When the dead speaks to you
THE suicide of Gajendra Singh last Wednesday at a political rally in New Delhi organised by Aam Aadmi Party casts a shadow over India's democracy and development.
The farmer from the western state of Rajasthan hanged himself from a tree in an apparent attempt to spotlight the needless suffering of his country's impoverished farmers as Modi's administration throws its weight behind land reforms, citing it essential for the country's development.
The reality, however, is a 41-year-old father of three hanging from a tree, lifeless.
Gajendra Singh is not alone. Farmer suicide is a long-standing problem in India. Since 1995, the number of suicides by India's farmers has passed 290,000, according to the National Crimes Records Bureau, although the numbers do not specify the reason for the suicides.
Even suicide is a stop gap solution for these farmers. They often leave behind huge debts which pass to their widows and children. There are many instances where no sooner have the family members cut the farmer's body down than a money lender has shown up, threatening to block the post-death rituals until the family members paid him. Almost nobody goes to the police to complain, but when they do, appeals to officials for help are often met with indifference, according to news reports. Many local level officials blame farmers for 'mismanaging' their finances.
The story of Singh's suicide has roots going back to much earlier times. When market reforms were introduced in India in 1991, the state reduced subsidies and lifted barriers to import, thrusting small farmers into an unforgiving global market. They adopted new technologies, switching to commercial crops and genetically modified seeds, investing more in their children's education in the hopes they would land better jobs.
But soon they found themselves sinking deeper into the quagmire of even bigger loans at outrageous interest rates, all the while hoping a bumper harvest would allow them to clear their debts, so that they could take out new ones. This vicious circle has left a trail of human wreckage.
Gajendra Singh's crops were reportedly devastated by unseasonable rain and hailstorms in March that destroyed large areas of farmland in northern and western states, which led to dozens of debt-ridden farmers killing themselves.
Before taking his own life, Singh threw a suicide note into the crowd. 'I am the son of a farmer. He threw me out of home because of damage to the crop. I have three children. I don't have the money to feed my children. Hence, I want to commit suicide.'
The rally continued as usual even after his death. It also immediately set off a political blame game, with some AAP politicians reportedly calling his death a "conspiracy," and the opposition Congress Party demanding legal action against Modi and AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal.
Modi said the nation was "deeply shattered and disappointed" over the farmer's death. "At no point must the hardworking farmer think he is alone. We are all together in creating a better tomorrow for the farmers of India," Modi said on Twitter last Wednesday.
Perhaps, to Singh, that's exactly the kind of rhetoric that seemed far removed from reality. Last year, in an interview with The Dawn, Indian writer and activist, Arundhati Roy said, "The contracts are all signed and the companies have been waiting for years. He has been chosen as the man who does not blink in the face of bloodshed, not just Muslim bloodshed but any bloodshed."
Of course Roy was referring to Modi whose role during the bloody communal riots in Gujarat in 2002 remains questionable till date. "Bloodshed is inherent to this model of development. There are already thousands of people in jails," she said. "But that is not enough any longer. The resistance has to be crushed and eradicated. Big money now needs the man who can walk the last mile. That is why big industry poured millions into Modi's election campaign."
Small farmers once were the backbone of the Indian economy and their voices were heard during elections. But last year was different—major parties mostly jockeyed for the urban middle class votes and the farmers' voices were all but silent.
With globalisation and rising costs cutting into their lean profit margins, their ranks are dwindling, as is their contribution to the economy. They are increasingly being left behind, bypassed by ambitious development projects and programmes.
Costs of development are many. But development does not have to come at the cost of human lives. If the world's largest democracy can spend billions of dollars to import and develop advanced weapons, surely it can find ways to adequately compensate farmers for their land and provide them with crop insurance.
India must do it now before the dead begins to speak and insists on a hearing.
The writer is an engineer-turned-journalist.