Acclaimed journalist and Founder-Editor of the People’s Archive of Rural India, P Sainath attributes the existential crisis confronting India’s agrarian society to macro-economic policies set in motion 25 years ago. Talking to Anuradha SenGupta, Sainath makes a case for state intervention in agriculture and says the Modi government, with its shifting positions and policies like demonetisation has only aggravated the assault on agrarian livelihoods.
Dismissing the buzz about imminent new initiatives for farmers as political business as usual, P Sainath outlines why Parliament must convene an urgent special session if we want a comprehensive, long term fix to this distress.
Anuradha SenGupta: Assess the response the political class has had to this agrarian distress. You've been in Delhi. You've tried to get parliament to hold a joint session consecutively for two three weeks so that this can be discussed with the kind of urgency and importance it deserves. How do you assess the reaction?
P Sainath: Well I think the reaction improves as elections draw closer, you know. If you just look at who your parliament represents today, if you look at the Association for Democratic Reforms data - we introduced the election affidavit where you give a self-assessment of your worth, in 2004.
In that the 543 MPs of the Lok Sabha, the winners - 32 percent were crorepatis by self–valuation. In 2009, the ratio for the percentage of crorepatis went up to 53 percent. In the 2014 Lok Sabha, the percentage of crorepatis is 82 percent! These are the people who are going to represent some of the poorest human beings on earth. They're going to represent much better the class forces that sponsored them, that drove them into power.
So you have all the time in the world to get the GST Bill passed. The Swaminathan Commission report and that is the mantra on every farmer's lips, has lain 14 years in Parliament without an hour’s dedicated discussion. The first of the Swaminathan Commission reports that were submitted, there are 5, in December 2004 and the last in 2006. 14 years, you couldn't find one hour to discuss it! I think the dominant sections of the political class have arrived on some sort of a consensus twenty-five years ago on the direction they will move the country in, and in that direction, agriculture is the worst sufferer. Farming or the farming communities and agricultural labourers are the worst sufferers because they rank very low on the priorities of that direction of economic policy.
Anuradha SenGupta: In the winter session you also had the agriculture ministry or minister put forward the information that in the last two years there has been no data published on farmer suicides. So the last available data is up to 2015. It's shocking to me that what should be a tragic indicator of this phenomenon we don't even have that information anymore, to assess the crisis. How harmful has this been?
P Sainath: Devastatingly harmful. In the last 10-15 years, successive governments have dealt with serious blows to data and data sources in this country. I will not say that it was only this government, that would not be true.
However this government has raised the level and expanded the scale of assault on data and data sources in this country exponentially. Why do you not have data for two years? That was a conscious policy decision.
The government stopped the NCRB from publishing its report from 2016 onwards, that's why you don't have data. They have collected the data for 2016 but only let out a little driblets of that in Parliament as provisional data. You cannot use provisional data along with the rest of it. In 2014 they changed the parameters so completely, changed the definitions of categories so completely: making data from 2014 onwards non-compatible with the earlier nineteen years for which data existed. Second, even then the numbers were so embarrassing they shut down the NCRB.
Did you know that they shut down the NCRB? They shut it down merged it into another department called Bureau of Police Research and Development. Putting the NCRB into the Bureau for Police Research Development, which does a few outsourced surveys and sample surveys, is like taking the results of your general election and merging it into an opinion poll! Now when they shut down the damage themselves, suddenly the clowns who did this realized that they were bereft of any kind of data at all. So would you believe that within 10 months they had de-merged the NCRB. It has never happened in your history that a major unit of the Home Ministry, which is the NCRB, was wound up, merged into another department and then reemerges after merging. You can see the letter on the demerger on the NCRB website. So you've caused incalculable harm.
Anuradha SenGupta: I think the last data that we have, is over three lakh people killed due to farmer suicides up to 2015. Why is it important for all of us to understand that this is really the biggest indicator of how widespread and deep this agrarian crisis is? There seems to be some doubt about that as well isn't it?
