Is Make in India complete without growing our own food? Isn’t food security linked to farmer security? Shouldn’t Indian Youth get a fair choice to practise farming and be compensated well for it? Who will feed the nation tomorrow?
On 22nd April 2015, a young farmer Gajendra Singh Rajput from Rajasthan, shocked the nation & the world by committing suicide in full public view in a farmers’ rally in New Delhi. Having been ruled ineligible for compensation, he had spent his last few days fruitlessly trying to convince government officials regarding due compensation for the loss of his wheat crop, ruined by unseasonable rain.
In January 2015, Ramesh Khamankar, a 57-year old cotton farmer in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district walked to his ruined fields and drank from a bottle of pesticide. He died a few hours later. Khamankar’s case was determined to be a ‘genuine farmer suicide’, and his family received a compensation of Rs. 1 lakh, months after he died. Reportedly due to rain impact, he owed about 2.5 lakhs to the local bank. For Shailesh Khamankar, his father’s death has ironically reversed his attempt to find a life away from the farm. He is a second-year engineering student at a college in Bhopal, but now doesn’t have the Rs.60,000 needed to continue his studies.
In the last two decades, over 290,000 Indian farmers have killed themselves. According to the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, in 2009, an Indian farmer took his life every 30 minutes. According to the 2011 census, the suicide rate for Indian farmers is 47 percent higher than the national average.
The increasing incidence of farmer suicides has sent discouraging signals to Indian youth about our nation’s commitment to a sector serving fundamental needs of the country. This sector is placed in popular rhetoric of ‘service to the nation’ on the same level as armed forces still the condition of the sector has worsened, now also facing adverse impacts of climate change. This apathy will have its impact on nation’s food security, fiscal deficit and human development index. The real drawback though will be widespread lack of enthusiasm among young people to take up agriculture as their chosen profession.
Who will farm 10 to 20 years from now if the apathy and poverty continues to drive youth away?
Rural Distress : Alone in a Billion
Farmer suicides are doubly devastating because they mark the death of a bread winner, and often mean the loss of a season of crop as well. However, after these farmers transcend the pain and suffering of this life, their widows and children are left with an even larger accumulation of debt. Many of these women cannot obtain extra jobs to support their families because they must have a man to help them get a job. Consequently, the combined stress and patriarchal cruelty have caused a slew of widow suicides in recent years.
The growing agrarian distress has reached global levels where we see countries like United States with even higher suicide rates and an observed trend of male farmers twice as likely to commit suicide as the general population. In France, a farmer dies by suicide every two days. In China, farmers are killing themselves to protest the government’s seizing of their land for urbanization. In Ireland, the number of suicides jumped following an unusually wet winter in 2012 that resulted in trouble growing hay for animal feed. In the U.K., the farmer suicide rate went up by 10 times during the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001, when the government required farmers to slaughter their animals. And in Australia, the rate is at an all-time high following two years of drought.
Rural distress is a term coined to explain lost crops and/or mounting debts. Government functionaries – political or bureaucratic – continue to duck responsibility for the causes of rural distress which is an outcome of very specific policy decisions taken or not taken in the light of various hardships faced by farmers.
86% of small and marginal farmers of India (contributing 14% to the GDP) are solely dependent on farming their small land-holdings for their own consumption and work as labour to earn for other expenses. This makes them extremely vulnerable and insecure to slightest of changes.
Rural distress, making farming a precarious, potentially life-threatening profession is most commonly being caused by the following factors:
- Climate Change
According to one expert, a sudden downpour of hail in the Indian state of Maharashtra this year laid waste to more than $150 million worth of crops. This year, there is more bad news for farmers. The monsoon season — roughly July to September — is expected to be drier than normal.
“This is the first time I have seen such a hailstorm that caused holes in the roofs and laid flat the entire fields across villages”, says Gaurav, 23 year old farmer in Hathras district of Uttar Pradesh.
Often, years with the most calamitous weather mean hikes in farmer suicide. In 2009, for example, more than 17,000 farmers killed themselves — a six year high, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. That year India saw the worst drought it had seen since 1972.
This weather unpredictability is being increasingly attributed to climate change. In 2013, Germanwatch’s Global Climate Risk Index ranked India as one of the three countries affected by the most extreme weather events in 2013. Still some states including Maharashtra do not have a SAPCC.
- Adverse Financial Policies
Rural distress can also be strongly attributed to adverse financial policies. While input costs have increased a lot due to private companies increasing prices of seeds and fertilizers, unfair lending practices, removal of insulation from fluctuating prices, and delayed or inadequate compensation increase farmers’ financial woes creating a debt trap.
Farmer suicides are mostly concentrated in 5 of India’s 30 States — these States accounted for 10,486 farmers suicides (76%) – Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala.The listed States were found to have offered the least institutional credit to farmers, forcing them to take out private loans at interest rates as high as 45 percent. Even in this arrangement, the farmer mostly gets 50 percent less than what he actually needs from the banks, sometimes even less.
In a recent speech to bankers in Mumbai, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked them to lend generously to farmers. These appeals are not new and have not made much difference in the past. According to RBI figures, the amount loaned by banks to farmers, as a percentage of overall loans, has shrunk from 20% in the 1980s to 8% in 2013 – less than half of the RBI’s targets for such lending.
Why do banks shy from lending to farmers, given that they have no qualms in lending to private projects at a 80-20 debt to equity ratio (80 per cent from the bank, 20 per cent from the promoter), despite many such loans remaining unpaid?
The rate at which farmers committed suicide saw a spike in 1997 — the same year that the government removed subsidies for cotton.
