40,000 Farmers Have Committed Suicide Since 2000Ed. Note: Kiefer Kofman, Pace ’16, is a political science major and the former head of the Community Energy Team at the Pace Environmental Policy Clinic. He spent the summer studying in India under a Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship. His first post, Into the World of India, appeared June 23; the second, Reform of India’s Culture of Economic Slavery a Prerequisite to Environmental Reform appeared July 15; the third, India’s Cultural Barrier to Environmental Reform, appeared August 6. ~ JC
INDIA IS A NATION of highly disparate classes. Even the meaning of poverty can be ambiguous — a farmer in the rural countryside has a vastly different lifestyle than a city laborer in Bangalore. The alarming number of suicides amongst Indian farmers makes the point poignantly.
In Deepa Bhatia’s award-winning, 2009 documentary film, Nero’s Guests, investigative journalist P. Sainath, Rural Affairs Editor of The Hindu, speaks to the continuing economic and political inequities:
It took ten years for a Prime Minister of the country to visit a farm household in a state where over 40,000 farmers have committed suicide in the last 14 years according to government data. It took ten years for the government to think up some sort of “rehab package” for these farmers. It takes two hours for a Finance Minister to land up at Dalal Street (India’s Wall Street) to soothe the nerves of sensitive billionaires.
When P. Sainath, articulates India’s vast disconnect, he correlates it with a larger, growing trend: neoliberalism.
By and large, neoliberalism — essentially the exportation of market capitalism — has had damaging effects on emerging economies. The conventional wisdom, stemming from the creation of the World Bank and IMF after WWII, has been that market capitalism and free trade agreements that eliminate economic barriers for business are a requisite for emerging economies to join the developed world. In a June 29 article on its website, the American Economic Association made the point that the vast majority of those in the political, corporate, and banking troika will claim that market capitalism can crystallize a nation’s democracy.
In addition to the tens of thousands of farmers who have committed suicide since the late 1990’s, more than 25,000 have requested official permission to do so. Meanwhile, the middle class enjoys unprecedented lifestyle choices.
The history of neoliberalism, however, tells a different story. One need only look at the current Greek economic crisis to understand how neoliberalism can induce a policy fait accompli. As do the United States and its banks, the Eurozone demands adherence to certain policies before issuing loans that invest in national economies. While it is common for creditors to require certain assurances, supranational and private institutions have been able to abrogate a nation’s economic sovereignty.
The Greek referendum, in which the Greek government’s position easily prevailed, tells the troika (EU Commission, European Central Bank, IMF, with of course Washington as the puppet master) that the Greek people support their government’s position that the years of austerity to which Greece has been subjected has seriously worsened the debt problem. The Greek government has been trying to turn the austerity approach into reforms that would lessen the debt burden via a rise in employment, GDP, and tax revenues.
But the effects are not limited to simple debt. In India, the impact on daily life of neoliberalism and free trade agreements are evident in diverse ways for different classes. They give the appearance of opportunity to live the western, consumer lifestyle. The New York Times devoted an extensive article to India’s growing consumer class, in which it extols India’s emerging growth:
Inside the malls, young people wandered through Indian department stores, Marks and Spencer, Lacoste and Reebok. Families took children to McDonald’s or the Subway sandwich shop. The growth of the past decade has put more money in the pockets of an expanding middle class, 250 million to 300 million strong, and choices in front of them. Foreign institutional investors have poured nearly $5 billion into the Indian market this year, already more than six times last year’s total.
But the Times article puts less emphasis on the fact India fell three places to 127 in its human development ranking in that same year. Massive debt and the collapse of rural credit led to the spate of farmer suicides that has plagued India for the last two decades. Neoliberalism has given rise to disparate worlds: the extravagantly rich and the largest number of the world’s poor. And while India has historically had stark inequalities, the inequality brought on by neoliberalism in the last fifteen years has caused yet deeper inequality in lifestyle, culture, and the political environment.
Farmer suicides and displacement of the rural poor are pointed illustrations, as P. Sainath explains bluntly in Nero’s Guests:
What you have done in the last twenty years [to Indian farmers] is reduce all human value to exchange value. It’s not profitable agriculture. So, yeah, they expect them to just lay down and die- tens of millions of them. The public sector is crumbling, the public sector of India-which is the biggest employer-has lost 900,000 jobs in the last ten years. So, when we throw people out of agriculture where is the industry for people who are illiterate, people for whom you don’t give education, for people whom you don’t provide sanitation, for people whom you don’t give the minimums of health, where do they go?
Tens of thousands of farmers have committed suicide since the late 1990’s, including more than 2,400 farmers in the state of Andrha Pradesh since 1997. Seeing no hope in the national bureaucracy or past assurances from government officials, the state government has continued to prevaricate, driving farmers to desperation. On August 10, The Times of India reported more than 25,000 farmers have sought permission to commit suicide after demanding compensation against “700 acres of their land which got submerged after construction of a bridge without their consent.” Loss of jobs has also helped foment religious fundamentalism, as evident in the 2002 Gujarat riots where many of the rioters were workers from shutdown textile mills.
Another illuminating example is outlined in the Economic Times of India. Responding to whether the lack of support to poor and small farmers was the main reason for the increase in farmer suicides, India’s agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh said: “According to the National Crime Records Bureau, causes of suicides include family problems, illness, drug abuse, addiction, love affairs, etc.”
But Premshankar Meena, a 20 year old farmer, did not kill himself for love or from drug abuse. The Economic Times reports:
The 20 year-old quit his studies when he was 15 and started working full-time in the farm with his elder brother. His only preoccupation was farming and helping his brother support the family. Because of failed crops, they had accumulated a loan of 11 lakh (1,172,348 rupees/$18,000).
Quoting Meena’s older brother after the suicide, the Economic Times continues:
“My brother killed himself because he put his heart and work into farming. That’s why he couldn’t take the pain of crop failures and accumulating debt form private lenders. Not because of a lover.”
Though the government has been forced to acknowledge the issue, free trade provides the political and societal hierarchy the ability to boast “grandiose” achievements that act as cover for tragedies like farmer suicides. Meanwhile, economic and cultural inequality continues to grow.
Bangalore is an example. As a booming tech hub, western companies have flocked in, luring wildly anxious Indian consumers. Yet, the poor are left to live in a class of their own; subjugated in a system the benefits of which they cannot enjoy. New glamorous hospitals, private schools and an immaculate international airport with a modern highway leading into the city hide the losers of Indian inequality and free trade. The poor cannot afford the hospitals, schools, and airport or use the new highway — these benefits are for those who have influence and skin in the game.
Neoliberalism has had its positives impacts. It has exposed the nation, especially its middle class, to values and cultures that promote a more equitable society. But there is a crossroads ahead: India can mobilize the benefits of new western influences to tackle gross economic and cultural inequality, or it can match contemporary Western societies, such as the United States, where the excesses of a consumer society can mask the suffering of the underprivileged.
From the caste system to the deep cultural issues that are obstacles to social change, neoliberalism arbitrarily unleashes western, contemporary free market ideology upon a less developed, more culturally complex nation. In so doing, it only accentuates and further disconnects from each other India’s vastly different classes and lifestyles.
Neoliberalism, especially in India, has been a gift for the political establishment and billionaire class. It excoriates the caste system, all the while enabling a new, contemporary version under the guise of equal opportunity.