Agricultural Minister Singh’s Comments Reveal a History of Neglect of Small Farmers
Social media is abuzz over Indian Agricultural Minister Radha Mohan Singh’s recent comments concerning farmer’s suicides. In a written statement to Parliament, Singh cited a report by the National Crime Records Bureau to argue that the “causes of (farmer) suicides include family problems, illness, drugs… dowry, love affairs and impotency“. Some critics are claiming that his comments trivialize farmer suicides by emphasizing personal and interpersonal problems instead of economic and political troubles like heavy indebtedness and low support prices for small farmers. Others are defending Singh by arguing that he was not emphasizing certain causes of farmer suicides over others, but was simply citing the causes listed by the national report.
It’s certainly possible that the controversy could have arisen from nothing more than a poorly written statement, but a closer look at Prime Minister Modi’s policy record in Gujarat might reveal a lack of seriousness towards small farmers.
Megha Bahree wrote in Forbes magazine last year that in Gujarat Modi extended electricity to rural areas and improved transport roads connecting rural villages to urban centers. However, Modi also gave away extensive grazing areas of farmers to billionaire industrialist Gautam Adani who paid as little as a penny per square meter for his 30 year lease. Adani then turned around and rented the land for as much as $11 per square meter to industrial companies who proceeded to pollute the surrounding environment. The livelihoods of the farming and fisher communities that lived near the land leased by Andani were greatly damaged.
Modi is most famous for his support for big business. His record for enticing foreign direct investment and creating profitable conditions for billionaires like Adani is clear. Modi is the multi-national corporation’s candidate, presenting himself and his party as such to fundraise in India and the United States. The campaign highlighted Modi’s success in globalizing Gujarat’s economy to prove that the BJP was the party to lead India into a new economic future.
While Modi’s campaign message was successful during the election season, Mayank Mishra argues that the growth of Gujarat’s agricultural economy during the Modi years was not unique. Other states, including Bihar, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra had similarly high rates of economic growth in the agricultural sector. Furthermore, he contends that Gujarat’s agricultural growth was due largely to the adoption of genetically modified Bt cotton. Bt cotton is a famous source of the crop failure and indebtedness that is one of the major causes of farmer suicides in India.
As Bahree’s piece in Forbes demonstrates, Modi’s record of helping small farmers produce in ways that sustains both their livelihoods and the environment is at best murky and at worst demonstrates a lack of concern for small farmers. We’ve seen that Modi is willing to trade the livelihoods of entire communities of small farmers and fisher-people for the profits and political patronage of India’s billionaires.
Not long after the BJP government took power, Agricultural Minister Singh released a statement calling for more investment in family farmers and small farms. So far, his call has not been backed up by any policies. Instead, the Modi government launched a controversial effort to disempower small farmers.
This year Modi government proposed legislation that would amend the 2013 Land Acquisition bill to make it easier for the government to take agricultural lands in order to turn them into industrial projects. The 2013 bill was designed to protect farmers from having their land stolen at below-market prices by the government in the name of national progress. It requires any development project to obtain agreement from 70% of all affected landowners and the project must undergo a social impact test before land can be allotted. The amendments to the Act would eliminate both of these requirements when acquiring land for certain industrial activities.
Protests have been raging since the amendments were proposed, and farmers around the country are standing up against the proposed legislation. Much like U.S. President Obama is planning to bypass democracy by fast-tracking approval for controversial policies like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Modi’s government plans to push away environmental and social protections in the name of industrial development.
Modi’s support for small farmers has come in words but not deeds. His policies have favored large-scale, corporate agriculture and are threatening the protections won by small farmers around the country.
It seems there is more to the statement made by Agriculture Radha Mohan Singh than the Modi government is willing to admit.