I learnt early on, to appreciate the struggles of our rural countrymen. When I was growing up, I was told by my mother that my father had fought a big case as a young lawyer- a case that helped the farmers of Maharashtra. Many years later, he told me what the case was about. In the 1980’s, recovery officials of co-operative banks, moneylenders, financial institutions in the State of Maharashtra had begun using coercive and illegal methods to recover monies owed to them by debt-ridden farmers. My father advised Mr. Sharad Joshi, a legendary leader of the Shetkari Sanghatana (literal translation being “Farmer’s Organization”) to seek the protection of insolvency laws to prevent further recoveries- a legal right routinely enforced by urban persons but never invoked (on that scale) by farmers. The plan was to obtain a settlement with the banks and the government during the inevitable impasse during the pendency of these petitions. Mr. Joshi and my father travelled across the state of Maharashtra, Delhi and Punjab convincing farmers to file these petitions. By the end of it, they had a movement on their hands and my father suddenly had 6,20,000 pro bono clients- all farmers. I was told that at any given point during those days, there were more than a hundred farmers in and around our house and his office was neck deep with work, churning out insolvency petitions. They had their ups and downs through the system of appeals within the judiciary but finally when relief came, it came from the Supreme Court of India. The Supreme Court passed a blanket order- staying all recovery proceedings against all the farmer-petitioners. This created a liquidity problem for the banks who couldn’t write off these loans without their own set of problems. According to the New Internationalist, the Government finally came to the rescue and wrote off loans worth 107 million dollars, some of which, were more than 20 years old.
My sister too, has worked and stayed in villages to educate the rural population, having been student of developmental studies and then working for an NGO called “Aser”. The complexities of the issue being lost on me at a younger age, I also nurtured a curiosity about why when everybody must eat, farmers are so poor? Wasn’t “Jai Jawan Jai Kisan” (“Hail the Soldier, Hail the Farmer”) our country-building war-cry?
This slogan was coined by India’s second Prime Minister Mr. Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1965 in Ramila Maidan, Delhi. Now, in the year 2018, that sentiment has proved to be an empty celebration of people who most likely suffer the most for little in return. This piece however, is dedicated to understanding the policies in place to curb suicides in the region and their efficacy. So the motivation here is more to spread awareness of the issues involved than force a solution on a complex problem.
According to a report by Times of India, the Central Government informed the Supreme Court last year that since 2013, more than 12,000 farmers have committed suicides in the agrarian sector every year. Maharashtra topped the list with 4,291 suicides, followed by Karnataka with 1,569, Telangana 1,400, Madhya Pradesh 1,290, Chhattisgarh 954, Andhra Pradesh 916 and Tamil Nadu 606. Together, these seven states accounted for 87.5% of total suicides in the farming sector in the country -11,026 of 12,602. So when the farmers marched to Mumbai on 6th March 2018, in scorching heat and with limited supplies of food and electricity- they weren’t throwing a tantrum- they were fighting for their lives.
While the mainstream media largely ignored the recent farmer march, social media was lit up with glowing praises for the Maharashtrian farmer community. According to NDTV, the number of farmers reached close to 35,000 as more and more people joined the march on the way since it began. Some media reports pegged the number to as much as 100,000 farmers. They did not want to inconvenience their Mumbai urban brothers and sisters so they decided to enter the city and demonstrate only at around 2 am, so traffic snarls and public safety is not a concern.
“We suffer every day. As their brothers and sisters, we appeal to every resident of Mumbai to not worry about a traffic jam and instead stop their routine work for a few hours on Monday to join us when we march to Vidhan Bhavan to voice our demands.” said Dr Ajit Nawale, general secretary of Akhil Bharatiya Kisan Sabha (AIKS), Maharashtra unit, according to a report by the Mumbai Mirror. This ‘suffering’ he talks about is not the kind India’s urban population can even relate to. It’s the kind that incites a man to take his own life and leave his loved ones forever, from sheer desperation. Farmer suicides due to vicious cycles of loan debts and the inherent risk in farming are now almost routine in rural Maharashtra. Their deaths are now, mere statistics in governmental records invoked by lawyers in Courts to beg them to intervene in matters that are solely within the jurisdiction of the uncaring executive. The Congress and the BJP, have both struggled to balance food prices on the one hand and giving value to the farmer for his produce on the other.
