Growing hopeless

By Uma Sudhir

A report that I read this morning has left me confused. It suggests that the Green Revolution is not the villain it is being made out to be in the context of the climate change debate.

Let me explain. If you are among those who believe that the intensive agriculture model popularised in the 1960s to increase food yield, by using more chemicals, more energy and high-yielding varieties of rice, maize and wheat, is one of the main culprits for putting greenhouse gas emissions on the fast-track, you are wrong. At least that’s what this study by US researchers, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests.

The study says that on the contrary, without the Green Revolution, cumulative global emissions since 1850 would have been one-third more than what it is now. That it is a boon that has saved you decades of emissions. Simply because much less forest land needed to be cleared for agriculture to provide food for the hungry. That the indirect impact from converting land to agriculture (that makes natural carbon in that ecosystem to be oxidised) outweigh the direct emissions from intensive agriculture.

Stephen Davis from the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University in California argues : “Our results dispel the notion that industrial agriculture with its petrochemicals is inherently worse for the climate than a more `old-fashioned’ way of doing things.” So he suggests policymakers keen to reduce greenhouse gas emissions should look towards further increases in crop yields, which they say, might be more economical than other innovations.

Certainly food for thought at a critical time in world history when we are seriously reviewing the development models we have chosen because climate change threatens to change life as we have known it so far on our planet. The threat has given us an opportunity to change so we can save ourselves. So it would be foolish to dismiss outright any work or thought that may show a sustainable way forward.

Having said that, years of firsthand exposure as a journalist to the policy and technology choices that we have made, and its direct and indirect impact on people and their lives, has not left me feeling inspired or confident that we really choose what is right or what is best for the reasons they should be chosen. I am not suggesting that those making the policy choices never had the best interests of the people as their priority. And yet, principles of larger common good and a wider, wiser, long-term perspective, even if it means sacrificing short-term benefits, does not seem to determine policy. Somehow, it is political expediency, economic exigency and ultimately which lobby is stronger and who is using how much muscle that seems to dictate the choices we make.

There is nothing very democratic about the way decisions are made either, despite the pretences. It is a top-down approach. Lessons from the ground or even feedback, if at all that exists, rarely contribute to changes in the policy framework. Even majority consent and consensus, if at all the need arises for that, is `manufactured’ (you will fail to even notice unless you make an effort to be consciously discerning). So no one can really point fingers that the country that boasts of being the biggest democracy in the world is not governed by democratic principles and the will of its people.

For a largely agricultural country, it is more frightening, that the government’s policy and stated worldview on agriculture seems to be dictated not so much by what is best for the Indian farmer but by the direction in which global vested interests want Indian agriculture to move. They finally determine what grows on our soil, the kind of food we eat, even the agenda of research in our national agricultural institutions. And that is why I tend to be suspicious of reports like the one I read this morning though I have no reason at all to doubt the credentials of the authors.

After all how can we even begin to imagine that all is well in a sector that, by the government’s own official records, shows that every day at least six farmers have committed suicide just in a single state of the country. The National Crime Records Bureau data shows that between 1998 and 2008, 22182 people, who were self-employed in the farming sector, committed suicide in Andhra Pradesh.

RTI activist Rakesh Reddy Dubbudu then sought information from the state government on how many such suicides the state had recorded. Only to find that the government of Andhra Pradesh reported only 7683 suicides for this period, which is less than 35 per cent of the total suicide deaths.

Even more tragic, only 4657 of those suicides were treated as `genuine’ (or eligible as P Sainath says). So almost 80 per cent of the farmer suicide-deaths do not qualify to be paid any compensation and got no help.

D A Somayajulu, Advisor to the state government and also deputy chairman of the Agriculture Technology Mission in Andhra Pradesh, explains the gap.

“There is a tendency on the part of the people to classify every suicide as agricultural suicide, because they will get some benefits. The local MLA, the local RDO, the local panchayat and agriultural extension officer form a team that goes to verify when a suicide is reported, to find out the truth, whether it is really for personal reasons or farm-related suicides. So this scheme is only for farm-related suicides.”

Narsamma must be at least 70, going by the weathered wrinkles on her face. Her almost bent, withered body tell the rest of the story. She lives in Kaslapur, Chinnasankarampet mandal, Medak district, with her three grandchildren. She carefully guards a precious blue file that has inside it documents that she hopes would get the children some help to hope for a better tomorrow.

