11:07 pm - Tuesday March 19, 2019

Farmers’ Suicides in West Bengal: A Preliminary Analysis : पश्चिम बंगाल मैं किसानों द्वारा आत्महत्या : प्रारंभिक जांच के परिणाम

Farmers’ Suicides in West Bengal: A Preliminary Analysis : पश्चिम बंगाल मैं किसानों द्वारा आत्महत्या : प्रारंभिक जांच के परिणाम

पिछले पंद्रह वर्षों मैं देश के दो लाख किसानों ने आत्महत्या की है . यह अधिकाँश उधार न चुकाने की परिस्थिति से दुखी हो कर की हैं . देश के ९०% किसानों के पास बहुत कम ज़मीन है और उस पर खेती कर गुजारा करना अब कठिन होता जा रहा है . जरा सी बारिश की कमी या कीड़ों व् मौसम की मार से किसान उधार नहीं चुका पता है . उधर उर्वरक की सब्सिडी कम होते जा रही है जिससे उसकी कीमतें बढ़ रही हैं . खेती अब बहुत लाभदायक नहीं रही . बंगाल मैं पिछले आठ महीनों मैं ३ किसानों ने आत्महत्या की है जो पहले नहीं होता था . तो अचानक बंगाल मैं क्या हो गया जो वहां किसान आत्महत्या के लिए मजबूर हो गये हैं .


Over  the last 15 years more than 2 lakh farmers have committed suicide in  the country due to debt related problem and an acute agrarian crisis.
This phenomenon was outside the lived experience of the people of West  Bengal and came only as news from distant places. But with the Trinamool  Congress led government coming to power in West Bengal, a significant  change has happened in West Bengal countryside, where the phenomenon of  farmer suicides have now become a part of rural life in the state. In  the last 8 months 34 farmers have committed suicide in the state due to  debt related problems and non-remunerative prices of the crop. The  question is what explains this sudden acute problem of farmers in the  state. In order to comprehend the problem, it is important to understand  the overall national context of the agrarian situation in the country.  Therefore, we start with a discussion on this aspect before going into  the particularities of West Bengal.
Neo-liberalism and Agrarian Crisis in India
Agriculture  in India has been the worst sufferer in the aftermath of pursuing  neo-liberal policies. With the new policy regime imposed on the people  in 1991, the government reduced its role in the agriculture sector. This  was done in myriad ways. Firstly, the total gross capital formation in  agriculture as a proportion of total gross capital formation in the  country has declined. This ratio was 15.4% in 1980-81, subsequently  declined to 9.9% in 1990-91 and declined to 7.7% in 2009-10. This  essentially shows that there has been a sharp decline in investment in  agriculture. This sharp decline in agricultural investment on the other  hand is led by a decline in public sector investment in agriculture. If  we look at public gross capital formation in agriculture as a proportion  of total gross capital formation in the economy, then it has declined  from 17.7% in 1980-81 to 7.1% in 1990-91 and further declined to 5.9% in  2008-09. This decline in public investment in agriculture is also  manifested from the fact that out of the total plan outlay only 4.9% was  allocated for agriculture and allied sector in the IX Plan, which  declined to 3.9% in the X plan and further reduced to 3.7% in the XI  plan.[1]  Such an all-round decline in public investment in agriculture was not  matched by commensurate increase in private investment resulting in an  overall decline in agricultural investment in the country.
With  such decline in agricultural investment, the growth rate of production  in agriculture is bound to take a hit. The following table shows the  growth rate of agriculture in the various plan periods in the country.
Table 1: Growth rate of agriculture in various plan periods
Plan Period
Growth Rate
8th Plan (1992-97)
9th Plan (1997-2002)
10th Plan (2002-07)
11th Plan (2007-12)
Source: Planning Commission
Note: The growth rate for the 11th Plan is the expected growth rate
This  slowdown in growth rate of agriculture has resulted in a situation  where the share of this sector in the GDP was only 14.6% in 2009-10.[2] However, this sector employs 67.6% of the labour force in rural areas and 7.5% in urban areas in 2009-10.[3]  This essentially means that even with a high growth rate of GDP and  slowdown in agriculture, the growth process has failed to absorb labour  in the non-agricultural sector. Therefore the agriculture sector  continues to be a repository of low income and poverty.
