Saturday, March 31, 2007

Jantar Mantar Report - Booming India’s Suicidal Farmers

Gathered in Delhi, the wretched of the countryside are full of complaints, accusations, and hope.

[Report and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

The onslaught of summers has started with the farmers holding Gandhian demonstrations in the historic Jantar Mantar – Delhi’s Tiananmen Square. They arrived in trains, traveling in unreserved compartments from remote villages in the heartland provinces of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh. Gathered in the capital of their country, they are full of complaints, accusations, and hope. One common word being uttered by all the sad lips: Karza, meaning debt.

The farmers have to pay back loans taken several monsoons ago, but they have no money. During some years their insubstantial fields received too much rain and the standing crops were ruined. In other years there was too little rain and the crops could not grow. The interest on the loans never stopped piling up and now the wretched have to pay back more than was borrowed.

Mr. Valji Raghu, an 81-year-old farmer from the Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh (see the pictures below), had borrowed Rs 15,000 (approximately 313 USD) in 1992. He presently owes double that amount.

Mr. Vaishya, at 17, is younger and inherited the debt as legacy. Five years ago his late father had taken a loan of Rs 22,000. Now the son needs to return Rs. 60,000.

Sometimes, the combination of poverty, shame, and distress adds up enough incentive to ponder with the easy possibilities of suicide, a phenomenon emerging as the biggest epidemic in the distraught countryside. Across the country, 17,107 farmers committed suicide in 2003, the most recent year for which government figures are available.

Additionally, there is unrest regarding genetically modified seeds being peddled by American multinationals in the poor hinterlands. Such seeds are expensive and add nothing to the resources of an already debt-ridden farmer. Besides, in various places, the local government is forcibly, sometimes violently, evicting farmers from their ancestral lands to create China-style Special Economic Zones. In March 2007, 12 armed farmers were killed by the police in West Bengal’s Nandigram village when they protested against the takeover of their small farms.

Ms. Jhadki, an old woman from Madhya Pradesh participating in the Jantar Mantar demonstration, said, "We have no hope. We don’t know what to do, so we have come to Delhi. May be they will listen to us."

"Karza is not the only problem," said Mr. Veer Singh as he talked of his village in Jhabua. "We have no road and no health clinic. Electricity is supplied only for four hours per day. Schools are there, but poor people like us can’t afford them for our children."

Don’t their elected representatives assist them? "They remain in Delhi and show their faces only during the time of elections," Mr. Singh snorted.

"Look at Delhi." Mr. Vaishya suddenly emerged from his silence. "What cars, what buildings, what gardens! Our sarkar (government) spend all the money here. We get nothing."

Despite their simmering rage, the farmers are optimistic. By holding demonstrations in the heart of the capital, they feel their government will listen to them - at the least.

That is being unrealistic. The truth is that the Jantar Mantar agitation has been ignored by all, including the so-called activist-driven media. More newsprint and primetime TV news was spent on a recent Fashion Week in Delhi and on pop star Shakira’s first-ever concert in Mumbai.

Even Sharad Pawar, the Union Agriculture Minister, is a very distracted man. As President of the lucrative Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), he has shown more concern on India’s debacle in the 2007 Cricket World Cup tournament than on suicides in the despairing countryside.

The farmers may be raising their voice, but they should know, sound waves do not travel in a vacuum.

Jantar Mantar Power - In Delhi With Hope

Jantar Mantar Power - We Are Distressed

Jantar Mantar Power - Mr. Valji Raghu Owes Rs. 30, 000 as Debt

Jantar Mantar Power - Ms. Jhadki Has No Hope

Jantar Mantar Power - Mr. Vaishya Inherited His Father's Debt

Jantar Mantar Power - Decorating Protest Slogans

Jantar Mantar Power - What Will Happen Now


bbklyn said...

Assuming the article is the truth its very scary. The way it describes the situation there it seems inevitable that a Moa style communist insurgency will eventually overtake the country. Taking the coutryside and then strangling the cities is a remarkably efficient strategy. If the goverment and media dont start to help out eventually the countryside population will become so disenfranchised they will turn to any sort of help they can get, even if its from authoritarians.

nwej said...

Why do you have to pick up just on communism? The article also mentions that American multi-nationals sell genetically modified seeds to the farmers and this might create more trouble than "Mao style communism". I am pretty sure there will be patent issues associated with these seeds. The genes would still be owned by these companies and if the farmers have to plant the seeds from the first crop in the next season, they might have to pay these companies again. Not to mention the health aspects and the quality of those seeds.

bbklyn said...

