Veeru and Veena Nagpal have a nice way of socializing. Every Monday at 4.30PM, few old and retired gentlemen and mostly ladies get together at his residence, and sing religious songs (bhajans and kirtans). We reached today a little early. Veeru and me were two males sitting in one corner. And as usual, some conversation started. Veeru enquired about my views on the large-scale suicides of the farmers in the country. (Veeru runs a NGO also for waste management in Noida.) I have my own opinion about these suicides that I shared with him:
Farmers are of two categories- the landless ones taking land from the land holding farmers to till on rent against certain cash or percentage of the produce and the others with land of their own. The list of deceased constitutes farmers of the both categories. We are to differentiate between the two categories. The landless tillers never consider the land as their own and don’t bother much to get the best out of the land. They just wish to have yield good enough to pay the rent and get some extra to carry on. However, those with land of their own are ambitious, take to new ways of farming, and do take risks sometimes a little more than what they should.
However, the main issue is the profitability of farming. Can it give earning (output price-input cost) good enough to sustain the family that own the land or till the land at rent?
It is either the government through minimum support price or the buyer generally the traders in business in the open market decide the farmer produce’s unit price. Open market traders normally try to pay the minimum that they can manage taking advantage of the prevailing situation (both of the market and personal urgency of the farmer) when the crops get ready for sale. With no other source of income to run the day-to-day expenses and under the pressure to return the loans taken for the inputs in farming, the farmers are not in position to store the produce to sell it when the price is the best that he can get. Sometimes, even they lack the facilities to store.
The biggest reason of farmers’ miseries is the poor price that they get for their produce. Normally the farmers receive too tiny a proportion of the price their produce gets when eventually sold at to the direct consumers. The more are the middlemen, the lesser is the proportion. Can the proportion be improved by cutting down the middlemen? If the government can find a practical way for that, it can be a win-win situation for both the consumers and the producer farmers. Farmers can get better price through contract farming, when there is a reliable corporate buyer is to lift the produce as soon as it is ready. ITC procurement through e-Choupal is a success story and so are the PepsiCo and other MNCs initiatives for contract farming. However, the interest of farmers must be monitored through some independent agencies so that the buyers of the farmers’ produce don’t exploit them. Farmers may also be trained and helped to do some value addition to their produce to get a better price, if possible. It will also mean some more employment opportunities in rural areas of the country.
Naturally, the second biggest problem is about the financing of the inputs for the farming. Most of the farmers don’t maintain a fund for the farming inputs. Neither do they keep a bank account. Less than a third of India’s population is connected to the banking system. In rural India, the proportion will be even worse. The farmers are among them. Most of them are to depend on private moneylenders, who charge huge interest that keeps on accumulating with a little lapse, and it is many times more than the regular banks charge. Why can’t here be a special drive to bring all the farmers in some tie up with the banking system that can separate out the credibility of individual farmers based on the past records and provide credits as and when required by the farmers?
Many things can be done to improve the conditions of the farmers, but they must understand today that cultivation or farming is also a management and it requires the desired skill to succeed. It can’t be any more done in adhoc manner, as was the practice many years ago when the landholdings used to be substantial. Moreover, the extra effort for some additional earning through horticulture, fisheries and livestock farming will also be essential, where all the family members must work physically forgetting the social restrictions and practices.
I am not convinced that the suicides of farmers relate only to failures of crops. As I understand the reasons for indebtedness for the farmers used to be four: family functions such as son/daughter’s marriage or even for the ritual after the death of the family member; legal expenses; child education; and emergency medical expenses. We never heard of indebtedness because of the excessive expenditure in farming. A detail study by some institution with expertise is necessary to understand the real causes and take preventive steps. No amount of adhoc payment as charity to the deceased family can be of any help for the solution of the social problems.
I was amazed when someone suddenly asked me if I knew that it was only in Congress ruled states. I didn’t reply.
PS.Two farmers of Maharashtra -Vivek Mahajan and Maya Lambat-are, in their own little way, trying to ensure that the spate of suicides abates. Mahajan-a qualified architect who divides his time equally between his practice in Chennai and farming in Karanjalad village in the suicide belt of Vidarbha-is trying to bring small farmers together and work towards making agriculture more viable for them. Mahajan grows mangoes, custard apples, sweet lime and amla on his 25-acre orchard. Lambat has helped 24 farmers in her village set up vermiculture systems; and is also advising farmers to explore fruit cultivation and teaching them how to grow seeds at home so they can cut costs.