While  there has been a substantial slowdown in agricultural production in the  country, the central government has liberalized agricultural trade by  cutting down tariffs on agricultural commodities and allowing imports of  agricultural products. This has resulted in a situation in which the  farmers of India have been exposed to the price volatility of the global  commodity market. This is more so in the case of cash crops. In fact, a  major proportion of farmers who have committed suicide in Kerala or  Maharashtra are cash crop farmers cultivating vanilla, coffee etc in the  case of Kerala and mostly cotton in the case of Maharashtra. With a  drastic fall in the global prices of these commodities in the beginning  of 2000s, the return on farming for these sections of the farmers  collapsed driving many of them into suicide. If these farmers were not  exposed to the global price movements then a significant number of  farmers would not have been pushed towards suicide.
On  the other hand, there has been a substantial reduction in subsidies  provided to the agriculture sector, in particular the subsidies for  fertilizers have been reduced drastically. In 2009-10, Rs 61264.29 crore  was provided as fertilizer subsidy. However, in 2011-12, only Rs  49997.67 crore is being provided.[4]  Moreover, prices of certain fertilizers have been decontrolled, which  creates another upward pressure on the prices of this essential  agricultural input. Additionally, the government has reduced  agricultural extension services, which again adversely affects the  farmers.
All  this has resulted in an increase in cost of cultivation. The real cost  of production for rice and wheat are shown in the following table
Table 2: Growth Rate of Real Cost of Production for Rice and Wheat
1981-82 to 1992-93
1994-95 to 2006-07
Source: Agricultural  Price Policy, Farm Profitability and Food Security: An Analysis of Rice  and Wheat, S Mahendra Dev, _ Chandrasekhara Rao, Commission for  Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP)
Note: Cost is calculated as Cost of Production per Quintal of rice/wheat
From  the above it is clear that with the advent of the policies of  liberalization, the cost of production for the two major crops in India  has increased. This increase in cost of production is primarily because  of an increase in input prices. According to the reply of the government  to a question posed in Lok Sabha on 23-08-2011,
“The  prices of major agricultural inputs and implements during 2005-06 to  2011-12 (till July, 2011) have increased by 22.2% for fertilizers, 10.7%  for pesticides, 32.0% for diesel, 29.8% for tractors and 32.3% for  pumps & assembly in terms of Wholesale Price Index (WPI). As per the  available data, the prices of seeds of various crops have increased  from about 13.5% to 55.5% during 2005-06 to 2010-11.”[5]
This  massive increase in the prices of inputs is a direct result of the  policies pursued by the central government entailing a cut back on  crucial subsidies and deregulating prices of inputs like fertilizers. On  the face of such an increase in cost of cultivation, the only way to  keep farming viable is to increase the Minimum Support Price (MSP). But  the MSP is given for a selected number of commodities and not all  commodities. Therefore, such an all-round increase in the input costs of  cultivation is bound to adversely affect the lives and livelihoods of  millions of farmers in the country.
It  is in this backdrop that the agriculture sector in West Bengal is  operating. However, it must be noted that while all the above mentioned  factors were operating in India, West Bengal did not witness any farmer  suicide during the period when thousands of farmers have committed  suicide in the country. The crucial issue that needs to be analysed is  what has changed in the last 7-8 months that farmers are suddenly  committing suicide in large numbers in the state. We now turn to discuss  the case of West Bengal in greater details.
Agrarian Situation in West Bengal
Since  October 2011, 34 farmers have committed suicide in the state of West  Bengal. Most of these 34 farmers are poor or marginal peasants and some  of them are poor agricultural labourers. Most of these farmers are paddy  and potato farmers who took loans to cultivate their land. But they did  not get any remunerative price for the product which left them indebted  without any prospect of repaying these loans. Driven to desperation and  social embarrassment, they took their own lives.
