Monday, Mar 27, 2023

The Story Of India's Farm Crisis And The Plight Of Farmers In Vidarbha

The Story Of India's Farm Crisis And The Plight Of Farmers In Vidarbha

In his new book 'Ramrao: The Story of India's Farm Crisis', journalist Jaideep Hardikar has penned the painful story of Ramrao Panchleniwar, a farmer from Vidarbha, who attempted suicide back in 2014.

Ramrao: The Story of India's Farm Crisis by Jaideep Hardikar

Book: Ramrao: The Story of India's Farm Crisis by Jaideep Hardikar

Harper Collins India is the publisher.

The cost is INR 399.

Ramrao: The Story of India's Farm Crisis, a new book by journalist Jaideep Hardikar, tries to contextualise India's continuing farmers' protests and farm suicides by focusing on an individual's story. Hardikar's book is about Ramrao Panchleniwar, a farmer from Vidarbha who tried suicide by swallowing pesticide in 2014 but survived. He is the face of Hardikar's book. 

Jaideep Hardikar, a key player in the People's Archive of Rural India (PARI), has more than a decade long experience in reporting on Vidarbha's farmer suicides and cotton crisis. He is the author of "A Village Awaits Doomsday," which was published in 2013 and focused on the eviction of people from their homes as a result of governmental, private-sector-funded development and construction projects.

Through this remarkable biography of Ramrao Panchleniwar, a cotton farmer from Hiwara village in Maharashtra's Yavatmal district, Jaideep Hardikar immerses the reader in the lives of farmers in Vidarbha. This is the account of a farmer who lived to tell the tale after surviving an attempted suicide.

One morning in 2014, Ramrao Panchleniwar, an ordinary cotton grower in Maharashtra's Vidarbha region, consumed two bottles of pesticide in a bid to commit suicide. But he miraculously survived. This is an evocative read that rescues an ordinary life from obscurity and turns it into an essential biography of our times. Even as he discusses the policy failures and harsh realities of the lives of farmers, the author of the book manages to highlight the tragic stories with great sensitivity.

Ramrao's narrative is meant to portray the story of someone caught in an unequal society, with a perpetual optimism hanging over them like a mirage. Hardikar first met Ramrao in April 2014, shortly after the latter returned from the hospital. Over the next seven years, they stayed in touch. That relationship matured into this book in which the author recounts Ramrao’s journey since 2014. Hardikar's purpose with Ramrao is to enlighten readers about the regular existence of an everyday farmer. Reading this account, what we get is nothing less than a window into the lived life of most farmers in today’s India.

He writes in the book -

He rang the temple bell, applied a saffron mark to his forehead, folded his hands and bowed his head to offer one last prayer to Hanuman, the deity he would often turn to for succour, and fainted.

Darkness descended on him as if daylight had been switched off. His eyelids uttered He felt light-headed, as if in a trance. His mountainous worries melted away, then his brain stopped battling what felt like a faraway need to stay awake.

When he opened his eyes, he saw an old, motionless ceiling fan above him, its white blades grimy black with cobwebs and layers of dirt. It had not been cleaned in ages. Disoriented, his vision blurry, it took a while for him to regain consciousness. He was lying on a bed with a worn-out mattress and a dirty bedsheet. A saline bottle hung from a rusty iron stand, transporting fluids and injections into his veins, drip by drip. The ECG monitor mounted on a shelf behind the bed blinked, making haphazard lines in quick succession and a rhythmic tic-tic-tic sound. The digital screen displayed his blood pressure and pulse rate. He quietly studied the large, high-ceilinged room. He found himself relaxing. But at the same time, his anxiety started coming back. He felt strained, his heart constricted.

Alongside him were eight or ten people in the room, a couple of them writhing in pain, fidgeting in their beds. Some others lay listless, almost dead. Two short, stout women in their fifties, clad in white, went in and out of the room, recording temperatures of the ailing men on the beds, administering medicine and yelling at the gathered crowds to wait outside.

For him, the surroundings were unnerving. It was not until he saw both his married daughters and a few familiar faces by his side that he felt reassured. It was a hospital, not the afterlife! His younger daughter told him he was in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). It was maddeningly noisy and crowded because it was a public hospital. When he regained full consciousness, a thought ran through his mind—it may have been his first since he opened his eyes. Flashes of faces came to him, haunting him one by one. Those faces were those of his lenders. Then he remembered: a dead cow, electrocuted by the barbed-wire fence in his field. He felt burdened by every breath he took.

He was still alive. He wanted to cry but could not; there were people around him. Ramrao Panchleniwar, a cotton grower in his late forties, had meant to end his life by swallowing pesticide.

A dishevelled Ramrao is teary-eyed and, because of the heavy burdens he carries, he is exhausted, physically weak and constantly sighing. His stomach burns. He has no appetite.

