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  • The Unbearable burden of being
    Pushpa Surendra on the Veeresh Committee report on farmer suicides in Karnataka
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    September 2002: Unmindful of the mosquito bites my neighbour has been sleeping out in the open fields guarding his mango trees laden with crop. Nagarajappa wakes up a few times during the nights to light firecrackers saved up from deepavali. The sound of firecrackers is a reminder to potential thieves of the alertness of the owner and also scares the fruit bats away. This ordeal of sleepless nights ends only when fruits are plucked for sale but then an ordeal of a different kind begins: of marketing a perishable crop. Another neighbour growing rice keeps watch in the mornings, just as the birds wake up in search of food and at dusk before they retire to their nests. Birds love the tender rice grains but Basappa has no intention of letting them feast on his crop. With a whirrr… of their wings a flock of sparrows scared away by him perch atop the thorny bushes nearby, waiting for Basappa to slacken his vigil. Nimma avvana, he curses the birds but the very next moment he smiles to himself at their antics.

    Basappa's two sons, like most young men in the village, are too proud to be farming and work as helpers at construction sites, earning up to Rs.80/ day. Last year the younger of them tried to commit suicide by drinking pesticide after a quarrel with his mother over his share of contribution to the family expenses. He was rushed to the hospital in time and after a week's stay in the hospital, survived. Many farmer parents expect their sons to contribute money to cultivate the family lands and this is often the cause of bitter family quarrels. Year after year their earnings are spent by their parents to buy seeds, fertilizers and pesticides - to grow crops from which they barely earn enough to feed themselves. The parents in the age group of 40 and above do not have other skills besides farming, and in any event are too attached to their ancestral lands, and would not want at any cost to sell them.

    The Government of Karnataka wants its farmers to have "swavalambane" (self reliance) while retaining their " swabhimana" (self respect). The task of the Veeresh committee to study the causes behind farmers' suicides was to also recommend measures to improve farmers' self respect and self-reliance. The findings of the committee have come in for much criticism by farmer leaders, for equating farmers suicides with other suicides in the country. Farmer leaders and politicians have asked for a boycott of the report and demanded the government not to accept its recommendations. Dr. Veeresh, the chairman of the committee, a former vice-chancellor of the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore has remarked that the opposition to the report is from people who have not read the report fully and are quoting it out of context. It is important to know whether he or the government has taken any efforts to make copies of such an important report available to the larger public. The Karnataka Government of course has ritualistically passed a Right to Information bill but no rules have been passed so far and as such it remains a frozen bill. I managed to get a copy of the report with some difficulty.

    The committee has gone the extra mile to prove that the reasons for suicides among farmers are not very different from reasons behind other suicides in the country. To substantiate this point the report makes mention of suicides of farmers in the UK, USA, rural China and Sri Lanka and that in these countries the suicides were found to be due to various reasons other than a crisis in farming. The report however, makes no effort to look at suicides of farmers in other parts of our country. The actual reasons for suicides of farmers, we are told, are alcoholism, domestic quarrels, and depression due to marital discord. According to the report the fall in prices of agricultural produce, pest attacks, and indebtedness to credit institutions due to the rising cost of inputs, are contributory factors leading to suicides but are not the sole reasons for distress among farmers. Reading the report it is clear that the member of the committee from National Institute for Mental Health And Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS) has had considerable influence over the final document. The solution to the farmers' problems, it seems, lies in the psychiatric couch. The report only falls short of saying that along with the village accountant every village panchayat should have a resident psychiatrist from NIMHANS.

    The committee mentions the role played by local leaders in portraying accidental deaths of farmers and even homicides, as stemming from a crisis in farming with a view to availing compensation for the victims family from the government. True, such championing of the cause of the farmers by political leaders with an eye to enhancing their images among the people cannot be ruled out. However, it is also a fact that representatives of the people, and the media - not government officials - are the ones to draw the attention of the government to cases of rural distress. It is generally known that any attempt to commit suicide constitutes a criminal offence under Indian law. For this reason suicides are under-reported in this country. Members of the victims' families try to suppress information on suicides. If this fact had been borne in mind, the committee would have come to different conclusions about the number of suicides.