II. What do the farmers want?
So what were the farmers demanding? They, inter alia, wanted the implementation of the Swaminathan Report. The National Commission on Farmers, chaired by Prof. M. S. Swaminathan, submitted five reports through the period December 2004 – October 2006. The Committee’s reports have been succinctly collated by PRS Legislative Research, some of which, are reproduced here:
Some of the main recommendations include:
- Distribute ceiling-surplus and waste lands;
- Prevent diversion of prime agricultural land and forest to corporate sector for non-agricultural purposes.
- Ensure grazing rights and seasonal access to forests to tribals and pastoralists, and access to common property resources.
- Establish a National Land Use Advisory Service, which would have the capacity to link land use decisions with ecological meteorological and marketing factors on a location and season specific basis.
- Set up a mechanism to regulate the sale of agricultural land, based on quantum of land, nature of proposed use and category of buyer.
With respect to credit and insurance facilities NFC suggested the following:
- Expand the outreach of the formal credit system to reach the really poor and needy.
- Reduce rate of interest for crop loans to 4 per cent simple, with government support.
- Moratorium on debt recovery, including loans from non-institutional sources, and waiver of interest on loans in distress hotspots and during calamities, till capability is restored.
- Establish an Agriculture Risk Fund to provide relief to farmers in the aftermath of successive natural calamities.
- Issue Kisan Credit Cards to women farmers, with joint pattas as collateral.
- Develop an integrated credit-cum-crop-livestock-human health insurance package.
- Expand crop insurance cover to cover the entire country and all crops, with reduced premiums and create a Rural Insurance Development Fund to take up development work for spreading rural insurance.
- Promote sustainable livelihoods for the poor by improving (i) Financial services (ii) Infrastructure (iii) Investments in human development, agriculture and business development services (including productivity enhancement, local value addition, and alternate market linkages) and (iv) Institutional development services (forming and strengthening producers’ organisations such as self-help groups and water user associations).
These official recommendations have only implemented by the State Government (who is legislatively competent in matters of agrarian reform) in a piecemeal manner as seen hereinafter.
III. Remedial Governmental efforts
For this blogpost, I researched all the policies implemented by the State Government to help the maharashtrian farmer and prevent such suicides. It’s not that the State has been entirely apathetic, but it was also abundantly clear to me that the Government’s problems lie in a myriad of low policy budgets as well as the incompetent, corrupt and selective implementation of unresponsive policies.
According to some reports, State Governments in our country spend less than the budget allotted for the agrarian sector despite having so much work to do. Cumulatively, State Governments spent 9% less than the budgeted expenditure on agriculture between 2011 and 2015, according to data published by research firm PRS Legislative (pdf). For things to improve, I have realised that public investment is crucial and indispensable.
The official stand of the Government is that the State has been facing a series of natural calamities like drought, hailstorm and unseasonal rains since the last 3-4 years. These calamities are resulting in low yield which in turn, is driving the farmers to commit suicide.
The Government has implemented policies like the “Krishi Samruddhi Scheme” and the “Baliraja Chetana Abhiyan“, to spread awareness and provide counselling to suicidal farmers. These schemes, however, are city-specific and the budget is low; ranging from Rs. 10 lakhs to Rs. 1 crore per year. Village level committees headed by a Sarpanch have also been constituted but only Rs. 1 lakh per year has been placed at their disposal to help the farmers’ families in cases of emergency situations like health expenses, educational expenses, loan instalments etc. which, cause acute financial distress. Here, the budget of the policy practically makes it redundant. To remedy this, the State Government had asked the Central Government for Rs. 4002.82 crores, but the Central Government approved only Rs. 3049 crores, out of which Rs. 2090.26 crores were disbursed to the bank accounts of 37,15,328 farmers.
