Everyone is bored of farmer suicides

I love newspapers. I think news in print is still one of the great arts of storytelling. Yet as I read news today, I sense a sense of déjà vu, a sense of boredom and repetition wherever crisis becomes a repetitive word. It is almost as if the same report is reprinted all the over again.

I realise there have been brilliant reporters especially among the younger generation, but even they have not been able to redeem the critical events of the time, whether it is Kashmir, Naxalbari or the farmers’ protest.

Problems

I discussed this with a friend of mine who told there are two new problems. One is the language of narrative. The words we use blind us to the conditions on the ground. When you talk of agricultural suicides, citing numbers, the economist merely says that is statistically normal.

It is almost as if language and the glossaries of social science provide a cuticle of indifference against suffering. As Camus once said, “Statistics don’t bleed” — and statistics on farmers’ suicides bleed even less.

Second, time itself becomes a source of indifference. When a newspaper reports that the epidemic of farmers’ suicides has been ranging for 10 years, the listeners’ ears curl up in boredom. The suicides almost look inevitable; an act of God and therefore to be looked at as natural and inevitable.

Third, we have become more and more of an urban imagination. Suman Sahai, the biologist deeply concerned with agriculture and the fate of the farm, told me people do not want to stay in the farm anymore. Agriculture is read as a dying industry as investors and workers move elsewhere. Worse, the era of the great farmers’ movements is dead; the BJP-led unions will line up with the party. One deeply misses a Mahendra Singh Tikait or a Sharad Anantrao Joshi who could force any regime to the bargaining table.

The urban frame of mind also drives us from production to consumption. Few people understand the costs of farming, of water, seeds, irrigation, labour. We are more worried about beef and the slaughter of cattle. Therefore, the farm as a production unit has disappeared from the imagination. We think more of food as consumption than food as production. Because we have lost the narrative links between the two.

Farming as an organic activity has lost its presence. There is a sense of reductionism to the way we present a crisis. We talk about immediate causes like price but we do not look at the ecology of farming. Questions of sustainability, which requires a holistic understanding of farming disappear. Wider social issues like land reform, the laws of the forest are never presented simultaneously.

So, farming becomes an emasculated narrative robed off the political economy, genealogy and sociology. Given the baldness of this presentation, one can understand the way the government reacted. For Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the farming crisis was a movement hijacked by insurgents.

In fact, he felt it was not a survival problem but a law and order problem, a security issue to be tackled as such. When sufficiency and sustainability become security issues and to be tackled as such, the fate of farming becomes ironic. What is the biggest news of the month, the farmers’ protest hardly occupies the politician. Worse, his short-run solutions are no response to the long-range crisis of agriculture.

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Protest

Protest itself is constructed as a spectacle. One of the saddest events one saw was the protest of farmers from Tamil Nadu at Jantar Mantar. They ate rats, enacted out their pain but there was little response. They talked of the cost of drought and yet there was no response.

It is as if their language of suffering is alien. Also, suffering seems to speak a different language from rationality, productivity, and price. The sense of alienation from the farm is obvious as one sees the response to the desperation of the protest. News presented it in a slapstick manner as if they are a collection of clowns rather than farmers enacting out one of the tragedies of the era.

Denial

The denial mode of politics and politicians becomes difficult to understand. But the question we must then ask is what about civil society and the academe. The decline of social science has been accompanied by the decline of the university and the epidemic rise of think tanks.

These consultants are extensions of the regime, they perpetuate current policy and rarely question it. The farm is not fully a part of the dissenting imagination. One thinks of activists and scholars like Devinder Sharma, Suman Sahai and Kavita Kuruganti, but their writings and concerns have yet to make it to the syllabus of the official imagination.

In fact, one wishes media would publish their writings more than some illiterate piece by an NRI scholar coming home for a sabbatical. It is almost as if the voice of farming, the dissenting imaginations that sustained it have got lost. Farming as a way of life, as a framework of values, even as an act of storytelling either as novel or cinema, is fading away. The problem is that one does not see the extent of the tragedy because farming is the true majoritarian crises, not Hindutva.

Farming as a livelihood has to be a part of the democratic imagination. To talk of the farmer as demographically dominant yet accord him little crisis in policy is self-defeating for democracy. As our middle-class imagination dominates democracy, farming as a way of life is lost. This is a violence democracy may not survive. One needs to rethink the placebos of liberalisation.

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