By Nithin Sridhar
Karnataka is storming with cases of large scale farmer-suicides on one hand and the issue of drought on the other. The problem was addressed by Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah during his Independence Day speech on 15 August. According to him, 39 farmers had died between April and June and around 182 farmer deaths happened in July, taking the total number of farmer-suicides to 221.
Is the number of farmer-deaths understated?
A Frontline report claims that a total number of around 284 farmers committed suicide, with 245 of them dying between 1 July and 10 August, which is higher than what the Chief Minister had quoted. But even these figures may have been seriously underestimated. For example, a Mint report quotes that in 2014, the state government recorded only 48 cases of farmer-deaths whereas the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reported around 321 cases of farmer-deaths and 447 cases of farm labour deaths. There has been a sudden rise in number of farmers committing suicides during the month of July.
Therefore, the real number of farmers who committed suicide may be much larger than what is officially stated. A few reasons for this mismatch could be, the government’s attempts to prevent any unsavoury effect that a higher number could have on the already distressed farmers.
A more compelling reason could be the state government’s attempts to minimize the number of people be compensated. The Mint report shows how, the state government approved compensation for only 76 cases out of 197 cases of farmer-suicides till 29 July. Further, the rules for granting compensation are such that, only the families of very few farmers who killed themselves are being benefited. For example, if a woman in a farmer’s family commits suicide, she may not get compensation, even though she may have indulged in farming. The only occasion when her family can get a compensation is when the land being tilled is in her name. Similarly, if a victim had done farming on a leased land, he could only get compensation, if he has all the proper documents, which many farmers don’t have. There is also a wide spread practice of oral tenancy which is not recognized by government and hence the compensation gets cancelled in such cases.
Yet another reason could be to minimize the political damage that it may do to the political party. Karnataka is being ruled by Congress party which came to power in 2013. During the Congress rule under S. M. Krishna between 1999 and 2004, at least 9200 farmers had committed suicide. This had not only become a huge embarrassment to the Congress then, but was also one of the factors due to which S. M. Krishna had to resign. Therefore, the concern for political implications may have driven to give an understatement of number of farmer-suicides.
Irrespective of the exact number of people who have died, the fact remains that this number is high and has once again highlighted the plight of farmers not only in Karnataka, but in India as a whole.
Farmers are dying across India
According to NCRB reports, between 1995 and 2012, around 2,84,673 farmers have committed suicide across India, with around 86.6% of them being males. Further, the number of farmers who committed suicides constitute around 13.6% of the total incidents of suicides.
The three year average of the suicide rate for male farmers from 2010 to 2012 was 15.4. This is lesser in comparison to the 2007-2009 average which was around 17.4, but higher than the 1995-97 average of 11.6. The three year average for the same period (2010-2012) for some of the states are as follows: Karnataka (37.4), Kerala (153), Andhra Pradesh (46.3), Maharashtra (41.8), Gujarat (11), West Bengal (16.2), Odisha (4), Punjab (4.7), Haryana (16.4) and Tamil Nadu (16.3).
Therefore, it is clear that the issue of farmer-deaths is not unique to Karnataka, but is widespread across India.
Sugarcane crisis in Karnataka
The recent issue of farmer-suicides in Karnataka reveals a large scale agrarian crisis that is present across India. It exposes serious challenges associated with farming: moneylenders, debt, support price, crop failure etc. to name a few.
One of the principal causes of the present crisis has been the failure of the sugar mills and jaggery units to pay farmers for their sugarcane produce. Sugar producing factories in Karnataka owe at least Rs 2500 crores to the farmers for the sugarcane purchased during the previous crushing season. They also owe another Rs 1000 crore from 2013-14 to the farmers. This is inspite of the Karnataka Sugarcane (Regulation) Act, 2013 stipulating the factories to pay up farmers within 14 days. Further, the rates offered by the mills to farmers were at Rs 700 per ton or less as against the state mandated minimum price of Rs 2500 per ton.
This twin issue of sugar factories not paying the farmers their past dues and paying them only a paltry amount for their produce creates a huge financial scarcity that compelled many farmers to commit suicide. As a result, the Mandya district, which is the hub of sugarcane production in Karnataka has seen at least 29 farmer deaths till 29 July.
When, NewsGram asked Dr. Muzaffar Assadi (Professor and Chairman in the Department of Studies in Political Science, University of Mysore, who has written extensively on the issue of farmer suicides and the connected agrarian crisis) about the factors behind the farmer suicides in Karnataka, he listed out following immediate causes that drove farmers to commit suicide:
- The gut in the sugarcane production that was caused due to increased production and decreased demand.
- The market is already full with sugar and jaggery. Hence, no market is available to accommodate increased sugarcane produce.
- Sugar factories not being able to pay farmers for their produce.
- Increase in debts taken by farmers.
Elaborating on the gut situation in sugarcane, Dr. Assadi said that apart from the fact that more sugarcanes are being produced in spite of a lesser demand, other factors behind the gut situation include import of cheap sugar from other countries and MNC’s opting for these cheaper sugars instead of sugars from indigenously grown sugarcanes.
Further, he stated that, sugarcane farmers face a unique problem when it comes to selling their produce. They are restricted by the rules that state that they can sell their produce to only a particular sugar factory allotted to them, usually neither their agricultural land. Hence, they do not have freedom to reject one factory and sell to another at a better price.
This has allowed the sugar factory owners to thoroughly exploit the farmers. The practice of paying the farmers less than the minimum support price is continued by many factory owners, because they know that farmers are desperate to sell their produce and farmers have no other option but to sell to them.
But, the miserable condition of the farmers is not limited to sugarcane farmers alone. The next part will show how farmers, irrespective of the crops they are growing, are facing various hardships.