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It was inevitable. The building farmer frustration is ready to explode. If not Gajendra Singh, it would be someone else. The writing has been on the wall. There is torment needing to be heard. A scream in the void.

In 2010 Ramchandra Raut composed his suicide note on non-judicial stamp paper, addressed it to the Prime Minister and President along with local leaders. He remained a statistic. In 2012, another farmer called Gajendra from Yavatmal had written a suicide note to his village warning them to not vote for Congress and NCP before committing suicide. He sank into the statistics without a splash. The suicide notes, last, desperate attempts to be heard went as unheard in death, as the farmer did in life.

Ironically, this morning, while Gajendra Singh was still alive, Devendra Fadnavis, Maharashtra's Chief Minister endorsed Eknath Khadse's fantasy method of recognizing farmer suicides as the ones where the farmers left behind suicide notes. From being the undisputed reining champion of farmer suicides to 3 suicides in one clever move. Not that those suicide letters meant anything either.

We are, sadly, an apathetic nation. Our conscience has been mortgaged to the media, which feeds us upstanding people regular doses of what should offend us. Letters written by nobodys don't reach us. When they reach us, they don't matter, unless the subject is dramatic enough to trend on social media.

Within minutes of the suicide being declared a "SUCCESS", media was harvesting the scandal. Politicians, normally serene about routine reports of farmer suicides rushed to establish their innocence and the guilt of their political rivals. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was "shattered", even as his anonytrolls started pushing a piece profiling Gajendra Singh as everything except a farmer who had jumped political parties and was a member of AAP at last check (well, d'uh, he was at the AAP rally). As astonishing as it was that media managed to dig up his political history within hours of his suicide, what was more astounding was the explanations - from planned political murder to an "AAP stunt" gone wrong. Amaingly, not only did Rajasthan have the records for crop losses and applications for compensation on the tips of their media responses, they even "proved" the family claim of reason for suicide being crop losses wrong. Within hours of his death. So much concern for farmers.

While it is unclear what stopping the rally would have achieved (BJP and Congress fixated on the AAP rally continuing after the suicide as well), it is less clear how a person can kill himself in a packed rally, though I imagine it is not easy to stop someone physically while on a tree. It is even less clear how a massive exhibition of love for our farmers can proceed unfazed by the death of a farmer in their midst. To be fair, from all accounts it appears that initially it seemed like a suicide attempt prevented and injured person taken to hospital. AAP, still recovering from its allergy with intellectuals went on a breath taking demonstration of blame and sarcastic defense with some record breaking insensitivity from leaders, which I don't care to repeat here. Congress, with its leader newly resurrected and for once speaking well went ahead and got in their points of Ganga-snan for self and blame for others as well.

In summary, both BJP and AAP managed some variation of "committed suicide to make us look bad".

So far, no one seems to have gotten around to asking "why did he kill himself?" with any level of firm intention or giving voice to the extremely open secret of the why - corporate media promoted and government passed policies that are ruining rural livelihoods and decimating farmers. Farmer suicides aren't just rising, they are rising in a rapidly dropping population of farmers farming decreasing area of land on an average. Instead, every effort is on to make this about this suicide specifically, and preferrably this suicide shouldn't be about farmer suicides at all.

To me, a public demonstration of suicide is more a protest than a mere giving up. Media and politicians may be covering their own culpability with a fog of words, but I understood this man to be trying what Mohamed Bouazizi's self immolation was, in Tunisia when it kicked off the Arab Spring. An expression of intense frustration, seeking echoes far and wide by being as visible as possible and "signing" the genuineness of the protest with own life.

Where BJP anonytrolls saw a political opportunist pinging off parties, I saw that the political experience showed him how he could commit suicide to be heard. If not in life, then in death. And where countless ignorant farmers failed, he succeeded. Farmer suicides are finally prime time content. They will be the weapon of political confrontations, improving chances that someone, somewhere will be forced to change something, pay some more attention because of the one thing farmers so far had not managed to achieve. The one thing government in India understands. Nuisance value.

You may die a thousand deaths in complete silence. Your protest will get fired on. The day you burn a bus and attack a few people is the day the government leaves you alone to get whatever "justice" you want. The day your death causes a problem for important people is the day it gets attention. Till then it will only get murmurs of consolation and pleas to not die and ruin statistics for all of us.

Gajendra Singh managed to be a problem today. He died on the doorstep of politicians and in media's eye before they could avert it. The plight of farmers is a long way from being addressed, but the "nuisance" and thus the imperative to be at least seen doing something has already begun. In blaming each other, politicians are establishing collective guilt.

Naturally, the wise media has seen this despicable behavior and is busy commenting on how ugly it is without realizing that as they point fingers at the politicians, they fail to see their own role in the plight of farmers. Here are two stills from AlJazeera's excellent short documentary on the Indian media's rural blind spot that no TV channel is going to show tonight.