The crop insurance is built into the loan, and so several farmers – like the Khamankar family – are unaware of its existence.
But given that they had insurance, why didn’t the Khamankar family receive any money when the crops failed? The insurance covers the loan, not the crop. Unknown to Ramesh Khamankar, a part of his debt may have been adjusted against the insurance amount. That is, of course, if the insurance companies had come down and assessed the extent of crop damage in their corner of Yavatmal. Had anyone visited, we asked? No one, said Shailesh Khamankar.
How crop insurance works, how it is assessed, how it can be claimed? – these are questions surrounded by a fog of confusion. Workers of the Agricultural Department are supposed to regularly visit farmers to counsel them on farming methods, including on matters of credit and insurance. Not a single farmer in Yavatmal has been visited anyone from the government. The only ones who do come regularly are representatives of private seed companies, who hold extensive presentations on their latest products!
There is meant to be another safety net – the government’s compensation package- meant to protect farmers in case of natural calamities and poor yields. Khamankar’s family did get a cheque, amounting to Rs. 4,500 per hectare, which works out to a paltry 8 per cent of their input costs.
The scale of compensation is fixed by the Agriculture Ministry in Delhi. The Union Minister, Radha Mohan Singh, said the government was considering raising it. That it did recently, with the Prime Minister announcing a scaling up by 50 per cent. (For the Khamankars, this would have made little difference; the new amount, of Rs. 6750, would still be much below the Rs. 60,000 they spent per hectare).
Vast majority of those promised government aid claim they haven’t received it, even 20 years on. Compensation is useful only if it is timely and sufficient else debt accumulates. In many cases out of distress, farmers have given up on life.
- High costs of agricultural inputs
Farmers have started cropping for cash over feeding themselves. This has increased their farm input costs & resource consumption as well as made them financially insecure in times of crop failures. Frustrations over proprietary policies of seed companies which forbid farmers from planting, selling, or even accidentally growing seeds from their patented crops as well as really high prices of farm inputs have made farmers dependent on credit, created a debt trap and pushed farmers to the brink. Even water for irrigation has to be paid for heavily.
Apathy from the State
Politicians claim they are helping the people and disguising their true intentions with concerned rhetoric. The truth has been that compensation money is lost in corruption, crucial time of relief is lost in political mud-slinging and blaming, and media space is consumed by the next big story forgetting the farmers till next calamity strikes.
In March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposed a bill that would make it easier for businesses to buy land, as part of his vision for further industrialization. Modi claimed that the bill would benefit farmers, but the bill includes an exemption from requiring consent of 80 percent of the landowners for land projects. In rebuttal to this anti-farmer legislation, protesters have mobilized and marched to the President’s residence. Some farmers have even defecated on copies of the bill.
Sustainable Agriculture: Green Career for Youth & Food Security for Nation
Agriculture is not just about contributing to India’s GDP (which in itself is a deeply flawed concept of growth of an economy). It is about feeding a nation of 1.2 billion people. It is “Sewa Parmo Dharma” of the highest order.
There is value in keeping our rural spaces sustainable and self-reliant than converting them into commercial urban landscapes and land grabbing related agitation centers. It is time the country believes in their villages as centers of economic growth provided they are given their due attention and nurturing through incentives and social services such as education, health, and entrepreneurship development. Food producing regions need to converted into safe havens for youth to practice agriculture and avail benefits/support just as industrial parks and SEZs do.
MS Swaminathan, who chaired the National Farmers Commission, finds a consistent pattern of depleting support to agriculture, starting from the 1990’s. He believes that governments – new and old – are making a mistake by believing “that agricultural problems have been solved. The economics of agriculture is becoming much more unfavourable to the farmers and the real cost of it will be not to make younger people enthusiastic about agriculture as a profession.”
“Agriculture has not been the most poplar occupation amongst the youth given the higher status ot white collar and tech jobs. With the economic troubles of agriculturists – witness the several cases of suicides driven by crop failures and economic problems – even those few who might otherwise consider agriculture as an option are turning away. Agriculture as of today in most places is simply not a remunerative occupation”, says Dr KV Devi Prasad, Professor, Dept of Ecology & Environment Science, Pondicherry University.
The government cannot also afford to wait for another “thirty minutes”. The food growers in agricultural States which are also the food bowl of the nation cannot afford to lose all its youth away to other professions or suicide. The government needs to seriously consider the farmer security issue from food security perspective and give farming a facelift as a lucrative green career to attract youth to be entrepreneurs, set up cooperatives, farmer producer companies et al.
Climate Change is happening and food production practices need to adapt. While farmers are doing innovation on their own to tinker with increasing drought periods and other adverse conditions (such as the farmers in Punjab sowing wheat soon after rice to avoid the March heat and save resources) they will also need support from government, scientists and financial institutions.
Farming and agriculture on small scale need to be given the same importance as its industrial counterpart, and instead of getting away with short term ‘jugaad’ as quick fixes, the government needs to help in creating this as an organized sector. Sustainable agriculture involving water management, organic farming, mixed and rotational cropping, traditional and diverse crops, etc hold multiple benefits for the local ecology and environment, climate, and boosts local economy as well as creates more jobs. Support from government to establish small scale and cottage industries in the villages to purchase produce of the villages locally and convert them into value added products shall create local jobs, provide multiple sources of income for the farmers, and keep money in the local economy enabling financial institutions to provide loans without delay.
For Young India, Make in India mission will be incomplete and hollow if it does not promote growing its own food in India and support the young farmers who choose the profession along with keep their dignity.
Co-authors: Shradha Shreejaya & Anoop Poonia