Although  the pattern of the farmer suicides in West Bengal, in terms of  indebtedness and non-remunerative prices generally follow the pattern of  such suicides in other states, there is a crucial difference. This  difference lies in the fact that most of these farmers are food crop  farmers like rice and potato. Being food crop farmers, they are largely  insulated from the volatility of global commodity prices, which spelt  doom for thousands of cotton or coffee growing farmers in the country.  Secondly, for paddy growers, the central government has instituted the  MSP, which theoretically at least is supposed to not only cover the cost  of production but also give some profit margin to the farmers. However,  the fact that the paddy growing farmers are committing suicide in the  state points towards an acute governmental and policy failure. As far as  the potato farmers are concerned, a bumper crop of potato has the  potential of crashing the market price. But government intervention in  the past did not allow such a situation to arise. The fact that potato  growing farmers are committing suicide points again towards governmental  and policy failure to deal with the eventuality of any such crash in  prices.
The Issue of MSP
As  has been the case in rest of the country, the cost of cultivation of  paddy has increased in West Bengal too. In the year 2007-08, the total  cost of cultivation of paddy per hectare of land was Rs 28141 which  increased to Rs 33046 in 2008-09. The CACP projects that for the year  2011-12, the cost of cultivation of paddy per hectare has increased to  Rs 38868.[6]  Therefore according to the data of the competent authority itself, the  cost of cultivation of paddy will witness a substantial increase in West  Bengal. If we convert this cost in per quintal terms, then for the year  2011-12, the figure comes to Rs 896 per quintal of paddy.[7]  Given these facts, there are some glaring problems with the way in  which the problem of procurement of rice and paying MSP has been done in  the state.
Let  us first look at the issue of MSP. Last year the MSP announced by the  Central Government for a quintal of rice was Rs 1050. The erstwhile Left  Front government announced a bonus of Rs 50 per quintal so that the  farmers received Rs 1100 per quintal of rice. This year the Central  Government has announced an MSP of Rs 1080 per quintal. But the current  TMC-led government has not announced any bonus for the farmers. As a  result, the farmers are getting a price which is lower than last year’s.  Therefore, prima facie, the farmers are worse off than last year in  terms of prices, while their cost of cultivation has increased. This is a  perfect recipe for a debt problem in the agrarian sector of any  economy.
The  problem however does not end with a lower effective MSP for the  farmers. The farmers will get the MSP only when the government procures  from them. In this regard, the record of the current government has been  abysmal. The state government till 20th January 2011, has  procured 2.11 lakh metric tonnes of rice and 57355 tonnes of paddy. Last  year, the total procurement by the state government was 4.55 lakh  tonnes of rice and 11.76 lakh tonnes of paddy, whereby the total  procurement from the state was at 13.10 lakh tonnes of rice.[8]  It is obvious that compared to last year, the procurement drive of the  current government has been a total failure. From certain quarters of  the government, it is being propagated that the procurement has fallen  because the Food Corporation of India (FCI) has procured less. This is  nothing but a white lie. In the current year the FCI has procured 71996  metric tonnes of rice, while last year it had procured only 67039 metric  tonnes of rice.[9]  Therefore, the FCI has actually procured more rice this year; it is  because of the complete failure on the part of the government that the  procurement has been abysmal this year.
It  is absolutely not the case that the decline in the procurement of the  government is because of a fall in the production of paddy/rice. Rather,  the problem is that this year there is a bumper harvest of paddy. On  the face of such huge production, the necessity of the government to buy  from the farmers becomes even more since in the absence of governmental  intervention, the price of paddy may collapse in the open market  leading to acute distress of the farmers. But, this is where the  government has completely failed by not procuring enough from the  farmers. What has happened is that the government has asked certain rice  mills to procure from the farmers. But these rice mills are  dilly-dallying on making payments to them. In certain cases they have  made payments in cheque, which has bounced. With surplus grain lying in  the godown, the farmers have been forced to go for distress sale,  leading to a fall in their prices and hence foreclosing the possibility  of earning any return on the farmers’ investment in the crop. Some  farmers with the possibility of a price crash are unable to sell their  crops. While for others, with the distress sale phenomenon, they are  being paid less than the MSP by the rice mills. In this situation, it is  but obvious that the farmers are unable to meet their debt obligations  and other expenses leading to a desperate step like suicide.
