How I got interested in farmer suicides
In 2006, I attended an event of ISABS. I had just returned to Mumbai after spending several years in the mountains, and was still missing rural life. So when the community turned out to have two activists from rural Andhra Pradesh, who also happened to share the room next to mine, I tended to prefer their company
They were from Timbaktu. Kidding you not. It is a real place in/near Anantpur. The name caught my fancy, and I was curious. Dinesh also had vast knowledge of flora and fauna, which was very interesting.
Till then I knew zero about the agrarian crisis. I was rural, but hey, it doesn’t get lush greener than Himachal (on this side of the rain shadow). Drought was something from black and white films or at worst, lesser crop for a year. Climate problems were more like snow being late, which meant a lower crop for the apples, but not the end of the world. “These activist types exaggerate everything” I thought, but it was better to “over care” about these things than the crap I was finding in the city anyway. By crap, I mean the average city attitude of not being bothered about the world around them, which was very garish after my long stay in the villages and wilds.
So I gravitated toward Dinesh and the colleague of his, Ashish who were attending, because they were rural folk. I enjoyed their company and thought all was good.
On the contrary, Ashish hit out at me viciously (verbally) saying stuff like he couldn’t relate with the “likes of me” in the middle of some conversation. Very puzzling, because I liked him. So I asked him, and he spoke of inequality, and I was one of the “haves” – a callous person who lived in plenty while people died of hunger. I was astonished. It was unreasonable. I was the one in the torn shorts. Not him. Dinesh was the one with the laptop. So I challenged him on how I was a have and Dinesh or he weren’t.
And out it came pouring. Difficulties farmers face because cities develop, and policies follow them, and so on. Farmers committing suicide because of failing crops and overwhelming debt. Lack of facilities to support agriculture, lack of water. It sounded like a tough deal, but I pointed out that I had led a rural life too, and was certainly not one of the “haves” as he said. If I had a choice, it would definitely favor the rural India.
We got along well after that, but I never forgot that blaze of anger. It made me curious as to what deprivation this person was seeing that he held me responsible for. What was it that was arousing such feelings? And I found out. I asked him, heard hours and hours worth his thoughts, stories, fears, concerns… there was little happiness.
They spoke of efforts for saving indigenous seeds, farming methods, loans, credit, weather, crop cycles, people committing suicide, indigenous species, genetically modified crops and such. I hadn’t thought of eating genetically modified food till then. I was totally amazed to know that I was already doing it. The farmers suicides sounded surreal. Frankly, I didn’t believe them. Who would commit suicide because of a crop failing? Try again next year!
I was naive, but I learned. And I came home and learned more (that part you know. I just dig in till I find out). News speaking of farmers, suicides, agriculture, and rural India in general started catching my attention and I followed it vaguely. Over time, I started developing some understanding of what was happening.
I am glad that I got on this track, because till then, I simply wasn’t aware of most of India and its realities. Things take on a new context when you are thinking of a whole rather than a permanently segmented view or worse, a small cross section and imagining it to be representative of the whole. It helped me understand various objections and “anti-progress” attitudes that later turned out to be disagreements by people representing thoughts of significant populations on the publicized popular views.
India is a diverse country, and this learning curve helps me understand some of that diversity.