Blues of the Green Revolution

16 Apr

“How can this happen to us?” is a typical initial reaction in the Sikh community on reading about farmers’ suicides in Punjab. “We in Punjab have led the way in agriculture. We were the ones who heralded the Green Revolution and built Punjab as the ‘granary of India’. We have shown the way to a prosperous farming. Surely, this can’t be happening to us.”

The relationship of Punjab with agriculture, of Sikh farmers with hard work and reward, of industriousness with prosperity is etched on our minds much the same way as the stereotypical relationship of makki-di-roti with sarson-da-saag.

So when we hear about thousands of debt-trapped farmers committing suicide in the prosperous Punjab, about the poverty and hardships their families face, about the refusal by the state to recognize these deaths as suicides, the symptoms of our grief are evident: we first experience  shock and denial, followed by pain and then anger, anger at the state for causing these conditions, at the moneylenders leeching on the farmers, and even at the  poor farmers for committing suicide. Which is all quite understandable as long as we don’t stop there but go on to educate ourselves on the issue and work towards the reconstruction.

Two events occurred over the last couple of months that has got some of us here in Boston interested and involved in this issue. The first was the set of readings on farmers’ suicides in Punjab, which we read last month in our Sikh Book Club. The second was a visit by Ms. Harman Kaur, a grassroots activist in Punjab working with rehabilitating those farmers’ families. She was here to present her work at Harvard University. I will share some information on each.

We get educated:

Last month, we read the report published by FoodFirst, an institute for food and development policy. The report, authored by Brian Newman, explored the darker side of the Green Revolution in Punjab, contending that the crises of farmers’ suicides in Punjab is essentially a product of the same processes which had in the first place so greatly increased rice and wheat yields. That is, the Green Revolution had sowed the seeds of the current economic and social crises in Punjab. The report identified the following three issues linked with the farmers’ suicides:  

  1. increasing rates of rural inequality,
  2. ecological collapse both in soil and water systems
  3. skyrocketing levels of debt among Punjabi farmers.

Though the Punjab govt. concedes 2116 suicides between 1988-2004, activist organizations such as MASR  (Movement Against State Repression) spearheaded by Inderjit Singh Jaijee contest the actual numbers to be more than 40,000. The report makes us revisit our perceptions of Green Revolution in Punjab and see the point that the critics are making. “The Green Revolution’s critics do not dispute that rice and wheat yields have increased through its implementation; what they do dispute is the extreme fixation on these two crops, to the detriment of a more all-encompassing analysis of the Revolution” [Newman, 2007].

When we met to discuss the readings, we ended up with more questions than answers. However, we did not have to wait  long for those answers. This month, we were fortunate to have with us Ms. Harman Kaur from BNES (Baba Nanak Education Society), Punjab. She was at Harvard University for a week-long Bridge Builders conference, to present her grassroots work, ‘Rescue and Recovery Punjab’, that provides aid to the families of farmers who have committed suicide. Its primary objective is to keep the widows and children together in their own village and home environment and save them from the trauma of being placed in orphanages. It also enables the children to study up to 10+2 and  monitors their education and in some cases sends the children for vocational training.

Harman spoke at the Milford Gurdwara and later some of us met with her at a dinner at Inderpreet’s to learn more about the issue. We watched a film made by Manmeet Singh and Harpreet Kaur that gave a glimpse of the hardships that the surviving families are experiencing. One such clip continues to stay with me: a young girl, probably in her teens, now bringing up herself and her siblings as their father committed suicide and mother deserted the family, was cooking dinner in complete darkness for her family (they had no electricity). It was enough to dampen my appetite for the dinner that followed the discussion.

“It is easy for us to blame the farmers for their greed, for falling in the debt trap. But the reality is more than that”, says Harman. “In large number of cases, the loan taken has been for as small a sum as Rs. 30,000 (or $650). It is common to find the money lenders charging an interest rate of 40 to 60 percent. Piece by piece the farmer sells of his land to pay off the debt; finally, the last piece of land is gone too but the debt still remains. That is when the farmer begins to contemplate suicide.”

“Drinking pesticides and jumping before a train are two most common methods of suicide,” she informs. “The police claim that the person died of drinking alcohol. But the truth is that in many cases, the person has been drinking alcohol to muster the courage to drink the pesticide. And in many cases, the victim’s family does not have money to send the body for post-mortem, which is a must to prove it as a case of suicide by drinking pesticide.”

Newman [2007] provides another insight into why the deaths do not get reported as suicides. In India, suicide is a criminal offense and therefore a person attempting suicide but surviving the attempt could be arrested on criminal charges. Also, a farmer’s suicide could mean trouble for the family members from the corrupt police.

Interventions:

Harman has taken up the work that her father, Inderjeet Singh Jaijee, started. Together, the duo has documented the large number of farmers’ deaths. In case of suicides, they involved the panchayats to register them as suicides. They prepared a list of families that are in desperate need of help and have started raising funds to help these families help survive and send their children to school. Under the aegis of MASR and BNES, they have been fighting to have the State recognize the farmers’ deaths as suicides so as to enable the families the compensation. They have started schools and vocational training institutes that encourages but is not restricted to children of suicide victims. All in all, a heroic effort but still far short of what the situation demands. Here is where their organization, the farmers and their families, and Punjab are reaching out to you.

There are several ways you can get involved in this movement. Some that we discussed at the meet are:

1) Sponsor a family: You can ‘adopt’ a family of the suicide victim. By funding $1 a day, you commit to $360 a year. This roughly translates into Rs. 1000/- per month for the family, which ensures their basic living plus sending the children to school. Sending the children to school is a must condition for the family to continue receiving aid. You can choose the family you want to adopt from the database maintained by BNES and the organization sends you regular updates on the well-being of the family. (Read the BNES Brochure)

2) Raise the awareness: If you are in the media, or know some one who can give exposure to this issue, go for it. Articles in newspapers, magazines, documentaries, songs, blogs, youtube ….. let us educate ourselves on the issue and increase the decibel level. (for example, check this blog …)

3) Volunteer in Punjab: Go to Punjab. Work with these families. As Manmeet Singh says, “Understanding the issue intellectually is one thing, but to see it from close quarters and to experience it with the families is quite another thing.”

4) Generate Employment: The debt-trapped farmers, their families, families of those farmers who have committed suicide, are all seeking employment. There are no industries in those poverty-struck areas. But these are hardworking people. Can you start or be a part of a group that starts industries – howsoever humble it may be – in those areas? For example, Harman and her group had supplied some raw materials to the women in those areas, the women knit some shawls, etc., however, when the group tried selling those products, it found empathizers and sympathizers but no takers. Can you work to source and sell their products? (We already had one volunteer who is buying a box of shawls and will sell them in the US.)

5) Educate the farmers: Educate the farmers about the pitfalls of borrowing money from the profit sharks. Make or sponsor radio ads to counter the radio ads by the profit sharks. Work with ‘high-risk’ farmers to steer them away from contemplating and committing suicide.

6) Raise funds: Reach out to those who are not aware of this issue. Educate them, seek funds from the willing towards this cause.

The list is not exhaustive. If you think of some way that can help the cause, suggest it, and then take the initiative to make it work. But more importantly, also understand the different forces playing out in this issue. As Newman puts it, “It is in then seeing these interconnections that linkages can be drawn between water tables, irrigation costs, debt, loans and finally, self-murder; farmer suicide becomes one point at which the totality of Punjab’s agricultural crises converge and can be seen in their true magnitude.”

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