The Government has also taken the help of the private sector through their CSR projects. Under the Scheme “Baliraja Chetana Abhiyan”, a committee headed by the Collector has been empowered to collect CSR funds from philanthropic corporate houses and utilize the same for “awareness campaigns, revival of social support systems, promotion of community marriages etc.”
Under the National Food Security Act and according to the State Government, the Government has been spending Rs. 80 crore per month (i.e Rs. 960 crores) to about 68 lakh families in 14 districts of Vidharba and Marathwada by providing highly subsidised rates of Rs. 3 per kg (rice) and Rs. 2 per kg (wheat) subject to a total 5 Kgs per month per person as per the Act.
In 2015, the Government had declared a drought like situation in 15,747 villages in the kharif season of 2015. The Government waived 33% of electricity bills, school fees, land revenue and stayed the recovery of crop loans etc.
Having seen the above numbers, it became further inconceivable to me as to how the present dispensation can justify a cost of Rs. 3,500 crore of a stature of Shivaji Maharaja in Mumbai.
The other problem faced by the farmers is irrigation. The Government, in response, has formulated the “Jalyukta Shivar Abhiyan” by way of a Government Resolution dated 5th December 2014. This policy has the ambitious goal of achieving “water for all- scarcity free in 2019”. This is the Chief Minister’s flagship programme, which, according to the resolution, envisages- “arresting rain water within the village boundaries, increasing ground water level, creation of decentralised water bodies, rejuvenation of the old water storage structures, creation of new water bodies, restoring the storage capacity, increasing area under protective irrigation by efficient water use, implementation of the Ground Water Act, de-stilling of structures with people participation, creation of water awareness, publicity and sensitisation among the people’s participation in water budgeting.” An ambitious target of making 5,000 villages of Marathwada and Vidarbha Region scarcity free in every year has been set.
For drinking water, the State Government has sanctioned an amount of Rs. 10922.52 lakhs for supply of water by modes of tanker and bullock cart to 2909 villages in Marathwada Region.
Insurance for the farmer and his crops
To mitigate one of the worst causes of farmer suicides due to debt is crop insurance. The Government has has been implementing a Scheme known as the “National Agriculture Insurance Scheme” through the Agricultural Insurance Company of the Union of India since 1999. Various crops are insured under this scheme. For the worst affected regions of the State, 75% subsidy in premium is given to small and marginal farmers for cotton crop and 50% subsidy to other farmers. Compensation is also paid in proportion to the shortfall in the current year’s average yield in comparison with the threshold yield (Guaranteed Yield) for the notified area. The formula is as under:
Compensation = (Threshold yield) minus (current year average yield) ÷ (threshold yield) multiplied (by the sum insured)
The State has also implemented the “Shetkari Janata Apaghat Vima Yojana” to provide insurance cover to the extent of Rs. 1 lakh to all farmers (who have the 7/12 revenue record and are between the ages of 10 to 75 years) in the State for disability/death due to accidents while farming. This Scheme has been implemented since 2005-2006. The insurance premium is paid by the State to the insurance companies directly, covering about 1.37 crore registered farmers in the State. Prudently, the coverage offered by the State is quite expansive. The following accidents are covered under the scheme:
- Road accident/Railway accident.
- Poisoning during pesticide handling
- Electric shock or Electrocution
- Murder( by unrelated person)
- Fall from height
- Snake bite, Scorpion bite
- Naxalite Violence
- Animal bite (Rabies)
- Any other accidents
Under the new scheme (2015-2016) i.e. the “Gopinath Munde Shetkari Apaghat Vima Yojana”, farmers’ families who have died due to such accidents are paid Rs. 2 lakhs. For injuries involving disablement of some kind, they are entitled to compensation between Rs. 1 lakh to Rs. 2 lakhs, considering the extent of the injury.
