Anirban Bhattacharya, Pranay Raj and Nancy Pathak

The attempt by neoliberal governance has been to steadily depoliticise farmers’ suicides and strip them of any deeper messaging.

“We have no money, moneylenders are not ready to wait. What should we do? We can’t even afford to take onions to the market. You are just thinking about yourself, Modi saheb. You must provide the guaranteed price for the produce… The finance guys threaten, and the patpedhi (cooperative society) officers abuse. Who should we go for justice?… Today, I am forced to commit suicide because of your inaction.”

Those were the words of Dashrath Lakshman Kedari before he died by suicidelast year in Pune district of Maharashtra. His is one among the 1,00,474 suicides in the farming sector in the Narendra Modi years (2014-2022), as per the recently released National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report. This amounts to nearly 30 suicides per day in these nine years. And yet we heard BJP MP Nishikant Dubey claiming that no farmer has died under Modi by suicide. “Did the opposition ever have a single discussion about farmers’ suicides in the last eight years?” he asked, “If they didn’t, it means farmers are not dying by suicide.”

The death of the kisan, like the jawan or say corruption, has been one of those emotive subjects that has a bearing on the moral compass of the nation. The noose around the neck of the “annadata” has generally been a subject that arouses sentiments. But sadly the revelations of the present NCRB report does not seem to have evoked any such moral outrage in the media or on primetime debates. This is despite the fact that in the second term of the Modi government, the total farmer suicides increased in absolute numbers from 10,281 to 11,290. Within this, the rise in the number of suicides among agricultural workers seems to be much sharper, from 4,324 to 6,083 i.e. 41%. Maharashtra, with the ill-fated regions of Vidharbha and Marathwada, yet again witnessed the worst situation.

We saw quite a direct and rather bold reference to the issue in a recent Bollywood movie, Jawan, wherein a peasant family dealing with crop failure was having to face the wrath of loan recovery agents of the bank, finally leading up to the father taking his own life. The segment in the movie alludes to systemic and policy level shifts that have contributed to the crisis. And if one does down the rabbit hole, the reasons go back to the structural shifts that were written into the neoliberal decades that ensued in the early 1990s.

Declining public investments, privatisation of key industries, opening up to external trade, decline in state subsidies and shrinking formal agricultural credit all contributed to the long winter for farmers in India who found it increasingly difficult to compete with the heavily subsidised imports. Add to this the monopolistic practices of agro-business giants like Monsanto, the expensive, out of reach genetically modified seeds, fertilisers and insecticides that raised inputs cost by leaps. The deadly combination left the farmers exposed to the vagaries of both the monsoon and the market, with recovery agents lurking in the shadows. The crudest manifestation of the crisis has been the 3,50,000 suicides in the farming sector in the three decades since liberalisation. The historic farmers’ agitation against the farm Bills pushed by the Modi government, in fact, was a desperate fight back against what was being touted as Indian farming’s “1991 moment”. The Bills would have made farmers directly negotiate with private corporations instead of the mediation of a state-regulated market place. It took about 750 deaths and a year-long militant agitation for the government to finally retreat.

In his poll campaign in 2014 Modi had said, “Our farmers must not be pushed to take the noose, our farmers should not have to take heavy loans, they should not be forced to knock on the doors of the sahukar. Isn’t it the responsibility of the government and the banks that they give credits to the farmers? And if the conditions of the farmers improve it doesn’t only improve for them, it gives employment to many who work the fields.” The rising suicides among farmers, particularly agricultural workers, however, paint a different and much darker reality in the fields. In terms of indebtedness, the government claims that the percentage of indebted farmers reduced from 52% in 2013 to 50.2% in 2019. However, we can see marked increase in both absolute numbers of farmers indebted i.e. from 902 lakh to 930 lakh in the same period, and also the average amount of outstanding loan saw an upsurge of about 1.6 times than 2013.

Source: MOSPI, Situation Assessment Survey of Agricultural Households and Land and Livestock Holdings of Households of various years

The suicide notes of the likes of Dashrath Kedari clearly point towards the political message in such suicides. Daniel Münster, for instance, maintains that farmers’ suicides intend to do more than just end a life: “they convey a message of despair and protest and, therefore, a political message.” Sainath’s unravelling of the “pesticide suicides” in the 2000s seemed to carry a message. After all, for farmers, expensive pesticides are often the reason for their indebtedness.

