Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Farmers’ Suicides and the question of Legitimacy: Part I



In this blog, I want to question the idea of ‘legitimacy’ within the discourse of development – the legitimacy of certain people as citizens. 

I want to ask, who are the people that a developing country considers to be important for continuing to chart a successful path towards development? And who are the people that a developing nation considers to be unimportant for its development? I want to show that the narrative of development has a large share in maintaining the ideas of legitimacy. I will explore the idea of ‘legitimacy’ in the context of the farmer population in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra in India. 

On the basis of news results that appeared on the first page of Google News, for the keyword search of ‘farmers’ suicides Maharashtra’, the following observations and analysis was made.

The articles relating to farmers’ suicides often spoke of the causes and solutions to the given situation where farmers in Maharashtra are committing suicides in large numbers. The indebtedness and bankruptcy were the central focal points around which the stories of farmers’ suicides were reported. The New Indian Express reports that a new mission launched by the state government of Maharashtra proposed to ‘arrest suicides’ by means of granting more farm loans to the farmers in 14 districts in Maharashtra (IANS, 2015). The newly appointed chairman of the mission has been cited in the report to have said that his mission has been empowered to suggest a host of measures to prevent suicides, including health, food, finance, and education security. The use of terminology such as preventing suicides indicates that ‘suicides’ is the immediate obstacle that needs to be treated, with no regard to the historicity of the phenomenon. 

The farmers themselves feature in this discourse in the capacity of unknown entities that commit suicides, and are spoken about only after their deaths, as people to whom the ‘problem’ of suicides is traced back. Farmers in this manner become the source of suicides, the source of the problem. 

If a farmer attempts to claim more agency than allotted to him by the act of committing suicide, the consequences are peculiar. This is illustrated by another example of a news report. IBN Live reports that shortly after a visit by the Deputy CEO of Nandurbar Zilla Parishad, a farmer, Laxman Barde (70) wrote a letter to the district collector that the official humiliated him in front of all the villagers. Laxman Barde committed suicide couple days later. His son, Deepak Barde (34) filed a complaint at a police station, where an FIR (First Information Report) was registered. The news report runs this story with the title, “FIR against Maharashtra government official for ‘abetting’ farmer’s suicide” (IBN Live, 2015). As the issue of suicides enters the language of law in the news report, the farmers’ suicides become ‘crime’. The news story suggests that the farmer’s son complained out of distress and anger against the humiliation faced by his father. However, in the police complaint, a suicide is treated as a crime and the government official becomes the person who ‘abetted’ the crime. The farmer, in his powerlessness, becomes the criminal, not a victim in the news story.   

The reportage of schemes initiated by the state government further influences how this ironical understanding of the farmer as a perpetrator gets promoted. For example, The Indian Express reports on the scheme initiated by the Maharashtra government which wants the drought-affected farmers to take up the business of selling fish (The Indian Express, 2015). The report gives the details of the implementation of this scheme, such as Rs.66 crore will be granted for purchasing 660 vans that would contain a vending stall, a kiosk, insulated fish boxes, utensils, a stove and a refrigerator. The vans will be distributed among 132 self-help groups each containing five farmers in 14 districts of Marathwada and Vidarbha. The details of the scheme in this report suggest that the government has provided the farmers with necessary development solutions, such as vans that are complete with necessary gadgets for taking up the business, however if the farmer remains in debt, then the responsibility of the problem rests on him. Further the report mentions that the government has also decided to launch ‘Krishi Samruddhi Yojana’ (Agriculture Development Scheme) to ‘tackle the issue’ of suicides by easing farmers’ loan burden, improving farm infrastructure, and creating alternate revenue sources for farmers. And yet, as the report says, some farmers have not welcomed the scheme on the grounds that selling fish is a full time job and it is not a farmer’s job.

Another report, from The Indian Express on a scheme to develop textile hubs in nine districts across the state of Maharashtra to ‘override the suicides’ resonates the same sentiment where the government is seen as offering a meaningful solution to address the debt crisis and suicides by farmers (Khapre, 2015). As the report says, the first step in implementing the plan is to set up a textile park in Amravati on 100 acres of land. On this land a textile township will be created, where all the activities related to textile, including processing and marketing will be housed. Considering that a large majority of the farmers that are under debt are cotton farmers and according to the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, the cotton-growing belt has been facing the problem of lack of industries that would be able to support the cultivators.     

The other articles that resonate the same note are those in dna, one of which reports on the government’s focus on milk production, poultry and fishing for curbing suicides (Suryawanshi, 2015a), and another that reports about the Chief Minister’s plan to rope in psychiatrists to treat the farmers distressed by poverty (Suryawanshi, 2015b).   

It is evident in these reports that the views of farmers on the proposed schemes are either entirely missing or are reported as minority opinions that are not influential enough to be accounted for. In both cases, the ‘development solutions’ for the farmers are proposed that the government believes would ultimately address the issue of suicides. The farmer remains the one who receives these solutions from the authorities such as the state government, and doesn’t have a say in his own livelihood choices, by means of ‘bytes’ in the reported news.

In these examples, I attempted to show that the legitimacy of the farmers not only as contributing members of society but also as people who can ask the government for what is best for their own livelihoods is entirely overruled. The news reportage is one of the means by which the narrative of any given development issue gets created and enters the popular discourse. The discourse created by the articles discussed above represents the farmers as a community that is not a legitimate stake-holder in the nation that is otherwise planning attractive schemes involving large funds implemented through state governments.

The second part of this blog adds to this argument further, and explores the other means through which the issue of legitimacy crosses paths with farmer suicides.

To be continued... 




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