The following is an extract from a speech delivered in the Rajya Sabha by Mr. Sharad Joshi in August 2005 on the question of farmers’ suicides. It was subsequently published in the October 2007 edition of the Freedom First magazine with a brief introduction written by Sharad Joshi himself. In this piece, he has aptly captured the problem faced by India’s farmers and advised the Government to take immediate measures by addressing the root of the crises.
I have accepted the editor’s suggestion to keep the readers of ‘Freedom First informed about my interventions in the Rajya Sabha. I am the only Member of Parliament of the Swatantra Bharat Paksha (SBP), India’s only liberal party that proudly claims to be the successor of the erstwhile Swatantra Party of Chakravarti Rajgopalachari. Every party in Parliament is allotted a quota of time depending upon its numerical strength in the Parliament. No quotas are given for alliances like UPA or NDA. Fortunately, even the minor parties get a minimum of five minutes in each debate. This is a serious handicap and also an opportunity – On most subjects, as an activist of the farmers’ movement and the national President of the SBP, I have something to say that marks a different paradigm. Hence, considering the time limit, there is no scope for any explanations, elaborations, and elucidations and much less for ornamentation. The paradox is that parties like the Congress and the BJP who have been in power at the Centre and hence, responsible for the present sad state of affairs in the country, get the maximum time most of which is consumed by one or two senior leaders of the party to indulge in soapbox oratory accusations and counter-accusations. The SBP’s turn comes invariably at the end of the debate, mostly late in the evening, when the Rajya Sabha often wears a deserted look. In the last two years there is growing awareness that the liberal point of view that I put forward is always original and, hence, quite a few members from all sides make it a point to be present when I get up to speak. Since I have little respect for the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and an unconcealed antipathy for leftist economists, there are often interruptions and rowdy sloganeering from their benches during my speech. My speech, published below, for the readers of Freedom First was marked by intermittent interruptions from the Congress benches and a spirited defence by Mrs. Sushama Swaraj
For the last two years farmers have been committing suicide practically every hour. It is not just a matter of social tragedy or a tragedy for the whole of the farmers’ movement, it is a personal tragedy for me. The fact that the Prime Minister himself went to Vidarbha supported by so many eminent economists but could not forge a solution that could give the farmers hope enough to, at least, postpone the decision of suicide by a couple of hours or by a couple of days, is a personal tragedy for me.
Thirty years back, we launched the first farmers’ movement in lndia after the Green Revolution. The Green Revolution had increased the productivity of agriculture by 10 to 15 times and farmers had reached a state where the more they grew, the less they got and that was when the farmers’ movement began. We took an oath, extracts of which are saying that we will secure for the farmers remunerative prices for their produce, the full reward for their toil so that they can live a life of self-respect and happiness exactly like any other citizen in this country. Now, I confess that I have failed. Because, 25 years after I took that oath, for the first time I find that the whole of India is strewn with bodies of the farmers who found it impossible to make a living and had no hope that their conditions would be any better.
In the 1950s, Lal Bahadur Shastri’s slogan of ‘ Jai lawan, Jai Kisan’ and the accompanying Green Revolution started two processes:
- the Jawan went on the war-front, sacrificed himself and became a martyr;
- the Kisan, on the food front, fought and tried his best to contribute to the foodgrains production in the country.
The Green Revolution succeeded; productivity increased. But, at the same time, the government failed to see that for his added effort would the farmer get an adequate reward. While productivity grew while production grew, the farmers were not able to cover even the cost of production and it is this wound which has gangrened over the last 50 years. This was the policy which was followed regularly over the last 55 years. We do not need to find out whether the BJP government followed policies that hurt the farmers or whether the successive Congress governments did it. All that you have to see is during which period was the farmers’ subsidy negative. If the Aggregate Measurement of Support (AMS) was negative, that is to say the farmers’ prices were less than the cost of cultivation, that means that government is guilty of the ongoing genocide by farmers. In which case, governments are also guilty of murder. The simple index is, did you have a negative AMS or a positive one. C. Subramaniam, the minister of Agriculture under Lal Bahadur Shastri recognised, for the first time, that agriculture was a losing proposition and that to make with the Green Revolution a success, farmers have to be given adequate remunerative prices.
He appointed an Agricultural Prices Commission (APC). That was a creation of Bharat Ratna C. Subramaniam. For the first five years, the Agricultural Prices Commission did succeed in giving comfortable prices to farmers which resulted in not only agricultural growth in Punjab, but even industrial development in that State. But, after those five years were over and after Indira Gandhi became the Prime Minister, the Chairmanship of the Agricultural Prices Commission was given to one of the Leftists, who are by their dogma, against the farmers, calling them kulaks and so the Commission was used systematically against farmers. It is the appointment of Leftist Chairmen which resulted in farmers getting inadequate prices.