This  policy of relying on the rice mills only to procure from the farmers is  in sharp contrast with the procurement policy of the Left Front  government, where the government used to involve all government and  semi-government agencies, rural cooperatives and the Self Help Groups to  procure paddy from the farmers. This had a twin advantage. Firstly,  with such decentralized procurement policy, the farmers did not have to  transport their grains to long distances to sell them to the rice mills.  Secondly, the social intimacy of the Self Help Groups, panchayats with  the farmers in the villages enabled the government to understand the  situation better. This entire approach of decentralized procurement has  been done away with. Moreover, the TMC led government has made the  panchayats defunct and are trying to rely on the bureaucracy for policy  implementation in the villages. This has ensured that elected  representatives of the people are bypassed and the bureaucracy takes  over in crucial matters related to the villages, who are distant from  the actual problems on the ground.
The  plight of the potato and jute farmers follows a similar story. The MSP  for jute was set at Rs 1675 per quintal. While the Chief Minister wrote  to the central government to increase this by Rs 400, she took no  initiative to ensure that the Jute Corporation of India sets up  procurement centres in the state to buy jute from the farmers. The  central government did not respond to her demand and JCI did not open up  procurement centres, as a result the farmers were forced to sell their  crops under distress and in the process ended up making huge debts from  local money lenders and banks. The plight of the potato farmers followed  a similar story. With bumper harvest of potato and the state government  doing nothing to resist price crash, the price of potato has decreased  to 20 paisa per Kg because of which the farmers are getting zero return  on their investment.
Dismal Performance in NREGA
On  the face of such problem of farmers and agricultural labourer in the  state, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme would have  provided some relief to the rural population. However, in this regard  too, the government has been an utter failure. In the current financial  year (2011-12) upto the month of December, 438.41 lakh mandays of  employment have been generated, while Rs 125173.49 lakh being the total  expenditure. During the same period last year (2010-11), 910.71 lakh  mandays of employment was generated with a total expenditure of Rs  153816.63 lakh. On an average only 14.4 days of employment has been  provided in West Bengal till date this year, while the provision is for  100 days. This is the second lowest in the country. Only Arunachal  Pradesh has generated less number of average days of employment under  NREGA.[10]  In other words, compared to the performance of NREGA under the Left  Front government, the TMC-led government has performed dismally. This  has prompted the Minister of Rural Development of Government of India to  write a letter to the West Bengal government pointing out that the  performance of the state has been dismal under NREGA.
Political Economy of the Government’s Role in the Agrarian Problem
At  this point a legitimate question can be asked as to why the government  did not take any initiative to provide relief to the farmers and has  gone on a denial mode saying that there has been no farmer suicide in  West Bengal. In order to understand the problem one needs to look at the  social class basis of the Trinamool Congress. In 2001, when the Left  Front came to power the Trinamool had won 45.7% of the votes of the rich  classes in West Bengal.[11]  The very high vote share of the rich for the TMC at a time when the  Left Front was winning elections after elections shows that the rich  always supported the TMC and this is their core mass base. It is  undoubtedly the case that the TMC managed to win a large chunk of the  vote of the poor and lower income category (48%) in 2011 elections when  it won the elections. But it has also increased its vote share to 49%  amongst the rich.[12]  As the interests of the rich and the poor in most of the cases are  contradictory, it is impossible to keep the vote share of both the  classes intact. But, the fact that the rich consolidated their support  in favour of the TMC at a time when the electoral fortunes of TMC were  grim shows that for the TMC, the rich class is a dependent ally. It is  for this reason, that while the TMC supremo indulges in a lot of left  rhetoric, when it comes to reality, the government is failing to take  care of the problem of the looming agrarian crisis.
