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The myth of farmer suicides

Politicians and the media are capitalising on a make-believe rural crisis

Ravi Shanker Kapoor
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In The Republic, Plato said there was an old quarrel between philosophy and poetry. According to him, if was allowed in his ideal state, "not law and the reason of mankind, which by common consent have ever been deemed best, but pleasure and pain will be the rulers in our state". And so he banished poets from his ideal state.

In India, however, the foundation principles of polity are poetic in nature. It is not surprising that sentimentality and sanctimoniousness - those illegitimate children of poetry - animate the manifestoes, speeches, statements, announcements and policies of political parties and leaders. Worse, the poetic nature of public discourse has distorted perspective and perception to such an extent that we are condemned to see only that part of the reality that politicians, opinion makers and media Brahmins want us to see. The prime example is the mythology that has evolved around "farmer suicides".

A large number of farmers are killing themselves because of rural distress, we were told by "serious" journalists, pinkish activists, professional revolutionaries and sundry intellectuals. Nothing wrong with the facts stated: many farmers indeed committed suicide in different states; and agriculture is also in bad shape because its share in the country's gross domestic product (GDP) has come down to 14.5 per cent, while it supports almost three-fifth of the population. But this is only a part of the truth; the mythologists carefully avoid telling the whole truth. They go on to establish their theorem on rural decay -

To prove: There is an agrarian crisis because of bad policies and/or government neglect.

Given: Millions of agriculturalists have committed suicide in last many years.

Proof: People kill themselves because they are distressed; since a large number of farmers have committed suicide, farming is plagued by a crisis which, in turn, is the result of wrong (read "neoliberal") policies. QED.

The theorem has a natural corollary: openness of the economy has hurt the farm sector, so there should be more state intervention in agriculture. Politicians, always keen to find pretexts to make their obnoxious presence felt in the economy ("the government should do something…"), jump at such theorems, their corollaries and the cognate theories they spawn. proved to be a big hit among politicians. The apotheosis was the farm loan waiver of 2008 that bled the exchequer, but is said to have helped the Congress-led coalition in the 2009 general election.

Let's do some arithmetic. Is the proof offered by committed journalists and activists tenable? When black activists talk about institutionalised discrimination in the US, they at least have the support of statistics - there were 39.4 per cent non-Hispanic blacks in American jails in 2009, though their population was 13.6 per cent in 2010. These numbers provide the base to their views and arguments (which are repudiated by right-wing scholars, including black conservatives like Thomas Sowell).

In the case of Indian agriculturalists, the numbers just don't add up. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) statistics, the number of suicides in our country has risen gradually from 108,506 in 2001 to 135,585 in 2011. According to P Sainath, in the six years between 2004 and 2009, as many as 102,628 tillers killed themselves. The total number of suicides in this period were 720,528, which makes farmer suicides 14.24 per cent. The Economic Survey says agriculture accounts for about 58 per cent employment in the country. Out of the 100 employed in India, 58 are farmers. So, if there are, say, 90 farmers among the 100 people who kill themselves, the situation is alarming. But this number doesn't reach even 15. Therefore, farmer suicides don't indicate agrarian crisis.

Let's take the disaggregated data on suicides in percentage for 2011. While 11.4 per cent people who committed suicide were from the service sector, the corresponding number for the farm sector was 10.3 per cent. This when agriculture employs much more people than agriculture.

What these numbers suggest is that no case of rural distress can be built on the data on farmer suicides. If at all, it proves the contrary: non-agrarian sections are more distressed than the farm sector. If the number of suicides in a sector is a measure of the health of a sector, the 2011 figures would indicate that the service sector is suffering grievously. This is manifestly incorrect, because services are the fastest growing sector of the economy; it is 57 per cent of the GDP.

The question is: why and how do such mythologies gain currency, acquire a verisimilitude of veracity, and emerge as gospel truth? The answer is simple. The intellectual class, or the preponderant section of it, is still in love with left-wing theories and doctrines. Ensconced in the fortress of their ideology, they never get, to use Irving Kristol's words, "mugged by reality". For lesser mortals like us, seeing is believing; for the dwellers of ivory dwellers, believing is seeing. The emphasis is on canon-compliance. Their truths may not correspond with objective conditions. There is no epidemic of farmer suicides, but this is terrifically canon-compliant. So, they indulge in sentimentalist orgies - nourishing the poetic element, and undermining reason, in the public discourse.

The author is a freelance journalist

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