Cash crops

Photo by Anath BS

On November 27, 2008, people all over India awoke to news of tragedy in Mumbai. Armed attackers had taken over two elite hotels and had also fired into crowds at a major train station as well as on the street. Over the course of the next three days, the nation waited to hear the fates of the hostages. When the whole macabre drama came to an end, the death toll was 172 — the vast majority Indian, with a few dozen foreign tourists: American, British, and Israeli. News broadcasters called it an attack on the heart of India.

But another attack has been taking place for over a decade, steadily and surely, with little major news attention. From 1997 to 2007, over 180,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide. Rather than the affluent echelons affected in Mumbai, this tragedy strikes at the agricultural heart of India: a nation where about 70 per cent of the population is still involved in a 5,000-year-old tradition of agriculture.

Indian farmers in crisis

“You could see the suicides coming,” says farmer Karuna Futane. She and her husband live in the “suicide belt” of Vidarba, Maharashtra.

“All around us, farmers were losing their children to the cities; they were becoming lonely and hopeless,” Futane says. “All their money was going out from the village, and nothing was coming back. In society overall, there has been a loss of sensitivity, dialogue, and connection among people. It was only a matter of time.”

“Suicide has become so common that no one takes it seriously anymore,” says Giridhar Patil, an agricultural activist in Nashik, Maharashtra.

The big picture

In 2007, 16,632 farmers committed suicide. Since records are likely to exclude tenant and women farmers, this is actually a conservative estimate.

According to a study by Professor K. Nagaraj of the Madras Institute of Development Studies, nearly two-thirds of all suicides occurred in five states: Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. These states were leaders in the high-yield agriculture program known as the Green Revolution. They have also embarked wholeheartedly into the SEZ (Special Economic Zones) program: a program that invites multinational corporations into their areas to set up shop, with promises of more relaxed environmental regulations and tax breaks.

“[There is] an acute agrarian crisis across the country,” says Nagaraj.

Indian government policies favour large-scale, industrial, and corporate farming. Mechanization on large farms has dramatically reduced the number of people working in agriculture, leading to rising unemployment and an influx into urban areas.

As state investment in agriculture has disappeared, land and water stresses have worsened. Operating costs have shot up, with some inputs seeing cost hikes of several hundred per cent. This has forced farmers to take out high-interest loans from banks and private lenders to stay afloat.

Meanwhile, crop prices have crashed due to massive US-EU subsidies to growers, casino-style commodity futures markets, and price rigging by large corporations. Farmers often don’t make enough revenue to cover their interest payments.

Stories of difficult industrial agriculture transitions have played out worldwide for the last half-century, reaching as far as Canada’s own Prince Edward Island. The province has lost 325 of its 400 hog farmers in the last six years due to centralized retailing and international commodity pricing.

In India, the additional burdens of changing weather patterns and irregular rainfall have pushed farmers into an endless cycle of debt, depression, and despair. Often, suicide is the only way out.

“Even as subsidies for corporate farmers in the West rose, we cut our few, very minimal life supports and subsidies to our own farmers,” says Nagaraj. “The collapse of investment in agriculture also meant it was, and is, most difficult to get out of this trap.”

The other Green Revolution

To Western ears, a green revolution sounds promising. But in India, the Revolution has signaled a major switch in Indian agriculture over the last 50 years.

“Out of the Green Revolution, only 10 per cent of farmers made money. The situation of the other 90 per cent was not improved at all,” says Vasant Futane. “The government is now promoting corporate sector farming and helping companies like Monsanto and Reliance to acquire large plots of land. They are ruining the environment, leading to the permanent degradation of the land.”

In 1961, Norman Borlaug, a Rockefeller Foundation affiliate who created hybrid grains, traveled to India to pitch the use of hybrid seeds to solve its looming food crisis, ostensibly due to unusual droughts, incomplete land reforms, and population increases. Rather than addressing these root causes, the government launched its own program of hybrid plant breeding. Crop yields increased dramatically, and the leaders of the Green Revolution were highly praised.

But India has seen the Revolution’s dark side; though food exports are booming, famine lingers because biased distribution channels are limiting the ability of the poor to access food.

The suicides are just one of many environmental and socioeconomic effects of the Green Revolution. The new ‘high yield seeds’ require chemical fertilizers and pesticides to grow. Farmers must repurchase these seeds every season since they cannot be replanted. Every year, crops require additional fertilizers and pesticides as nutrients diminish and pests grow resistant to the chemicals. And with everyone planting the same seeds, a single disease can devastate an entire nation’s harvest.

Such difficulties manifest themselves as suicides. Tragically, the majority of the farmers have been committing suicide by ingesting the very chemicals that have destroyed their land, families, and communities.

An oasis in the desert

In this midst of this destruction, Futane and her husband Vasant are creating an oasis in the desert. Inspired by Masanobu Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution—a small-scale organic farming system that does not require weeding, pesticide or fertilizer applications, or tilling—as well as the non-violence practices of Vinoba Bhave and Mahatma Gandhi, they are attempting to cultivate Swaraj, a state of self-reliant living. Swaraj emerges when people begin to take their lives in their own hands and take responsibility for the whole — self, nature, and community.