I am not putting these things on record to criticize this or that government. The farmers’ present critical state is a gangrene wound of more than 50 years. Before giving suggestions one has to do the diagnosis. How can one give a prescription without diagnosis? Whether the government was good to the farmers or not, can be examined by an objective criterion, i.e., whether during that period, the AMS was positive or negative. This is a very positive criterion. When you examine it, you will find that all this period the AMS was negative. A calculation shows that from 1980 to 2000 alone the loss caused to the farmers by government policies was of the order of Rs. 300,000 crores. Finally, I came to the conclusion that the gangrened wounds of the farmers over these 55 years are now expressing themselves in the form of mass suicides.
Now, I will come to the prescription as to what has to be done, and, these are some very concrete suggestions. I think, what the Prime Minister could not achieve in going to Vidarbha, you will be able to achieve, if government is sincerely concerned about the lot of the farmers and is prepared to show the necessary courage to act on these suggestions.
Providing additional credit is not going to help. When the Prime Minister declared from the Red Fort that the supply of credit has increased from Rs. 87,000 crores to Rs. 1,68,000 crores, a senior officer of NABARD was declaring that not only has refinancing come down, but cooperative banks are also not giving loans at 7 % because they have certain apprehensions about the policy of 7 %. At the same time, the same officer declared that even though the amount of credit had increased, the number of beneficiaries had not increased. That means that the same people were getting the new loans as well. Now, if this is the situation, additional credits are not going to help the farmers. On the other hand, additional credits will get them into further indebtedness and suicides.
There is a finding of a very respectable body that 40% of our farmers want to leave agriculture because they find that it is no more possible to live in it. And, I had made a suggestion and this is something that I am prepared to convince the farmers about. The farmers, even though they talk of the black mother, the mother earth, etc., in fact, whenever they get an opportunity, they quit agriculture. They vote with their feet. I think, what needs to be done is, (as happened before the Green Revolution, that when the farmers got a chance to quit because of the tenancy legislation, because of the Land Ceiling Act, etc., on the threshhold of the coming agricultural revolution) they have to be given some, kind of a way out, a kind of a golden handshake, a Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS) by developing a land market where the farmers can offer a land for sale and those who think they can do better in agriculture in the new atmosphere, can purchase the land and come in. That is going to be the best solution, giving a ray of hope to the farmers, if the Minister for Agriculture shows the courage.
A point particularly about Vidarbha. The accentuating factor in Vidarbha, where a thousand farmers committed suicide in 2006 so far, has been the forcing of Vidarbha, for political reasons, into Maharashtra. This resulted in the imposition of the Cotton Monopoly Procurement Scheme which has resulted in a massive exploitation of the cotton-growing farmers in Vidarbha and in the diversion of irrigation funds from Vidarbha to Southern Maharashtra on the pretext that if water there is not saved, it will go to Karnataka or Andhra Pradesh. If the present government makes an announcement, (it is already talking about Telangana) that they will also give serious consideration to the separation of Vidarbha, that itself will be a good signal and will stop most of the farmers’ suicides which are mainly due to indebtedness.
I am glad that the Agriculture Minister’s party has already given a sort of green signal to the idea of a separate Vidarbha, provided the people there support it. I hope, ultimately, it will result in the formation of a separate Vidarbha. From that day onwards, I am sure there will not be a single farmer suicide in Vidarbha.
Prepare a Helpline network so that farmers, who feel desperate, can contact the competent official who should see them and find out what precisely are the problems that the family is facing and try to resolve them.
Last but not the least, the government should stop paying compensation for people who commit suicide because that actually encourages suicides. People find that if the bereaved family is to get the money, then, it is worthwhile committing suicide so that, at least, the rest will live happily. In fact, there are doubts that, at least, in some cases, old and invalid members of the family have not been dissuaded sufficiently energetically from committing suicide. This is a very dangerous precedent. If payment of lump sum compensation, results in encouraging suicide it is, in law, a crime. Giving them Rs. one lakh as compensation is bad in law, bad in public policy. And I hope the Minister for Agriculture will review the situation and take some positive steps that will put an immediate halt to suicides.
[Extracts from Sharad Joshi’s speech during the debate in the Rajya Sabha on 23 August 2005 on Farmers’ Suicides. The piece was originally published here.]