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Change of regime at Centre does scant little to curb suicides by farmers
RK Mishra | Tuesday, 16 May 2017 AT 10:29 AM IST
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The words rang true for a Gujarat farmer whose desperate quest to stem the economic ruin and resultant suicides by scores of farmers countrywide, is now yielding results. On May 2, the Centre admitted before the Supreme Court that over 12,000 suicides were reported in the agricultural sector every year since 2013. “A total of 12,602 persons involved in farming sector-8007 farmer cultivators and 4,595 agricultural labourers committed suicide during 2015 accounting for 9.4 per cent  of total suicide victims(1,33,623) in the country,” the Government of India submitted before a bench comprising Chief Justice JS Kehar, Justice DY Chandrachud and Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul.

Maharashtra topped the list with 4,291 suicides, followed by Karnataka with 1,569, Telangana 1,400, Madhya Pradesh 1,290, Chhattisgarh 954. The government, both at the Centre and in the states, have been all along dragging their feet in disclosing the true number of such deaths. It has now been forced to disclose the figures. The change of guard at the Centre with UPA being replaced by NDA has apparently made no difference. The economic ruin forced suicides of farmers and farm labourers has continued unabated under the new rulers as well.

Bharatsinh Jhala, Director of NGO, Citizens Resource Action and Initiative(CRANTI) had a cause to be happy when the Supreme Court expanded  the scope of his petition filed on the plight of the farmers of Gujarat leading to a spate of suicides to encompass the entire country. On March 27, the apex court asked the Centre to inform it about the line of action to be taken by the states for dealing with the ‘serious issue’ of farmers’ suicides. The Centre had sought two weeks time to enumerate steps it was planning to take and the apex court gave it four.

During the hearing, the bench said that the government should come out with a policy which deals with root causes of farmers having to resort to such extreme steps. Jhala was at pains to point out that he was a mere cog in a big wheel that had stirred the country’s highest court into taking action.

“So many have helped out in this endeavour. Mallika Sarabhai who founded CRANTI, lawyer late Mukul Sinha of Jan Sangharsh who helped the legal fight in Gujarat, Colin Gonsalves who is fighting our case in the Supreme Court, even paid for my travel from Gujarat to Delhi. It is the dedication and selflessness of so many of them that has borne fruit. Every farmer of this country owes them a debt of gratitude,” he said.

During the hearing of the case, the Supreme Court had pointed out that it felt that the government was going in a ‘wrong direction’ in addressing the real issues. Asking the Centre to apprise it of the policy roadmap to address the issue, it pointed out that paying compensation to the family of the victims ‘post facto’ was not the solution. Addressing issues to redress the genuine causative factors leading to it definitely was.

CRANTI filed the petition in the Supreme Court on the plight of farmers in Gujarat in 2013 and the spate of suicides it had led to only after the Gujarat High Court turned down its plea that these were policy matters and the High Court could not issue directions. Basing its contentions on information gleaned through Right to Information Act (RTI) from the government, CRANTI had contended that over 692 farmers had committed suicide in Gujarat between 2003 and 2012 and had sought a compensation of Rs five lakh for each of them.

Jhala contended that perusal of the police documents related to the suicides indicated that the farmers did not get crop insurance money and this led to financial deterioration neutralising their ability to pay back loans leading them to take the extreme step. “Let me put it across simply to you, a farmer spends approximately Rs 30,000 on a hectare and if there is a good crop, he gets back Rs 22,000 on an average per hectare. And this is the reason from 2.20 crore people dependent on agriculture 20 years ago, the figure is down to 88 lakh today in Gujarat,” he adds. It was for this reason that CRANTI has sought a direction to the State government to announce a financial package for farmers during drought as well as change in policy for drought affected villages.

The affidavit of the Union ministry of agriculture has also admitted that of a total of over one lakh suicides in the country in 2013, farmers’ suicides were recorded at 8.7 per cent. Referring to the data maintained by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the number of suicides by persons self-employed in  farming/agriculture in 2009 was 17,368 and had come down 11,772 in 2013. It submitted that against the total population of 122 crore (estimated) in 2013, the total number of suicides in the country was 1,34,799 of which those under the category of self-employed farming/agriculture was 11,772 which comes to 8.73 per cent of the total.

Interestingly, during the 2014 general elections, farmers’ suicides in Gujarat was the subject of a slanging match between then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal who had said that 5,874 farmers had committed suicide in last 10 years while Modi put the figure at only one farmer who had killed himself due to crop failure. The actual figure given to Jhala in response to his RTI plea  to the government stands at 692 in Gujarat for the period between 2003 and 2012 when Modi was the chief minister. On March 24, Gujarat Agriculture Minister Chiman Shapariya said in the Vidhan Sabha  in response to a question by Congress legislator Tejshree Patel that 91 farmers had committed suicide across 14 districts of Gujarat due to crop failure and debt burden in the last five years.

Additional Solicitor General PS Narasimha told the apex court that the PM Fasal Bima Yojna was the panacea for bulk of the ills plaguing the sector and will provide insurance cover for all stages of the crop cycle including post harvest risks. The NGO’s counsel, Colin Gonsalves had argued that the over-hyped ‘yojna’ had not even reached 20 per cent of even the small farmers largely because the Central government had parked huge funds with private insurance companies. Interestingly, BJP has been in the saddle in three of the five states reporting maximum farmers’ suicides, Chhattisgarh since 2003, Madhya Pradesh since 2005 and Maharashtra since 2014!

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