The Futanes practice contour bunding and sowing, a type of watershed management. Crops align with the landscape to maximize water use and conserve topsoil. Farmers use free, natural fertilizers, such as cow dung and cow urine. Mixed cropping is also practiced.

“We try to show local farmers that through these methods, they can improve the quality of their soil and increase their yields,” Vasant Futane says. He also suggests that reducing spending on luxury and consumer items like extravagant weddings and motorcycles will help communities to prioritize spending on food.

“[Villagers] can decide to give loans to each other and avoid banks with their high interest rates,” he says.

Futane also advocates seed banks for traditional seed varieties to reduce market dependencies. His greatest hope lies in a direct link from farmers to markets.

“In 1990, we planted 25 local variety papaya trees. The fruit were beautiful. If we went to sell it in the city, we would have gotten a lot of money for it. But we decided to sell them in a nearby large village,” he recounts. “There, people discarded the artificially ripened ones and would save up money to buy our papayas. Other farmers began growing these varieties, because they saw the value in them.”

The Futanes feel it’s unlikely that the Indian government will support them in making these changes happen.

They explain that today, farmers can only find genetically modified cotton seeds on the market. In fact, homegrown seeds may soon become scarce in India, since the government wants farmers to use corporate varieties only.

“I feel genetically modified crops (GMCs) have to be banned and boycotted,” Vasant says. “Manmohan Singh [the Prime Minister] is signalling to Monsanto to help launch India’s second Green Revolution. The government has turned a blind eye to the situation of farmers. It is time to protest for only direct subsidies, not indirect subsidies by way of company products.”

Indeed, given the lack of media attention, as well as the government’s active courtship of transnational agribusiness giants, its openness to GMCs and its following of World Bank policies, India’s government seems locked on this course. Support for large-scale factory farming and export-oriented agriculture will make the country dependent on foreign private investment.

“India’s minister of finance, Palaniappan Chidambaram, envisions a future where 85 per cent of India's population lives in cities and only 15 per cent are engaged in agriculture,” writes Mira Kamdar, author of Planet India: The Turbulent Rise of the Largest Democracy and the Future of Our World.

“[He sees] an India with a heartland as empty as that of the United States with its few remaining farmers completely beholden to the agribusiness giants who sell them their seeds, their fertilizers, and their pesticides, and then buy their harvests.”

An organic future?

To critics who say that organic farming cannot produce enough food to feed the country, Karuna Futane responds: “Actually, if city people – who are respected – started coming back to the land, farmers would recover their pride and dignity. They would encourage their children to be part of it again.”

“Consumers need to understand that you can’t rush or substitute with farming. To be farming-literate is as important as being computer-literate. Without food, everything else is impossible.”

Vasant puts it simply: “City people can’t eat nuts and bolts and survive. Why don’t they connect with the land? If they do, then they won’t put such a burden on the farmers.”

Town and country

ReStore is an urban citizens’ collective created in Chennai by Sangeetha Sriram and her friends in response to a growing quest to relate the suicides to city-dwellers’ lifestyles.

“We wanted to create a space where people in the city could come together, look at what’s happening, and experiment with new ways of doing things. We thought food would be a good starting point, because there is already a lot of awareness around pesticides and organic foods,” says Sriram. “Though they want safe, whole food, and are aware of chemical residues, most people look at food in isolation. Eating well and responsibly is not just about [consuming] organic.”

ReStore sources produce from reliable rural organizations that work with small farmers and then sells this produce at a twice-weekly bazaar. ReStore also makes sure that farmers are producing enough food for themselves first. “We don’t want them to just grow millets for Chennai,” Sriram says.

To further bridge the gap, they have launched ‘Restore Earth Connections’, a program that takes city people on farm visits for mud-building, cow dung plasters, sowing and harvesting millets. Over 100 people signed up in the first week.

Groups committed to small-scale farming, organic produce, local ecologies, and whole and healthy foods have sprung up in other parts of India and the world. Southern Ontario has the CRAFT network which is helping to train the next generation of organic farmers and Saskatoon’s own Percy Schmeiser has become a global hero for taking on Monsanto single-handedly and bringing the issue of GMO contamination to the forefront of global food issues.

Cuba also converted its predominantly input-intensive agriculture to over 95 per cent organic farming, including large tracts of city farming, when the Soviet Union collapsed and its oil pipeline ended. With government support, this large-scale conversion took place in less than four years — a clear sign that more suicides and further disaster can be averted.

“We get hopeless sometimes, but we still have to keep going,” Vasant Futane says. “We will keep our fire lit, so that when someone needs light or heat, they will come to us. This is the Gandhian way. Mother Earth can satisfy everyone’s need, but not anyone’s greed.”

“When people start living according to their needs, we will find our way to true Swaraj.”

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