Farmers' suicide: Cooperative farming can help

Cooperative farming can solve some of the problems that are driving so many farmers to end their lives

pankaj-srivastava

Pankaj Srivastava | May 22, 2015 | New Delhi


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On March 20, 2014, during the Lok Sabha election campaign, the BJP had organised a discussion over tea, ‘Chai Pe Charcha’, at Dabhadi village in Yavatmal district of Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region. In that meeting Narendra Modi assured farmers that if he became prime minister, he would solve all their problems. Vithhal Rathore, one of the farmers present there, waited for the promised “achchhe din” for nine months, but then gave up. He committed suicide on February 24, 2015.

It shows that a change in government has not led to any change in the fate of farmers. A large number of them have lost their hopes and are choosing death over life. Minister of state for agriculture Mohanbhai Kundaria said in a written reply to the Rajya Sabha that 257 farmers committed suicide in Maharashtra due to agrarian reasons during January-March 2015. This only continues the trend: 2,96,438 farmers committed suicide between 1995 and 2013.

This is a surprising phenomenon for a student of history. Of course, there was never any golden age for farmers, and the literature of Indian languages is full of stories of the sufferings and hardships they faced due to famines and floods, poverty and exploitation by moneylenders and revenue collectors. But our farmers had never given up the hope the way they have in recent years. Why?

The watershed event in the history of independent India is the launch of economic reforms in 1991-92. Since then, the Indian economy has registered far higher growth rates than ever before – but these have also been the years of farmer suicides. New economic policies have completely changed the agrarian scenario. Farmers in economically advanced states have largely shifted to cash crops, which need more investment for seeds, fertlisers and diesel/electricity for water. To meet the cost they are bound to take loans. But when they are unable to get sufficient crop, it becomes impossible for them to repay the loan with interest on time. Suddenly they find themselves ensnared in a vicious debt circle.

Sometimes overproduction creates troubles for them. Farmers have to sell their produce at a rate below the cost, leaving them in huge losses. Sometime banks treat the farmer in debt as a criminal, which is depressing for him. This depression has a direct link with the growing number of suicides.

During the period of liberalisation, the area of individual land holding has reduced drastically. Within two or three generations, a farm of 50 acres owned by a family has disintegrated into plots of two-three acres owned by a number of grandsons. To increase the crop production, farmers are using more and more chemical fertlisers, affecting the fertility of soil.

Agriculture has become a loss-making business for most farmers. A survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in 2013 reveals that 62 percent farmers are ready to give up agriculture if they have any alternative and 37 percent of them don’t want to see their children in this field. Every farmer family has an average loan of '47,000. As many as 59 percent of villagers are landless and 28 percent of them have less than 0.5 hectare of land. Only 0.5 percent farmers have more than 10 acres of agricultural land.

There is a consensus that small land holdings, excessive reliance on cash crops, and a vicious debt circle are the main reasons behind farmer suicides. But there is an issue of the cultural change also. Gone are the days when Indian farmers were satisfied with what nature gave them. Now, they regularly watch soap operas on TV, and they aspire to become part of that urban consumerist society that is using shampoos and wearing jeans of the brand advertised by their favourite film stars. So a huge gap has formed between reality and expectations, which some time costs the life of the family head.

For centuries, Indian farmers had their own security system. There was no need to buy seeds from the market. Their cows and oxen were the main source of fertlisers (organic one at it!) and they depended on rainfall for irrigation. If there was a drought, they reduced their consumption that year but hardly borrowed money to meet their needs. Taking a loan was a sin for most of them. No doubt, the green revolution of the 1970s played a major role in making India a self-sufficient nation in grain production, but the issue of soil salinity, fertliser consumption, pesticides and huge water requirement made agriculture non-sustainable in long term.

It is high time we debated new ideas for sustainable agricultural growth. Cooperative farming can be one of them which can solve the problem of small holdings. Small farmers should join hands and enlarge their holdings. Use of efficient modern technology can be more effective if there are bigger farms. Surely, this would require a change in the mindset which is not easy in a feudal society like India.
Verghese  Kurien, the father of the ‘white revolution’, once said in an interview, “Wherever farmers have had cooperatives, there have been no cases of suicides. It has happened only in places where there were no farmer institutions, where farmers didn’t have any say, where they were unable to market their produce and were exploited by middlemen. The solution lies in the formation of cooperatives all over the country.”

Political parties can play politics but cannot stop farmer suicides. Cooperative farming can. In an increasingly materialistic and individualistic society, it would not be easy to turn this idea into reality but Indian farmers have to learn to share the fruits of life to defeat the monster of death roaring in their farmlands.

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(The article appers in the May 16-31, 2015 issue)

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