Thursday, September 03, 2015

Karnataka agrarian crisis: What ails the farmers?

By Nithin Sridhar

(An EDITED version article has been published in NEWSGRAM in two parts: Part 1, Part 2)

Karnataka is facing a large scale suicides of farmers on one hand and the issue of drought on the other. The issue was addressed by Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah during his Independence Day speech on 15-August. He had said that, 39 farmers had died between April and June and around 182 farmer deaths happened in July, taking the total number of farmer suicides to 221.

Is there an understatement of the number of farmers who died?

A Frontline report puts the total number of farmers committing suicide at around 284, with 245 of them dying between 1-July and 10-August, which is higher than what Chief Minister had quoted. But, even these figures may have been seriously underestimated. For example, a Mint report quotes that in 2014, the state government recorded only 48 cases of farmers death whereas the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reported around 321 cases of farmers’ death and 447 cases of farm labors’ death.

Therefore, the real numbers of farmers who committed suicide may be much larger than what is officially stated. A few reasons for this mismatch could be, the government’s attempts to prevent any unsavory effect that a higher number could have on already distressed farmers. This can be seen in sudden rise in number of farmers committing suicides for during the month of July.

A more compelling reason could be the state government’s attempts to minimize the number of people be compensated. The Mint report shows how, the state government approved compensation for only 76 cases out of 197 cases of farmers’ suicide till 29-July. Further, the rules for granting compensation are such that, only the families of very few farmers who killed themselves are benefited. For example, if a women in a farmer’s family commits suicide, she may not get compensation, even though she may have indulged in farming. The only occasion when her family can get a compensation is when the land being tilled is in her name. Similarly, if a victim had done farming on a leased land, he could only get compensation, if he has all the proper documents, which many farmers don’t have. There is also a wide spread practice of oral tenancy which is not recognized by government and hence don’t give compensation in such cases.

Yet another reason could be to minimize the political damage that it may do to the political party. The Karnataka is being ruled by Congress party which came to power in 2013. It was out of power after it lost in 2006. During the Congress rule under S.M.Krishna between 1999 and 2004, at least 9200 farmers had committed suicide. This has not only become a huge embarrassment to the Congress then, but was also one of the factors due to which S.M.Krishna had to resign. Therefore, the concern for political implications may have driven an understatement of number of farmer suicides.

Irrespective of the exact number of people who have died, the fact remains that this number is high and has once again highlighted the plight of farmers not only in Karnataka, but in India as a whole.

Farmers are dying across India

According to NCRB reports, between 1995 and 2012, around 2,84,673 farmers have committed suicide across India, with around 86.6% of them being males. Further, the number of farmers who committed suicides constitute around 13.6% of the total incidents of suicides.

The three year average of the suicide rate for male formers from 2010 to 2012 was 15.4, which was lesser than 2007-2009 average which was at 17.4; but was higher than the 1995-97 average of 11.6. The three year average for the same period (2010-2012) for some of the states are as follows: Karnataka (37.4), Kerala (153), Andra Pradesh (46.3), Maharashtra (41.8), Gujarat (11), West Bengal (16.2), Odisha (4), Punjab (4.7) and Haryana (16.4) and Tamil Nadu (16.3).

Therefore, it is clear that, the issue of farmer deaths is not unique to Karnataka, but is widespread across India.

Sugarcane crisis in Karnataka
The recent issue of farmers’ suicide in Karnataka reveals a large scale agrarian crisis that is present across India. It exposes serious challenges associated with farming: moneylenders, debt, support price, crop failure etc. to name a few.

One of the principal causes of the present crisis has been the failure of the sugar mills and jaggery units to pay farmers for their sugarcane produce. Sugar producing factories in Karnataka owe at least Rs 2500 crores to the farmers for the sugarcane purchased during previous crushing season. They also owe another Rs 1000 crore from 2013-14 to the farmers. This is inspite of the Karnataka Sugarcane (Regulation) Act, 2013 stipulating the factories to pay up farmers within 14 days. Further, the rates offered by the mills to farmers were at Rs 700 per ton or less as against the state mandated minimum price of Rs. 2500 per ton.

This twin issues of sugar factories not paying the farmers their past dues and paying them only a paltry amount for their produce create a huge financial scarcity that made many farmers to commit suicide. As a result, the Mandya district, which is the hub of sugarcane production in Karnataka has seen at least 29 farmer deaths till July 29th.

When, NewsGram asked Dr. Muzaffar Assadi (Professor and Chairman in the Department of Studies in Political Science, University of Mysore, who has written extensively on the issue of farmer suicides and the connected agrarian crisis) about the factors behind the farmer suicides in Karnataka, he listed out following immediate causes that drove farmers to commit suicide:

1.The gut in the sugarcane production that was caused due to increased production and decreased demand.
2.The market is already full with sugar and jaggery. Hence, no market is available to accommodate increased sugarcane produce.
3.Sugar factories not being able to pay farmers for their produce.
4.Increase in debts taken by farmers.

Elaborating on the gut situation in sugarcane, Dr. Assadi said that apart from the fact that more sugarcanes are being produced inspite of a lesser demand, other factors behind the gut situation include import of cheap sugar from other countries and MNC’s opting for these cheaper sugars instead of sugars from indigenously grown sugarcanes.

Further, he stated that, sugarcane farmers face a unique problem when it comes to selling their produce. They are restricted by the rules that state that they can sell their produce to only a particular sugar factory allotted to them, usually neither their agricultural land. Hence, they do not have freedom to reject one factory and sell to another at a better price.