Ramrao has been a farmer for as long as he can remember. And, like millions of Indian farmers, he is trapped in a vicious circle of debt and despair. We have been chatting for I don’t know how long now in his home in Hiwara village, a fifteen-minute drive from Pandharkawda, a town off National Highway 44—earlier called NH7—in Yavatmal district in eastern Maharashtra’s cotton belt of Vidarbha. Yavatmal has been in the news for an unabated spell of farmer suicides since 1996, the year I began as a cub reporter with an English daily in Nagpur. During this period, while reporting on rural distress, I have not met or known of many farmers who survived serious attempts to take their own lives.

Hardikar follows the fate of the unfortunate farmer to reveal the tragic story of what's gone wrong with India's treatment of agriculture, a sector that still feeds more than half of the country's 130-plus million population. Ramrao depicts hopelessness graphically. In the novel, you come across a slew of people. The large number of people living in the countryside face a multitude of challenges specific to different agro-climatic zones. There were local, national and global elements; economic issues, climatic issues, problems related to the market, social and other issues.

He further writes -

"Some months earlier, I met a young, educated Dalit farmer, a Neo-Buddhist, and his frail wife in a village in the Washim district, north-west of Yavatmal and part of the cotton–soybean belt. They too had survived a suicide pact, an act they had committed in a fit of rage, as a result of accumulated despondency—momentarily forgetting about their three children, all aged under seven. The couple, in their early thirties, were in anguish: hassled by loans, caught in a constant struggle to make their petty ends meet, unable to give their children a meaningful life.

Year after year, they suffered losses from their arid, rain-fed, 3-acre farm. That year, when the children insisted on getting recrackers and new clothes for Diwali, something the well-to-do in cities frequently splurge on, the young wife asked her husband if they could get the kids what they wanted. On hearing his blunt no, a brawl ensued between the two childhood sweethearts over their unending financial woes. The furious husband, distraught by his inability to fulfil his children’s small, legitimate wishes, swallowed a small bottle of Monocrotophos, an insecticide. In a fit of rage, his wife quickly consumed another bottle kept in the house. They were lucky to survive the attempt—because they didn’t want to die.

Still struggling with trauma and guilt over what they had done, they told me that all they wanted was a decent life for their children—the good "convent school" education they themselves never got, the clothes they themselves could not afford as kids, and three square meals.

Around the same time, a husband and wife in Deonala village, Yavatmal, took their lives because of mounting debts and declining incomes. The couple had taken loans from banks, micro-finance institutions, and relatives. They hadn’t been able to meet their modest needs from their farm income—they had a 3-acre rain-fed plot on a hilly tract adjoining the village. They were the Banjaras, a nomadic tribe known for their primary occupation as cotton transporters. They had two teenaged sons, who migrated to the city to work as daily wagers in order to support the family, but the mountain of debt still proved to be too much.

Of the scores of farmers attempting suicide, a few survive. Ramrao did.

They tell us that agrarian reforms in India is still an unfinished business and that whatever is being done to revitalise the sector is insufficient. Jaideep Hardikar has provided an up-close and personal description of the farming difficulties. He has tried to fathom the reasons that have led to the spate of suicides by farmers. What began as a few farmers taking their lives in Andhra Pradesh quickly led to similar cases being reported from other parts of India like MP, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, etc.

However, they did not receive enough attention, with the exception of a few years in recent history when the number of farmers committing suicide in Maharashtra skyrocketed, sparking vociferous protests and jolting policymakers out of their lethargy.

This book also serves as a sobering reminder that, despite the "bright new schemes" and handouts promised by politicians, little has changed on the ground. Farmers in the nation are still fighting governmental indifference and are at the whim of private money lenders and touts who stand between them and the market. Agrarian reforms are too broad to confront the new, grave realities of climate change and corporate meddling with the Indian agriculture.

Despite the importance of agriculture in India and the general acknowledgement of the hardships that most farmers face, there is no national standard for measuring farmer distress. The number of farmer suicides is the most commonly reported metric. For obvious reasons, Hardikar, who has been reporting on India's agrarian issues for decades, does not try to appear neutral. The narrative is well-crafted and researched, and it retains your curiosity from beginning to conclusion. That is, of course, stating the obvious to those in the know. However, for those who care, this is a wake-up call.

In his career spanning about 25 years, Jaideep Hardikar has worked with several English-language newspapers, including The Telegraph, as its Central India correspondent. Hardikar is the recipient of many coveted national and international awards and fellowships, including the Prem Bhatia Memorial Award and the Sanskriti Award for Journalism. Hardikar is a visiting faculty at several journalism schools in India and is associated with the Asia Centre at Monash University, Australia.

(Ashutosh Kumar Thakur is Bangalore based Management Consultant, Literary Critic and Co-director with Kalinga Literary Festival. He can be reached out at [email protected])