P Sainath: You should know that the NCRB while the only authentic source was not necessarily accurate, it had major exclusions. For instance it severely undercounted suicides by women farmers, Dalit farmers, Adivasi farmers. Our societal prejudices are such we cannot bring ourselves to accept women as farmers. In the Census definition anyone who operates a piece of land, no size given no gender is specified, for one hundred and eighty days or more and supervises that cultivation is a farmer. When the police record at the village level, the constable the tehsildar whoever is doing the recording, you are a farmer if you have a title deed, or patta, with your name on it. Barely 8 percent of women have land in their own name in this country. So what they do is, that say a woman farmer has committed suicide, they look to see if her name is on the patta, does she own the land. And since it’s not so she's not a farmer. She is a farmer's wife. Which is how we see her. Second, many women farmers are easily classified as housewives. Because we just don't accept that the work they do is that of the skilled farmer. 90 percent of paddy transplantation in the country is done by women.
Anuradha SenGupta: So you're saying that this three lakh figure is an underestimate.
P Sainath: It is a serious underestimate. Let me give you another example. Many of the young girls committing suicide, which we have documented, these suicides get in as student suicides. There are 15 year old, 16 year old, and are called student suicides because they were students. But what was the real reason for their suicide? A peasant couple has a son and a daughter in High School or College, where they're paying fees. When the agrarian crisis bankrupts them they have to remove one. Who did they remove? They remove the girl. More often than not the girl is a far better student than the boy, but they remove her. When they remove her, we've come across cases after cases of that girl, killing herself. Now she didn't kill herself because she failed in exams, but it'll be listed as a student suicide, because she was a student. There are lakhs of women farmers in Haryana and Punjab.
Year after year, Haryana and Punjab record zero women farmer’s suicides. But you look at the housewives column that is exploding because you've listed a number of farm girls as housewives. A lot of people don't know who farmers in the country are. So you have really moronic interpretations. The most heartless and stupid one coming from really eminent people. Columbia dons saying actually 300000 or 200000 whatever the figure was at that time is very low because farmers are 53 percent of the country's population. This argument has been made and repeated by even more stupid journalists or people who see themselves as journalists. Now the thing is, farmers are not 53 percent of your country's population, they are less than 8 percent.News18 Creative of P Sainath by Mir Suhail.
Anuradha SenGupta: How would you assess the last five years of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi led government and its agriculture policy. You can't just see the five years in isolation and yet five years is a long time to try and attempt to steer things in the right direction.
P Sainath: You're quite right. Cannot see it in isolation. We're really looking at policy directions that have unfolded over 25 years. The last five years have been devastating because they've added injury to insult and injury. You've had for instance demonetisation. That was peculiarly Mr Modi's own triumph. The kind of damage it did, people are still to recover from.
Anuradha SenGupta: I think the impact of demonetisation on this crisis has been documented. I've heard you talk about it, but if you look specifically at the agriculture policy? The Government of India via the Agriculture Ministry said in the Supreme Court in 2015, responding to the demand for the 50 percent hike in MSP, that "It may be noted that pricing policy that is fixing of MSP is not a cost plus exercise though cost is an important determinant of MSP. The pricing policy seeks to achieve the objective of fair and remunerative prices and is not an income policy. Hence prescribing an increase of at least 50 percent on cost may distort the market." Is the statement at the heart of the NDA government's agricultural policy – which is to let market forces determine the outcomes of agriculture?
P Sainath: Well you've been doing that for quite some time. It's nothing new. But what makes the Indian government different I will come to in a moment. The thing is you've allowed prices in the last 25 years, in the name of market based pricing, you've allowed price gouging by corporations that controlled seeds, that controlled pesticides, that control fertilizers.
Anuradha: So all the inputs.
P Sainath: All the major inputs. The lifeblood of farming is in corporate hands. So you've had some varieties of seeds see 500 percent, 700 percent increases. The cost of cultivation, in Vidarbha, in 2003 it cost Rs.2500 to 4000 to cultivate an acre of unirrigated cotton, and it costs Rs.10000 to 12000 to cultivate an acre of irrigated land of cotton. Today the unirrigated price is upwards of Rs.15-20000 and for the irrigated acre of cotton upwards of Rs.40-45,000. So even if your doubling of income occurs it means nothing when the costs of cultivation have grown fourfold and fivefold.
Now about this government, let me put that statement in context, in 2014 this government won a substantial part of the farmer vote promising to implement Swamnathan Commission's recommendation on MSP being equal to cost of production plus 50 percent. Less than twelve months of coming to power, it submitted that affidavit saying this cannot be done, it would distort market prices with no explanation for; why did you then promise it! 2016 the agriculture Minister, whom you quote, actually made speeches denying that such a promise had been made. 2017 they said forget Swaminathan, look at Madhya Pradesh Bhavantar scheme etc. And they were lauding it to the skies around which time five farmers were shot dead in Mandsaur, in the protest of farmers against the government.
