Memo from Jantar Mantar – Booming India’s Suicidal Farmers

Gathered in Delhi, the wretched of the countryside are full of complaints, accusations, and hope.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

The onslaught of summers has started with the farmers holding Gandhian demonstrations in the historic Jantar Mantar – Delhi’s Tiananmen Square. They arrived in trains, traveling in unreserved compartments from remote villages in the heartland provinces of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh. Gathered in the capital of their country, they are full of complaints, accusations, and hope. One common word being uttered by all the sad lips: Karza, meaning debt.

The farmers have to pay back loans taken several monsoons ago, but they have no money. During some years their insubstantial fields received too much rain and the standing crops were ruined. In other years there was too little rain and the crops could not grow. The interest on the loans never stopped piling up and now the wretched have to pay back more than was borrowed.

Mr. Valji Raghu, an 81-year-old farmer from the Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh (see the pictures below), had borrowed Rs 15,000 (approximately 313 USD) in 1992. He presently owes double that amount.

Mr. Vaishya, at 17, is younger and inherited the debt as legacy. Five years ago his late father had taken a loan of Rs 22,000. Now the son needs to return Rs. 60,000.

Sometimes, the combination of poverty, shame, and distress adds up enough incentive to ponder with the easy possibilities of suicide, a phenomenon emerging as the biggest epidemic in the distraught countryside. Across the country, 17,107 farmers committed suicide in 2003, the most recent year for which government figures are available.

Additionally, there is unrest regarding genetically modified seeds being peddled by American multinationals in the poor hinterlands. Such seeds are expensive and add nothing to the resources of an already debt-ridden farmer. Besides, in various places, the local government is forcibly, sometimes violently, evicting farmers from their ancestral lands to create China-style Special Economic Zones. In March 2007, 12 armed farmers were killed by the police in West Bengal’s Nandigram village when they protested against the takeover of their small farms.

Ms. Jhadki, an old woman from Madhya Pradesh participating in the Jantar Mantar demonstration, said, “We have no hope. We don’t know what to do, so we have come to Delhi. May be they will listen to us.”

“Karza is not the only problem,” said Mr. Veer Singh as he talked of his village in Jhabua. “We have no road and no health clinic. Electricity is supplied only for four hours per day. Schools are there, but poor people like us can’t afford them for our children.”

Don’t their elected representatives assist them? “They remain in Delhi and show their faces only during the time of elections,” Mr. Singh snorted.

“Look at Delhi.” Mr. Vaishya suddenly emerged from his silence. “What cars, what buildings, what gardens! Our sarkar (government) spend all the money here. We get nothing.”

Despite their simmering rage, the farmers are optimistic. By holding demonstrations in the heart of the capital, they feel their government will listen to them – at the least.

That is being unrealistic. The truth is that the Jantar Mantar agitation has been ignored by all, including the so-called activist-driven media. More newsprint and primetime TV news was spent on a recent Fashion Week in Delhi and on pop star Shakira’s first-ever concert in Mumbai.

Even Sharad Pawar, the Union Agriculture Minister, is a very distracted man. As President of the lucrative Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), he has shown more concern on India’s debacle in the 2007 Cricket World Cup tournament than on suicides in the despairing countryside.

The farmers may be raising their voice, but they should know, sound waves do not travel in a vacuum.

Jantar Mantar Power – In Delhi With Hope

Jantar Mantar Power – We Are Distressed

Jantar Mantar Power – Mr. Valji Raghu Owes Rs. 30, 000 as Debt

Jantar Mantar Power – Ms. Jhadki Has No Hope

Jantar Mantar Power – Mr. Vaishya Inherited His Father’s Debt

Jantar Mantar Power – Decorating Protest Slogans

Jantar Mantar Power – What Will Happen Now