But the attempt by neoliberal governance has been to steadily depoliticisefarmers’ suicides and strip them of any deeper messaging. They have done this by either individualising or pathologising suicides as a psychological or mental health problem rather than an economic issue. So, the response is often in the shape of mental health support that effectively blames the farmers, and thereby teaches them “self-reliance” and “self-respect”. Or we see corporate social responsibility programmes (run by the same corporate giants like Monsanto that have led to the crisis) who stress upon the need to educate the farmers on how to embrace a “neoliberal entrepreneurial mentality”.

But the malice, as articulated by farmers unions, activists (and even by Shah Rukh Khan in the movie Jawan), is in fact systemic. A glance through some of the numbers in the Modi years does give us the necessary perspective to understand how the crisis is perpetuated consciously.

Source: Demand for grants of the Union government, Annual Budget. Note*: FY 2019-20 to FY 2021-22 includes Actual estimates.

As is evident in the graph above, public expenditure on agriculture in relation to total budget expenditure has been falling step by step in the Modi 2.0 years. And so has the share allocated for farmers’ welfare. The crisis can also be fathomed by looking at the growth rate of real wages between 2014-15 and 2021-22 which has been below 1% per year across the board, including for agricultural labour. The impact is clear in alarmingly low rural demand, which constitutes nearly 36% of FMCG sales. In the Confederation of Indian Industry’s FMCG summit, the managements of various FMCG companies raised concern about rural demand that “remained under pressure because incomes were under stress in rural areas”.

The allocation for Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act(MGNREGA), that serves as a lifeline in such times of distress, has been seeing its allocations dwindling over the years. It plummeted from 1.85% of the overall budget in FY 2014-15 to a mere 1.33% in FY 2023-24, representing a historical low. The current allocation of Rs 60,000 crore marks a substantial 33% decrease from the previous year and is only 0.198% of the total GDP. Exclusionary measures, including Aadhaar-based payment systems, have affected 57% of workers, and despite the scheme’s goal of providing 100 days of employment, only 3% secure it, raising concerns about effective implementation.

Some crucial agricultural schemes need to be tested against reality, such as the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY), Market Intervention Scheme and the Price Support Scheme (MIS-PSS), and Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi (PM-Kisan).

The allocation for PMFBY has consistently increased over the years, reaching Rs 15,500 crore in the Budget Estimate for 2022-2023. Despite the programme’s voluntary nature and comprehensive risk coverage, the data as of November 30, 2023, reveals a substantial surge in farmer applications, with 435 lakh and 689 lakh enrolled during the Rabi 2022-23 and Kharif 2023 seasons, respectively. However, the scheme’s effectiveness is questionable, as evidenced by the rather low number of claims paid – amounting to just Rs 3,878 crore for just 7.8 lakh farmers in the Rabi 2022-23 season. This raises concerns about the programme’s ability to provide meaningful support to the majority of applicants.

Although the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi has seen a substantial increase to Rs 68,000 crore in the Budget Estimate for 2022-2023, the scheme primarily benefits land-owning farmers and overlooks the needs of landless agricultural labourers. A one-size-fits-all approach is not suitable for the diverse agricultural landscape in India, as shown in the NCRB report where the number of deaths of landless agricultural labour has increased since 2019.

Similarly, the reduced Budget Estimate of Rs 1,500 crore for MIS-PSS in 2022-2023 raises questions about the government’s commitment to addressing market price disparities. Earlier this year, in June, the government announced the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for 17 ‘kharif’ crops, including paddy, pulses (moong, arhar, urad), oilseeds like groundnut and soybean, and cotton. However, the declared MSP has been deemed insufficient by various farmer’s groups. When indexed to rising inflation, the MSP has clearly failed to protect small farmers against indebtedness. The government is still far from its 2014 poll promise of aligning the MSP with the Swaminathan Commissionrecommendations and doubling farmers’ income.

Empty rhetoric, failing schemes and inadequate allocations are pushing the “annadatas” of our country into deep despair. The haunting surge in farmer suicides under this regime is symptomatic of the systemic neglect.  The climate crisis, which again has been exacerbated by decades of growth-mania under neoliberalism, poses yet another challenge to the farmers in despair as they are faced with crop failures due to heat waves, lower yield and devastating extreme weather events. The relentless struggle against financial burdens, manifold uncertainties, coupled with rising inflation and a cost of living crisis demands a fundamental shift in policies if we are to rectify this dance of death. As pointed out by the Supreme Court, instead of going to the roots of the issue, merely cosmetic measures, like post facto compensation to the family of the deceased, are far from enough.

This article is the sixth in a series on the state of the Indian economy co-curated by the Centre for Financial Accountability, New Delhi and The Wire. Read the first article here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here, and the fifth here.

This article was originally published in The Wire and can be read here.

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