By Ankita Ghosh:
Amid reports of Prime Minister Modi’s proposal for a universal health insurance scheme on I-Day, insurance-covered India went evoking its annual quota of patriotic sentiments. The ‘other’ India in the meantime is caught in a perpetual financial threat making them desperate enough to appeal to the President to commit suicide. 25,000 farmers reportedly sought assent of Pranab Mukherjee to be able to take their own lives on August 15th in Mathura,- a cumulative effect of several decades of grievances and failed agrarian movements. The croppers here have awaited government compensation for 17 long years without as much as a nod of approval from the latter. Farmers there have been agitating since 1998 over government compensation for 700 acres of land that they’d lost to the construction of the Gokul Barrage.
A good 14% of all suicides in India between 1995 and 2012 have been committed by farmers, statistics reveal, with 3000 farmer suicides in the last 3 years. Several states seem to have denied access to data since that which is accessible on online portals is often flawed or repeated. Is the newly constituted government hiding behind half-truths?
So are we failing to ensure food security to those that grow our food for us? What do we make of government data that suggests a sharp 50% drop in suicide rate among farmers? Meanwhile successive governments make digs at each other, try to pass off the blames for India’s collapsing agricultural sector to the opposition but keep on encroaching cultivable land for ambitious industrial projects. Union Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh sparked off controversy after blaming ‘love affairs’ and dowry disputes for agriculture failure prompting CPM leader Sitaram Yechury to attribute farmers’ distress to the impotency of the government.
A recent claim identifying the introduction and subsequent proliferation of Genetically Modified Organisms in farming contributing to the spike in the number of suicides cannot be dismissed. 2013 rallies and heated protests against use of GMO and Bt cotton seeds in cultivation, pointed at Monsanto, an American Agri-business, as the chief culprit. Bt cotton seeds, officially approved in 2002 has since been overwhelmingly embraced by farmers. Monsanto’s official website and its supporting sector in India argue that the cost-effective seeds had initially augmented production and even reduced the gross use of pesticides. The opposing opinion points at large-scale crop failure from what is being called the ‘suicide seeds’ as the reason for increasing debt-burden of farmers. The story however is more complex than what it appears. While GMO technology backfiring on the interests of the farmers cannot be ruled out, there is no denying that agriculture in India is a largely undermined and failed sector. An agrarian country with 60% of its population depending upon farming fails to contribute more than 21% to its GDP largely because of debt, high input-costs, lopsided growth, poor resource sharing, water crisis, pest attacks and diseases. Poor infrastructure of the agro-sector, policy measures driven by political rather than field outputs, disappointing institutional credit have equal shares in hampering agricultural yield and pushing farmers to consume unused vials of pesticide. Agriculture still provides for the largest share of livelihood and the hapless condition of the same should mean that Indian agriculture wasn’t given enough protection against the effects of trade liberalization policies.
The proposed Universal Health Insurance Scheme is an umbrella plan to cover health insurance of an entire family under a single cover amount. It is to offer coverage of up to 50,000 Rupees for a maximum age of 60 years, for a family of up to 5 members. It will cover pre-existing diseases and hospital cost at subsidized premium rates and will be sold by Government and undertaking agencies as well as private insurance corporate. Privately held statistics confirm that over 20% farmers in India are without insurance making them more vulnerable to weather, accident, crop/livestock/cattle failure and breakdown of technology. Prime Minister Modi’s decision to fast track the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojna, amending the Land Acquisition Act 2013 and integrating the NREGA with it, starting multi-level projects with the Ministries of Agriculture, Water Resources and Rural Development, recycling already existing projects and monitoring the outcomes are part of his pro-farmer pro-poor initiative. While this certainly is a commendable effort on paper, we cannot overlook the fact that project implementation has always been a weak point with India’s governance machinery. Success is intrinsically linked with redressal of grievances and it is time that the country outgrows its indifference towards the rights of the tillers of land.