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Suicides on the Farm:
Green Revolution is Turning Red

by Devinder Sharma
New Delhi, India

Devinder Sharma.
Devinder Sharma. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
(Footnotes are linked to new browser window for easy reference.)

The recent spate of farmers suicides that began in Andhra Pradesh (AP), and caught the national attention in the aftermath of the stunning electoral verdict that unseated the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party)-led government, has been baffling. Ever since the new government in Andhra Pradesh was sworn-in on May 14, 2004 more than 600 farmers have committed suicides. This was the official death toll in the suicides register till June 2. The Indian Prime Minister, Mr. Manmohan Singh’s, sympathy visit to meet the affected families of the farmers who killed themselves, has also failed to stop the death dance.

Internationally, it is no different. Even as the serial death dance continues in India, a clear pointer to the bloody outcome of the Green Revolution, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has announced a new programme, named after the "father of the Green Revolution," and designed to bring junior and mid-ranking scientists and policymakers from African, Asian, and Latin American countries to the United States to learn from their US counterparts. The Norman Borlaug International Science and Technology Fellows Programme is aimed at teaching the researchers and policymakers the same technology blunder that caused thousands of farmers in India to take their own lives.

This reminds me of the tragedy of the mid-1980s in Ethiopia. While thousands were dying in the countryside from an unknown famine (till the BBC shocked the world with the horrifying images), there was enough food and wine flowing in the five star hotels in Addis Ababa. In India, the huge number of farmers suicides resulting from a systematic but faulty economic and scientific prescription fails to prick the conscious of the nation. Urban India is busy as usual with its fashion shows, launch of new car models, while the electronic media keeps itself engaged with the stock markets.

In India, the spurt in farmers suicides, which unfortunately has failed to move the intellegentsia and the academicians, is the outcome of the utter neglect and apathy of the erstwhile Chandrababu Naidu’s government in Andhra (and elsewhere too), voted out after nine years in power. The situation in several other states, including the frontline agriculture states of Punjab and Haryana, is no better. In the Vidharba region of Maharashtra, for instance, more than 200 farmers have committed suicide during the year.(1) Karnataka, West Bengal, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh are all faced with the unexplained phenomenon of farmers taking their own lives.(2) Thousands of farmers have taken their lives in the past 15 years in India. What has meanwhile baffled the new governments and policy makers is that the spate of suicides shows no signs of ending even after it announced short and long-term relief packages aimed at relieving farmer’s misery.

The package includes an ex-gratia payment of Rs 100,000 each to the next of the kin of the deceased in Andhra Pradesh, and Rs 50,000 for a one-time settlement of the loans of indebted farmers. The erstwhile government too had started paying an ex-gratia grant of Rs 100,000 to the affected families after suicides were initially reported in 1997-98. After giving the assistance to some 250 farmer families, the payments were stopped on the plea that such 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 (and followed closely by Tamilnadu) have moved in quickly by announcing free power to farmers,(3) 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 out 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 clear verdict against the industrial farming model being forced down the throat of small and marginal farmers.(4)

With the high-chemical input based technology that mined the soils and ultimately led to the lands gasping for breath, with the water-guzzling crops (hybrids and Bt cotton) sucking the groundwater aquifer dry, and with the failure of the markets to rescue the farmers from a collapse of the farming systems, the tragedy is that the human cost is entirely being borne by the farmers.(5) In Punjab, for instance, of the 138 development blocks, 84 have already been declared dark zones, the level of groundwater exploitation in these blocks has been in excess of 98 per cent against the critical limit of 80 per cent. Six of the 12 districts in the State have recorded groundwater utilization rate of 100 per cent. The National Bureau of Soil Survey and Land Use Planning in India estimates that nearly 120 million hectares of the total cultivable land of 142 million hectares in the country is degraded. The fundamental issue of destruction of sustainable livelihoods is not at all being addressed.(6)

Mr N Chandrababu Naidu was swept away by a tidal wave of the angry farmers (so was the ruling BJP-led coalition at the centre). The small and marginal farmers, in tandem with the landless labourers, who constitute nearly 80 per cent of Andhra’s 80 million people, gave their verdict: the industry-sponsored economic reforms are anti-poor. In Karnataka too, where the farmers suicide rate is equally high, the over-emphasis on technology had only alienated a large percentage of farming populations from their natural resource base. Both the States had relied heavily on the British consultancy firm, McKinsey India Ltd., to draw the blueprint for economic reforms. In addition, McKinsey’s services are also being utilised by West Bengal for re-designing the economic model of growth.

