Friday, May 1, 2009

Fields Afire-P.Sainath on dying vidarbha

Fields Afire
P. Sainath

Indian farmers wrote suicide notes to Prime Minister, Chief Minister explaining the situation before hanging themselves, even as experts wondered what was deriving them to this end

But for the everyday act of cultivation, there is almost no sector of agriculture that corporations do not dominate. Seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, other inputs. Prices, trade, all the way to Big Retail.

The last 15-18 years of policy measures sculpted the situation that now exists. Investment in agriculture has collapsed. Credit has dried up even as farm incomes have crashed. Sector after sector – for instance, seed – has been opened up to predatory corporate control. Mindless deregulation has been the norm, embracing the World Bank and IMF prescriptions with enthusiasm and bringing Indian agriculture to the WTO heel. Millions of small farmers who cannot take the risks have been shifted from foodcrop to cash crops and locked into global price volatility. Extension services were crippled and most agricultural research now serves corporations, not communities. Input costs have skyrocketed, for some crops (like cotton, for instance) by several hundred per cent over those 15-18 years. Standards (like minimum germination rate of seed) were lowered or done away with.

And the explosion of costs is on all fronts, not just in agriculture. Large numbers of indebted farmers who committed suicide had huge health expenditures. Several had mortgaged land to pay their hospital bills. Many others still do that and also see their children dropping out of an education they can no longer afford. In short, the hyper-commercialization of the countryside.

Some eight million farmers have quit cultivation. There were 111 million cultivators recorded in the 1991 Census, 103 million in the 2001 Census. Where have they gone? We don’t really know since no systematic work has been done on the scale required. In the media, we aren’t really interested. We can tell you where Paris Hilton is, though. When the 2011 Census appears it is likely that even the eight million figure will be dwarfed as the enforced ‘exit policy’ in farming proceeds unchecked. Where will they go? How will they be absorbed? And apart from these troubling questions: at least 1,82,936 farmers have ended their own lives, in the largest sustained wave of suicides ever recorded, anywhere. We are staring at, but not seeing, the most unbelievably intense misery in the countryside. And one sustained over a period of many years.

The agrarian crisis is comprehensive, all-encompassing, reaching almost every crop, touching almost every sector. It has been around for quite a while, too. And the corporate conquest of agriculture is well apace.

The crisis still lives. And thrives. It will not be resolved by band-aid relief packages. Tackling it calls for nothing short of a huge reversal and transformation of policy. And along with that, an addressing of the long-term real reforms that Indian agriculture needs. Including what kind of agriculture we need to replace this dying model with.

Some ground rules that help understanding:

Do not disconnect urban from rural India. This is a big mistake, often made. The same processes are at work in both, the same policies – even if the fallout is more dramatic in the farm sector. Also, the two are closely connected at many levels. Take the diversion of credit, for instance, towards fuelling urban (and rural elite) upper middle class consumption. Through 2003-04 several farmers killed themselves, unable to raise crop loans of Rs 8,000 or less, except at exorbitant rates of interest. This was at a time when banks were offering upper middle class professionals a chance to buy a Mercedes Benz at 4-6 per cent interest – without collateral. In any case, at the political level, the decisions are made in urban India.

Do not disconnect the rural from the rest of the world. The most dramatic effects of neoliberal globalization are, in fact, seen in the countryside. The operations of Wall Street’s Index Funds can have huge impact on the livelihoods of rural Indians. Speculation in markets around the world have a major fallout, likewise.

The rise of inequality in post-1991 India has been nothing short of stunning. India today has 51 dollar billionaires, but ranks 128 in the UN Human Development Index. While 51 individuals in a population of over one billion have a net worth equalling roughly 31 per cent of our GDP, the Report of the National Commission for Employment in the Unorganised Sector tells us that 836 million other Indians get by on less than Rs 20 a day. Such contrasts are endless. The inequality of the past 18 years is different from that of the preceding 40 years in this respect. Never has it been so cynically constructed, so ruthlessly engineered.