    The call to boycott the report of the committee and reject its recommendations by political leaders, is however irresponsible. The report needs to be taken seriously by farmers and their leaders, because under the cover of looking at farmers' suicides, a document much like an industry lobby report to reform the farming sector has been fashioned. It is time farmers and their leaders realise the serious threats posed to their very existence by captains of industry who can use fawning urban professionals like agricultural scientists and psychiatrists as very handy tools to advance their short-term corporate agendas. Governments in power find it easier to ignore the many genuine concerns voiced by farmers movements. It is interesting to note that the committee constituted to look into farmers' suicides in the state did not have a single farmer member. Among the recommendations made by the committee to mitigate the suffering of farmers is "contract farming". The farmer who contracts his land to a private company if he is lucky will be employed as a wage-labourer on his own land. How this system can instill self-respect in farmers and make them self-reliant, the report does not tell us. Alcoholism which is a form of slow suicide, is rampant in rural areas and referred to in the committee's report. Perhaps the NIMHANS psychiatrists will soon catch up on the connection between low self esteem and alcoholism.

    The report contains a section on the hardship caused to farmers by the ineffective institutional mechanisms, and recomends improvements in the existing structures to make them more responsive to farmers' needs. The 745 raitha samparka kendras at the hobli headquarters at present are "manned" by agricultural officers who encourage farmers to use chemical fertilizers and more pesticides. There are complaints that the kendras distribute seeds only to the influential among farmers and the really needy marginal farmers are overlooked. The new breed of farmers in rural areas, the class of people who have ready cash to make use of the distress sale of farm land - i.e., officials from state electricity boards, excise department, railways, senior police officers - have priority over the marginal farmer when accessing the facilities intended for the needy farmers. One is sceptical of anything positive emerging if the same old agriculture department and horticultural boards were to implement the recommendations. Recently the HOPCOMS outlets in Mysore have been selling "Washington Apples" imported from the United States at Rs. 95/- a kg. The HOPCOMS' efforts to help the apple farmers from across the oceans are commendable but perhaps they should also make reciprocal arrangements with Washington to buy some of our local fruits! All we hear from horticultural officers is the great opportunities the horticultural producers of the state have, to export to lands beyond.

    Among the sensitive parts in the report is the recommendation for extension of old age benefits for the aged in the agricultural sector. In contrast the committee is totally oblivious to the needs of the disillusioned young people in farming communities. The report recommends a shift to organic farming methods, to set up facilities for agro processing especially of drought resistent varieties of minor millets, the creation of farmers welfare funds, social security, farmers' insurance, and assistance to farmers in diversification of crops, which are all the need of the hour.

    Sadly, we know this is not the first committee to come up with such recommendations. This report is a virtual storehouse of information on failed recommendations and unimplemented schemes for agriculture, considering also that not one single person will be held accountable for all these failed schemes. Here is one example of how things have gone on. According to the report "Apiculture (beekeeping) is an industry not requiring additional land, water, electricity but can be managed by any farmer irrespective of age, gender, education, to supplement his income. The department of Apiculture, once with the Department of Agriculture, has been shifted frequently from Agriculture to Animal Husbandry, Horticulture, Khadi Gramodyog and now with Industries Department. Bees are the best pollinators. They pollinate not only cultivated crops but also all wild plants. The Agriculture Commission set up in 1976 had recommended 150 million bee colonies, at least one colony per acre to increase crop production…..". The committee's recommendation now says, "perhaps the government may think of reverting back the Apiculture activities from the Commerce and Industries Department to the Agriculture Department where the extension machinery has been streamlined to reach every farmer"!.

    From experience I know how difficult it is to get a bee colony going on a farm. Perhaps the government will exercise its wisdom and post an Apiculture expert at every one of the 745 raitha samparka kendras in the state. Let us hope every kendra will help farmers to make their own low cost compost and educate farmers in water and soil conservation methods. If the government can implement some of the sensible recommendations of the committee such as these, it need not concern itself with encouraging farmers to be self reliant and to have self respect. That will come on its own without the assistance of psychiatrists.

    Pushpa Surendra
    September 2002

    Pushpa Surendra hails from a farming family in Kodagu district. She studied in Kodagu, Mangalore and Mysore. Between 1980-88 she lived in Hong Kong. It provided her an opportunity to travel in south-east Asia, Japan and China. She lived in China and Taiwan for sometime as a student of Chinese language and has traveled extensively in Asia and Europe. Since returning to India she was based in Chennai, was involved with publishing for Earthworm Books as one of its founder directors. She moved to Mysore four years ago and is now a full time farmer. She writes a monthly column in The Hindu on Sunday entitled "Rural Diary". She is also an contributor to CAAM. She may be contacted at poovamma@eth.net

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