Narsamma’s son Mallesh was not one to give up hope. He worked hard and he took risks because he had no other option. Borewell after borewell failed. When the eighth borewell failed and the standing paddy crop on three acres withered away before his eyes, the only thing that he saw growing dauntingly big before his eyes was the debt of two lakh rupees he had incurred. He drank pesticide and committed suicide.

Somewhere in one corner of his mind, the thought must have crossed his mind that people like him had voted in the Congress just about an year ago, in 2004, hoping life would change for the better with a farmer-friendly government in Hyderabad. But one year on, nothing had really changed on the ground.

Within weeks of Mallesh’s death, his wife Padma, unable to live with the trauma of her husband’s sudden death, chose to emulate him to end her tears and sorrow. Mallesh’s father Peddakomaraiah hanged himself to death, unable to live, broken-hearted to see the fate of his family and grandchildren. The government team, appointed to inquire into such deaths, came visiting but no help came. Till today. Why they didn’t `qualify’ for any help, Narsamma doesn’t know.

Narsamma knew she can’t give up, unlike her husband, son and daughter-in-law. She had to live. She had to think of the present and future of her grandchildren. The rain gods failed to show mercy, their parents didn’t stand by them, the government let them down, but she couldn’t do that. So she continues to knock every door, hoping to get the promised and much-needed government help. But she’s not simply sitting with folded hands, waiting to take `alms’ . The younger children, two girls and one boy, are in government hostels. The eldest girl she got married. All this with no help from the government. But she is worried that if she goes one day too soon, what will happen to her young grandchildren?

“How long will I live? I will also die one day. What would be the fate of these children? Who will take care of them? We were told that we will get compensation but we haven’t got any. I managed till now. Now even our house has collapsed. There is no roof over our head. Thats why I am fighting for some help.”

The government on its part claims that the last five years have been a golden period for farmers, at least relatively speaking. They present impressive statistics. That MSP (Minimum Suppport Price) has gone up by 100 per cent. That the credit expanse has gone up from 9,000 crore rupees to an impressive 45,000 crore rupees and Andhra Pradesh accounts for 18 per cent of India’s agricultural credit. Then there was the debt-waiver scheme in which Andhra Pradesh farmers got about 14,000 crore rupees. That “phenomenal money has come in the pockets of farmers”. The last five years even the rain gods have showered their blessings and “thanks to BT cotton and government playing an important role in regulating seed price”, things have really been quite hunky-dory. Or so they would like you to believe. Bt cotton of course is another story.

Apparently Chandram was unaware the going was so good for the farmers. At least it must not have seemed so to him at all. That’s why, less than a month ago, in May, the 30-year-old consumed pesticide. His story not dramatically different from hundreds of farmers before and after him. Two acres of agricultural land, four failed borewells, one and a half lakh rupees loan on which only the interest was growing leaps and bounds. Now his young wife Lakshmi, along with three young girl-children, the oldest of them not more than 10 years, is willing to fall at the feet of every politician and government official, hoping to get some help for her children. The bare neck and ears of the mother and the girls, bereft of any jewellery, matched only by the blank look on the young woman’s face. Will life ever turn hopeful for Lakshmi and her young girls?

Chengal Reddy of the Confederation of Farmers Associations says: “The failure is visible in controlling and preventing suicides. It is obvious that the state government and the government of India have failed even in providing the relief announced by these very governments with much fanfare. It is a failure of the governmental institutions and the administration.”

In the last 15 years, I have seen scores of such families living on the brink of desperation and hopelessness. Only the names and locations change, the stories remain the same. The officers and politicians, political parties in government change, old schemes are reinvented, rechristened, with much fanfare. But the more things change, the more they remain the same, for the people who grow the food so that we don’t go hungry. I don’t usually succumb to cynicism, but all that has grown for me in Indian agriculture is hopelessness.


About t s sudhir & uma sudhir

Uma Sudhir and T S Sudhir are senior journalists, based in Hyderabad. Both work for NDTV. Uma is a Tamilian, who was educated in
This entry was posted in Agriculture, Human interest blogs and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Growing hopeless

  1. Rakesh Reddy says:

    Thanks Uma. Quite nicely sumsup the emotions and thoughts of a lot of people like us.

  2. Chandana says:

    Ignoring agrarian crisis will be our greatest undoing. But we can’t afford to despair. Action is needed on every front. Building awareness is one of them and you are doing that well. Can’t give up !

  3. Ajay Gandhi says:

    Uma/Sudhir: there are two major reforms waiting to happen in India. In agriculture and education. Unless agriculture is liberalised and major reforms brought in, our farmers would suffer the same pathetic lives which you so ably describe. Same with education: unless it is liberalised, we would continue to suffer on that front also.

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