Blindly aping the World Bank model of agriculture (as suggested by McKinsey), Karnataka and Andhra had pumped in huge finances to push in an industry-driven agriculture that has not only exacerbated the crisis leading to an environmental catastrophe but also destroyed millions of rural livelihoods. The tragedy being that both the States have turned into a national hall of shame for farmers’ distress, visible more through the increasing rate of suicides in the rural areas. Making available cheap credit to these marginal farming communities, as has been announced by the Finance Minister, will not be helpful. After all, a majority of the farmers who committed suicide have been unable to repay the loans. So how will more loans help the poor and needy?

The Business of Hunger (7)

In the mid 1980, the sale of Banita, a minor girl from Kalahandi in Orissa, had shocked the nation. The then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, had made strenuous efforts to ensure that the poverty stricken families do not resort to this extreme measure. Two decades later, the nation refused to even notice the cries of the one month old baby who was sold by her mother for a mere Rs 10 (approximately 11 cents). A few days after the news was published in a national daily, the Prime Minister was happy celebrating his birthday with the country’s who's who, in New Delhi.

Politicians were always known to be insensitive to human sufferings. What about the educated, part of the so-called intelligentsia? What about the bureaucrats, celebrities, industrialists, academicians, media and the burgeoning middle class? Aren't they as guilty as the politicians? And what about the global economic and development policies that actually exacerbate hunger, and that too in the name of removing hunger?

Hunger no longer evokes any angry reaction. Hunger makes news only when someone dies. What happens to the millions, who languish in hunger and abject poverty, is no one’s concern. It never was.

I have always linked the fate of the world's 800 million hungry, 24,000 of whom die daily, with the unjust economic policies that actually aim at finding markets and job opportunities for the developed country products and manpower. For example, using examples mainly from my home country, home to 320 million malnourished people, I have been continuously pointing finger at unfair trade practices enforced by the developed countries through the WTO that require developing countries to drop all subsidies, while they maintain their own subsidies with impunity.

The result is that as tons of so-called surplus grains in developing countries rot, awaiting foreign markets, locals go hungry. I come from a country that has the dubious distinction of producing a surplus of 65 million tons of food between 2000-02, yet has the largest population of malnourished in the world. On the other hand, “surplus" rice and wheat is in fact exported to developed countries, largely for animal feed, so that India may earn hard currency.

People go hungry not because there isn't enough to eat but because they can't afford to buy the food that is available. Yet the solutions proposed by such bodies as the World Food Summit, in 1996 and subsequently in 2002, or the AgBioWorld Foundation, a US–based foundation dedicated to finding biotechnological solutions to world hunger, don't take the effects of the free trade paradigm into consideration.

Look at the inequalities, I have often said in my talks: "In Europe a cow receives three dollars per day in subsidy; in Japan, it's eight, whereas half of the world's farmers live on less than two dollars per day.” In the US, on average, a cow requires 25 acres worth of feed, whereas the average land-holding of farmers in developing countries is four acres. The cow is the most food-secure animal in the world.

"If Orwell were writing today, he would say, 'All animals are equal but some are even more equal than human beings,'" I have been quoted often as saying, referring to the situation where cows in developed countries receive more in subsidies than what many farmers in developing nations earn daily.

Before the WTO Ministerial at Cancun, and subsequently after that, I have always made it loud and clear the double standard regarding agricultural subsidies. In the US, for instance, under the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002, the country's 900,000 farmers will receive $180 billion dollars in aid, over 10 years. Even though India faced drought conditions similar to those in the US, it could not offer its farmers subsidies since that would be considered "trade distorting."

Speaking at a number of universities and public forums, I have been at pains to explain what the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) doesn't seem to consider, that once a developing country starts to import food, it is also importing unemployment and promoting the exodus of rural people into the cities. If farmers and their families, which number 600 million people in India, can't sell their grains due to unfair competition, they have no choice but to abandon agriculture and migrate to the urban centers.

This message doesn't percolate so easily. When I say that rather than talking about "food security," the WTO should put the emphasis on food sovereignty, many economists disagree. Not because they don't see the merit in the argument but because of the commercial interest of the companies they represent or protect. What is however encouraging is that more and more academicians in the North America are now beginning to realize that every country should have the ability to produce food for itself.

I have always stressed on the need to look into the politics of food and agriculture, and the economic justification for the faulty policies becomes crystal clear. The move to have the food staples produced by the supposedly more efficient agricultural methods of developed countries (while developing countries concentrate on cash crops, such as fruit and coffee) will pave the way for genetically modified staples to be tested in developing countries. Displacing small farmers is part of a bigger package; biotech is the other part of the equation.

