It takes a public hanging

Tragically, it has taken a public hanging for India to open its eyes and politicians to show some interest in the agrarian crisis

rupali

Rupali Mehra | April 27, 2015



Exactly a month ago as the rains thundered down and caught us unawares, a farmer quietly walked to the middle of his field and hung himself from a tree.

Nobody knows Sandeep Shinde. But for a handful of reports, his suicide was no news. Few have heard that this farmer from Beed was running a debt of over a lakh rupees and clutching onto his jowar crop as the only seed of hope. Its destruction by unseasonal rains was the final straw.

Perhaps no one would have heard of Sandeep Shinde. Nor would many have heard of Vineet Kumar, the debt-ridden potato farmer from UP who shot himself on March 11. They, like thousands of others before them, would have been a mere statistic tossed around as impediments in the development agenda, had it not been for Gajendra Singh.

Tragically, it has taken a public hanging for India to open its eyes.

Whether Gajendra Singh intentionally hung himself to death in public or slipped while dramatically trying to draw attention at the AAP rally against the land bill is still unclear. Eyewitnesses have varied accounts. Some say he was egged on by the crowd. Others say they urged him to climb down. But in what can only be described as macabre, a man hung himself to death as thousands were watching. If that wasn't horrific enough, the AAP rally continued as though there had been a minor interruption.

As Gajendra Singh's suicide grabs the nation's attention, there are, predictably, several theories put forward. Some say the 43-year-old farmer from Dausa was not debt-ridden. Others say he faced a mustard crop failure recently. There are reports that Gajendra Singh supplemented his income tying turbans for visiting dignitaries including Bill Clinton, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Rajnath Singh. Still others claim he had political ambitions.

Whatever his intentions, in his death, Gajendra Singh has become a symbol of the agrarian crisis – of unpredictable yields, debt-ridden farmers, unregulated money lenders, poor and delayed compensation, an ineffective ground administration, and skewed policies.

Ironically, Gajendra Singh died the same week the home minister stood up in parliament and stated that just three out of 601 farmers of Maharashtra had committed suicide due to unseasonal rains battering their crops. As bizarre as it sounds, the death of the other 598 farmers was unclear because, according to the state government, they had not left behind a suicide note.

According to the National Crime Record Bureau, one farmer commits suicide every 30 minutes.

Since 1995, close over 2.97 lakh farmers have killed themselves. Last year alone there was a shocking 40 percent rise in farmer suicides in Maharashtra, the worst hit state.  Together with Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, these states account for two-thirds of farmer suicides in India.

For a nation that prides itself as the world's second largest producer of food staple, the death of a farmer out of despair is the not just ironic, but criminal. Why should the hand that sows the seed, tills the land and feeds the nation return home empty handed?

 
Earlier this month the PM announced a 50 percent increase in compensation for rain-striken farmers under the National Disaster Response Funds. But on ground the situation is nothing short of a mockery.

 
Take three cases from April alone. In UP's Faizabad farmers were reportedly handed over cheques of Rs 63 as compensation.  In Haryana's Bhiwani district, the state government distributed cheques of Rs 200 for crop damage.  And in Mathura a farmer who lost his wheat crop worth Rs 80,000 received a Rs 18,000 cheque, which incidentally bounced.

 The crux of the problem lies in the step-motherly treatment towards the real sons of the soil. India spends Rs 90,000 crore on agriculture subsidy. The number is massive when compared to any other nation. But in real terms this amounts to just Rs 180 per farmer per year. A pittance when contrasted to Rs 2.4 lakh the US spends per farmer per year.

The issue of agrarian distress, compounded by a spate of suicides, is indeed a complex one and needs to be tackled in its entirety. But the horror of Gajendra Singh's death has once again called the bluff of our political class, known to appropriate the cause of the peasant in poll season and then turn their backs on them. Gajendra Singh has forced lawmakers, including the prime minister, to come face to face with the grim ground reality and go beyond treating farmer suicides as a spoke in the wheel of development.

As Gajendra Singh was cremated in his village, politicians cutting across party lines, tweaked their schedules and made a beeline for Nangal Jhamarwada village, 120 kilometres from Jaipur. A train of outdoor broadcast vans and camera teams followed.

Now as his family seeks answers, the political class has had a sudden awakening of sorts. It is appearing dramatically apologetic and working towards swift remedies.

In Mumbai, the chief minister from the BJP has summoned his core team, instructing them to prevent any more farmer suicides. In the capital, AAP government wants Gajendra Singh to be given the status of 'Kisan Shaheed' or a martyr. Their leader Ashutosh has cried on live television in front of Gajendra's daughter for having "sinned" by not saving her father. And the Congress has made it their mission to portray BJP and AAP as villains, ignoring the fact that the maximum farmer suicides took place under their government.

The chain of events following Gajendra Singh's death are eerily similar to the 2010 movie Peepli Live, a sardonic take on debt-ridden farmers, a hungry media and exploitative politicians. In the film the protagonist Natha manages to survive. But reality is always uglier.

 

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