If a farmer hangs himself in his farm where there are no TV cameras, has he killed himself?
The cliché, life is stranger than fiction, was never truer than on Wednesday when farmer and father of three, Gajendra Singh climbed on a tree and hanged himself in the middle of a rally organised by the Aam Aadmi Party.
What followed was almost inevitable. From a string of clichés to a strum of excuses and from apologies to accusations, the tragedy descended to farce and what should have been an occasion to discuss rural distress and the reasons why roughly 200,000 farmers have killed themselves over the past 15 years became a sordid blame game in Parliament and outside.
As every political party put its bleeding heart on display, claimed to be ‘for our farmer brothers’ and appealed to rivals to ‘not politicise the issue’, this is what happened.
The AAP blamed the police. The police blamed AAP. BJP blamed AAP and also Congress. Congress blamed AAP, but mainly BJP. A probe was ordered. Press conferences were held. Letters leaked. Conspiracy theories hatched. Police did not help. People at the rally were egging Gajendra Singh on. It was a suicide note. It was just an appeal. It was not his handwriting. He was not poor. By the end of Thursday, it was enough to make you want to switch off your TV.
Lost in this indecent spectacle is the very real plight of farmers across India that has seldom, if ever, merited more than a footnote in the media, in national consciousness and in politics.
If it was hailstorms last year, it’s unseasonal rain this year that has led to crops being damaged across 93.81 lakh hectares of farmland, according to minister of state for agriculture Mohanbhai Kundaria. Between January and March this year, 601 farmers in just one state, Maharashtra have already killed themselves.
Rising seed prices, a shift to more expensive BT seeds that require more pesticide and fertiliser, the financial collapse of cooperative banks, inadequate crop insurance that covers only 19% of farmers, unremunerative crop prices, and small- and medium-sized land holdings have led to a disastrous agrarian crisis.
Nationalised banks give loans only to those farmers who can offer collateral and, with no access to capital, the poorest farmers borrow from relatives and moneylenders at usurious rates or else resort to ‘bonded farming’ where they rent land for Rs 35,000 or more an acre and split the profits from the sale of crops with the land-owner. But when crops fail, the losses are borne solely by the tenant.
When I visited Marathwada last year, I was not surprised to learn that many farmers with small land-holdings would rather work as daily wage earners than gamble with the weather.
This agrarian crisis is not new and nor did it happen overnight. And while it’s easy to blame political parties for their callousness and self-interest, the sad truth is that we as citizens too have become comfortably numb and indifferent to two thirds of our fellow citizens who struggle to survive.
The farmer is the person out there, no longer even the hero of mainstream cinema, remembered because he owns land we want to acquire for our highways and industries not because he struggles to feed himself, and us.
“I hope the collective conscience of all of us will lead to our taking steps which provide farmers with a reasonable income and decent life,” tweeted agricultural scientist MS Swaminathan.
Sometimes it takes a tragedy of epic proportions to jolt us out of our complacency, to unite to fight regardless of ideology or ism. Such a moment occurred in December 2012 with the gang-rape and murder of a young physiotherapy student.
Gajendra’s suicide could have been such a defining moment for our farmers. But that opportunity has already been lost in the din of political one-upmanship, media outrage and public indifference. There are signs that the rains could be deficient this year too, deepening and adding to rural distress. Will we listen? Will we care?
Twitter:@namitabhandare The views expressed by the author are personal