Guest Post by VASANTHI SRINIVASAN
With depressing regularity, the newspapers have been reporting farmers’ suicides in many states. Recently, P Sainath wrote on BBC that around 296,438 farmers have committed suicide since 1995. He also mentions that cash crop cultivators of cotton, sugar cane, vanilla, pepper, groundnut etc account for the bulk of those suicides. According to a PIL heard by the Supreme Court in December 2014, around 3146 farmers in Maharashtra have committed suicide this year. Of course, farmer’s suicides only account for a fraction of all suicides reported in India. Besides, farmer’s suicides are a global phenomenon. The litany of woes is also familiar to readers, namely rising indebtedness, crop failures, falling prices, natural disasters etc.
And yet the meaning of these suicides, if any, is worth reflecting upon.
Politicians, who are used to massive debts, seem to think this is an ‘extreme step’ on the part of farmers. In 2003, the then Union Minister for Agriculture hinted that indebtedness alone may not be causing the ‘extreme step’, and that ‘family problems’ may also be a reason. In Karnataka, the Veeresh committee report had earlier identified depression, alcoholism and marital discord rather than the rising debt as the relevant causes. Never one to lag behind, the hi-tech Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh Chandrababu Naidu announced compensations and proposed to get psychiatrists to rural areas. One scholar has pointed to the increasing isolation of cultivators and high levels of anxiety about failure suffered by some farmers . These attempts at ‘personalizing’ the farmers’ problems may be necessary but not sufficient as long as other factors remain unexplored – increasing cultivation costs, crop failures, water shortages and falling product price. Citing the high figures of suicides (204) in Maharashtra for 2014 until April, followed by Telangana (69 until October), the Times of India (dated Nov 26, 2014), reported that the present Central government admitted indebtedness as a possible factor. There are also calls to increase monetary compensation to families affected by such suicides.
Consider the history of representation of the farmer-figure in our national lore – from being wise, contented and practical beings although a bit ‘superstitious’ in ‘orientalist’ accounts, they metamorphosed into the ‘poor inert masses’ to be mobilized either for nationalist or revolutionary causes. Subsequently, they were rediscovered as ‘subaltern’ agents capable of action and now are finally beginning to resemble ‘us’, the ‘stressed out’ modern individuals prone to depression and anxiety! Of course, they are not quite like us, for we do not take ‘extreme steps’ such as consuming pesticides.
Their ‘extremist’ behaviour baffles us. From a technical viewpoint, indebtedness is a problem to be isolated from others and solved at a minimal cost – why would anyone want to sell their kidneys to pay off loans? Why should one feel humiliated by the appearance of loan collectors? Why should honour be valued more than life itself? Why should they hang on to land at any cost? Why do they not talk about depression and get help? Since there is so much we don’t understand, it must be necessary to reform them so they mirror us.
Sensitive academics and journalists have highlighted the deleterious impact of multinationals in the agricultural sector in terms of rising input costs and unscrupulous marketing of spurious seeds and fertilizers. Farmers themselves have repeatedly voiced their grievances regarding crop loans, crop failures, indifference of the politicians as some of the reasons for rising suicides. Undoubtedly, they continue to mobilize to fight for their rights to information, livelihood and competitive prices and reasonable subsidies through existing institutions.
And yet, the consuming of pesticides as a sign of resistance has escaped our attention. Adept at symbolic acts, Arundhati Roy has noted the irony of the fact given that pesticide exposure is also causing their debts and cancers. There are also studies which point out that high rates of pesticide exposure could be causing fatigue as well as psychological anxiety and depression pointing to a vicious cycle (Newsweek, April 10, 2014). Lest we think this is uniquely Indian, we may note that suicide through intentional pesticide ingestion is common in China (60% of suicides), Malaysia (90%), Sri Lanka (71 %), Trinidad (68%) . Part of the reason for this is the ready availability of such pesticides at the homes of the farmers, analogous to the easy access to firearms elsewhere. This fatal consumption challenges both technical reasoning which calculates costs and benefits and emancipatory reasoning which focuses on the past and future. It is an ‘excessive’ act from all known standpoints of modern moral and economic rationality.
Normally this has been taken to mean that farmers have to be educated about various modes of seeking the attention of politicians and people through lobbying, consciousness raising, pilgrimages to the nation’s capital regions and networking with other civil society groups. In the mean time, they have to live their everyday lives and produce our coffee and sugar. Instead they consume pesticides while the bollworm thrives. Could they not be more responsible? Could they not revere life more?
But some might say they are assuming cosmic responsibility like the gods. Once, an ancient god swallowed the poison that emerged from excessive churning of an ocean —perhaps they are imitating him? Is not religion about reenacting divine acts? And some cosmogonies tell us that creation ensues from divine sacrifice. But ritual reenactment of this original sacrifice or divine suicide did not involve humans consuming poison. We used to be more cunning – we found substitutes with the help of ritual experts – those wily priests – and acted out the sacrifice and hoped that the gods would appreciate the gesture. And perhaps they did for a long time. Could it be that the farmers are the seers of our time – elaborating the truth of our world as abandoned by the gods? And since they have left, we must now consume the poison and smell burnt offerings?
Maybe we must not bring gods into polite rational discourse. Instead, we may talk of oneness with nature, the globe, the blue planet and become more resourceful in solving our problems. But even from this angle, the farmers are perhaps ahead of us, hinting at our being always already one with the world full of resources and objects to be mined and stored away for future use. As one of the world-objects, we too are open to experimentation and endless manipulation. Like the earth they revered for long, the farmers devour the pesticides. Some day, the medical knowledge accumulated from these dead bodies might come in handy for saving future lives.
One must not speculate idly although our economy is now one of unlimited speculation. One must not quit the realm of subjective will and human responsibility although our politics is now only shaped by images and symbols. Breathing in and out, we must go on believing that things will improve, development is infinite, history has a goal and that politics is meaningful. Take vows to help others every day. And restrain the disturbing thought that there may be a deadly message about the human condition in the farmers’ fatal consumption. Above all, stay calm and not panic in the face of extremist news and views. It is not at all surprising that the art of living is fast becoming our saving mantra. We must move on and celebrate the upcoming harvest festival.
But what if we cannot? What if these banal strategies are insufficient? What if other hypotheses are possible and we need courage? Fatal acts and strategies abound in our world and farmers’ suicides are too full of meaning to be exhausted by causal analyses. It is almost as if the farmers are redoubling and outbidding the stakes involved in the game of development.
Jean Baudrillard outlines a fatal theory that is more open to the metamorphoses, tactics and strategies that subvert subjectivity. In his words
the object is neither the subject’s double nor his repression; neither the subject’s fantasy nor hallucination; neither the subject’s mirror nor reflection; but it has its own strategy. It withholds one of the rules of the game which is inaccessible to the subject, not because it is deeply mysterious but because it is endlessly ironic.
He adds that by object, he refers to all of us and the social and political order that we inhabit.
This is not about jazzing up farmer’s suicides with some postmodern jargon. Nor is this a call for apolitical interpretive ingenuity. It is about making sense of the world without suppressing the pain and guilt involved in unclouded awareness of the present moment, in obeisance to a spirituality that singes…
 B.B Mohanty, Economic and Political Weekly, Dec 13 2014
 International Journal of Epidemiology, 2003, No 6, p. 902
 Jean Baudrillard, “Fatal Strategies”, in Selected Writings, Translated and edited by Mark Poster, (Stanford University Press: 2001) p.199-200.
Vasanthi Srinivasan is Professor at Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad.