An epidemic of rural debt, despair and suicides is sweeping the countryside – and it signals upheaval at next month’s elections
Pakistan is an existential threat to India, right? Wrong.
With a population just one-quarter the size of its fraternal twin, an imploding economy and a hopelessly dysfunctional political system, Pakistan is little more than a strategic challenge or geopolitical footnote.
So as the world obsesses over the rapidly escalating showdown between the two nuclear powers, it’s worth remembering the real reason behind the tension: India’s upcoming general elections.
And yes, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is facing an existential challenge, but it’s one best represented by the dark-skinned and shrunken figure of Shantabai Teral.
She’s a forty-something farmer’s widow from the parched, cotton-growing region of Vidarbha, to the far east of the huge and heavily populated central Indian state of Maharashtra.
Farmers like Shantabai constitute some 58 per cent of India’s population. For the past four years, as Modi exalted the republic’s potential (remember “Make in India”?), the agrarian economy – the Gandhian world of small villages – has been almost entirely neglected.
Even among farmers, a vast majority, some 86.2 per cent, have small landholdings of less than a hectare, making survival itself a tenuous act.
Such myopia is unsurprising. The BJP worldview is a beguiling but ultimately self-delusional combination of upper-caste Brahmin thinking and the short-term Baniya trading mindset, exemplified by Gujarati tycoons such as the Ambanis and Adanis.
But now, with an election just weeks away and the prospect of an electoral drubbing close at hand, Modi and his proxies are desperately ramping up nationalist fervour – anything to mask their failure to turnaround the increasingly truculent, if not downright furious farming community.
Indeed, late last year a series of huge rallies in Mumbai and Delhi brought the rural frustration to national prominence, providing the momentum for a wave of electoral losses as Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh rejected BJP state governments. The extent of their exclusion is summed up when five farmers were shot and killed at a demonstration in the Madhya Pradesh town of Mandsaur back in June 2017.
Meanwhile for Shantabai – a mother of two marriageable children whose first daughter’s wedding will cost around 100,000 rupees (Bt45,000), a sum she’ll have to borrow – the present remains as bleak as ever. She stands by a deep well dug by the authorities on her land and explains in exasperation that the muddy water at the bottom will run dry by March and that without an electric pump, there’s no way she can water her fields.
Her vivid red sari stands out against the intense but dull blackness of her sun-baked skin. It’s obvious that she’s let herself go hungry in order to ensure that her children are properly fed.
Her 20-year-old son, Ramesh – he’s been a wage labourer since he was 15 – looks on respectfully. Wringing her hands, Shantabai recalls the day, just over a decade ago, when her husband chose to take his own life.
“It started out like any other day – he left for the fields early in the morning. He never came back. The next day I went to work just as I have ever since. It was very difficult for me because I was left with two small children.”
Cycle of debt and hopelessness
Shantabai falls silent. The pain of remembering is just too great and I’m forced to piece the story together from her friends and neighbours. Apparently, the authorities paid her compensation on her husband’s death – the sum of 100,000 rupees – just enough to pay off local moneylenders.
However, the cycle of debt and hopelessness is by no means over. A few years later, her husband’s brother also committed suicide, leaving her sister-in-law a widow. One family, two widows.
Unreliable monsoon rains, an unsympathetic government, poor agricultural prices and ravenous moneylenders: a cocktail of woes that has long haunted rural India.
Moreover, local cotton growers like Shantabai with their tiny landholdings can never hope to compete against America’s heavily-subsidised and mechanised farmers.
Is it any surprise then that in 2018, some 2,761 farmers committed suicide in Maharashtra alone? Nationwide, the yearly average of suicides is well over 12,000. Needless to say, many such deaths go unreported.
Deflation is an added complication. As inputs (fertiliser and pesticide) continue to rise in price, their crops – tomatoes, potatoes and onions – the staples of any Indian diet, continue to sink.
When I was wandering around Allahabad’s Chowk (or market), traders pointed at the perfectly-formed onions from Nashik in Maharashtra, remarking that prices had fallen by 40 per cent in just 12 months.
There have also been self-imposed blunders such as the surprise demonetisation in late 2016.
Intended as a means of curbing corruption and funding for terrorism, the net result has been a dramatic and long-term shrinkage in the money supply, causing extreme hardship for many hundreds of millions. This is so much so that even when I visited India earlier this year, most people confessed that markets had yet to regain their exuberance.
In late February, the BJP government, realising their missteps, used the final budget as an opportunity to assuage farmers. A series of half-hearted schemes, including direct cash payments, may satisfy some but it’s hard not to feel that it’s too little, too late.
Shantabai Teral’s plight is desperate. All she can hope for is that the government will intervene to support prices, subsidise inputs and waive loans.
Leaving farmers to market forces alone – as Modi has done – is no solution. Debt and despair are not the makings of a resilient and confident India.
So as the rhetoric between Delhi and Islamabad grows ever shriller, remember the prematurely aged widow – a symbol of BJP neglect and callousness.