Since finance, lending and loan waivers have been a big issue for farmers- the Government has passed a Resolution dated 10th April 2015 which entails the State Government repaying loan amounts of Rs. 33.39 crores to the moneylenders. This has benefited about 36,294 farmers. The State Government by way of Government Resolution dated 24th July 2015, has also decided to partly waive interest of about 713 crores out of the total loan amount of Rs. 946 crores thereby benefitting 37,766 farmers.
IV. Unresponsiveness of policy
A lot of the problems faced by the farmers are due to the lack responsiveness of the State Machinery to their needs. For example, it was only pursuant to a specific direction in that regard the State Government began supplying adequate water to Government and Rural Hospitals so that emergency surgeries and medical treatments could be carried out.
Further, the Hon’ble Bombay High Court directed the constitution of a committee headed by the Dy. Collector which will immediately visit the site of a farmer suicide and within 10 days, ascertain the cause of death and disburse compensation to the farmer’s kin. However, the Government Resolution dated 23th January 2006 states that the Tahsildar (an officer under the Land Revenue Code) will visit the site and then submit a report within 7 days to the Collector, who then, in turn will decide within 15 days if the Government will disburse the money to the family of the deceased farmer. The law states that these timelines would have to be “strictly” adhered to except in exceptional circumstances. However, the on ground implementation of this scheme is almost always wrought with bureaucratic red tape and delays. The State has created a two-level monitoring cell i.e. at the State and Divisional Level, with the Dy. Secretary (Relief) appointed as the Nodal Officer to ensure that the farmers are truly the beneficiaries of the schemes.
Fortunately, the Minister of Relief and Rehabilitation has notified certain suicide prone areas within the districts of Marathwada and Vidarbha wherein the Government immediately disburses Rs. 1 lakh if a “Karta” (head) of a farmer’s family commits suicide without seeing whether it the suicide was caused by agrarian distress or otherwise. The investigation conducted after payment into the reasons for the suicide are strictly for “ascertaining the extent of agrarian distress in these districts”.
If you think that Rs. 30,000/- or even Rs. 1 lakh is an abysmal compensation for someone’s death, fortunately the Hon’ble Bombay High Court has, vide its Order dated 21st January 2016 directed the State Government to pay a more realistic compensation to the kin of a farmer who has committed suicide. The decision to implement this order is presently pending with the government even though as per law, this prerogative is not theirs. They have to implement all orders passed. The Court ought to issue contempt against the State Government for non-compliance of its orders.
Curiously, with this subject, even after reading the likes of P. Sainath, I couldn’t really find a panacea. The problem is that there are too many factors across farming traditions to loan sharks. It is important to implement the Swaminathan Report at least in as much as reducing the rate of interest for crop loans, moratoriums on debt recovery (including loans from non-institutional sources), is concerned. The issuance of Kisan Credit Cards to women farmers, with joint pattas as collateral is also a great idea. Developing an integrated credit-cum-crop-livestock-human health insurance package is crucial.
At the end of the day it appears that farmers are more victims than beneficiaries of the free market. There has been a sense of lethargy to use modern farming techniques. This approach entails banking almost entirely on nature to be benevolent. Even if the monsoons don’t rain on their parade, the fact is that farmers take massive loans for fertilisers, tractors, GMO seeds etc. When the crop is ready, he must hire a vehicle (at his cost) to take it to the mandi (quantities of tonnes and quintals). The market is flooded with his product, so most of the warehouses nearby (for which he must once again shell out money) are full to the brim. He can’t take his produce back to the farm, having spent so much just getting it to the market. So, when a Commission Agent quotes a price to the farmer, he has no choice but to accept it and make the best out of a bad situation.
I acknowledge the efforts by the government to remedy the crisis and am fully aware that policy changes can only ever be impacting and not determining variables. However, having gone through various articles on the subject, it is clear that implementation of these policies along with massive corruption of the State machinery has prevented the laudable objectives of the policies from truly attaining fruition.
-Shrinivas Bobde (20.04.2018)