By SONORA JHA
As politicians scramble for India’s 815 million votes in the most expensive and closely contested general election in the nation’s history, an unexpected protest is rumbling from what was once one of the country’s most placid voter blocs: its farmers.
The protest is inflamed by rising attention to the shocking suicide rate on India’s hardscrabble farms. Since 1995, more than 290,000 farmers have killed themselves. Though that figure, compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau, is sketchy at best, perceptions are what counts in politics. And that perception, along with the reality that most of these suicides are borne of desperation wrought by decades of official corruption, crushing debt and cruel neglect, is being coupled with a revolutionary change in election law. For the first time, angry farmers can reject all the politicians clamoring for the vote and mark their ballots “None of the Above.”
Kishor Tiwari, the grandson of a farm security guard in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra state, is one of many advocates who say the so-called NOTA ruling will give people new political clout. His organization, the Vidarbha People’s Protest Forum, monitors suicides and fights for financial support for the families of the dead. He says government aid to beleaguered farmers is always promised but is often stolen, or simply not delivered. But now voters will no longer have to make a choice between bad or worse, or lose their voice by staying at home. Politicians, he says, “think we respond to campaigning. No. We respond to action.”
He says the high suicide rate is the direct product of deep poverty aggravated by the government’s risky economic policies and bureaucratic apathy. Moreover, he thinks such deaths are purposely underreported.
Assertions that the suicide rate among the country’s agricultural workers is nearly three times the national average are widely believed in India, but precise figures are difficult to come by. (Health workers, social scientists and statisticians point out that the issue is extremely complex.) The World Health Organization estimates that roughly 170,000 Indians in all walks of life commit suicide every year; the Indian government put the figure at about 135,000 in 2010. That is misleading, not least because suicide is a crime in India, and as such falls under the purview of the National Crime Records Bureau. The social stigma it brings, and the risk that it may mean a loss of government compensation, feeds a family’s reluctance to report such deaths. Moreover, many suicides occur among agricultural workers who are not officially categorized as farmers.
“There is likely to be a serious underestimation of suicides,” Professor K. Nagaraj, an economist at the Asian College of Journalism wrote in a 2008 report. “The most important problem is the way a farmer is defined at the ground level — as someone who has a title to land. This is likely, for instance, to leave out tenant farmers, and, particularly, women farmers.” These factors, according to Mr. Nagaraj, amount to a “conspiracy of silence.”
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Other studies raise more ambiguity. “Suicide Mortality in India,” a report by eight Indian doctors and public health professionals published in the British medical journal Lancet in 2012, estimates that there were 187,000 such deaths in India in 2010: 115,000 men and 72,000 women. But the authors added, “Although most suicide deaths occur in rural areas, our findings do not suggest that suicide is any more prevalent in agricultural workers (including farmers) than it is in any other profession.”
Whether or not perception exceeds reality, there is no denying that India’s farmers have taken a battering in recent years. The global competition that came with the liberalization of the Indian economy in 1991 has cut into earnings. Costs soared when genetically modified seeds produced by foreign agricultural-products companies flooded Indian markets in the late 1990s. Most traditional farmers are now forced to borrow, often from private moneylenders at exorbitant interest rates.
Though it’s little wonder that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Indian National Congress has lost ground among farmers, other candidates are doing no better. Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party swooped into Vidarbha last month with a promise to declare the recent weather-ravaged farm conditions a “national calamity.” Another of the main prime ministerial candidates — Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party — has also made the kind of last-minute campaign promises that farmers have heard before.
Faced with such an unpopular roster, thousands of farmers and their families gathered on March 15 at Bhimkund village in Vidarbha, where a farmer named Kiran Kolvate led the protest. “All political parties across the spectrum have totally ignored the plight of half a million farmers,” she declared, urging the crowd to vote “None of the Above.”
That rallying cry is spreading. On April 7, the day India began five weeks of voting, people from 25 farming villages in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh declared that they too would mark their ballots NOTA. On April 11, the Indian International Youth Organization placed an advertisement on YouTube in which a young woman responds to her grandmother’s accusations of political apathy by saying she plans to press NOTA, and a voiceover declares that a protest vote sends a strong message, while refusing to vote solves nothing.
In choosing “None of the Above,” many farmers are demanding that India’s leaders take action to end the misery undermining one of the key sectors of the economy. They can do this by making good on the unfulfilled promises of the past two decades: debt relief, fair market prices, better infrastructure, reasonable subsidies and aid for destitute families. The struggle to bring prosperity to India’s farmers is far from over. But those who are tempted to give in to despair would be wise to remember the words of one of their own, the son of a farmer from a village in Tamil Nadu who became the first in his family to graduate from university and become a lawyer.
In handing down the Supreme Court ruling last September that put NOTA on the ballot, that lawyer, now India’s chief justice, P. Sathasivam, wrote: “Gradually, there will be a systemic change and the [political] parties will be forced to accept the will of the people and field candidates who are known for their integrity.”
Sonora Jha is the author of “Foreign,” a novel about Indian farmers’ suicides. She teaches journalism at Seattle University.