Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Vidharbha, So Not Shining

The tragedy of Vidharbha is not just that hundreds have been forced to commit suicide because of the crisis in the agricultural sector - it is also that a lot of the people who matter continue to bury their heads in the ground and maintain that there is nothing wrong. But worse of all is the fact that many people continue to spout fantastic theories about how this situation has been manufactured by the farmers of Vidharbha and how they are cheating the administration.

Consider Mohammed Wajihuddin's article in the Times of India on Apr 6th titled 'A Crop Called Suicide' for instance. Here's a quote from the article:

Yavatmal's Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP) reads the figures aloud. In 2005, 92 farmers committed suicide. In 2006, the figure jumped to 196. He couldn't supply the number for 2007, but sources peg it at over 200. The sharp increase in the number of suicides after 2005 gives a clue. During the December 2005 winter session of the state assembly in Nagpur, chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh had announced the Rs one lakh relief for the families of farmers who committed suicide due to severe debt.
His point is clear - families are passing off otherwise 'normal' deaths and suicides as debt-related ones to claim relief money (and hence the sharp increase in numbers). Firstly, the official numbers reported in government documents is hardly indicative of the scale of problems in Vidharbha. Till Deshmukh made the announcement of the Rs. 1 lakh relief, the Maharashtra government was in denial about the problems in Vidharbha (later the Chief Minister of the state, in fact, went so far as to call the cotton farmers of Vidharbha lazy and blamed them for the crisis). Prior to 2005, many suicides which were agricultural debt-related were recorded otherwise. In fact, in 2005, the Maharashtra Govt. admitted that the number of farmer's suicides since 2001 had crossed 1000 (an average of 250 deaths per year), a number arrived at mostly from reports in local newspapers. So much for the ACP's books showing 92 suicides in 2005. In choosing to quote statistics that they want to believe, people like Wajihudeen are ensuring that more farmers would be forced to take the extreme step in the absence of any meaningful efforts to solve the crisis.

Even if the statistics were true, his argument suffers from at least a couple of logical fallacies - confusing correlation with causation is one. An increase in officially recorded farmer suicides after the government announces relief does not imply that more suicides were reported because of the relief package. Increase in the number has a far simpler reason than the one Wajihuddin believes - deepening agrarian crisis. The more a farmer is in debt, the harder he finds it to raise a crop the next year. With prices of the crop falling and rising inflation, his problems are compounded. Logically speaking, even if the situation were to remain exactly the same year after year, the farmer's life would become increasing difficult in the absence of financing, drop in incomes and mounting interest of previous loans.

No scheme is foolproof and there definitely would have been cases of people claiming money for non-debt related deaths. However, attributing increases in the number of farmer's suicides to this alone shows unbelievable insensitivity in dealing with issues of such nature.

Here's another anecdote that he claims supports his theory:

On January 2, 2006, 58-year-old Ramji Rathod of Irthal village in the Yavatmal district went to Bhadegaon, three kilometres away, to meet his relatives. While returning, he strayed from the paved road and took a short-cut through the jungles. He was later found dead in an abandoned well. The case was reported as suicide by his family. "Why would he choose to jump into a well which was three kilometers away from his house when he could have easily killed himself by swallowing pesticide," says a television journalist who covers the region. [Emphasis added]
I have only one answer to that question – he did it for the same reasons that makes a man climb to the top floor of a building to jump down and commit suicide when "he could have easily killed himself by swallowing pesticide" on the ground floor.

PS: Having spent 4 years of my life in Nagpur ('capital' of Vidharbha), I couldn't help posting about this after reading yesterday's editorial in The Hindu about how even the recent waivers by the Central government is not going to improve life in the rural areas of Vidharbha. It just seems to go on and on and nobody seems to understand the problem, except for the highly respected Magsasay Award winner P. Sainath. His articles have been the source of most of my information. For a complete collection of articles by him, visit India Together.


g-man said...

well said...but honestly, what is the government doing to help the people who really need it? even people other than the farmers! n i think you should read this


Karthik said...

Nice post Philip. I was also planning a post on the plight of deprived Indian farmers. Hope you wouldn't mind me giving a link to this article at that post :-)

Philip said...

g-man: I checked out the link. Thanks for that one :)

karthik: I wouldn't mind in a million years. Looking forward to seeing your post.

Pravesh Biyani said...

Always a lot is said about the Vidarbha farmers, but nobody listens to the plea of the chattisgarhi farmers. According to the statistics, Chattisgarh had the highest farmer suicide rate density. I hope people will highlight this fact too.