The spectacle of the suicide of Gajendra Singh Kalyanwat – a 43-year-old farmer from Rajasthan — at an Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) rally in Delhi on Wednesday successfully accomplished what the suicides of scores of other farmers across the country couldn’t. He gave a name and a face to what we often reduce to mere statistics.
First, the suicide brought the reality of Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh’s hinterlands straight to our drawing rooms, our Facebook posts and Twitter trends. Second, Gajendra’s suicide exposed the double-speak of our political leadership, who have effectively politicised farmer’s issues and posed as pro-poor without acting much.
Even as questions are being raised as to what kind of a person Gajendra was and what political ambitions he harboured, the fact remains that the suicide brought the issue of ‘farmer distress’ and ‘farmer suicide’ into the headlines.
The numbers which Gajendra brought to life
The news of our times is generated mostly from spectacles, and Gajendra delivered one of that.
Journalist P Sainath, who has written and researched extensively on agrarian issues and farmer suicides, once said, "Suicides by farmers today are actually a symptom of a much wider crisis in India's farm and agricultural sector."
Unfortunately, when hundreds of other farmers commit suicides in remote villages, their deaths (and hence, their causes) do not merit this attention perhaps because the element of spectacle is not there.
According to investigations done by Sainath and economist Professor K Nagaraj, over a period of 20 years—between 1991 and 2011— more than 1.5 million farmers have committed suicide across the country due to crop failure. They had reached this figure by analysing data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).
In the last three years (2012-14), the total of number of farmer suicides due to agrarian reasons is 3313, according to figures from the ministry of agriculture. The five states of Maharashtra, Telangana, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala registered 3301 of them (99.6% of the total).
Even though Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh have been notorious as the epicentre of farmer suicides, recent data shows that the Bundelkhand region – comprising districts of Jhansi, Banda, Chitrakoot, Mahoba, Lalitpur, Hamirpur and Jalaun—has emerged as another death valley for farmers where around 3,000 of them have committed suicide over the last five years.
This year, 601 farmers have committed suicide in the last three months (January-March) in Maharashtra alone. In comparison to 1,981 farmer suicides in the state last year, this year’s figure has already reached 30% of it in just three months.
In UP, this year, 40 districts have been officially declared as affected by heavy rains and hailstorm. According to the state government, whose estimate is said to be conservative, about half a million farmers have been affected and 35 have committed suicide—the government, however, is not ready to accept that these deaths are related to agrarian crisis.
When Gajendra, sporting a colourful turban and twirled moustaches, hanged himself from a tree at the AAP rally, he suddenly brought these numbers to life.
Four speeches and a suicide: When everyone is pro-poor and pro-farmer
Just three days before Gajendra’s suicide, there were three pro-poor addresses given by eminent politicians -- Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed his party workers, Rahul Gandhi addressed a huge gathering of farmers, and Sitaram Yechury spoke after taking over as the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
“Modi government has turned a blind eye towards the troubles of the farmers. The process to receive compensation for the crops damaged due to hailstorm and unseasonal rains is so much immersed in bureaucratic problems, that it’s almost impossible to receive it,” a farmer from Rajasthan, who came to Delhi to attend Rahul Gandhi’s Kisan rally last Sunday, had told this writer.
What the farmer, Khangara Ram Bishnu, didn’t know was on that very day, the Prime Minister told his party MPs, “We are not here to relish power. Rajneeti has destroyed the country. We want to take the poor into confidence.”
Bishnu also had no idea that miles away from him, in Vishakhapatnam, the communist leader Sitaram Yechury launched a fiery battle against Modi government for the poor’s sake. Yechury had announced, “The ashwamedha yagna of Modi’s neo-liberalism and communalism will be stopped by the twins of sickle and hammer.”
The speeches made by all the three leaders intended to portray in their own way how each party was focused on the development of the poor. In the words of columnist Shiv Visvanathan, “Each party seems to take the poor as a pretext for politics and yet is absent-minded about them.”
Even the debates on the recent land acquisition bill have showed that every party wanted to appropriate the causes of the poor as if they alone knew it the best.
What adds to Gajendra’s irony is that the rally, in which he killed himself, was intended to dwell on issues faced by farmers. In the rally, even as Gajendra was ‘killing’ himself, Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal said, “This land ordinance has been brought in for “superrich” people. The need of the hour is that all the farmers of the nation should come together. They should ask for a just compensation.”
Notwithstanding how much political parties blow their own trumpets on how pro-poor they are, the numbers of farmer-suicide have always called their bluff.
(Views expressed by the writer are personal. He tweets at @saha_abhi1990)