As Tamil farmers protested at Jantar Mantar in bizarre ways for 41 days, one thing is now clear. Farmers’ suicide is no longer an aberration restricted to a particular region, but a nationwide pandemic.
After spending more than a month behind a barricade on the street at the iconic Jantar Mantar in Delhi, the half-naked elderly farmers left for Tamil Nadu on 23 April. The result of their toil uncertain, with only a slight hope for the future, they are back to square one — the barren landscape ravaged by poverty and death, fighting loan sharks in the face of political disdain.
Another Half-Written Chapter
On the 41st day of the protest, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister E Palaniswami met the farmers at Jantar Mantar, asking them to end the protest. He assured that the state will urge the Centre to waive loans from nationalised banks by 25 May. The farmers agreed, but with caution. If the CM doesn’t keep his words, they will be back.
Whatever the future may hold, for now, the general public, the consumers of the farmers’ produce, have already forgotten them. They are just another half-written chapter in the story of farmers’ suicide.
The Parched Landscape
In the last five years, Tamil Nadu has witnessed one of its worst droughts in the past 150 years. First, there were state-wide agitations before they arrived at the doorstep of the powers in Delhi.
Since 14 March, the protest had been resilient, against the scorching sun, and the heat radiating from the tar road. They were being provided minimal food by the local Tamil associations. Meanwhile, around 64 protesters were hospitalised with dysentery, and some had been sent back to Tamil Nadu.
Epidemic of Farmers’ Suicide
Some years ago, farmers’ suicide was a seasonal aberration, restricted to a particular region. Since most Indian farmers still depend on rain as a chief means of irrigation, nature plays truant and the harvest is lost. But the banks don’t understand this disruption. They want their money back, with interest. Now, a farmer has two options left – to sell his land to pay off the loan or make an undignified exit.
Over 3,00,000 farmers, since 1995, have committed suicide, predominantly in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, MP and Chhattisgarh, but also in Kerala, Punjab, Rajasthan and Odisha. According to the NCRB, 12,602 farmers committed suicide during 2015.
This is a huge number from a single community of people to end their lives, and government reports reduce the plight of the farmers into a series of causes, including ‘bankruptcy or indebtedness’ or ‘farming-related issues’.
Dry Land and Empty Promises
Take the story of Nacchamma, for example. She came to Delhi from Sadavelampatti, Trichy. Her woes started four years back when she took a loan for Rs 3 lakh to install a borewell to irrigate her fields. But there was no sign of water; neither there was rain. Yet, doing everything she could, she managed to return Rs 1.5 lakh. The interest on the unpaid amount started to accrue and four years later, she owes the bank Rs 6 lakh. This she clearly cannot pay.
And the story is far from over. “Forget farming, there is no work in the village, not even digging soil, doing which I could hope to survive and try to repay the loan,” said Nacchamma, angry and despondent.
Nacchamma, resident, Sadavelampatti, Trichy. If death is what lies ahead, then why die a shameful death in my village? I would rather die protesting.
At the end of their tether, death is not fearsome, but a sweet comfort for the farmers, the last resort in a humiliating life. This is what Damodaran’s wife Varalakshmi chose two years back. “The bank officials would arrive and abuse us in our own home. She could not bear it anymore,” the farmer from Trichy said, as he smoothed a human skull. “She chose death over disgrace,” he said.
Depleting Water Levels and Mounting Debts
There are several reasons behind this nationwide epidemic. First, is the changing pattern of monsoon. Whatever side of the climate change debate you may stand, the fact remains that the monsoon, the lifeline of Indian farmers, has been erratic. Some years there is no rain. Sometimes it comes too early and sometimes it’s too late for the season. Even the farm lands traditionally irrigated by river water are facing the problem of depleting water levels.
According to P Ayyakannu, state president of the National South-Indian Rivers Inter-Linking Farmers’ Association, who led the delegation of Tamil farmers to Delhi, in the last five years, around 90 percent of land under cultivation in the Cauvery river base withered without water.
To combat the situation, farmers took loans to install borewells. With the sky being of no help and with no integrated state-run irrigation system in place, individual farmers turn to the ground for water.
Regions of Marathwada, Bundelkhand, Telangana, Karnataka and now Trichy are facing drought-like condition. The situation has grown worse as the already existing wells across the country, monitored by the Central Groundwater Board, are reporting steadily falling water levels.
According to a Fact Finding Committee of Planning Commission on Vidarbha after a number of suicides were reported from Yavatmal, Akola, Amravati, Wardha, Buldana and Washim districts, high indebtedness was cited as the reason for suicides.
What the Tamil Farmers Want
Although the state bank loans have been waived, the loans from nationalised banks continue to dangle above their heads. So, protest remained the only way.
The association wrote a letter to the prime minister, the finance minister and the agricultural minister, with eight-point demands. The major among them is the waiver of farmers’ loans belonging to nationalised banks and a Rs 40,000-crore drought relief fund from the Centre. The association also wanted to see the plans for interlinking all Indian rivers come to fruition.
The quintessential questions remain — why do farmers have to succumb to such undignified methods of protest in a democratic country that has been an agrarian economy and where agriculture still accounts for 17 percent of GDP? If we are depriving our farmers of their dignity, and pushing them further into the poverty spiral, what is it that we plan to eat? Brick, mortar, and cars?
(The writer is a poet, social activist, curator and founder of Poetry Couture. He can be reached @NotSoMadhu. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)