Who is Responsible?

  • From Nehru to Modi, all rulers neglected small farmers
  • A profound analysis on farmers’ suicides

By Vithal Rajan

A question has been raised in high circles whether governments can be held responsible for farmer suicides. It is suggested that surely the taking of one’s life is an issue of mental health, unconnected with society’s political economy.

Vithal Rajan 1It is a fact that a suicide occurs when, as stated in legal terms, the person is not in a sane condition of mind. And such instability can occur in any class of society. There is no such condition as existential happy poverty, however much Bollywood may like to portray poor people singing and dancing. They do sing and dance, but they are equally prone to depressions like anyone of us. Only in the last two decades or so did health workers discover that the poor also fall prey to what were thought of as lifestyle problems, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, insomnia and migraine. We have to go back to Rousseau, who ushered in the Enlightenment, to find the root of the simplistic modern belief that somehow a life of rural poverty spares people the ills all humanity inherits.

Scandinavia has a high suicide rate. Some Japanese students living in a well ordered wealthy society are also prone to commit suicide under stress of competition. A series of teen suicides in America are said to be copycat suicides. So, Indian politicians and their ruling elite, also under stress to achieve power and amass money while the chance offers, could be tempted to relegate farmer suicides to mental disease, wash their hands of an intractable societal problem, and get on with business as usual.

The experiences of religious ministrations over millennia and the application of modern psychological and psychoanalytic practices demonstrate that people can be brought back from the edge by careful nurturing. The Norwegian painter Munch’s most famous picture is called ‘The Scream.’ It is no longer unheard and scores of citizens’ associations exist in most major cities to minister to anyone who feels driven to suicide.

But behind the despair that drives people to take their own lives resides a cause for such an unnatural act. Emile Durkheim’s famous study of suicides may now be considered outmoded, especially in some of his formulations, but the basic thesis still holds good as does his four categories of suicides. Recent Indian research has even placed ‘jauhar’ practiced by Rajput women after defeat in Durkheim’s ‘altruistic suicide’ category. The present-day suicides of many abused or abandoned women would have been seen by Durkheim as ‘fatalistic,’ oppressed and choked by family and society as they are.

Economic ruin, failed aspirations

The present spate of farmer suicides in India unquestionably fall in the ‘anomie’ category, linked to moral confusion caused by economic ruin, failed aspirations and crushing disappointment. Many have gambled with their lives and fortunes, and put themselves and their families under tremendous risk by thoughtless borrowing to get out of their families age-old poverty trap. Many young farmers risk everything in a legitimate aspiration to have a life at least like the middle-class families they view on TV. The confirmed impossibility of achieving this in their lifetime is a crushing blow that can lead to suicide, addiction, or violence on others.

Modern psychoanalytic practice has a far more sophisticated understanding of the mind and the unconscious, but Durkheim’s basic tenets still stand.  As Shakespeare’s Henry V says famously before battle the king cannot be held responsible for any soldier’s fate. But a leader is certainly responsible for social tragedy caused by faulty policy. If we can blame European chancelleries for the mega-deaths of World War I, we have an equal right to lay the blame for farmer deaths at the door of the Indian governments.

Nehru when he took charge said all things can wait but agriculture, for at that time large parts of agricultural land had gone to Pakistan. A ‘Grow More Food’ programme was initiated, and the President, Rajendra Prasad, even led with a ‘miss a meal a day’ campaign. But soon all this was forgotten in the rhetoric of industrialisation, and the grinding poverty of the majority of small and farmers was never addressed, except with fitful subsidies and loan write-offs which mostly benefitted business or better-off farmers. A late 19th century British scientific study of Indian farming methods found nothing wrong with them and said plainly that poverty itself was the root cause of the woes of the ryots, exacerbated through Mughal and colonial governments squeezing the last penny out of them. The Nehruvian and successor governments plumped for mega dams, canal irrigation and fertilizer factories which all went to support the rural landlord class. The powerless small farmer majority was neglected since their votes would be garnered by feudal power elites.

Loan mafis a must

Elite economists and decision makers till today honestly believe that nothing much can be done for the rainfed small farmers, who are committing suicide in numbers, because the elite believe that their livelihoods are unsustainable. Unfortunately, the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh State, one of the worst affected, was ruled for two decades by two men, Chandrababu Naidu and YSR Reddy, who were fascinated by the money that could be made by supporting corporate India and the rich. Their only solution for agrarian tragedy was to throw largesse in the shape of loan mafis. Even the central government’s much touted MNREGS is a mere extension of the 19th century British food for work programme, fashioned to prevent rioting but not hunger. Naidu, despite the bitter lesson taught him by farmers at the hustings, now plans to take away over 30,000 acres from farmers for his capital and real estate development, and destroy the secure livelihoods of over one lakh people!

Such egregious folly is buoyed by fallacious economic reasoning that sees a future when the bulk of rural people would move to work in urban-based industry, and corporate farming takes over the countryside. They dream of an unrealistic ‘great leap forward’ to catch up with the West. The wealth bubble created almost by happenstance by IT professionals is seen as a result of good governance, and confirms leaders in the belief that only corporate India can produce growth. Fashionable economists advising governments have failed to read economic history and Gunnar Myrdal’s warning that initial conditions are very different in the economic histories of the West and India. Stagnating manufacturing cannot absorb hundreds of millions of workers. It first needs to grow with strong domestic demand, which itself is dependent on the very same rural poor having an increase of purchasing power.

The only long term solution for India’s growth problem is to ensure sustainable livelihoods for the small and marginal farmer communities by building supportive infrastructure, with careful linkages to financial and marketing bodies, and advise on farming systems that makes farmers independent of the disastrous pressures brought on them by selfish dealers.

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