So that was Shivraj Singh Chouhan's great model. 2018 January, please read your budget speech of the Finance Minister: paragraphs 13 and 14, he not only acknowledges by implication that they did make such a promise, he says we have already implemented it! 2018 in August you have the redoubtable Mr Gadkari saying "Aare Yaar, We made lots of promises. Koi ummeed nahi tha ki hum satta mein aayenge." He actually says this. You've heard that famous quote of his. So in the space of 60 months they've taken six positions. And what you can describe this period as, though it flows in that same direction of 20 years, it's a period of aggravated assault on the livelihoods of farmers and agricultural labourers and agrarian society as a whole. What was an undermining, and an erosion of those livelihoods becomes an aggravated assault.
Anuradha SenGupta: This came home to people in urban and middle class India when farmers in Maharashtra marched from Nasik to Mumbai. It gave a visual glimpse to the injustice of what was happening in their lives. Has it dawned on us that farmers seem to have subsidized our consumption and our living patterns?
P Sainath: The farmer is one person - one producer who has no control over the price that is set for his product. That is controlled. It is also an answer to that claim that farmers don't pay taxes that is a form of taxation, you hold that price down. When farmers are getting good prices internationally you ban exports when there is a better price at home you bring in mass imports.
Anuradha SenGupta: But this seems illogical why would any government do this? What am I missing?
P Sainath: The agrarian crises in 5 words is: Hijack of agriculture by corporations. The process by which it is done in 5 words: Predatory commercialisation of the country side. When your cultivation cost have risen 500 percent over a decade, the result of that crisis, that process in 5 words: Biggest displacement in our history.
Anuradha SenGupta: Let us say that this is the reason and people are either dying of farming or they are getting displaced and leaving farming, who does the government and country expect will do farming?
P Sainath: Many of them go back into agriculture as labourers. If we look at the primary census abstract, as the column of farmer plummets the column of agriculture workers explodes. In my home state, the unified Andhra Pradesh in 2011, the farmer column depletes by 1.3 million, the agricultural workers column expands by 2 and a half times that number. Many are falling into the ranks of the agrarian underclass. They will do the farming, they will be labourers or slaves on the land they once owned. Second, you will go in for more and more mechanized or you know automation farming, you will do that; your model is the United States model where less than 1 percent of the people are farmers. We can do that, reduce the number of people working in farming to 3 or 2 percent but where do they go? Have you created a single optional job for them?
Anuradha SenGupta: When you say that farmers are not allowed to set prices, when price collapses happen like the one with onions we are seeing now, we have seen it with milk and so many other crops, what is the reason? They suggest there is excess supply.
P Sainath: There is one good point - many farmers in distress are not those who have not produced, they are those who have produced and raised bumper crops as well. The thing is you have brought millions of subsistence farmers into a world that you call the free market, which is anything but free. The invisible hand of the market to my mind is a very identifiable bunch of extremely grubby paws. It is the duty of governments, and please understand this for the votaries of the free market, there is not a country in the world where agriculture exists, let alone prospers, without substantial state investment. The richest societies in the world, the States and the European Union have caused the price problems with their gigantic subsidies. Look at the subsidies of the United States of 2004 and 2006, the total value of the cotton output was something like $3.7 billion, the subsidy was $4.3 billion. Now that devastated prices across the world. Your Vidharbha farmers saw the crash of their lives in prices because they are now locked into a globalised market which is controlled by a handful of corporations that set the prices, not free market or choice.
Anuradha SenGupta: Sainath what is the long term fix? MSP, loan waivers we know are critical but tactical. We know they are needed.
P Sainath: But they are only the first step. They are not going to solve the problem.
Anuradha SenGupta: Exactly. So given you’ve told me that we are in a situation of drought. Things are catastrophic. Where does one start as a government and as a society more critically, to address these problems?
P Sainath: I think there are 2 or 3 bright things that have also happened. The Nasik-Mumbai march that you mentioned of the farmers, I think years from now we will look back on that as a turning point in the consciousness of this society. I've been maintaining for 3 years now that the agrarian crisis has gone far beyond the agrarian, it’s a societal crisis. It could even be described as a civilisational crisis because the world’s largest body of small landholders, their survival is under assault, it’s under siege. It’s a crisis of our own humanity. When that march took place, for the first time, being 26 years resident in Mumbai, I saw the middle classes come out and embrace the marchers and their cause. This time in March 2018 was the very first time I saw Mumbai’s middle class come out in thousands. There were doctors from JJ Hospital who had come to treat the marchers who had come 180 kilometers from Nasik. Lawyers from the Mumbai High Court, very young people, came out and were inquiring from everybody, can we file PILs against the Maharashtra government. Teachers and students were there distributing food packages.
