Monday, April 10, 2006

The killing fields...

For the New Year revelers, it was just the beginning of a party – a bash sunk in spirits and lined with a vulgar display of firecrackers, which burst one by one and illuminated the moonlit skies all over.

Not far from the dazzling display by the city’s noveau rich, in the dusty by-lanes of a village in Vidarbha’s countryside, one more farming family sat mourning the suicide by its headman.

The farmer had finally decided to call it quits from a long-drawn struggle that looked endless. He lay dead in peace. For his family though, it would be a road full of thorns ahead.

Next morning, back in my house, as the telephone refused to stop ringing with the New Year greetings pouring in from the callers, my attention was focused on a figure dotting the headline of a language daily. It read: 201, and counting.

An independent worker’s list though had kissed 210 by then.

May be, this language daily was a trifle behind the surging figure.

Whatever, the New Year, surely, does not look any better for the near three million cotton farmers of the region. And by the end of March, I was right. The number of suicides had crossed 400. How do you rate the year gone by? Ask market watchers, and they’d say “excellent”!

And it’s true. For the market players, it was a good year. But that’s exactly what lies beneath the crisis, which is matching the great Indian depressions of the late 19th and early 20th century: hunger on one side, and endless free lunch on other.

Suicides are just an underlining aspect of the Vidarbha’s agriculture crisis, and not the only.

The farm crisis is about much more than that. It’s about inequality that breeds exploitation and legitimizes oppression. It’s also about cornering of the resources, land, water and forest, besides minerals, by the corporate. It’s about the state slowly withdrawing itself from its bounden responsibility for the welfare of its people without any prejudice or bias towards lower castes, tribe or any poor. And it’s about the state’s withdrawal from essential sectors – water, power and employment to name a few.

Everything is being corporatised. It is not just the number of farm-related suicides that is mind-boggling. The way the governments have reacted – or not reacted – to the situation is equally baffling.

At least sixteen committees and panels – from the National Farmers Commission led by Professor M S Swaminathan to the Planning Commission’s fact-finding-mission led by a bureaucrat named Adarsh Misra – came this year in to Vidarbha, apparently peeved and concerned over the appalling if explosive situation.

This is apart from tens of journalists – from the esteemed national and international media hatchets, who made a beeline for special stories on the farmers’ suicides.

A small difference though between bureaucrats’ visit and that of the journalists was that the former caravan spent a little more time than the latter community on the field.

Many journalists, save exceptions, simply came rushing by the morning or evening flights (and thank God for that, there are flights to and from Nagpur), and went equally rushing to the place they came from.

But they wrote something this time in their respective publications; most of them confused whether to write about families’ problems, or sorry state of widows, or poverty plaguing the cotton farmers, or private moneylenders (whom the government made out to be the draconian villains in the whole game), or – as one national newspaper concluded with strong 18-point-bold headline – lack of market reforms in Vidarbha region.

Many journalists also discovered that Vidarbha is an eastern part of Maharashtra, and Maharashtra is bigger than Mumbai. The bureaucrats thankfully knew that already.

Then there were independent researchers and study panels in addition to the ones commissioned by the Maharashtra Government.

They too studied the situation, and submitted voluminous reports with some recommendations.

Many of the visitors simply came as a part of their duty – some one ordered and they came – on what is now termed as “distress tourism.” Poor farmers are dying, so we need to know why?

All of them came to study problems, when the cause was much near them, at the places they came from, in the huge corridors of power.

It was not that nothing came out of it. Professor Swaminathan’s recommendatory suggestions would go down big way in reversing the situation.

A few other study committees mapped the complex problems with magical finesse. But the sum total of all that exercise, I am still wondering why, is zero.

The governments at the state and center aren’t unduly disturbed by the suicides or keen to act decisively.

Why? Is that because there aren’t any elections now? Or is it because there are no opposition parties to corner the governments on the issues? Or is it also because the media are making no noise, as they do over the other flimsy issues. The rage among the farmers is growing, the distress deepening and the hope sinking.

Only a few days ago, angry farmers hurled onions at Sharad Pawar, the Union Minister of Agriculture, as he spoke from a huge dais in a public meeting at Nasik.

Luckily, Pawar did not dare come in Vidarbha and address farmers ever since he took over as the agriculture minister of the country, though he did come to Nagpur before the BCCI elections (ostensibly to draft his strategy for the elections of the richest cricket body). And you can’t hurt the minister by cotton.

No comments: