The peasants and farmers of India are the most resilient and independent community I have ever known. They have defended their rights and fought injustice and bounced back after every flood, drought and crop failure.
Why then are they giving up on life today? Why are they committing suicide in such large numbers? Addressing these questions has become a critical survival imperative not only for farmers, but also for all of us who rely on the food they put on our tables.
The epidemic of farmers’ suicides in India started after 1995, when agriculture policies were changed under the pressure of the World Trade Organisation agreements that ushered in the era of corporate globalisation. When Lee Kyung-hae, a South Korean farmer, killed himself at a WTO protest in Cancun, Mexico, in 2003. He wore a sign that read, “WTO kills farmers”.
Corporate globalisation has brought four tectonic shifts to Indian agriculture as well, setting it on the path that’s leading to devastation.
Firstly, corporate globalisation replaced food sovereignty with import dependency. A false idea was generated whereby food security did not mean growing your own food, but, instead, importing it. For this idea to be turned into practice, India dismantled every policy that had ensured justice for our small farmers and guaranteed our food security.
Secondly, another false idea began to take root — that our small farmers are dispensable to the future of India. This, evidence is increasingly showing, could not be further from the truth. Small farmers grow 70 per cent of the world’s food on 25 per cent of the world’s land.
Thirdly, globalisation led to the spread of industrial agriculture which operates in the belief that the ecological processes of nature can be substituted with expensive and toxic chemical inputs. In place of soil organisms, industrial agriculture promotes synthetic fertilisers and in place of biodiversity that maintains a healthy pest-predator balance, it promotes pesticide-producing genetically modified organisms like Bt cotton. In reality, fertilisers have destroyed soil fertility and pesticides have created more pests, as well as spread a cancer epidemic of which Punjab’s “cancer train” is a grim reminder.
Fourthly, corporate globalised agriculture displaced food as nourishment and substituted it with commodities. For example, people always consumed potatoes and corn in its natural form, but today potatoes have become the raw material for Lay’s chips and corn is raw material for animal feed. The acreage under these raw material commodities has risen dramatically, whereas acreage under real food eaten directly by people has dropped significantly.
Since 1995, agriculture has been violently separated from its roots in soil, water and biodiversity. Instead of existing primarily as a source of food for families and communities, agriculture has been artificially and coercively connected to global industry as a source of industrial inputs. These inputs — non-renewable seeds and toxic chemicals — have replaced farmers’ renewable and adaptable seeds and displaced the internal, ecological inputs of the farm ecosystem.
Farmers thus carry a double burden of exploitation. First, they are exploited when they buy expensive seeds and chemicals. Often these seeds and chemicals fail, which compels the farmers to buy more seeds on credit or loan from the companies in the hope that the next non-renewable seed and the next toxic chemical might save them. This is the seed-chemical treadmill that has trapped countless farmers across the country.
Second, farmers are exploited by an industry that buys agriculture produce at cheap rates as raw material. When farmers grow food, they eat the food as well as sell what’s excess in the local market. When farmers grow cotton, sugarcane, potato, corn or soyabean, they cannot eat their produce and must sell their produce to big industries. Industries pay exploitatively low prices, which aren’t enough for farmers to buy the food they can eat.
The epidemic of farmers’ suicides began in the cotton belt where Monsanto, American biotechnology corporation, has monopolised the cottonseed supply with its genetically modified organism Bt cotton. Over the past year, suicides have spread to potato farmers in West Bengal who are growing potatoes for Pepsi Co.
When farmers don’t even receive the minimum support price, they borrow from moneylenders and banks. After being hounded by the banks for repayments that they cannot make, farmers end up taking their lives. In September 2014, many sugarcane farmers committed suicide because the sugar mill owners were unable to pay the farmers.
In spring 2015, due to untimely rains at harvest time and the subsequent destruction of crops, farmers of Bundelkhand and Rajasthan committed suicide. They were unable to survive under an agriculture model that was failing them.
Our farmers must be liberated from seed slavery and dependence on high cost, unreliable and ill-adapted corporate seeds. Farmers must also be liberated from high cost and toxic inputs that are perpetuating the cycle of debt and creating disease. Liberation from poisons in agriculture is liberation from poisons in our food system.
Farmers’ suicides are the direct result of an exploitative economic model seeking to maximise corporate profits at the cost of farmers’ lives. The answer to this is not to call for the end of small farmers, but to give them respect and justice, and recognise that small farmers are the backbone of national food security.
Farmers keep India’s 1.3 billion-strong population fed with their blood, sweat and tears, with their skills and knowledge.
If Indian peasants and small farmers are wiped out no one else can feed India. India’s agriculture and food systems are based on diversity. Imagine your thali with food cooked from GMO corn and soya (the only major crops grown in the US), without spices, without local vegetables, without indigenous edible oils, without desi wheat or rice or millets.
So let every meal become a moment to thank our farmers, our annadatas, for the diversity of food they grow to bring us health, nourishment, taste and culture. Swaraj, sovereignity of our agriculture is not a luxury; it is a survival imperative. And it is in our hands.