The same process has been on at the global level. Even the meltdown – which has just begun – is strongly linked to that process. CEO salaries exploded, and wealth concentrated at unprecedented levels in a tiny number of hands, while the real wages of working people stagnated or shrunk all the time. In 2008, a year of millions of layoffs, the heads of New York’s financial firms paid themselves bonuses of $ 18 billion. Wages fell and jobs were lost in millions in an era where two-thirds of US corporations paid zero corporate income tax between 1998 and 2005. Anyone could see that it could not be sustained. You’d have to be an economist to believe it could.

Follow the money. At all times, follow the money: There’s big bucks in misery. And agriculture is going to be the great provider of both, big bucks and misery. Remember the food price crisis last year when the West touted the idea that it was because Indians and Chinese were eating a hell of a lot more? How were the large corporations in that sphere doing? As the Wall Street Journal noted (30 April 2008): ‘At a time when much of the world is facing food riots, Big Agriculture is dealing with a different sort of challenge: huge profits. The grain processing giant Archer Daniels-Midland, for instance, saw a 42 per cent rise in its fiscal third quarter profits. "Including a seven-fold increase in net income in its unit that stores, transports and trades grains such as wheat and corn, as well as soybeans." Seed and herbicide giant Monsanto and fertilizer-maker Mosaic "all reported similar windfall profits in their latest quarters".’

Incidentally, those food prices at the global level fell sharply a while ago. Did it imply the same Indians and Chinese began starving? As a matter of fact, the daily net per capita availability of food grain in India sank from 510 grams in 1991 to 422 in 2005. What had happened was the same with oil, as with food. Speculative capital was moving towards agricultural commodities and fertilizer, driving prices upwards.

As thousands of bank branches shut down in rural India and credit dried up, farmers turned more to moneylenders. But this time of a different kind. The small village sahukar is hardly a force in regions like Vidharbha. Indeed, some small moneylenders have committed suicide – their clients have all defaulted or vanished (or killed themselves). In the decade from 1991-92, Indian farm households in debt went up from 26 per cent to 48.6 per cent. The regions seeing high numbers of suicides are also regions where peasant indebtedness is very high. Over 80 per cent of Andhra’s farm households, for instance, are in debt.

We had locked our farmers into the volatility of global cash crop prices, rigged and controlled by a handful of corporations. Add to this the obscene subsidies that the US and EU threw at their corporations and growers. In the US, subsidies made up two per cent of total farm income in 1974. By year 2000, they made up 47 per cent of total farm income. In item after item, US-EU subsidies destroyed millions of livelihoods, not just in India but across the world.

In India, we made no effort to raise duties to halt the dumping of highly subsidised US cotton on this country. Sharad Pawar was not in the least interested. Cotton was not his baby. The subsidized US cotton was grabbed by our textile magnates. They were getting it virtually free. No prizes for guessing what this did to the cotton price for Vidharbha farmers. Maharashtra’s suicides are perhaps unique. In that state, farmers have written suicide notes addressed to the prime minister and chief minister on the issue (while many experts ponder about why these people are taking their lives).

India’s farmers were and are buffeted on all sides these past 15 years. In different states of the country you will find many who tell you the only way a farm can survive is to have one son or brother working in the city who sends some money back to the farm. More and more people quit farming in the past decade and migrations went berserk, but that’s another story.

The end is not in sight. Not after the prime minister’s 2006 visit. Not after the 2008 loan waiver. Yes, the waiver did bring a measure of relief to some. And yes, the Congress might benefit from it in some pockets. But it was and is no solution. In fact, credit for the fresh season is proving to be a huge problem for millions of farmers. Very few of the major recommendations of the National Farmers Commission have found expression in policy. The CAG’s reports on the ‘relief packages’ have been devastating.

The crisis still lives. And thrives. It will not be resolved by band-aid relief packages. Tackling it calls for nothing short of a huge reversal and transformation of policy. And along with that, an addressing of the long-term real reforms that Indian agriculture needs. Including what kind of agriculture we need to replace this dying model with.

(Excerpted from an article in Seminar, India. P Sainath is one of India’s leading voices of conscience working on issues of farm crisis, credit policy, rural India reporting and much else. His path breaking book, Everybody loves a good drought, forever changed the way India’s engaged journalists look at rural domain.)

29 April 2009

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