Indian Farmers Are Staring at Suicide as Modi Government Looks the Other Way

Yves here. Suicide is not normally a topic in polite company. But the desperate conditions facing Indian farmers, even ones with good-sized plots and high-value crops, means a rise in suicide rates. And as this post make clear, it’s mainly due to debt. The same forces are crushing US farmers, who often sell off parts of family farms to get by, which can put them in a death spiral, since the remaining land doesn’t throw off enough income to support the overheads.

And we are about to see this movie start playing across small business American. Many enterprises are suffering from a collapse in revenues. Some may be able to downsize enough to continue to provide the owners and a few employees with an adequate income, even if it is wrenching to fire long-standing, loyal employees to save a few. But other businesses will fold. The loss of savings (most owners will put in more money to try to keep the venture afloat) and the emotional toll, combined with the poor prospects for the economy generally, mean a lot of owners will be isolated and desperate.  And a lot of this distress could have been prevented.

By Aaqib Athar. Originally published at openDemocracy

Shankar Darekar is haunted by reports about farmer suicides  | Shankar Darekar
I am Shankar Darekar, a 47-year-old farmer from Vimchur, a remote rural village in India’s Maharashtra province. Maharashtra is known for its rich heritage, the generally prosperous lifestyle of its people and fertile lands. But behind that lustrous shroud, penury and unremitting suicides fester, defining the lives of us peasants.

The coronavirus pandemic, which erupted in India in early March, has spelled doom for us. It was the harvest season. I cultivate grapes on five acres of land bequeathed to me by my forefathers. Grapes are an expensive cash crop, requiring a whopping investment of up to $3,000 per acre of cultivation. There are no yields for the first three years.

Every year in March, I sell part of the crop to merchants in Kolkata, in India’s eastern province of West Bengal, from where it is sent to Bangladesh. The remainder is sent to Delhi and Punjab, for export to our western neighbours. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the lockdown from midnight of 24 March, he gave India’s 1.3 billion citizens barely four hours’ notice. It was a cruel joke that had a huge effect on millions of farmers.

By that time, I had dispatched 100 quintals [10 tonnes] of grapes to Bangladesh, but 350 quintals were still on vines in the fields. I thought of the debt I had incurred. If the grapes rotted, my life would be ruined. Some of us got together, called farmers’ bodies and made hurried representations to the government. To our dismay, our appeals fell on deaf ears.

The Modi government, which had arranged special jets to fly back the rich who were stranded abroad, was unwilling to run the railways for a few more days to transport our crops. We tried to organise trucks on our own, but provincial borders were sealed. Permits were not granted despite pleas to the government.

Over a week was wasted in this flustering uncertainty. By the time we zeroed in on some local merchants, the sugar level of the grapes had risen. The buyers fixed abysmally low rates, but we could not negotiate. I sold 225 quintals of grapes for one-fifth of the price I would usually get.

But more than 125 quintals of grapes had ripened and could not be sold. Someone suggested that raisin makers might be interested in buying it. The buyer gave us 23 rupees per kilogram of raisins. The maths was numbing. I sold the grapes at a measly four rupees [0.05 US cents] per kilogram.

This was looting. It coincided with fervent displays of nationalism at the whim of the prime minister. One evening, Modi asked people to gather on their balconies or nearby open spaces and cheer healthcare workers by banging pots. On another occasion, he wanted them to switch off their lights at 9pm and light diyas [earthen pots] and candles. The rich obeyed merrily, and they even set off firecrackers. They said they were patriots. Their self-applauding made for pulsating prime-time TV, while our livelihoods were squeezed out of us and we had to save every penny.

The Modi government claims to have introduced several pro-farmer and pro-poor schemes, which it robustly markets at the time of election. But I don’t know who benefits from them.

What I witnessed in the lockdown was the anti-farmer face of this government, which refused to buy our crops or ensure minimum support prices. This is the same government that seldom hesitates to waiver the loans of crony capitalists.

I shudder to think of the losses I have incurred. But the numbers come rattling to me in my sleep. It is somewhere between $18,800 and $20,000.

“How will we repay the loan, papa?” my children ask.

By June, I usually start repaying the loan. But I have no money to do so this year. The government isn’t even willing to write off the interest on it.

Many peasant farmers may have ended their lives already. In reply to a right-to-information disclosure in October 2019, government reported that 15,356 farmers in Maharashtra had committed suicide between 2013 and 2018. This means that seven farmers committed suicide every day for six years.

Not only do I have massive debt, but my cultivation cycle has been badly hit. After the grapes are harvested in March, there is usually a crucial period of thread-cutting and treatment of leaves, followed by resting of the plants.