Percentage of rural stories on front page of newspapers
Percentage of rural stories on front page of newspapers
Percentage of time devoted to rural news on TV
Percentage of time devoted to rural news on TV. These figures don't show more than 7% of the time for over 2/3 of India's population and YET are deceptive, because this time shown too is rarely about rural issues and more likely to be other selling news from rural locations.

 

A 2011 report on rural reporting in media by EPW
A 2011 report on rural reporting in media by EPW Source: sans serif

 

By all accounts, Gajendra Singh has screamed his scream. He will get a short window of time where farmer suicides will be reported diligently and politicians blamed and defended and a massive fog of words giving us the moral superiority of knowing exactly who to blame. Then it will die down into oblivion.

It is up to us left living to decide whether the message he spent his life to communicate to us is important enough for us to carry forward the torch he desperately threw where no one can pretend to not see it.

If you scream into the void, did you scream at all?

A lecture at University of Texas, Austin by P. Sainath, sponsored by the University of Texas School of Journalism, the South Asia Institute, AID-Austin and the Society of Professional Journalists UT.

Part 1 || Part 2 || Part 3 || Part 4 || Part 5

In 1999, Egypt came under the structural reforms regime of the World Bank and IMF, but for some reason, they didn't push it. Maybe because the ministers of that time were a little smarter.

2004 - Mubarak sacks most of his cabinet, brings in guys, trained - where else? - land of the free, home of the brave. Brings them in, and they ruthlessly implement the economic reforms and you've got chaos. You've got 80% of those below 30-35 unemployed.

Ya, so democracy is a very important issue. Unlike in say, India, they did not have the option of voting out governments. Please know this, just so that you understand this, how important the food issue is. Election after election in India, many elections in India, I can't even count for you how many, the price of bread has been the price of power.

In 2009 elections, all those governments that provided cheaper rice to their public won those elections. Whether the BJP in Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, BJD in Orissa under Navin Patnaik, the DMK in Tamil Nadu... it made a huge difference, because the public were reeling under food prices.

Understand how important. In Egypt or Yemen, the public did not have the option of using the electoral route of protest.

So yes, the democracy thing was an important driver, but incredibly important was the food issue.

Here we are.

Let's take each one of these countries. So I've given you the Egyptian stats. In the 6 years between 2004 and 2010 the rate of accumulation and concentration of wealth in Egypt is even higher than in between 1999 and 2004. Inequality is a theme. Deepening inequality is a huge driver.

And we come to the United States. Egypt IS the world's biggest importer of wheat. Take Yemen.

According to the World Food Programme... Yeme is by the way one of the very poor countries of the world. 15.7% of Yemen's population lives on less than a dollar a day. 43% live on less than 2 dollars a day. And in three months this year, in three months of 2011 , 6% of Yemen's population went below the poverty line, driven by food prices and drought.

Are we beginning to get the idea that food matters? 6% of Yemen's entire population in the first three months of this year. January, February, March. That's the estimate of the World Food Programme, which has declared that they are broke, because the budget that they had made for Yemen was destroyed by the price rise.

They had a very large budget for Yemen and now estimate they are 28 million dollars short. Those 28 million dollars measure for you the rise in food prices. So they're saying, we are going to have to drop from our list more than 300 thousand hungry people if we are to continue in the same budget.

Let's get to Syria. You know, Assad. President Assad, drew a quick lesson from what was happening in Egypt, drew a quick lesson from what was happening in Tunisia and immediately declared that he would bring down the prices of the staples. But you know what, it didn't work. The crowds are getting bigger.

But it is interesting to me that he recognized it, as always too late. Mubarak also. Too late.

In Yemen, it did not start with Twitter or Facebook, it started in the south with a bunch of students bringing out a public declaration against high food prices. School students. High school students. They took out a protest against... and they were astonished by the number of people who joined them.

When they went out to... because their meals in the canteen, everything was cut by these extremely high prices. That's so much for Yemen.

Take You know, in Syria, immediately after the crisis started, Syria lowered taxes on olive oil by 53% , on taxes on sugar by 25%, lowered taxes across the board on foodstuffs, but the price increase is so high, that it's not having that much of an impact. In fact, the announcement that they would do it, led to rapid hoarding and speculation of food grain, and that has also bitten into the crisis very severely.

The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that in the year 2008 64 million people went below the poverty line, driven by food prices. The FAO has a food insecurity atlas that you can look at. 2008 was 64 million people. When they bring out their 2011 issue, you will find that it was exceeded in 2010 because much much greater stress on pricess came up in 2010.

Here's an interesting thing. As always, after the horse has bolted the stable the IMF comes out with the study saying that there is a serious link between food prices and political unrest. Gee! We needed to know that. And only the IMF could tell us. They did a study between 1970 and 2007 which said that a 10% increase.... I haven't quite understood ... very written in the jargon of the economists. But what it basically says is that it adds a factor of 0.5 in a given year, in the next year of raising the prices in political unrest. In terms of the average political unrest, that is an increase of 100% - that's basically what they're trying to say is what I understand.