Im sorry i dont follow. I re-read my post and i couldnt seem to find how im picking on Mao style communism. Nor do i see where i defended the practices of those who sell genetically modified seeds (i havent really read about it enough to take a stance). It would seem you have some preconcieved notion of who is to blame for what and so on. Looking at my post i noticed i didnt lay blame on any one party for the current situation, and it doesnt really matter who is to blame. The main point is that the countryside populace is being ignored, disenfranchised and abandoned. Even if they have no valid claim what so ever they cannot be ignored. This leads to a perfect setup for a Mao style communist insurgency to take root. Once it gains traction its very hard to stop, and even if its stopped there will be a heavy cost in blood and economic damage. The outcome of such a situation rarely leaves the country in a better position so it would be a good idea for the goverment and media to take action now before it is too late. If the multi-national companies selling genectically modified seeds turn out to be the root of the problem then by all means ban them. Reading the article it would seem that they need some really strong legislation on the lending industry, but again this is for the Indian goverment to decide.

However if you believe in a Mao style communism goverment then i could see where you would be annoyed by my post. In such a case why not just argue the merits that such an insurgency would bring instead of argueing who is to blame for what.

Edit: And with a little searching you can already see my point. It would seem an insurgency is already starting to gain traction in India, and the goverment still not quite grasping what they are up against are reacting in the worst way possible.

frogster said...

Ha, debt slavery has been a big deal in India for many decades.

TheNoxx said...

The article mentioned a little about multinationals peddling genetically-modified seeds, but unfortunately didn't go into specifics.

Monsanto is the company that sells GM seeds to poor farmers, and these seeds are modified to only produce one crop, so that the farmers must by seeds again. This contributes greatly to the number of suicides.

Maddy said...

I hope Jantar will be ok - and not hurt
by the government for speaking out...

I never ever buy any food that is genetically
modified seed based -

In your article I was wondering if there is a
strong suggestion how to change this
So that readers can help when moved to
action by your compassionate writing?
Even just helping one person?
For example - could you raise funds to
clear Jantar's debt so he can focus even more
on changing this situation?

I would love to help Janar.

Great article - and of course - just writing the
article so beautifully awakens people to this
outrage - at the very least not buying food
from GM seeds....

Chandra said...

Dear Mayank

I wish you had some suggestions on what the Govt can do. Anyway, let me question and clarify some of the issues raised here

Mayank: Across the country, 17,107 farmers committed suicide in 2003, the most recent year for which government figures are available

Chandra: Firtsly, last year close 120000 people committed suicide. If I use your figures, we arrive at about 15% of people committing suicide are farmers,whereas they constitute about 40% of the population. Anyway, I will ignore the 17000 figure you quoted.....

When we look at NCRB data....we find farmers constitute about 39% of all suicides (Self Employed). So while any suicide is terrible, there are as many farmers committing suicide as their proportion in the population. It is not that other people are having a great time. Sure, indebtedness would be a greater reason for suicide amongst farmers but considering the population about 600 odd million, the incidence of suicides is extremely low.

Mayank:Additionally, there is unrest regarding genetically modified seeds being peddled by American multinationals in the poor hinterlands

Chandra: Firstly,if they are expensive, they can always not buy them and secondly, GM cotton seeds cotton have mostly increased yield across many states. (Google: GM Research India Monsanto)

Mayank: Besides, in various places, the local government is forcibly, sometimes violently, evicting farmers from their ancestral lands to create China-style Special Economic Zones

Chandra: Again, a few days back I did a through analysis of land acquisition and found that out of 50 odd acquisitions, about 10 had a problem.

Mayank:Don't their elected representatives assist them? "They remain in Delhi and show their faces only during the time of elections

Chandra: Well, they keep voting people on the basis of caste....what else can they expect?

My idea of disputing this is not to question the notion that farmers are suffering. It is just that it is incorrect to use unreliable media sources to come up with incorrect conclusions.

Instead, the media should spend sometime analysing this.....

a. Average Size of families (Farm vs Non-Farm)
b. Access to education/ quality of education infrastructure- related issues
c. Water availability/ water management
d. Problems and value additions in the supply chain- Farmer to customer
e. Effectiveness of institutes like IRRI,ICAR, other agri unversities and related issues (everybody is obsessed with how badly DRDO is doing)
f.Investments made in rural infrastructure and examples of success stories

The answer to the above six questions will not only enable us to identify problems in a more focussed way but by coming out with solutions can push the Govt to adopt some/all of them.

Hand wringing will not do................