Gajendra Singh’s ‘suicide attack’ on India’s easy assumptions about progress


India_FarmingHow should deal Narendra Modi’s India deal with such hideous events as the suicide of farmer Gajendra Singh at a political rally?

It was a suicide attack, not a bomb, but a detonation of an equally powerful kind. Most of all, of course, the made-for-cameras event was a heartrending cry for help. Of what sort? What do Indian farmers need? What did Gajendra Singh need?

First things first. Singh didn’t kill himself because of Prime Minister Modi’s controversial efforts to amend a restrictive land-acquisition law.

Singh didn’t kill himself because developers had taken over his land and paid him mere paise. He committed suicide because his crops failed and he couldn’t see a way to get back on his feet.

Nearly 1,400 farmers committed suicide last year in India for reasons that ranged from debt to crop failure to drought. The response, however, cannot be, to turn India from a significantly agricultural economy (and society) into something else.

That’s what Dhiraj Nayyar is suggesting over at Bloomberg. “The only long-term solution to India’s farm crisis is to reduce the number of farmers,” he writes, citing their perilous reliance on the monsoon and the heavy hand of fate. He rightly points out that “most landholdings in India are simply too small to be profitable. Half of the population — around 600 million people – cannot live off 15 per cent of India’s GDP.”

Mr Nayyar suggests massive infrastructural investment in factories – taking over land to build them and putting all those poor farmers to work.

That’s rather extreme. I wonder if Indian farmers will readily take to working in someone else’s factory rather than on their own patch of land, howsoever small? I remember farmers in Haiti telling me they weren’t minded to grow the fashionable high-value crops (lettuce, baby versions of vegetables) repeatedly recommended by do-gooders like USAID. “We like to do what we’ve always done,” they insisted.

The short answer to Indian farmers’ problems is not to abolish their livelihoods. Mr Nayyar is on the right track when he suggests some other measures. Crop insurance. How about value-added processing plants so that crops of vegetables and fruit can be canned, made into jam, jellies, juices or whatever and flown out pronto? What about bringing in technology – as needed and at the pace that’s sustainable – to leaven and quicken tasks and improve outcomes?

The Indian government would need a massive and sustained programme of action and investment – a grand vision really – to address its farmers.

It can’t do away with farmers’ pain by doing away with farmers.

(Tomorrow: Farming is the lifeblood of India; it shouldn’t be death to its farmers)