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From Being ‘Cradle of the Green Revolution’ to ‘Graveyard’

Manjit Sharma (drmanjitdav@gmail.com) is assistant professor, Department of Economics, DAV College, Chandigarh.

Agrarian Distress and Farmer Suicides in North India by Lakhwinder Singh, Kesar Singh Bhangoo, and Rakesh Sharma,New Delhi: Routledge, 2016; pp xviii+229,895.

Historically, the peasant is a figureof utmosttragedy and is grotesquely exploited.

– Hobsbawn 1959

The surge in suicides by farmers and agricultural labourers—to which they are driven by the unbearable burden of debt—over the last 15 years is perhaps unprecedented in Indian history. There has been an alarming surge in the ongoing spate of suicides in India’s food bowl. The panoramic sweep by the authors of the volume under review and its insightful observations and analysis are highly relevant for understanding various dimensions of this crisis, and the challenges faced by the rural economy of Punjab today.

The book comprises seven chapters. Its introductory chapter deals with the problem of food shortages in India during the 1950s. This was solved by the green revolution, which was made possible through state-supported institutional and infrastructural facilities that were amply put to use by the enterprising skill and indomitable spirit of the Punjabi farmers. The green revolution catalysed multidimensional rural economic development and consequently Punjab became a model state for a capitalist development of agriculture and in terms of per capita income. But it started showing signs of stagnating returns by the late 1970s and early 1980s. The period 1980–95 was one of considerable political instability and turmoil, and all institutional arrangements for development turned dysfunctional. The government’s new economic policies further disrupted the fragile economy, and Punjab is now infamous as a suicide belt of farmers and of a success story going astray (Dhesi and Singh 2007). The failure to shift from a predominantly agrarian economy to an industrial one has further aggravated this sorry state of affairs. As of now, the state has slipped to the seventh rank among states in terms of per capita income.

The authors provide the macro context for the crisis in the second chapter. The origins of the current agrarian crisis and rural suicides lie, they argue, in structural changes in agriculture, the inability of a workforce in shifting from agriculture to industry, and the increasing pressure of a growing population on agriculture and land. In addition, other factors—such as crop failure, lack of research and extension services, mounting indebtedness, an interlocked credit/input–output product market, and a mismatch in the input costs and the prices of produce—have deepened the crisis. The authors present a holistic perspective of the agrarian distress and suicides by farmers and agricultural labourers in the cotton belt of the Malwa region and conclude that it is an outcome of this deep-rooted multidimensional crisis in the model of economic growth.

It has been emphasised that it is not the amount but the source of debt that has caused havoc by pushing the victims into a vicious cycle of rural indebtedness. Small and marginal farmers do not have access to institutional sources of credit. This, combined with the failure to regulate non-institutional credit, has led to fatal situations. The shift in the institutional emphasis from state to market, the withdrawal of the state from social sectors such as health and education, adverse terms of trade, and other structural factors during the post-reform period contributed to a much higher incidence and intensity of indebtedness and suicides among farmers and agricultural labourers of agriculturally developed states. Landless agricultural labourers, especially those from the Scheduled Castes (SCs), have been among the worst affected. The authors assert that, under such circumstances, only an assertive public policy can provide the stimulus to a structural transformation of the economy and can arrest the agrarian distress and rural suicides.

The third chapter argues that the green revolution helped the economy towards agriculture-led growth, and that the development of agriculture fulfilled the prerequisite of economic transformation. However, this prerequisite condition failed to transform the state economy from one dominated by agriculture to industry. Other factors that contributed to rural distress include rising farm debt, the policy of freezing the minimum support price, the declining share of public investment in agriculture and the social sector, and privatisation. Consequently, Punjab has not only performed below the national average but also lagged behind progressive states. This is manifest in the declining ranking in the growth rate of its state domestic product, which was around the 14th and 15th place over the last three five year plans. The decelerating growth of the agriculture sector and small share of the manufacturing sector—which emerged as the engine of growth in developed and other emerging economies—operated simultaneously to derail the achievements of the green revolution. Now, the structure of Punjab’s economy is highly imbalanced and agriculture-dependent for both income generation and employment. Not just has this model of development led to a crisis for the economy and employment, the capitalist model of agriculture has contributed to an environmental crisis with soil and food contamination causing havoc on such a scale that the Malwa region of Punjab has been dubbed the “cancer belt.”

De-peasantisation, which was not apparent or prevalent during the early stages of the green revolution, is emerging as another concern as it further distorts the structure of Punjab’s agrarian economy. There is a push factor operating in the case of marginal, small and medium farmers, and pull factors for larger farmers. Mechanical and biological innovation has only made small and marginal farm households have a higher workforce surplus. For them, the rural non-farm sector has become the last destination for an unskilled labour force, because industry needs only skilled manpower. However, at best, the rural non-farm sector can create employment in construction, transport, storage and communication, but that too largely in the unorganised sector.

The fourth chapter focuses on the socio-economic characteristics of the victims and control groups of farmers and agricultural labourers across 22 villages. These villages are located in three highly distressed districts of Bhatinda, Mansa and Sangrur in the Malwa region. It is probably for the first time that a control group has been selected for the purpose of comparison in research work on rural suicides. The large sample includes 1,020 farmers (510 deceased and 510 of the control group) and 372 labourers (186 deceased and 186 of the control group). This comparative study of deceased and surviving farmers and agricultural labourers has brought to light some new dimensions of the problem of rural distress and suicides. Their study finds that more than 55% of farmers and more than 78% of the deceased landless workers were illiterate; that most of the farmer suicide-prone blocks have large unirrigated areas, and being located at the canal tail-end position of villages was one of the important causes of agrarian distress. The agrarian distress largely affected comparatively younger farmers and labourers, male farmers, small and marginal Jat Sikh farmers and SC agricultural labourers who are dominating the agrarian scene.

