not the problem per se. Rather, the suicides are symptoms of the larger and persisting structures of risk and degradation of the living conditions of agrarian communities. To address these multiple problems and to promulgate appropriate policies would be the first step in recognising farmers as equal and worthy citizens.

(The writer is a social scientist with expertise in agrarian studies, ecology and education)

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Those who enter commercial circuits are more vulnerable

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