None of that could be done because of the unplanned lockdown. The harvest usually due in October is now likely to drag until December, adding to my financial woes.

Usually from January to March, we also borrow from the neighbourhood grocer and local vendors. They happily give us rations and other essentials on credit as they are certain that we will repay them once the yields start coming.

I haven’t paid for the rations I have taken since January and the grocer is becoming uneasy. He may stop our supplies from next month.

Meanwhile, at the end of June, my 74-year-old mother suffered a stroke. The local doctor recommended that she be taken to the Nashik district hospital but we cannot afford to do that. If something happens to my mother, I will not be able to forgive myself.

But I am helpless. There’s no money and a huge debt. Besides my mother, I have to look after my wife and two children and my brother’s widow and her two children.

Reports on farmers’ suicides, usually relegated to the inside pages of newspapers, fill my mind. But I restrain that thought. What would happen to the three women and four children in my family if I wasn’t around?

[As told to Aaqib Athar]

Over 40% of Indians rely on agriculture for their livelihood, according to the World Bank. But this sector has been under pressure for a number of years due to crop failures and price drops. Many small-scale farmers borrow from moneylenders who charge exorbitant interest rates. Suicides are common in this sector when crops fail: a 2015 study attributed almost 40% of farmers’ suicides to financial pressure. Although the Modi government has introduced minimum support prices for crops, few farmers are benefitting. The government is also in the thick of a controversy over the Prime Minister’s Crop Insurance Scheme. Farmers allege that it is designed to benefit the private insurance companies as premiums are compulsory but hidden clauses mean the policies often do not pay out.

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  1. JE

    Farming is hard work. I don’t ever want to have to rely on farming to survive. We as a humans need to re-calibrate our entire world view and economy to appropriately value the work of farmers like Shankar above, and my extended family here in the Midwest who are struggling mightily, albeit not as mightily as Shankar. The fact that some no-talent, momo-chasing asshat with a Bloomberg terminal can live in luxury, wasting thousands on Colombian marching powder while hard working humans the world over suffer to provide food for the rest of us is an indictment of the world we have built. If anything positive comes out of the just-starting global economic collapse I hope it is a new brand of society that values truly essential productivity. Realistic? Maybe not, but I’m doing my best locally to engage with food producers, cut parasites out of my life (Wall Street, Amazon, etc) hire talented craftspeople to fix the things I do own and know my neighbors and look out for each other. The elite do not have our backs, they are on our backs.

    1. Monte McKenzie

      You nailed it JE, My first job was shoveling wheat in a truck I would later drive to the graniry to unload!
      115 no shade but I was 13 then and could take it !
      Times have changed ,not for the better, actually for worse! ,Americans labor pay has actually decreased consistantley since I was in that wheat field, and now NO job, pays a living wage !
      When I greduated from the U of Washington in ’56, smart econ’s and futurists were then telling of inovation of production methods was killing jobs faster than a growing economy could replace them and now we have to reorganize our thinking about a days work for a days pay! in the 70’s women came into the work force in numbers forcing many men out and of course they were paid even less per hour than the declining wage men were paid !
      All the time the wealth was concentrating in the 1% who never spend it into the economy except to buy 4 or 6 houses or one of a kind cars or islands ,yaghts etc with their small change as well as owning our State & federal governments decission making boddies, so we the people can’t take any of it away from them ! Then we get “TRUMP” Trade war and pandemic! actually it would have been very little different with Hill and bill back steeling everything in sight !
      Now, no democracy at all ! No 50’s type people protection programs and cutting what little is left, will soon have the majority of American families in the streets as homeless!
      I ask you is it time for the second American Revolution?

  2. California Bob

    I’ve been reading stories about desperation, depression and suicides among American farmers–mostly in the Midwest–for several years now. The upside, I suppose, is that farming is a bit of a ‘lonely’ occupation, most farmers stay on their farms most of the time–coffee/breakfast with neighbors, and trips to Tractor Supply being exceptions–so they are somewhat shielded from covid (but they are famously ‘conservative,’ demanding their right to expose themselves to risk by not wearing masks).

    I have skin in the game: I inherited a small plot–18 acres–of almonds in central California, so I’m watching developments closely. Our almond co-op advised us we may be eligible for PPP cash, but our last harvest was not impacted and so far this year it’s business as usual, so I’m not going to try to wrangle a windfall from it. But, I believe our food chain is at risk, in a number of ways; not the least of which is our food infrastructure depends on immigrant labor, some of it ‘illegal.’ If only Americans understood how essential this labor is, and how hard these people work, maybe we could develop a more rational immigrant policy (but rationality seems to have left the building in the USA).

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      What would currently and futurely jobless Americans have to be paid in order to do this work? What would almonds have to cost in order to allow an almond farmer to pay American wages to American workers?

