Issue No. 1 | February 2019

Debt, Death, and Defiance: Probing peasant unrest in India

There are roughly 40 Indian farmers that commit suicide every day amid massive indebtedness, problematic agrarian programs and policies, and failed government promises. But arising from this pile of debts and deaths is a growing defiance by farmers in their tens of thousands around the country.
Tamil Nadu farmers stage a sit-in protest in Delhi, holding the skulls of their loved ones who committed suicide over unpaid farm debts. They clamor for higher farm incomes, insurance and loan write-offs, among others. (Photo: Nirmala Ganapathy/The Straits Times)

It would have been like any rush-hour traffic except for police throwing tear gas and firing water cannons in the middle of the road and tractors barreling into iron barricades. This was the welcome that over 50,000 farmers received after marching for 10 days from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh to the capital New Delhi. It was by no means the response they had hoped to get to ease their unrest.

This was in October 2018, though discontent had been brewing for a while now. In 2017, farmers from Tamil Nadu hogged headlines when they staged a sit-in in front of the parliament in Delhi. There, they stripped off to show their gaunt bodies and brandished skulls of loved ones who had killed themselves in despair over mountains of debts they could not slither out from under.

Their demands and the protest marches have carried over to 2019. Early this month the expressway linking Delhi and Noida had to be closed to make way for striking farmers. Their numbers will continue to swarm the streets unless the government begins to junk its host of superficial schemes in favor of better social services and substantial rights-based reforms, especially in the country’s agrarian policies and programs.

Seeds of dissent

To say farmers are at the bottom rung of India’s socio-economic ladder is an understatement.

As per the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) in 2013, a five-member Indian farm household earns less than US$1,200 a year—just a crumb in the lion’s share India’s billionaires rake in, in a country of about 263 million farmers and farmworkers stuck in poverty.

To an outsider, however, this majority may look taken care of by a state that has relied only on stopgap measures to mask its incapacity to deliver political goods.

For one, farmers are given tax exemptions. This may seem like a bonus but in fact only bears testament to how farmers earn so little, it does not even reach the minimum taxable income. Similarly, the subsidies given for fertilizers benefitted agrochemical companies more than actual farmers, who usually complain of soil depletion because of fertilizer runoff.

While public sector banks offer low-interest loans to farmers, they are few and far between and often caught up in red tape. Rather than used for investments, what these banks manage to lend borrowers are but scraps to tide a family over until the next harvest. Most farmers turn to private moneylenders, then, despite usurious interest rates, which many of them eventually default on.

Another perk supposedly enjoyed by farmers is the minimum support price (MSP), which the state guarantees to pay for almost 20 crops in the event market prices fall any lower.

Even so, in reality, farmers get paid below MSPs. Only several government-run centers are around, too, which buy only certain produce like rice, cotton, and wheat. Because selling crops at the MSPs takes days that could have been spent out in the fields, farmers look to private traders for instant though significantly less cash.

Moreover, while over 60% of the country’s total land area is arable as per the latest World Bank estimates, infrastructure projects and special economic zones (SEZs) increasingly occupy much of it and displace local communities. Most Dalits, formerly known as “untouchables,” suffer this fate as colonial sedition laws and the draconian Land Acquisition Act of 1894 are still in effect.

In several cases, government’s infrastructure projects are displacing many rural communities. In south Gujarat, for instance, farmers are complaining that their lands are being acquired illegally to give way to a multi-billion dollar bullet train funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Meanwhile, the Modi government’s continuing failure to fulfill its promise of recognizing the land rights of farmers such as those from the tribal belt in western India is among the issues that fuel the massive peasant marches.

A slew of other troubles deepens the agricultural crisis. Between 2013 and 2015, and again last year, irrigation wells dried up as monsoons brought below-average rainfall, like in Maharashtra. Bollworms attacked farms in Gujarat. Stray cattle trampled on standing crops in Uttar Pradesh.

Land that was once a point of pride for millions of Indians now serve as a reminder of how since the 1990s, soaring cultivation costs have failed to keep up with returns on their investments. They look to the government for aid but so far got fixes that proved to be policy flops.

Indian farmers bring in increasingly less harvest as they can only work so much on their farmlands with no sustained irrigation and the monsoons delivering below-average rainfall. (Photo: Reuters)

Untended yard

The latest in a string of appeasements from the central government has been found wanting. In the interim budget deliberations in February this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised a 6,000-rupee (about US$85) yearly dole given to farmers owning up to two hectares of land.

“The government is trying to lure farmers by offering peanuts,” said peasant leader Raju Shetti in an interview with the New York Times.

The handout also extends no help to landless farmworkers, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers, and can in fact benefit wealthy absentee landowners. Marginal farmers who till lands they claim they own but possess no titles would find a hard time proving eligibility for the loan due largely to the country’s shoddy record-keeping and ineffective manual land registration processes.

It is also a matter of aid offered too little, too late. Upon assuming office in 2014, Modi vowed “achhe din” or good days for all and went so far as to assure doubled incomes for farmers by 2022. On the contrary, Modi’s rule has swept India’s agricultural industry in a tailspin with one policy blunder after another.

For instance, in late 2016, Modi’s administration scrapped 86% of the high-denomination banknotes overnight in a bid to strike a blow at tax evaders and the black economy. But, instead, this demonetization policy kneecapped millions of income earners, such as farmers who should have been paid in cash yet did not receive salaries owing to inadequately printed new currency.

Yet another snap decision in May 2017 sapped farmers’ confidence in Modi’s government when the latter instituted a ban on cow slaughter. A populist move meant to appeal to the broad Hindu base of his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party caused the otherwise booming beef-export business to founder, the leather trade to hobble, and farmers to still tend to and feed unproductive cattle.

With another election around the corner, such initiatives, though counterproductive, pander to the conservative supporters of Modi, who eyes reelection. The same could be said of the proposed dole, which many views as a bribe meant to reap political dividends come May when the country is set to hold its general elections for members of the lower house of parliament.

Pulling out the roots

With the different political parties keen to sweep the state polls ahead of the national elections, several statistics are worth recalling: from 1995 to 2016, there have been more than 311,400 farmer suicides according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).

This roughly translates into 40 deaths every day. Peasant indebtedness, botched land-related programs, and rural distress are issues officials can no longer just ignore.

Efforts at sound policymaking, instead of mere electioneering, should be the chief project to pull millions of Indian farmers out of dire straits. At least at state level, like in Madya Pradesh, there has been some headway, with the waiver of farm loans worth US$25 billion. If extended to the national level, this would mean immediate relief to debt-saddled smallholder or landless farmers.

Yet the only way to seal the debt trap they may again fall into is with an assembly of incentivized production, a social security net, genuine land reform, and guaranteed government procurement to buffer against wayward market movements.

A stride in this direction would require that control over resources like seeds and fertilizers be wrested from big businesses. Remunerative prices for produce likewise have to be ensured by restructuring the MSP scheme such that interests incurred and input costs are accounted for. Finally, infrastructure for food sovereignty remains one of the long-term goals to address environmental concerns, from a depleting water table to pests and calamities.

These are the same calls that tens of thousands of Indian farmers bear as they weave through India’s cities and states. Students, clerks, doctors and many others have begun to take notice and offered bottled water, food, and shoes to farmers marching on blistered feet. They scrambled to help in pity and solidarity, though it might be a while before government officials do the same.


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