Often, this seems to unfold against not just food price increase, but double digit inflation overall. In India, food price inflation has been ranging between 13 and 18 percent for the last year, year and a half. And overall inflation has been close to double digit, but it's up and down, within a band of 2%.

Now let's take a look at my favorite magazine and website - Forbes.

Was all this an issue of demand and supply? Was all this chaos over riots and food was it entirely an issue of demand and supply? Yes, those were factors. The collapse of the Russian harvest, the drought in Australia had an impact, but nothing like the impact that speculation on commodities is having on world food prices.

Do you remember in 2008 the price of petrol went from 40 dollars a barrel to 170 dollars a barrel and then came down to 120? production didn't change so fast, did it? Food prices if you remember shot up in 2008 and toward the end of 2008 fell dramatically.

Why does that happen?

It's called futures trading. It's called speculation in food grain. The difference about speculating in food grain and.... see now some of the wealthiest investors... I've got to read you a quote from Wall Street Journal on this. What are they...? They are not even acquiring a physical commodity. They are not acquiring so many tons of rice. They are just betting on the price of rice.

They are just betting and they have a very simple bet. Food price goes ... up.

So its driving the prices of food way beyond what the public of many, many nations can afford. That's what's happening. Okay?

So it's really going dramatically up, and Fortune advises its investors ... it says "this is a bet worth dipping into." It's going up.

So I... today I looked at Fortune's list of fastest growing industries of 2009. What was number 1? Food Production. Fastest growing in revenues, food production. Number 2 is Energy, number 3 is petroleum refining, but Number 1 is food production.

In the top 20 there are two other food related... food processing is number 15, and another food related item is in the top 20, but food production is the number 1 in revenues, and in terms of growth of profit, the fourth most profitable industry in the world.

According to Fortune 500, whom I trust implicitly, because they tell me correctly how many billionaires we have each year.

And it's very... Fortune's 2009 results are very important. In a way they tell us what happened and what follows in 2010. When we look at those numbers today, we get a much better understanding of the food crisis.

Here are some of the biggest beneficiaries of that boom. Number 1 company in the world. Profiting from the largest expansion. Number 1 industry in the world and the fourth highest profit making industry in the world is Archer Daniels Midland - ADM.

If you look at it in terms of percentage change in profits, the food industry 2008-09 48% increase 42.8% increase. The next highest is some 14% behind and that is energy.

Here is how Archer Daniels Midland - an American company did. I'm quoting from Wall Street Journal "It not only reported record third quarter profits and windfall as all other food companies including Monsanto did, in the seeds sector, but Archer Daniel's profits included a seven-fold increase - a net increase in its unit that stores transports and trades in grain. Not produces grain.

The highest profits were in the units in those companies storing grain. You can the enhance speculation. You're not producing one morsel of grain. You are trading in it, you are hoarding in it, you're speculating in it, you're storing it and that unit has the highest profits of the fastest growing industry in the world.

Tells you how important food is.

Welcome to the ultimate profit zone. I'm surprised Warren hasn't found it yet or maybe he has investments we don't know about. It's called food and water. You know, if the world has to do without petroleum, it will. Humanity lived without it for millenia, but you can't live without food and water.

The countries that control food grain in the next twenty years will run the world.

The countries that control food grain or the food grain trade, they have the world by its belly. It's literally having the world by its belly. Now if that was Archer Daniel's profits, you know, I won't go into the whole list. the profits became so much, that the United States Senate set up a commission.... what was it called... the commodity futures trading commission. It held a session in Washington with Congressmen participating, I think, because of the kind of damage it was doing.

Today, the point of it is that hedge funds and index funds control between an estimated 50-60 percent of wheat traded on the world's largest commodity markets. So hedge funds and index funds are driving food prices. In India, the volume of futures trade - it's not possible to calculate how many percent it has increased in 18 to 24 months. The percentage and level it has increased in a very, very brief time.

So that's what's happening.

By the way the food production industry increase - I said 42.8% - I'm wrong, it is 48.8%.

Now the fast growing investment is coming. It is moving to another area. Farmland. How many of the Indians sitting in this - or the people of Indian origin sitting in this audience are aware that India is buying vast tracts of farmland in Kenya and Ethiopia. Are you aware of this? [inaudible audience response] Two people. Not bad. That's about the National average.

We're locked in a race with China and we're damned irritated because they've bought more land than us. And what are we buying this land for? To grow food in India. Having destroyed India's food production capabilities over 20 years of neo-liberal economics.

And we're buying... we're going to be buying hundreds and thousands of acres - we've invested 4.3 billion dollars in Ethiopia as a country. We're going to be buying tens of thousands of farmland in Ethiopia - for God's sake, don't you think they have enough problems without us landing up there?

[contd in Part 4]