  3. Adam1

    Change a few minor details and this article could be about US farmers.

    My first paying job where social security was withheld was working on a dairy farm. I’m probably about 2-3 generations off the farm, but my family had, up until my generation as an adult, lived in rural America since colonial times. I still have cousins who work land and own dairy farms. The last 30 or 40 years have been really tough. The national policy has been get bigger or get out, yet the number of acres farmed or the number of cows milked has more or less been flat. It’s really about a concentration of money and power.

    In the early 1980’s my aunt built a new dairy barn. It was, as I recall, the 3rd largest stanchion dairy barn in NY (if not the US). It could milk and house 100 (ish) cows. It was probably the one of the last ones ever build too. Today my aunt, who’s in her mid 70’s and still runs the show, will tell you she loses money on milk. It’s basically impossible to make a real living (alone) in the US in dairy on a farm sub-200 or 300 cows today. My aunt makes her money on breeding and selling of cows from one of the top premier dairy herds in the US. Milk for her is a byproduct of what she really does for a living. Sadly, most dairy farmers are trying to make a living off of producing milk.

    Why is get bigger or get out bad? Well it comes down to stanchion dairy. As I recall some farmer telling me, stanchion dairies produce more milk per cow because the cows get better treatment. Better treatment you ask? The alternative is a CAFO. Concentrated Animal Feed Operation. When I was a kid we called the dairy style parlor. What parlor really means is the cows come into a milking “parlor” from somewhere and get milked and returned. In the 1980’s many dairies around 100 cows or more typically went for the parlor style because of efficiencies in milking. And there were limited down side on the cows as you could often still pasture the cows and provide them with bedded sleeping areas. However, we are way beyond 12o cow parlor style dairies. In today’s world we have factory CAFO’s with not just 400, but 500, 600, 1000, and I’ve even heard of 5,000 cow CAFO dairies. We no longer have family dairy farms (except the struggling few that will vanish before this decade is out) and with that goes all the unsustainable agricultural processes.

    In today’s world if you have a family dairy your either chronically losing money for something you love (which happens every day in farming); making way below minimum wage; a struggling to be successful organic dairy; a struggling 200-300 cow dairy trying to figure out how to be a successful BIG dairy; or a large corporation trying to call yourself a farmer. Oh, and every one of those farmers have MASSIVE debts. In today’s world the few family farms left are just trying to keep things going. Few have the ability to even worry about what they leave their kids and probably have sleepless nights because they know they can’t do anything to guarantee their kids a farm, which is every farmers dream.

  4. Anand Shah

    Not a big ‘Modi’ fan myself… but truth to be told… Indian farming & farming suicides have been significant problems in india, irrespective of the government at the center…

    Rampant money lenders, weather, micro farming, fertilizers, medical bills (though indian medicene is cheap by american standards, it is very expensive for many families, and a single bill can set you back many years), liquor, dowry… and a host of other issues…

    Another major expenditure that was unheard of in the 70s, higher education for children…

    We have not yet seen ‘right to repair issues, yet….”

    Till debt do us part :-(

  5. Prasad

    I think there is more need to be organized for the farmers. The cooperative movements somehow were hijacked for political reasons. Otherwise, I read about stories from media with the opposite effect. I stay in India. I read about an NGO organization near Satara / Pune in the state of Maharashtra (India) which collaborated with the farmers, district authorities nicely. After the current lockdown, you may be aware even the end users were not getting proper fruits/vegetables. So this NGO discussed with the district authorities and it lead to farmers forming groups and each group had arranged a vehicle to transport fruits/vegetables to a ward/region of city (like Pune) and directly sold their produce to customers. Authorities realized the problem and helped since it takes care of two problems at a time (farmers , customers). Even at other places this was handled in similar fashion. But there are two things to be noted. The solution will not be instant as it takes time to realize/think for solution/coordinate/approach/implementation. The second thing is that the losses are more with commercial crops like grapes/cotton etc., So the govt usually advices going for diversified crops. But hardly it is followed. So the farming had become like any other market with risk/reward ratios.

  6. Madhav

    Doesn’t mention the State Govt Change last year. The state govt pays half of the PM crop insurance scheme. The present state govt is an opposition coalition and not Modi’s party.
    Dishonest piece. Also Doesn’t mention various new policies since epidemic and lockdown giving farmers freedom to sell anywhere. Cause for suicide can be because of other Causes and dysfunctions too. Anybody can scribble and write essays on sorry plight if one keeps looking only for that. Good news is Monsoon /Rains has picked up well. Suicide numbers were even more ugly between 2004-2014. Write & share something positive instead of selling poverty. It shows your mindset.

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