Andhra Pradesh chief minister Y.S.Rajasekhar Reddy is in a quandary. Since he took over as the chief minister, more than 300 farmers in the state have committed suicides. This is the official death toll from the suicides register until June 25. Unofficially, the casualties are estimated to be much higher.
The spurt in farmers suicides is the outcome of the utter neglect and apathy of the erstwhile Chandrababu Naidu government in Andhra, voted out after nine years in power. The situation in several other states, including the frontline agriculture states of Punjab and Haryana, and even in the left-ruled West Bengal and Kerala is no better. Thousands of farmers have ended their lives in the past few years. What has meanwhile baffled the new government is that the spate of suicides shows no signs of ending even after it announced a series of routine packages - free electricity and more credit -- aimed at relieving farmers' misery.
The package also includes an ex-gratia payment of Rs.1 lakh each to the next of the kin of the deceased, and Rs 50,000 for a one-time settlement of the loans of indebted farmers. The erstwhile government too had started making ex-gratia payments of Rs.1 lakh to the affected families after suicides were initially reported in 1997-98. After providing this assistance to some 250 farmer families, the payments were stopped on the plea that such an ex-gratia would prompt more farmers to take their lives. The Congress, then in the opposition, had stepped in by collecting donations for providing assistance to the grieving families.
Although the newly-elected government of Andhra Pradesh (followed closely by Tamilnadu) has moved quickly by announcing free power to farmers, what is more depressing is that the governments are clueless of the reasons that forces farmers to commit suicides. Nor is there any effort from the so-called distinguished agricultural scientists, economists, and social scientists to come up with proposals to put an end to this shameful blot on the country's image. The reason is obvious. No one has the political courage to point a finger at the real villain - the industrial farming model that shifts the focus on cash crops and thereby plays havoc with sustainable livelihoods.
Blindly aping the World Bank model of agriculture, Karnataka and Andhra had pumped in huge finances to push an industry-driven agriculture that has not only exacerbated the crisis leading to an environmental catastrophe but also destroyed millions of rural livelihoods. As a result, both the states had turned into capitals of shame for farmers' distress, visible more through the increasing rate of suicides in the rural areas. Making cheap credit available to these marginal farming communities, an intention announced by the Finance Minister, will not be helpful. What these poor need immediately is income support.
In reality, Andhra as well as Karnataka were only making it smoother for the industry to move into the rural areas. AP's Vision 2020 document talked of reducing the number of farmers in the state to 40 per cent of the population, and did not have any significant programme to adequately rehabilitate an equally large number of people. The objective was to promote the commercial interests of the agribusiness companies (read foreign financial institutes and international bankers) and the IT hardware units. All benefits would have accrued to these companies in the name of farmers. In fact, these two sectors, along with biotechnology, were being heavily subsidised in the name of efficiency and infrastructure, whereas the poor farmers were being divested of the their only source of income - their meagre land holdings.
Andhra in reality was fast turning into a BIMARU state (an euphemism for backward states). Thousands of farmers were migrating every season looking for menial jobs in the urban centres. Mofussil newspapers in the heartland of the cyberstate were full of advertisements inviting people to mortgage their gold and silver belongings. Livestock deaths and the plight of dalits and other landless and marginalised no longer adorned the headlines. Farmers were asked not to produce more rice, as the state had no place to stock it. Farmers' suicides had become so common that Mr Naidu actually sent team of psychiatrists to convince them against taking their own lives.
Believe it or not, daily wage workers in AP can still be hired at a price that their counterparts in Bihar would scoff at. And yet, an ignorant media despised the maverick political leader Laloo Prasad Yadav for taking his state - Bihar - to economic backwardness whereas Mr Naidu was showered by all kinds of accolades. Such was the extent and level of poverty that AP also topped the country in the percentage of women entering prostitution and trafficking. Mr Naidu ignored the writing on the wall and went about holding web conferences with his bureaucracy and the national media painted him as the poster boy for economic reforms.
The Naidu model has failed. This is also the failure of McKinsey's model for economic development. To talk of 'Naidu Plus', as some economists have said, indicates the level of arrogance among a school of economic thought that refuses to see anything except what would benefit industry.
No wonder, newspapers have already quoted the secretary general of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), Mr Amit Mitra as saying "economic initiatives in the IT and services sector should be extended to the rural areas and to such industries as food processing and rural industry". Unfortunately, the industry refuses to accept that it was because of its own over-indulgence that Mr Naidu paid a heavy price. In addition, the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the newly emerging biotechnology industry were the beneficiaries of the state's largesse in the name of improving agricultural productivity and enhancing rural incomes. The new government has focused on agriculture but refuses to look for the real causes behind farmers distress. All its efforts are directed towards convincing the markets that the Sensex will not be allowed to slip any further.
The ground realities are far removed from the rhetoric and the statistics that have bred immunity against compassion. We are all part of a global food system, which perpetuates poverty and deprivation. The food industry makes tall claims of churning out nutritious diets, and millions are dying of obesity and related problems. The claims of improved technology for agriculture ignore the stark realities - increasing indebtedness, growing poverty, resulting in human suffering and hunger. Our 'solutions' are really the causes for the problems in the first place; and behaving like an ostrich is not going to eclipse hunger and death from the politico-economic radar screens.
Policy makers, agricultural scientists, academicians and even the civil society groups must first accept the fundamental flaw that forces farmers to their deaths - the misplaced idea that industrial farming can be successful in a nation where the majority of the population makes its livelihood off the land under conditions of extreme inequity. Economic gimmicks like announcing free electricity and enhancing bank credit are like the proverbial Emperor's clothes.