Seven farmers have recently sought the governments’ permission to end their lives. They have drafted applications and submitted them – as per protocol in any “normal” application – to the Office of the Tehsildar (local revenue officer) in Wardha District, Maharashtra.
What’s more, the seven have even received official acknowledgment of their “suicide permission letters”. And, the acknowledgments have not come courtesy stray oversight from a sloppy officer. They received it first from the Tehsildar and subsequently from the District Collectors’ Office, which represents the bureaucratic route a “normal” application would take.
Despite the Union government’s declared intent in December 2014, to decriminalise the attempt to commit suicide, by deleting section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, trying to kill oneself in India still remains a penal offence, as no such bill has been passed by Parliament.
Therefore, the acknowledgments to the “suicide applications” by the authorities are telling. The acknowledgements betray how routine farmers’ suicides have become for the government. On one level it is absurd for government authorities to “acknowledge” applications by citizens seeking permission to commit a crime under their watch. However, on another level, a dying farmer is the new normal in an Indian countryside hit by the farm crisis, with Vidarbha in Maharashtra as epicentre. It has ensnared more than 300,000 lives over the last two decades, with Vidarbha recording more than 4,000 farmers committing suicide every year for 10 years in a row. Though trailing Vidarbha in such deaths, other regions like Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, and Bundelkhand have witnessed more than a thousand suicides annually over the same period. And, these regions have been met with the same administrative apathy as is still on display in Vidarbha.
Take the 2009 case of farmers of Chhattarpur Block, Palamu District, Jharkhand, who launched a signature campaign seeking permission to commit mass suicide after consecutive years of poor rainfall and no help from the government. Their logic was as simple as can be. They wrote to then President Pratibha Patil, since they “cannot lead a respectable life”, they “should be able to die in a respectable way”.
Look to the causes that pushed the Palamu farmers to desperation and they are the same as the ones cornering the Wardha farmers. The farmers in Palamu had not received any government support for crop failures, for years. The farmers in Wardha did not get any either. The crops of the Wardha farmers have been destroyed by massive hailstorms and untimely rain last winter and they are entitled to aid of around 4,000 rupees per head. The government has released the funds, but has failed to disburse the same for over six months now, and thus the funds remain locked in bank accounts rather than reach the farmers who desperately need it. The current dry spell in the region has heightened the desperation by damaging over 70 percent of their current crops.
How can a country that claims to be the largest democracy in the world do this to its farmers? The farm crisis has not come out of nowhere. It has been there for decades. The incumbent government repeatedly cried foul over the last government’s lackadaisical response to farmers’ suicides when it was in opposition. Its response to the suicides, however, remains the same, with just one change: the ones in opposition now are crying foul over the handling of the crisis.
Why is it that to date all the help earmarked for farmers fails to reach them when they need it most? Why does the assistance reach families only after the farmers end their lives? What do those who keep the money frozen in bank accounts get by doing so? It certainly seems to boost private moneylenders, who the farmers are forced to approach despite the ruinous interest rates. Could it be that this keeps the corrupt and criminal nexus between moneylender, bureaucracy, and politicians alive: a process of enrichment at the cost of dying farmers?