As Farmer Suicides Continue, There Is Something In The Land Bill That Might Actually Help Them

Posted on May 5, 2015 in Politics

By Jai Prakash Ojha:

As expected, political temperatures continue to soar throughout the country with both the BJP and the opposition divided over the provisions of the Land Acquisition Bill. Rahul Gandhi’s re-found missionary zeal in taking up the kisan cause, the death of a farmer during an AAP rally in New Delhi, opposition closing ranks to unite together on the land bill, and non-productive parliamentary sessions, are not making matters any easier for the ruling party. To add to the predicament is the increasing incidences of farmer suicides and the destruction of standing crops due to the onset of unseasonal rains in parts of northern India. Urban centres may be contributing to 60 percent of the GDP, but when it comes to politics, it is the rural countryside whose voice is louder, and any politician will commit hara-kiri if he is not attentive enough. Almost three lakh farmers have ended their lives since 1995. The figures for farmer suicides were around 12,000 in 2013, and 14,000 in 2012, according to NCRB.

final farmer suicide
Illustration by Maitri Dore

What Are The Reasons Behind The Suicides?

When we introspect over the problem, we find that most deaths have occurred in states like Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat, and there has been a plethora of reasons associated with this. Bulk of the suicides have occurred among cash crop farmers due to rising debts, high input costs, water pattern issues and acute price fluctuations or volatility. The shift of agriculture patterns from food crops like cereals, to cash/genetic crops like cotton, sugarcane, tobacco etc. are also raising food security concerns and threatening the livelihood of lakhs of marginal/subsistence level farmers, making us more dependent on imports. The destruction of crops due to rains in north India recently has also upped the ante in political circles with parties demanding fair compensation and procurement prices for the farmers who are in misery. The extended drought periods and unpredictability of the monsoons are also aggravating the problem.

What Is The Solution?

Rather than resorting to scoring political brownie points, the policy makers need to think why there has been a perceptible decline in public investment in agriculture. The fact that the Green Revolution succeeded due to massive state support should not have been lost sight of. Branding subsidy to agriculture as populist and anti growth and talk of smart cities & Make in India in glowing terms is going to result in skewed policy directions. Due to a lack of non-farm jobs in rural India, more than 50 percent of the small scale farmers have to find work in public funded programmes like MNREGA.

It is fashionable to talk about urbanisation induced growth in economy but what about the plight of migrants and those living in slums there? More than 50 percent of Mumbai’s population lives in slums. In 1951, the contribution of agriculture in our GDP was 51 percent; today it’s less than 15. More than 50 percent of our population is engaged in a sector that contributes just 15 percent of our GDP.

When we examine the pattern of development, we find that with increasing development, the share of the primary sector decreases in comparison to secondary and tertiary sectors. It’s time to pull more and more people out of agriculture and create work for them in industry. The brouhaha about the Land Acquisition Bill and shrill noises made against deletion of Consent Clause & Social Impact Assessment, and charges against the Modi led Government of acting at the behest of corporates are not going to bring relief to farmers.

It is widely accepted most of the land is owned by the politically dominant castes most of who are upper backward castes and upper castes and this rural elite power structure needs to be dismantled. Most of the extreme backward castes who make up for the working hands are landless and share a patron-client relationship with the land owning castes. 10 percent of the population has control over more than 60 percent land holdings. Public acquisition of land or acquisition for public purposes may create opportunities for these landless in countryside, better housing facilities etc. The regional parties making noises against the bill are championing the cause of the upper backwards/farming communities who have gained immense clout after the onset of Mandal. All the gains of Green Revolution and land reforms have accrued to powerful OBC castes leaving the Dalits and EBCs in the lurch. The Govt’s proposal seeks to break the rural feudal aristocracy, drawing sustenance from the so-called socialist Mandalites, who have always been detrimental to Dalit interests.

Social security coverage for the farmers and landless labourers and proper insurance schemes may help them to tide over unforeseen circumstances, apart from generation of demand in the economy on account of enhanced purchasing power, as predicted by ILO. Agro based industries, cottage industries and small scale industries that formed the backbone of rural economy during the time of lean agricultural seasons need to be revived to boost non-farm opportunities and become a supplementary income generating source for the rural folk.

At times, I do wonder about the concept of Smart Cities. But what if, instead of creating 100 smart cities, we think of creating 6 lakh smart villages, roping in private players to transform them. The cities will breathe easy as they won’t have to cope with the distress of migration. Giving compensation to farmers for losses or increase in procurement prices, though necessary, are short term measures. Subsidy can work to a certain limit to boost productivity but then, the targeting has to be accurate. The highly fragmented and unproductive agriculture system needs a revamp. A strong intent on the part of the Modi Govt is necessary to change the structure of rural economy and usher in land reforms as most of rural land remains locked for economy.