Different I am, so unusual my life.
My death too will surprise you, like untimely rain.
These are lines of a poem written by Late Krishna Kalamb, a farmer poet, one of the many cotton farmers who committed suicide.
His untimely death, like untimely rain, destroyed the family.
In the documentary, Nero’s Guests, P Sainath, rural affairs editor of the Hindu, starts with a slice of history. He recounts the tale of Nero and his guests documented by the historian Tacitus.
Extensively covering poverty and the agrarian crisis in his career as a journalist, Sainath casts poverty in the role of Nero. But the tale is not about Nero. It is about his guests. It is about the factors contributing to farmer suicides and agrarian distress.
Agriculture is the backbone of the Indian economy. It is a cliché. It is a fact. Sixty per cent of the population depended on agriculture in 2011. By 2018, this figure came down to 44 per cent of the demography.
Figures show a decrease in the number of people employed in the agricultural sector. The raging agrarian distress douses the hope in the bravest of hearts.
Kasi Visweshwara Rao was a farmer from the Anantapur district in Andhra Pradesh. A recipient of the Progressive Farmer of the Year award. He got angry listening to fellow farmers talking about suicide. He committed suicide the very same year he received the award.
Bankruptcy and indebtedness drove him to suicide. Thousands of farmers and their families live this reality. Lack of access to proper finance and the absence of a social security net kill the farmers.
In contrast, billionaires weep at the mention of poverty. Such momentous occasions make headlines. P Sainath does not mince words talking about the media. According to him, the Indian media is imprisoned by profit. The only worthwhile stories are those that grab eyeballs.
The intelligentsia and the page three influencers live in their cocooned world. In the words of an actress, they party hard to try to remove poverty.
Fatima Najm, a journalist declared the have-nots as the key to their survival. They are labelled fresh laundry, cut flowers and even manicures and pedicures.
Farmers deal with the insensitivity of these intellectuals and government policy planning. The policies employed by the government have increased the costs of farming. Debt and input costs pile up. Crops remain non-remunerative.
Ad-hoc implementation of policies and schemes by the governments leave massive loopholes. It is not that the governments have not tried. From 1972 to 2016, various governments tried to provide a social security net to farmers.
The current government launched the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana to provide crop insurance. In 2018, the government announced the PM-KISAN scheme. It promised an additional income of Rs 6000 every year to small farmers. In addition, the government announced several programs to strengthen the social security net.
Evidence, however, suggests that much has not changed on the ground. The State of India’s Environment Report by Down to Earth highlighted the farmer suicides in recent years. Data for 2018 shows 5763 farmers in 20 states committed suicide. In 2019, the number of farmer suicides increased to 5,957.
It is an outcome of ad-hoc policies implemented by the governments. The policy advisors that envisioned the policies are responsible as well. Educated abroad in ivy league colleges, they formulate policies without ascertaining ground realities. Expert teams, committees that visit to understand the reasons for farmer suicides and agrarian distress ignore the farmers.
The exclusion of the intended beneficiary of policymaking tends to the formulation of ill-conceived policies.
An aspect of agriculture ignored by everyone was the aspect of trade. The romanticization of the farmers as an ‘annadata’ hides it. The trading of agricultural produce is regulated by the covenants of the World Trade Organisation. It favours the victors of the second world war and their allied European counterparts.
The US and the European Union provide subsidies to the farmers. Developing are prohibited from spending enough on subsidies. It upsets the apple cart of the free-market economy for their agricultural products. It benefits a few corporate conglomerates while bankrupting farmers in developing countries.
The monopoly is thus retained. The retention of this monopoly is at the cost of the farmer. The governments looking to score well on developmental indices enable it. In the name of growth and development, the farmer is left to hang dry.
This tale resembles the events that happened at Nero’s party after the guests arrived. To provide ambience, slaves were burnt at the stake. Nero’s guests – the senators, historians, artists, the intelligentsia of the ancient world did not bat an eyelid as the slaves burnt.
In the current, the media, the businesses, the policymakers, the government let poverty thrive by burning the lives of farmers at its stake. All have vested interests in keeping poverty alive. It is these guests of Nero that are culpable for their silence on the agrarian distress.