How ironic, that nutritious food normally meant for human beings (containing on an average 9 per cent proteins) is allowed to decay in a country like India, whereas biotechnologists are investing in developing GM potatoes that contain a mere 2.5 per cent proteins. Such ‘nutritious’ food that is being developed is actually aimed at reaping more profits for the biotechnology companies. Public funds are being diverted to research on GM crops, while millions go hungry.

If there is any light at the end of the tunnel, I strongly believe it is in the capacity of the farmers of developing countries to be more productive on their small plots of land. Sustainable livelihoods are what need to be strengthened, and the resulting impact on hunger and poverty eradication would be significant.

In reality, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka as well as other states were only making it smoother for the industry to move into the rural areas. APs 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 the remaining 30 per cent of the farming population. 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 benefit 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 -- that’s how Mr Naidu wanted the state to be called -- 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 (the staple food) as the State had no place to stock it. Farmers suicides had become so common that Mr Naidu had actually sent teams 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, the ignorant media despised the maverick political leader Laloo Prashad 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 on the other hand ignored the writing on the wall and went about holding web conferences with his bureaucracy much to the chagrin of the national media, which painted him as the poster boy for economic reforms. The World Bank was so excited, and the British DFID (Department for International Development) joined in to make his smile broader.

The Naidu model has failed. It also means failure of the McKinsey’s and World Bank's model of 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 the industry. To talk of the need to usher in the ‘second Green Revolution” without first ascertaining where the equation has gone wrong in the first Green Revolution will be mankind’s greatest folly. But the tragedy is that while the scientific community (including the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) and the policy makers (including the World Bank/IMF and the bureaucrats at the World Trade Organisation) will go scot free, thousands of farmers in the years to come will be sacrificed at the altar of agricultural development.

All these years, World Bank/IMF (International Monetary Fund) have under the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP) very clearly tied up credit with crop diversification. It continues to force developing countries to shift from staple foods (crucial for food security needs) to cash crops that meet the luxury requirement of the Western countries. It has therefore been forcing developing countries to dismantle state support to food procurement, withdraw price support to farmers, dismantle food procurement, and relax land ceiling laws enabling corporates to move into agriculture. Farmers need to be left at the mercy of the market forces. Since they are ‘inefficient’ producers, they need to be replaced by the industry. This is exactly the policy that what was aggressively applied in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.

Let us be very clear, the part of the world that needs to go in for immediate crop diversification is the industrial world. These are the countries that produce mounting surpluses of wheat, rice, corn, soybean, sugar beat, cotton, and that too under environmentally unsound conditions leading to an ecological catastrophe. These are the countries that inflict double the damage -- first destroy the land by highly intensive crop practices, pollute ground water, contaminate the environment, and then receive massive subsidies to keep these unsustainable practices artificially viable. These are the countries that are faced with the tragic consequences of massive farm displacements, and are in the grip of food calamities arising from industrial farming.

Even internationally, the same economic thinking has percolated every institution, including the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) as well as some of the big NGOs. Take a look at the FAO’s prescription being doled out through its latest State of Food and Agriculture 2004. The report says: “Of more than 11,000 field trials performed on 81 different transgenic crops since 1987, only 15 percent have taken place in developing or transition countries. In fact, most of the biotechnology research being conducted by the private-sector in developing countries involves trials of their own transgenic plant varieties.” It therefore strongly advocates the launch of the transgenics in the developing world as the answer to removing hunger and raising farm incomes.

Not listening to the voice of the marginalized and the poor, a majority of them actively involved with farming, will not only be suicidal but can be catastrophic for the powers that be. At the failed WTO Ministerial at Cancun in September 2003, the suicide by the Korean farmer Lee Kyung-hae amplified the devastation that the trade regime (in association with the World Bank/IMF and FAO/CGIAR) has wrought on the farming communities all over the world. The message from Lee’s sacrifice was loud and clear. The growing discontent and frustration that prevails on the farm front, has been equally amplified through the farmers suicides in India.

The greatest irony is that those who created the problem at the first instance are the ones who are being asked to provide the solutions. Those who tilled the land for ages, and have the knowledge and wisdom to provide the right answers, are being ignored and for obvious reasons. We are all part of a global system, which perpetuates poverty and deprivation. We are, therefore, in reality, the cause behind hunger and the resulting farmers suicides. In the absence of any meaningful change in economic thinking and prescription, farmers will continue to take the fatal route by drinking pesticides or by hanging themselves from trees.

Note -- This analysis is an in depth version of Devinder Sharma's earlier article on "India's Agrarian Crisis: No End to Farmers Suicides."

About the author: Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst. Among his works are GATT to WTO: Seeds of Despair and In the Famine Trap. Responses can be emailed to:

Published in In Motion Magazine August 7, 2004

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