Anuradha SenGupta: This is great. So how do we galvanise this and take it further?
P Sainath: That march was the inspiration. When you saw doctors for farmers, lawyers for farmers, teachers for farmers, that day, some of us saw a nation for farmers. And farmers and farm labourers are very central to your society and your social fabric. We think, and that demand you have heard made in that march in Delhi, you need a special session of parliament of 3 weeks. What will you discuss in 3 weeks? One, you discuss the Swaminathan Commission report threadbare. Second, you look at the mega water crisis which is much bigger than a drought.
You have no idea sitting in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai how bad it’s getting in the countryside. The Marathwada crisis is leading to hundreds and hundreds of children dropping out of their colleges and schools because their parents are unable to pay. The water crisis in this country is much bigger than meteorological failure. It’s about gigantic transfers of water, from livelihoods to lifestyle, from agriculture to industry, from food crops to cash crops, from rural to urban, from poor to rich. When we spoke about loan waiver and MSP, we said they are not going to solve a problem, they are first steps. The correct method would be to locate the loan waiver in a larger credit crisis, in a larger overhaul of the credit system.
For the last 25 years we have shifted agricultural credit out of the hands of agriculture into the hands of the agri-business. You find that small loans, those that go to the smallest farmer has collapsed, loans below Rs. 50,000, loans below Rs.2 lakhs those have virtually collapsed over the 10 year period. Loans above Rs.10 crores, Rs.20 crores have doubled, tripled. I don't know too many farmers who take loans of Rs.10 and Rs. 20 crores. Do you? That shifting of credit steadily from the farmer to the agri-businesses has led to severe indebtedness and the problems you are seeing now. There was no demand for a loan waiver in 1998, '87, '99, 2000. It’s a much more recent demand of the last 5-10 years. So you created a credit crises, you need to discuss that.
Anuradha SenGupta: In fact Sainath the implementation of MSP hikes and loan waivers in itself is a big problem, isn't it? The way any of this is actually playing out on the ground once the announcements are made.
P Sainath: It's a huge problem, it's a gigantic problem. I venture to predict that the Modi government will announce before the elections, at the appropriate time, huge hikes in MSP. They don't have to be implemented. Second, MSP as it now stands, is accessible only to a very small percentage of farmers in the country. Third, governments frequently increase, make huge statements about the rises in MSP and then don't procure. So we open the procurement centres in the region 10 days late by which time that fellow has been forced to sell his product to the first trader coming by. Fourth in the case of this government it is toying with the term 'cost of production’ (COP). It says we have already implemented COP plus 50 percent. That is not the cost of production that the Swaminathan Commission recommended.
Anuradha SenGupta: Which includes labour as well isn't it?
P Sainath: There are many forms of calculation but there are three broad ones. One is called A2 which is just paid out input costs of the season, second A2+FL is the input costs paid out plus the imputed cost of family labor, three is COP2 comprehensive cost of production which would include land rental value, interest on loans etc.
Anuradha SenGupta: I think the government is looking at just input cost isn't it?
P Sainath: It’s either A2, sometime might touch A2+FL. Also they are playing on the wanton ignorance of the media. Your media has much to answer for. The politicians have better antenna and are more committed.
Anuradha SenGupta: For their own survival.
P Sainath: For their own survival. In the last 3 months on every channel are the words 'agrarian crisis’. It seemed even to fracture the tongue of anchors because it’s such an unlikely term for them to be mouthing. It came up in the 2004 elections very strongly because you saw the defeat of Chandrababu Naidu and SM Krishna. In the hundreds of beats we have in media, you do not have a single full time labour or employment correspondent and what someone you call the agriculture correspondent is someone who covers the agriculture ministry, not the mandi, not the sowing. And above all we don’t cover the lives of the farmer and that’s why The People's Archive of Rural India exists - to look at developments, at what’s happening through the lives of people. If you look at it through the eyes of the agricultural labourer and the farmer, you will be doing a very different kind of coverage in newspapers and television.
(Catch the full interview at Off Centre with Anuradha SenGupta)