This has allowed the sugar factory owners to thoroughly exploit the farmers. The practice of paying the farmers less than the minimum support price is continued by many factory owners, because they know that farmers are desperate to sell their produce and farmers have no other option but to sell to them.

Other issues faced by Karnataka farmers:

But, sugarcane crisis is not the only reason behind the recent farmer deaths. As noted about, till 29-July, only 29 farmers had died in sugarcane hub Mandya district. On the other hand, the total number of deaths till that time was 197. Many people had died in districts like Mysuru, Belagavi, Tumkur, Dharwad and Davanagere.

The increasing debts of the farmers due to the loans taken from the moneylenders at a very high annual rate of interest has been one of the biggest causes behind the sudden increase in the farmers’ deaths. Farmers, especially small-farmers do not easily get loans from banks and cooperative societies. Hence, they are forced to borrow loans from private money lenders who charge very high rate of interest.  Though the law stipulates that the moneylender should not charge more than 14% annual rate of interest, many unscrupulous moneylenders charge 2-3% interest per month and sometimes as high as 36% interest per year. This issue affects all the farmers across the state.

When asked about why the farmers borrow from moneylenders’ inspite of knowing the fact that moneylenders charge huge interest rates, Dr. Assadi said that moneylenders give quick monetary assistance to farmers when they are in need of it. Hence, if a farmer is in distress and needs money, a moneylender will be the first person the farmer would approach. Secondly, he said that in many cases, moneylenders are also seed-providers. In such cases, the moneylenders will provide the seeds to the farmers and later purchase the commodities produced by the farmer, apart from lending him the money for the whole process. This provides an opportunity for the moneylenders to completely exploit the farmers. Dr. Assadi added that, in olden days, the landlords and money lenders used to exploit farmers by confiscating their lands if they had not returned the loans. But, today, moneylenders exploit farmers without confiscating their land, but by increasing their debts and exploiting the commodities produced.

The drought this year in at least 16 districts of the total 30 districts is another factor that has severely affected Karnataka farmers. The drought has caused crop failure at many places and has further increased the woes of the farmers. Analyzing the issue of drought from a larger perspective of ecology, Dr. Assadi called the drought as a “man-made” drought. He pointed out that, how increasing human consumptions and luxuries has led to deforestation, which in-turn has contributed to global warming and climate change, resulting in droughts etc. Hence, ecologically insensitive and harmful human actions have led to various natural crisis.

Therefore, a large number of factors like drought, crop failure, rising debts, lack of loans from banks, borrowings at very high interest rates, selling crops at prices lesser than minimum support prices, not receiving payment for the sold produce etc. have contributed to the agrarian crisis that has taken place in Karnataka. Dr. Azzadi further points out that, the path of agriculture that was adopted by India after its independence was faulty and has resulted in various agrarian crisis over last many decades. He believes that, the linking of agriculture with global market and economy and the top-down capitalism that was implemented in agriculture have done serious damage to the farmers.

Measures that could help tackle agrarian crisis   

Dr. Azzadi believes that only way the agrarian crisis can be tackled on a long run is by de-linking it from the global market dependence. He believes that at least for few years this delinking must be carried out, after which India may decide how it should align with the global market.

He further suggested that Agriculture should be declared as an industry and the benefits given to industries must be extended to agriculture. A new policy must be implemented wherein further fragmentation of the agricultural lands must be prohibited, as fragmentation has resulted in various issues faced by farmers.

He also advocated adoption and promotion of organic farming and reduced dependence on products like fertilizers and other chemicals. He said that a “distress cell” must be opened up at village levels wherein the farmers facing severe distress and mental stress can be provided proper counselling and guidance.

These measures will go a long way in tackling various issues related to agriculture which in turn will help to improve the lives of farmers.

In a 2006 report on farmers suicide, the authors Meeta and Rajivlochan gives a 10-points of intervention which may help in tackling farmers’ suicides:

1.Increase the physical interaction between the government and the village society by insisting on more tours and more meetings of the government officers with gram-sabhas.
2.Active monitoring of the social, economic and psychological conditions of the farmers at the local level and if possible proving proper counselling to them.
3.Strict implementation of the various provisions that safeguard the interest of the farmers like existing money lending act, minimum wage act etc.
4.Providing professional assistance to farmers when they face problems like crop being infested with pests, or the sowing fails. The latest research and knowledge about improved methods of cultivation as well as the information about the usage of seeds, fertilizers etc. must be made to reach the farmer.
5.Improve the efficiency of various infrastructures present at the local level like Primary Health Centers.
6.The village level health care scenario must be drastically improved. At least one trained medical nurse must be present in each Panchayat who can provide succor and guidance to the people.
7.Appropriate vocational education must be provided at village and taluk level to assist people in understanding the complexities of the present day production and marketing techniques.
8.The media must be advised to not to highlight the issue of suicide as this may add fuel that could lead to further suicides.
9.The ex-gratia payment to the families of suicide victims must be stopped (as many may commit suicide so that their family gets compensation). Instead, help may be provided in the form of providing employment to a member of the family.
10.The farmers should be provided direct cash subsidies as the indirect subsidies seldom reach the farmers.

Therefore, the issue of farmer suicides in Karnataka should not be viewed in isolation. But, it should be analyzed as an external manifestation of the deep agrarian crisis that has infected the whole agriculture in India. The relationship between agriculture and globalization must also be debated and discussed, so that a holistic but pragmatic solution can be developed to address the issues of farmers. The farmer issues like illegal money lenders, exploiting middle men, scrupulous factory owners, inflation etc. must be seriously addressed and tackled. Various short-term initiatives and long-term policy changes must be carried out to tackle the agriculture crisis as a whole and achieve zero-farmer suicides in near future.