The authors also assert that the agrarian crisis has undermined religious values in Punjab. The philosophy of Sikhism conveys the message to keep one’s spirits high in difficult times (Chardi Kala), and hymns offer encouragement in hard times. But in Punjab, religious values have been undermined as agriculturalists have been pushed into a state of hopelessness. And this in a state that has witnessed strong peasant movements and where political leadership has come from the farming community.

The magnitude and manifestations of agrarian distress have been discussed in Chapter 5. Marginal, small and semi-medium farmers in Punjab—who collectively owe 90% of total debt in the three districts—have been surviving by leasing in land as tenants. On average, the outstanding debt per deceased person, whether that of a farmer belonging to the control group or that of an agricultural labourer household, was found to be same. Both social groups prefer multiple sources of finance, but non-institutional sources are the main lenders for deceased farmers and agricultural labourers. Commentators on the agrarian scene have pinpointed the aetiology of farmer suicides to be indebtedness-related humiliation in full public view, which pushes the farmer to resort to suicide. Ironically, the commonest method of committing suicide is the consumption of pesticide, which is an integral component of the green revolution in Punjab.

In the sixth chapter, the authors attempt to understand rural distress through a micro analysis of village Harkishanpura in Bathinda district. The village had attracted the attention of the media, the state, and academics to their ongoing agrarian crisis in a unique way: their village panchayat passed a resolution putting up the village on sale. It is the first time this had happened in India.1 Except locational disadvantage—the village is at the tail end of the canal—this village would be like any other village of Punjab: its residents have a simple subsistence consumption pattern, suffer from a lack of education, live in poor housing conditions, and struggle to meet their debts. The mechanised agricultural operations in the village are in keeping with the trends in Punjab’s agriculture, which resulted in a minimal use of manual labour force. Over time, agriculture in this village turned non-viable. The introduction of Bt cotton revived the village economy temporarily, but agrarian distress still haunts its residents.

In the last chapter, the authors surmise that agriculture has been acquiring a small farm character. Since agricultural labourers depend only upon wage employment in agriculture, they suffered not only economically but also have got isolated socially and politically. Agricultural labourers and farmers are indebted to non-institutional lenders such as moneylenders and arthiyas, or commission agents, who charge usurious rates of interest. Agricultural labourers are hence pushed into a state of pauperisation and trapped in a vicious circle of indebtedness. The plight of Punjab’s farmers is not different from the peasantry of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka. As has been stated, an interlocking of the credit and output markets and the failure of public policy are major factors behind the agrarian crisis. The spurt in suicides by farmers and agricultural labourers is thus an outcome of utter neglect and insensitivity of the state, and shows no sign of ending.

Viable Answers

Within the given relations of production, no country, not even the US, can save its farmers without providing them subsidies or raising farmers’ incomes. Hence, a highly subsidised agriculture and pensions for farmers, as happens in Taiwan, or part-time farming and rural industrialisation such as in Japan, may provide viable answers to the agrarian crisis. As short-time measures, the authors have suggested that farmers be saved from the clutches of moneylenders, the credit–crop nexus be broken, and that there must be immediate compensation for deceased farmers and labourers. As long-term measures, they emphasise the modernisation of the canal system, the setting up of agro-processing industries, and the creation of non-farm employment opportunities. But the book would have been more useful had the political economy of agrarian distress been discussed in greater depth.

Further, the authors have concluded that crop diversification, especially of paddy, on the lines suggested by the noted agricultural expert Gurdev Khush, is a panacea for the ills facing agriculture in Punjab. But empirical studies have proved that cropping patterns have moved the other way round, from crop diversification to specialisation. The area under paddy cultivation has increased from 2,27,000 hectares in 1960–61 to 2,818,000 hectares in 2011–12 (Shergill and Sharma 2016). Despite these minor issues, the book is rich in primary and secondary data, and serves as an excellent guide and reference book for researchers, agricultural economists, sociologists, activists, and policymakers. It emphasises that there is a need to redesign the dominant economic model in the best interests of the distressed peasantry. It adds much value to current debates and provides valid answers to several pertinent questions.

To conclude, this observation by the authors holds special poignancy in the context of a peasantry dying due to the insensitivity of the state:

The unsolved issue of farmers’ and agricultural labourers’ suicides is the focus of research, and analytical and journalistic studies. Books and research papers will be written time and again until conscientious researchers and activists have concern for the masses and an innovative mind to challenge the hegemony and policies of the state.

Note

1 Villages being put up for sale has been more common in the United Kingdom. For instance, 2,000 acres of land in North Yorkshire village near Scarborough have been put up for sale for 20 million pounds. See www.cnbc.com.

References

Dhesi, A S and Gurmail Singh (2007): Rural Development in Punjab: A Success Story Going Astray, New Delhi: Routledge.

Hobsbawn, E J (1959): Primitive Rebels,Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Shergill, H S and Varinder Sharma (2016): “Growth and Modernisation of Punjab Agriculture over Green Revolution Period,” paper presented at a national seminar on “Development of States,” IDC, Chandigarh, 28–29 April.

Updated On : 11th Aug, 2017

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