Guest post by PRONOY RAI
I interviewed Santosh Daune (name changed), a landless agricultural laborer in the interior drylands of Yavatmal district in Maharashtra last week for my dissertation research. Santosh’s village is about 15 kilometers away from the main road in Yavatmal, 25 kilometers from the nearest Public Health Center, and the nearest railway station is about 90 kilometers away (or two and a half hours by bus). I met with Santosh, who is around 50 years old, at his home – a one room and one kitchen set – built right next to his father’s two-room house in the dalit basti in his village. I wanted to understand Santosh’s views on changes in the village resulting from increased labor migration over the last couple of decades. A lean man with a head full of grey hair, Santosh spoke some Hindi and fluent Vidarbha Marathi. Santosh was unsure about his response to my questions. He wasn’t shaking but he seemed nervous, in a basti where dalit villagers didn’t mind pulling me in to their homes in a hope that I would let the state government know about poverty in the village. I would perhaps be more convincing than the villagers to implore the state government to address extreme poverty in the village.
Santosh is a cane migrant. He spends about six months away from his village in sugarcane fields in Maharashtra, cutting cane. He, along with his toli (a group of 20 cutters; generally, 10 men and 10 women), are made an advance payment by a contractor (called Mukaddam in western India) and taken to sugarcane plantations to harvest cane. Santosh told me in the course of the interview that he is just happy to cut cane (and not work in brick kilns or pick cotton across the border in Telangana or work on construction sites in Pune and Mumbai). He confided eventually that the monotony of working on cane plantations works for him because he is unwell. He said that he would start walking to reach a destination and forget half way, where he was going. He often finds himself confused, and confessed that he was initially extremely nervous to talk with me. Although as the interview went on, he thought there was nothing to be nervous about. I wasn’t comfortable probing Santosh about his illness. We had just met twice and I didn’t want to be disrespectful of his privacy. I don’t know if Santosh is showing early signs of schizophrenia or a different mental illness. Perhaps he is.
Far away on the sixth floor in Mantralaya in the hubbub of Mumbai, as the Devendra Fadnavis government observes its first year in government, plans are being executed to communicate, instead of celebrate, the achievements of the second non-Congress government ever in power in Maharashtra. One of the ‘achievements’ of the Fadnavis government has been executing a novel approach to resolve the problem of farmer suicides in eastern Maharashtra. Based on the recommendations of a Yavatmal-based NGO, the Maharashtra government is mobilizing the services of Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA), especially recruited psychiatrists, and evenDeepika Padukone to help solve the problem of farmer suicides in this region. Note that in Maharashtra in 2015, the numbers of farmers having committed suicide has already exceeded the number of farmer suicides in 2014 by 13 per cent. Almost like a shot in the arm for the state government came a report by Indian School of Business and Brookings economist, Shamika Ravi. Ravi’s report claims that a) the largest demographic committing suicides in India are homemakers and not farmers; b) farmer suicides have reduced in the last ten years and the principal cause of farmer suicides are physical and mental illnesses and not indebtedness, and c) the farmers committing suicides are ‘well-off’, who own more than 2 acres of land. Ravi has clearly never been to a farmer household anywhere in India, let alone in eastern Maharashtra, that owns 2-4 acres of land. I am certain that a couple of visits to small farmer households would help her understand that such farmers are anything but ‘well-off’. Second, the last ten years saw an expansion of entitlement programs, especially under UPA-I. These programs are under constant threat from the NDA government. So, we need to be vigilant about protecting the livelihoods of the poor, instead of celebrating some kind of trickledown effect that has helped reduce farmer suicides in India (though not in Maharashtra). Finally, I agree with Ravi that debt forgiveness is barely a solution to farmer suicides, especially since few farmers actually have access to farm loans. Loan forgiveness is indeed a band aid on the cancer of a declining agrarian economy of India that both the UPA and NDA have barely addressed.
The solution proposed by the Fadnavis government is dangerous on at least three counts: 1) it completely obfuscates the embeddedness of small farmers in a larger political economy that they have little control over; 2) it unashamedly trivializes rural mental health concerns by turning an unscientific study into a policy instrument and stigmatizing farmers of eastern Maharashtra as mentally unwell; and 3) it resembles a perfect example of a myopic intervention that does nothing to improve the physical and mental health infrastructure that envelopes the social lives of the farmers. The intervention does not seek to privilege specific concerns of farmers such as the need for proactive state machinery in times of persistent drought, rising input costs and reduced and low quality yields. The Fadnavis government would rather spend its time marshaling working class people and local celebrities to communicate the government’s achievements to the people and firefighting controversies.
My primary critique of Fadnavis government’s solution to farmer suicides is not to belittle the problem of mental health in rural eastern Maharashtra. I want to distance myself from the masculinized defense of farmers’ mental health presented to us by farm activists in the region. My critique is that in a distressed agrarian political economy, it is unlikely that we could neatly distinguish the individual from the social. Further, local cultural norms around expectations of spending on social events like weddings, funerals, festivities, and communal gatherings have not kept pace with falling farm incomes. So, how could any psychiatric study not find farmers in distress in this region? Has the Fadnavis government confused effect with cause? In its distrust of public intellectuals and academics, just like their national counterpart in Delhi, did they choose to neglect the views of development scholars with decades of experience in eastern Maharashtra?
Yet people like Santosh Daune have no access to mental health clinics, no savings to consult a professional psychiatrist in faraway Yavatmal town, and no time to take away from work to see a doctor. Santosh is perhaps unaware that his earnings for the next five years have been settled by a panel of BJP’s Pankaja Munde and NCP’s Jayant Patil that fixed cane migrant laborer wages at Rs. 228 per tonne. The panel assumed that inflation would perhaps go down in the next five years or that laborers will learn to live on scraps! No labor representative was present in the panel. Primitive accumulation is alive and thriving in the state that was once home to Ambedkar, Bhave, and Phule. I don’t think that Daune’s condition will improve in the next five years and I am not sure how much of his health will be left to salvage after half a decade. We, writers and scholars on the Left, accuse the Right of focusing too narrowly on the social condition of present times and on controversial issues that resonate with the most extreme elements on their side of the political spectrum. I fear that the Right often takes the Left along with them on a slippery downward slide, where we lose sight of our own core agenda and political commitments. Beef ban and writers returning honors are important ideological fights but that is not the frontier of our struggles. The worsening material condition of millions of farmers and agricultural laborers trivialized through myopic solutions that free the state of its responsibilities need to be the focus of our engagement with the neoliberal state, and not an afterthought. The worst of our fears about NDA government in states such as Maharashtra and at the center are coming true. I am writing this piece, however, from the land of Ambedkar; our path of resistance has already been set out by leaders most relevant to the current times.