Do we want to be Nero's Guests?

When one hears of farm suicides, Vidharbha in Maharashtra may come to mind immediately. And then perhaps Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh or Kalahandi in Orissa. Of course, if we have been tracking the subject, we may know that Karnataka, Chattisgarh, Kerala, West Bengal, Assam Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Punjab will figure in a list of badly affected states. It is ironical that the last among these was touted to be among the success stories of India's Green Revolution.

As per various news reports based on the statistics released by the National Crime Records Bureau of India, over 2 lakh farmers have committed suicide since 1997 due to crop failure resulting in heavy debts. Many of them were men aged between thirty and forty. They have left behind wives who often have to fend for themselves, their young children and old parents-in-law. Further, since most of these women do not possess titles (pattas) to the land, there are cases where they are thrown out of their marital home by the relatives of the husband.

A person who has been largely instrumental in bringing these heart rending facts to light is the renowned journalist, P. Sainath, currently, Rural Affairs Editor at The Hindu. The agrarian crisis and his work has been powerfully captured by Deepa Bhatia in the film Nero's Guests. Following a screening of the documentary by Maraa, Vikalp and Concern at the Indian Institute of Science on 3rd March 2011, this Magsaysay award winner interacted with the overflowing audience. He reiterated the fact that "Inequality is the fastest growing sector in India" and expressed his disappointment that the union budget for 2011-'12 benefited the rich at the expense of the poor. According to him, the reduction or removal of various subsidies for small agriculturists and the economically marginalized while increasing the benefits for corporates and the wealthy is bound to have a drastic cascading effect on the lives of the latter.

Issues of Karnataka's sericulturists

Many of the dead farmers from Maharashtra grew cotton while those from Kerala harvested coffee or pepper. However, a recent incident in Valagere, a village in Mandya district (located between Bangalore and Mysore) of Karnataka may add silk to this variety. The decrease of the import duty from 30% to 5% on raw silk brought into the country (that the union finance minister announced on February 28 2011) lowered the price of this perishable commodity by almost a third. Consequently, a silk farmer Swami Gowda and his wife Vasantha ended their lives as they feared that they would be unable to sell enough to pay off loans amounting to 1,20,000 rupees obtained at high interest rates. They left behind 3 little children Chandrika (5 years), Kirtana (3 1/2) and Sharath (2) among whom only the oldest understands that her parents are no more. Their maternal grandmother Chowdamma and paternal grandfather Bore Gowda (who owns the land) are weighed down with the responsibility of their grandchildren in addition to the burden of age and poverty. Further, the family has not heard from the government about any compensation.

Members of the Karnataka Prantha Raitha Sangha (KPRS), Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS) and other farmers' organizations have held protests against this injustice. According to Krishna Gowda of KPRS, the demands of the group include:

1. The government must provide Rs.10 lakhs compensation to the victims' family and take responsibility for providing educational and employment assistance to the children

2. Revert the status quo on the import duty for raw silk by reinstanting the 30.66% import tax

3. Strengthen Karnataka Silk Marketing Board (KSMB) and Karnataka Silk Industries Corporation (KSIC) through adequate financial support to intervene in the market at the time of such price crash.

Photo: Hari Shankar

A brief report about this tragedy in a couple of mainstream newspapers moved some employees of the IT industry and volunteers with some non-profit organizations such as AID-India in Bangalore. Three of them namely, Hari Shankar of Pedestrian Pictures, Nidhin Sasi and the latter's friend visited the bereaved family in Valagere to understand the facts and provided an insightful document. They and others (who have read or heard Sainath) are doing their utmost to raise awareness about the plight of the kids of Vasantha and Swami Gowda and the root cause of the problem. These people hope that it would pressurize the state government to act. "We are trying not to emulate Nero's Guests", they say with the conviction that policies which favour large corporations are driving the financially backward to their death.

Nidhin Sasi and Senthil Sundaram provided valuable inputs to this story.

Pushpa Achanta