July 2017
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Climate change, Politics & Farmers’ Suicides in India

Dr. Gopi Ghosh, Director and Chief of Policy Research, Asian Institute of Poverty Alleviation

Dr. Gopi Ghosh, Director and Chief of Policy Research, Asian Institute of Poverty Alleviation

By Dr. Gopi Ghosh, Director and Chief of Policy Research, Asian Institute of Poverty Alleviation

The unseasonal rains, hailstorms and thunderstorms in March and April this year have brutally devastated vast fields of wheat, mustard, potatoes and other crops in the north-west India. We have heard about the fury of nature but this scale is unprecedented, A farmer who has invested in his farming after a great deal of efforts and costs has lost all his main source of livelihood- all of a sudden. He does not know how to wake up tomorrow to feed his family, repay his loans (atrocious rates of interest if borrowed from unorganized source or private lenders) or support the education, health, marriage and other sundry costs of his family.

The state apparatus, as has been the case, is barely sensitive and much away from understanding or feeling the enormity of such a massive calamity – except of course delivering sugary platitudes – often for political score. Even if they are willing to bear the losses the tasks are too colossus -be in timely assessing the number and amount of losses and deliver the amounts – a good chunk of which would probably be siphoned off to the dispensers and the politically connected (remember P Sainath’s Everyone loves a good drought ).

It would be perhaps another kind of scam in managing such tasks – right kind of support and  compensation-  to the significant number of victims (food growers) of this nation. Political mudslinging is seen already – who is to blame and who is not doing what it is to be done and so on. Stress and hopelessness due to mounting debts and no solutions in sight, many ordinary farmers resort to ending their lives. The media hyperbole and questions and counter-questions are mounting – but these would soon settle down for another juicy story to appear on the national horizon.

Climate change, we are told, is real and at our face. As if we don’t know. (read about California drought- people are thinking of leaving – hold on- California- the el Dorado?). The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change has meticulously predicted uncomfortable scenarios specific to south Asian agriculture.   If so, then are we least prepared to face it and take adaptation measures where ever needed?  Do we have crop insurance to bear at least a part of the risks? Have our research scientists who are huge in numbers – know how best to  predict, anticipate the cause and impact and suggest viable alternatives- whether it is diversifying into something less prone to climate aberrations?

Whether we could develop crop varieties that can withstand more biotic and abiotic stress? Whether we can tinker around the growing periods? In Punjab, we witnessed farmers (not the scientists) have advanced sowing of wheat through the adoption of conservation agriculture- by planting wheat immediately after rice harvesting – thus staying away from high onset of temperature in March. The residual moisture of rice also helps in germination and water saving- besides the saving due to avoiding elaborate field preparation and of course 2-3 weeks of time. Wheat seed-fertilizer planter – a technology tool – came in handy. Do we have such innovation across region, crops or ecological conditions?

Nobody seems to be working for national interests– except for short term sectoral interests, immediate quick-fix or for petty political one-upmanship. And the public in general has short-lived memories in this respect. Consumers will be swayed by populism to dethrone a government that failed to keep say – onion prices in check.  Farmers will be happy to receive 30 rupees in bribes instead of claiming the whole 100 meant for them. How can they forget that had there been a good institution- preferably of their own-  a farmer’s cooperative- a producer’s organization – that could have definitely served them better in arranging for their inputs – fertilizers, credit, chemicals and importantly precious advisories (in fact their own experts not commercially loaded advice of vested interests such as  pesticide dealers and companies) as to what to plant, how to procure, at what costs and prices, where to sell, how long to  retain and all such activities – much advantageous to them. The farmers of western India in many instances have reaped that kind of benefit. But in most cases, elsewhere, the farmers fight for the petty spoils of power- dictated by political masters and goons and eventually destroy their own institutions, chance of collective bargain and long-term benefits.

It is not rocket science to understand that 86% of small and marginal farmers in India (with 14% GDP) cannot have their sole livelihoods on the tiny piece of holding they have. Bereft of any other vocations they stay in farming unwillingly; remain poor throughout their lives – carefully passing on the poverty to the next generation (unless they migrate to the slums and shanties of the metros). Here the politicians shed crocodile tears and cry for century old “emotional attachment” of the farmers with their “land” –  that ironically  only perpetuates chronic poverty and  maintain their status quo.

They are deprived of basic amenities – water, education, housing, health care – for decades and decades – but their continuation as poor is a great instrument at the hands of politicians during elections.  What happens when the grandiose promises falter? Farmers – the largest vote banks of this country- because of their ignorance and short-sightedness do not see their future. Their future does not lie in farming  one or two acres of land – even for a minute – with a distorted price and defunct market, faulty subsidy delivery, in an environment with lack of education, power, health care or  communication and full of corruption, cronyism and malgovernance.

When do you understand, my country kinsmen,  what is indeed good for you as a community, who is going to deliver that kind vision, hope and reality, and when can you start living a dignified life? If you can not just think going out of farm sector for yourselves, kindly see that possibility at least for your children. Give them skills and education. Grab any opportunity for the same. It’s for your survival.

Let the nation and its leaders think about the food security of 1.2 billion people; they have played that tricks on your shoulders for too long.

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