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INDIA: At least 600 farmers’ suicides as Supreme Court waits

INDIA: At least 600 farmers’ suicides as Supreme Court waits for a national policy

by Avinash Pandey

The Supreme Court of India is worried about the continuing havoc of farmer suicides in India. It termed it “a sensitive matter of larger public interest and human rights which covers the entire country” this January. The Court has also wondered why there is no national policy to compensate farmers in cases of crop failure and indebtedness – two recurring reasons pushing farmers to take the extreme step.

The Supreme Court’s observations are welcome, even if they have come over a decade and 3 lakh deaths too late. However, no concrete steps have followed the welcome observations.

Nevermind about starting to draft a policy, the Union Agriculture Ministry has not even begun any consultation with its provincial counterparts, a prerequisite for such policy – as agriculture is a state subject, not in public knowledge at least. The provincial governments, for their part, have not pushed for such a policy despite being fully aware about the continuing problem and its gravity.

Check the facts. The Amravati Division of Maharashtra, the worst offender state in farm suicides, has alone recorded at least 319 farm suicides from November 2016 to February 2017. Further, at least 89 of them have been confirmed to have been caused by the agrarian crisis. Mind you, these are the figures that have arrived in the wake of a good monsoon in the Division that led to good crop and are from a single division. Rocket science is not needed to know that the total recent toll will be far more alarming if we add accurate figures from other regions of the Maharashtra state like Vidarbha which have been subject to drought.

And, that would be only one state. What about others? We have the figures from Madhya Pradesh; the state government has admitted to at least 287 suicides of farmers and agricultural labourers in the state in the same timeframe. We do not have recent figures from other states with high incidence of farmers’ suicides like Telangana, Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, but the suicides there would likely show the same trend.

The enormity of the situation is apparent. So is a simple fact lost on the Supreme Court: just as droughts do not wait for declarations, farmers in distress cannot wait for a national policy. The Court cannot procrastinate endlessly and wait for the government to act as farmers keep killing themselves. The judicial over-reach argument does not fly in the face of such a suicide epidemic that shows no sign of abating.

The Court cannot wait for the government to complete its near farcical agrarian distress study in major farmer suicide hit states. Yes, what else can a study titled “Farmers suicide in India: causes and policy prescription” be, if not farcical, given the causes are all recorded in the files of National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the national record keeper.

The files shows that 12,602 persons involved in the farming sector (consisting of 8,007 farmers/cultivators and 4,595 agricultural labourers) committed suicide in 2015. It also shows that it was a 42% spike from the preceding year. It duly noted that “Bankruptcy or Indebtedness” and “Farming Related Issues”, i.e. agrarian issues and not personal ones, accounted for 58.2% of these suicides. Either the NCRB’s listing of the causes of suicides or the government’s new study, one of the two, is farcical and tragicomic. What is needed is for the government to address the cause, and there is nothing on the horizon.

The Supreme Court agrees with the causes identified by the NCRB and has specifically mentioned crop failure and indebtedness while asserting the need to form a national policy for this crisis. So it cannot keep waiting for the study to conclude to address the “sensitive matter of larger public interest and human rights which covers the entire country” with scores dying on its watch. The Court must remember that it is the custodian of the right to life of the citizens of the country – a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution. It needs to be reminded that it is oath-bound to protect the people if the Executive fails. A total of at least 600 suicides in just 2 states in three months is the number we have in front of us right now.

These are 600 violations of that fundamental right. How many more before The Court wakes up? Are we really going to have to face the horror of another decade and 600,000 more suicides before something is done? Pray, tell me no. This would be more than unwelcome.

# # #

About the Author: Mr. Avinash Pandey, alias Samar is Programme Coordinator, Right to Food Programme, AHRC.

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