This  alliance between the rich and TMC is showing its most ugly face in the  rural areas. Ever since the election results have been announced on 13th  May, there have been systematic attacks on the bargadars  (share-croppers) and marginal farmers in the state. The land of the  tillers earned through decades of struggle has been re-captured in many  places by the erstwhile landowners. According to a conservative estimate  of the Kishan Sabha, over the last two and half months, land of 527  farmers amounting to 1000 acres of riot land has been snatched away.  Additionally, 4700 patta-owners have been evicted from 2700 acres of  land, 3710 bargadars have been evicted from 1587 acres of land while  14025 persons have been evicted from legally acquired land. In fact the  police resorted to firing when farmers were resisting forceful eviction  from their land at Haroa in North 24 Parganas district. The fact that  the landlord and rich peasant classes in rural West Bengal could mount  an attack on the peasantry to reverse the gains of land reform after the  TMC came to power shows that this class feels that their time to try  and recapture lost ground has come with the coming to power of the TMC  government. In essence then the rural rich feel that the government will  provide protection to them.
The  attempt of the government to paralyze the panchayati raj institutions  of the state, which were the prime democratic institutions in rural West  Bengal is yet another example of how the government is trying to  protect the interests of the rich and the powerful. Through the  panchayats, democracy and empowerment was ensured for the rural masses.  But now this institution is under attack. The TMC-led government has  decided that they will bypass these democratic institutions and  undertake rural development by bureaucratic means through the office of  the BDO. This is however only the tip of the iceberg. The real reason  lies in the fact that the Trinamool Congress wants to do away with the  functioning of the panchayats in the state. The Chief Minister had said  on record that she wants ‘non-political’ elections to the panchayats,  which is essentially a euphemism for robbing the panchayats of its  democratic vitality.
The  non-functioning and the denial of the government of the phenomenon of  farmer suicides stems from the fact the core support base of the TMC has  not been affected. It can be however argued that the TMC came to power  after mobilizing people on peasant issues. So it is wrong to say that  its core base is not affected. While it is true that the issues of  Singur and Nandigram did play a part in the defeat of the Left Front, it  is also the case that the TMC-led government till date has not  announced a single policy which will benefit the farmers. The return of  land in Singur will benefit a small number of farmers who will perhaps  get back the land after long legal battles. But the farmers of West  Bengal have gained nothing from the government in terms of any policy  announcement in favour of them. Rather, the response of the government  has been a denial of any problem in the agrarian sector. On the other  hand, the CM has been busy with summit with the industrialists,  beautification project of the riverside in Kolkata, beach festival at  Digha etc. But she has not visited a single village where farmers are  committing suicide. This clearly shows that the CM is happy to realize  the aspirations of the middle and rich classes but not the poor.
The  total apathy shown by the government towards the plight of the farmers  is only intensifying the crisis. In this situation, the only way forward  is to organize the farmers and fight for their rights. Such  mobilizations are happening on the ground. On 4th January,  West Bengal witnessed a historic strike of the farmers against the  anti-farmer policies of the central and state governments. The entire  countryside came to a standstill with the farmers instead of tilling  their fields organized pickets, processions and protest actions. More  such actions are the call of the day. Instead of committing suicide, the  farmers need to mobilize as a collective against the government. In  this struggle, the solidarity of all of us is extremely important. The  farmers should not feel alone and despondent. The democratic people of  the state stand in solidarity with them in this struggle.

[1]All data in this paragraph is quoted from Agricultural Statistics at a Glance and Economic Survey, various issues
[2] Agricultural Statistics at a Glance
[3]“ Employment in India: What Does the Latest Data Show?”, Subhanil Chowdhury, Economic and Political Weekly, August 6, 2011
[4] Budget Document
[5]Answer to question no. 286, Lok Sabha, 23-08-2011
[6] CACP Report on Price Policy for Kharif Crops, 2011-12
[7] Same as above
[8] Food Corporation of India website
[9]Same as above
[10] All data are from www.nrega.nic.in
[11] Making and Unmaking of Trinamul Congress, Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya, Economic and Political Weekly, April 3-10, 2004
[12] Fifteenth Assembly Elections in West Bengal, Economic and Political Weekly, June 18, 2011
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