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November 25, 2015

INDIA: Where drought is just another ‘file noting’

[This is an AHRC Statement.]

Telangana, yesterday, finally acknowledged that 231 out of 443 of its rural mandals (sub-districts) are hit by drought. This was not a sudden realization by the state, the 9th Indian state to get hit by drought this year. Their agricultural department knew that a ‘drought like’ situation was prevailing in Mahabubnagar, Medak, Nizamabad, Karimnagar and Ranga Reddy districts and a few parts of Nalgonda, Warangal and Adilabad districts since early September. It also knew that over 50 per cent of the rain-fed crops cultivated in the affected districts were affected badly. In all likelihood, the farmers would lose even the investment made on cultivation.

And yet, Telangana waited until now because it did not have a ‘detailed report’ which would only come after crop-cutting-if any crops reached that stage! One can compare the absurdity of the response with those made about market meltdowns. But then, that is a different debate for different times. State inaction is what matters here, despite being well aware of farm suicides that drought-induced crop failures and other hardships trigger. To add numbers to the argument-since its formation on June 2, 2014, Telangana had witnessed no less than 1,259 suicides by 24 September 2015 alone. These statistics came from the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, a Hyderabad based, voluntary organisation that monitors the situation on the ground.

What would the drought declaration mean for farmers on the ground? Not much more than a file noting would be the answer. To understand it through more numbers, the government of Telangana cannot deny the number of farmers’ suicide deaths as they are substantiated by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). The NCRB data puts the number of farmers’ suicides in the state in 2014 at a remarkable 898, second in the country after Maharashtra that saw 2,568 farmer suicide deaths. However, the government could always blame the deaths on other factors. And this is what it did in a debate in the state assembly, asserting that no more than 350 of these suicides could be attributed to financial crisis.

The government might actually be ‘correct’, statistically that is. This was brought out by studies in different states. Many of the farm suicides come from tenant farmers- a group that has repeatedly been taken out from "Self-employed (farming/agriculture)" category and put into the "Self-employed (Others)" category. This is an easy way for the governments to mask the numbers of farm suicides in their states. Once the government does this, the drought declaration means nothing to these farmers who, for the state, are not farmers anymore.

Sadly, the declaration would not mean much to the farmers whose existence governments cannot deny by playing crooked games either. For one, the centrally approved maximum compensation for crop loss in rain-fed areas is a mere Rs. 2,700 per acre. This would fail to cover even the cost of cultivation. Then the farmers would have to wait until the governments produced their ‘detailed reports’ and submit it to the union ministry. As farm suicides have repeatedly shown, this would be too long a wait for them to survive.

What the farmers need is an effective mechanism that operates in real time, which reaches them when they need it the most. What they got is one that operates like the monsoons that fail them in the first place, come seasonally and often fail again.

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