The spraying season is just about to begin in Vidarbha. Which means the region sits on a volcano. This is when a farmer actually holds that can of pesticide in his hand. When a moment's frustration can snuff out a life forever. Even the run-up to the season has been a disaster. More than 200 farmers have committed suicide in two months. August alone saw 111 indebted farmers kill themselves. That brings the total since June last year to 828. Of these, 72 have occurred since Independence Day this year.
We'd be lucky if the Government prepares itself for this season. And if we're even more lucky, the suicides might taper off a bit after the spraying. They have always had seasonal highs and lows. It's vital though never to forget that these deaths are only a symptom of the larger crisis. Not its cause. Failing to see this link means ignoring the main issues. It then becomes "if they're not killing themselves, things are okay." A bad illusion. That said, the numbers are indeed appalling.
Something very fundamental is happening. The central, driving factors behind the suicides remain the same. Rising debt, soaring input costs, plummeting output prices, a credit crunch and so on. But the outcome now adds up to more than just the sum total of these factors. After 15 years of a battering from hostile policies and governments, the world of the peasant has turned highly fragile. Problems that would not have driven many to suicide a decade ago do so now. It takes less to push farmers over the edge because their resistance is down. So fragile is their economy and equilibrium.
But why are farmers committing suicide only in Vidarbha? This question based on falsehood or ignorance or both, is being posed just now. Farm suicides have been on in many parts of the country. In sheer numbers, Andhra Pradesh has had more than any other State. During the Chandrababu Naidu years, they accounted for the bulk of all such deaths in the country. A better question would be why their intensity has been less since then. Or why they could easily go up again in the same State.
Farm suicides have also been on for several years in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and elsewhere. To imply they are only happening in Vidarbha is false. The agrarian problem is nationwide. So are many of the policies driving it. But all regions are not the same. Some crops are more subject to price shocks. Some communities more vulnerable than others. Some cultivation practices more destructive than others. And some governments are far worse at handling distress than others. No State is exempt from the crisis. But more exposed regions will feel its effects before many others do.
Those covering the Andhra Pradesh suicides in the early years of this decade were often asked this question: why only Andhra? Something is wrong with people there. Among those asking were many from Maharashtra. They were quite sure this could never happen in their State.
Farm suicides have been on for a while in the cotton-growing West African nations, too. As they have in many other parts of the world with farmers into other crops as well. (They occurred in the United States, too, during the Great Depression. And again, as corporate farming snuffed out small holder agriculture in the last quarter of the 20th century.)
But this way of posing it - why Vidarbha? - allows us to spring the next argument. The problem is not distress or debt. The problem is with the 'psyche' of the Vidarbha farmer. Note that this 'psyche' has nothing to do with the lived experience of the peasant. It's about the wiring inside his brain. Having thus derived an 'answer' verging on the racist, we can leave the status quo as it is. Counsel the poor things. They need shrinks. Also, it becomes clear - to those of this view - that the factors are 'social' rather than economic. If we can cut down the 'social evils' like drinking alcohol, things would be okay.
This might even be funny if it weren't so tragically obtuse. For one thing, if liquor is the main cause of farm suicides, there would be little left of the Indian peasantry. Indeed, Vidarbha would have more survivors. The Warkari sect - firm abstainers - have a large following here. Yet this group too has been hit by suicides. Further, why then are there more such deaths in Vidarbha than in Tamilnadu? Liquor is better entrenched in the rural regions of the latter. It also raises the question why alcohol leads rich kids in Mumbai to rape and murder, but leads poor farmers in Vidarbha to suicide.
Sure alcohol can be a factor in some of the deaths. There have been instances of farmers who got drunk, fought with their wives, and took their lives. These have mostly come after financial collapse, crushing levels of debt, and humiliation at the hands of creditors. Interestingly, an investigation by the newspaper Sakaal suggests that the number of suicide victims who had an alcohol problem is quite minor. Normally, the drunkenness argument comes up in the second or third year of a crisis, when denial is still an option. That's how it happened in Andhra. That it should come up so late in Vidarbha's crisis speaks of at least two things. A bankrupt elite scraping the barrel for excuses. And their inept yes-men in the media, ignorant of a larger canvas or history to the issue.
Contempt for ordinary folk
"They did it for the handouts." That's another jibe that reeks of contempt for ordinary folk. It tells us more about the people asserting this than about those taking their lives. The notion is that people destroy their families forever in order to get a 'compensation' of Rs.1 lakh. This reduces the victim to some kind of crazed beast. Yawn. It's all been said before. In 1998, using precisely this claim, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu scrapped compensation for suicide-hit families. Fact: the suicides shot up and were at their highest in the years 1998-2004 when there was no compensation at all.
The same 'commitment' also leads to a spirited defence of large corporations wreaking havoc in agriculture. The stout defence of technologies about which the defender knows nothing. Some of this is, of course, ideological. Some of it is also self-serving. Corporations involved in agriculture have organised foreign freebies for their ideological advocates. At this moment, major efforts are under way to co-opt journalists in affected regions. Yet, we can be proud that the vast majority have rejected such blandishments. So many of Vidarbha's journalists - and activists - remain a scourge of the establishment.
Meanwhile, every other study ends up calling for 'counselling' of the Vidarbha farmers. Calls upon them to change their system of cultivation. Sure there's some reality in this. (The agriculture extension system - which should indeed 'counsel' farmers - has collapsed nationwide.) But why not counsel governments on their policies? Or call for a change in the socio-economic system that drives people to such lengths? The onus of changing is on the farmer. Not on those driving a cruel process and system.
Attempts to 'counsel' them in those terms have been on for years. Andhra Pradesh tried it in 2003. Teams of psychologists, revenue officials and doctors went out to Vidarbha's villages from as early as 2004. To counsel the poor, disturbed souls. In one village, an old farmer greatly embarrassed such a team: "You've given us fine advice on so many things. On coping with stress, curbing our drinking, not fighting with our wives and so on. And you've asked us so many good questions, too. Now ask us one more. Ask us why farmers, who produce the nation's food, are starving. Ask us why the children of those who grow your food, are starving." The team remained silent.
Some of the learned - and well-meaning - team members had been to great medical colleges. And one of the first principles they learned there is sound. "What the mind does not know, the eye cannot observe." Very true. But the old farmer was posing a larger point before society as a whole, not just to the doctors. What the heart does not feel, the eye can never see.