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Gujarat connection of India's farmers unrest: How an individual helped show, the emperor has no clothes

By RK Misra*
The volcanic eruption of farmers' unrest in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra which also threatens to engulf poll-bound Gujarat had been simmering for long. The Narendra Modi government, however, chose to remain in a state of denial to their miserable plight reflected in the rising tide of farmers suicides,countrywide. That is until a single individual from his home state, Gujarat, decided to take it upon himself to point out that the emperor had no clothes. And with resounding success.
‘Main akela hi chala tha janibe-manzil magar,log sath ate gaye aur karva banta gaya’  (I had started out alone in the quest of my goal but people kept joining in and it became a caravan). The words rang true for a Gujarat farmer whose desperate quest to stem the economic ruin and resultant suicides by scores of farmers countrywide, is now yielding results.
It was milk and honey to his ears when on May 2 the Centre admitted before the Supreme Court that over 12,000 suicides were reported in the agricultural sector every year since 2013. "A total of 12,602 persons involved in farming sector -- 8,007 farmer cultivators and 4,595 agricultural labourers committed suicide during 2015 accounting for 9.4 per cent of total suicide victims (1,33,623) in the country”, the Government of India submitted before a bench comprising Chief Justice J.S.Kehar, Justice DY Chandrachud and Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul. 
Maharashtra topped the list with 4,291 suicides, followed by Karnataka with 1,569, Telangana 1,400, Madhya Pradesh 1,290, Chhatisgarh 954.
The government, both at the centre and in the states, have been all along dragging their feet in disclosing the true number of such deaths. It has now been forced to disclose the figures. For all the chest thumping, the change of guard at the Centre with UPA’s Manmohan Singh being replaced by NDA’s Narendra Modi has apparently made no difference. The economic ruin- forced suicides of farmers and farm labourers - has continued unabated under the new rulers as well.
Bharatsinh Jhala, director of NGO Citizens Resource Action and Initiative (CRANTI) had cause to be happy when the Supreme Court expanded the scope of his petition- filed on the plight of the farmers of Gujarat leading to a spate of suicides –to encompass the entire country.
On March 27, the apex court asked the Centre to inform it about the line of action to be taken by the states for dealing with the ‘serious issue’ of farmer s suicide. The Centre had sought two weeks time to enumerate steps it was planning to take, the apex court gave it four.
During the hearing the, Bench said that the government should come out with a policy which deals with root causes of farmers having to resort to such extreme steps.
The Supreme Court’s words were honey to Jhala’s ears though he was at pains to point out that he was a mere cog in a big wheel that had stirred the country’s highest court into taking action. "So many have helped out in this endeavour. Mallika Sarabhai who founded CRANTI, lawyer late Mukul Sinha of Jan Sangharsh Manch who helped the legal fight in Gujarat, Mr Colin Gonsalves who is fighting our case in the Supreme Court, even paid for my travel from Gujarat to Delhi. It is the dedication and selflessness of so many of them that has borne fruit. Every farmer of this country owes them a debt of gratitude”, he said.
During the hearing of the case, the Supreme Court had pointed out that it felt that the government was going in a ‘wrong direction’ in addressing the real issues. Asking the Centre to apprise it of the policy road-map to address the issue it pointed out that paying compensation to the family of the victims ‘post facto’ was not the solution. Addressing issues to redress the genuine causative factors leading to it , definitely was.
CRANTI filed the petition in the Supreme Court on the plight of the farmers in Gujarat in 2013 and the spate of suicides it had led to only after the Gujarat High Court turned down its plea that these were policy matters and the High Court could not issue directions. Basing its contentions on information gleaned through Right to Information Act from the government, CRANTI had contended that over 692 farmers had committed suicide in Gujarat between 2003 and 2012 and had sought a compensation of Rs five lakhs for each of them.
Jhala contended that perusal of the police documents related to the suicides indicated that the farmers did not get crop insurance money and this led to financial deterioration neutralizing their ability to pay back loans leading them to take the extreme step. 
"Let me put it across simply to you ,a farmer spends approx Rs 30,000 on a hectare and if there is a good crop gets back Rs 22,000 on an average per hectare. And this is the reason that from 2.20 crore people dependent on agriculture 20 years ago, the figure is down to 88 lakhs today in Gujarat”, he adds. It was for this reason that CRANTI has sought a direction to the state government to announce a financial package for farmers during drought as well as change in policy for drought affected villages.
The affidavit of the union ministry of agriculture has also admitted that of a total of over one lakh suicides in the country in 2013,farmer suicides were recorded at 8.7 per cent. Referring to the data maintained by the National Crime Records Bureau(NCRB) the number of suicides by persons self-employed in farming/agriculture in 2009 was 17,368 and had come down 11,772 in 2013. It submitted that against the total population of 122 crores(estimated) in 2013,the total number of suicides in the country was 1,34,799 of which those under the category of self-employed (farming/agriculture was 11,772 which comes to 8.73 per cent of the total.
Interestingly during the 2014 general elections, farmers suicide in Gujarat was the subject of a slanging match between then state chief minister Narendra Modi and AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal who had said that 5,874 farmers had committed suicide in the last ten years while Modi put the figure at only one farmer who had killed himself due to crop failure. 
The actual figure given to Jhala in response to his RTI plea to the government stands at 692 in Gujarat for the period between 2003 and 2012 when Modi was the chief minister. On March 24, Gujarat agriculture minister Chiman Shapariya said in the Vidhan Sabha in response to a question by Congress legislator Tejshree Patel that 91 farmers had committed suicide across 14 districts of Gujarat due to crop failure and debt burden in the last five years.
Additional Solicitor General PS Narasimha told the apex court that the ‘PM fasal bima yojna’ (Prime Minister’s crop insurance scheme) was the panacea for bulk of the ills plaguing the sector and will provide insurance cover for all stages of the crop cycle including post-harvest risks. The NGO's counsel Colin Gonsalves had argued that the over-hyped ‘yojna’ had not even reached 20 per cent of even the small farmers largely because the Central government had parked huge funds with private insurance companies.
Interestingly, BJP has been in the saddle in three of the five states reporting maximum farmer suicides, Chattisgarh since 2003,Madhya Pradesh since 2005 and Maharashtra since 2014!
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*Senior journalist based in Gandhinagar. Source: http://wordsmithsandnewsplumbers.blogspot.in

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