The peasants’ agitation that began in Madhya Pradesh is slowly spreading to other parts of the country. In Gujarat, for instance, the farmers have closed ranks and are bracing for a direct confrontation with the state government to make their demands heard.
On 21 June, the World Yoga Day, farmers of around 40 villages of Kalawar Taluka, Jamnagar, will perform yoga while observing a fast at Sisang village. They plan to carry their farm equipment, including spades, pickaxes and ploughshares, to the protest venue. Bharatsinh Jhala, a peasant activist, says that Ravi Jadeja, a 32-year-old farmer from Sisang committed suicide on 3 May. The family has yet to receive compensation from the government and the bank employees are harassing the family to get them to pay back the loan that Ravi had taken.
This change in Gujarat farmers’ attitude is not a sudden development. It began with the misery of farmers in Vidarbha (Maharashtra), Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh that led to a spate of suicides. Jhala, the convener of an organization called Kranti, which took the battle of Gujarat’s farmers to the Supreme Court, says that according to the information furnished by the government in response to an RTI query, 2,766 farmers of the state ended their lives between 2003 and 2016. Of them, 2,479 suicides are from the period 2003-07. Those who committed suicide in the period 2008-12 numbered 152 while 87 took their lives in the period 2013-16. This year, so far, eight farmers have committed suicide. The all-India figure for farmer suicides in the 2003-16 period stands at a staggering 2,96,146. According to Jhala, in Gujarat, cultivators and agricultural labourers are mainly from the Kori (an OBC) and Rajput communities. Most of the farmers who have committed suicide come from these caste groups.
In the past, the razzmatazz of the “Gujarat model” pushed the problems of the state’s farmers into the background. At the time, the focus was on Vidarbha and the farmer suicides in Gujarat could have been fudged. P. Sainath, a journalist who has widely covered rural India and agriculture for various national newspapers, wrote in an emailed response to FORWARD Press’ queries: “The official figures (of the many sets that exist) to be looked at are those of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). That source too has seen the integrity of its data process destroyed since 2014 (not that there were no problems with it earlier, but those reflected the flaws of our society, not deliberate disruption of the data) … Gujarat [is] a state that has consistently fudged its data and simply blotted out numbers.”
The key question, however, is: Who are these people taking their own lives? According to Jhala, in Gujarat, most of them are small farmers. In terms of caste, they are OBCs and Rajputs. Dalits also constitute a sizeable section. Jhala recalls that in 2014, a Dalit farmer had committed suicide in Meswara village of Rajkot district. His name was Gobarbhai. He was a landless farmer. In 2013-14, as part of its programme of providing land to landless Dalits, the government allotted 10 bigha land to Gobarbhai. But the land was barren, with no means of irrigation. Gobarbhai used his own funds to have a well drilled and after taking a bank loan, sowed groundnut. However, the crop was poor. The next year, he sowed BT cotton with loans from his friends and relatives but the Cotton Corporation of India did not offer remunerative price for the crop and made only limited purchases. This compounded the problems for Gobarbhai, and he ended his life. Jhala said there has been many a victim of the apathy of the state government and overzealousness of bank officers.
Jhala says that in 2013 he filed a public interest litigation in the Gujarat High Court on the plight of the farmers, seeking adequate compensation and government jobs for the dependants of farmers who were forced by their circumstances to commit suicide. The court dismissed the plea at the first hearing itself. The reasoning was that the petition pertained to a policy issue and the court couldn’t encroach upon the state government’s domain. Jhala moved the Supreme Court. Finally, this year, the Supreme Court issued a notice to the state government seeking its response to farmers’ suicides, provision of compensation for their families and their rehabilitation.
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