Its not just an agriculture crisis but an agrarian crisis – P Sainath

Sainath arrived in NY after a 20 hour flight from India, one day before our scheduled talk in central Jersey. The venue for the talk was a good 2 hours away from NY and it involved a train ride by followed by a 30 min car ride. Despite the heavy travel in the last 24 hours leading all the way up to the talk, there were no signs of exhaustion. Right from the get go, Sainath was at his best. The talk had numbers, anecdotes, remarks and some very striking revelations

Below is the summary of the talk, thanks to my good friend Saahi, for diligently taking the notes and capturing the essence of the talk.


Demonetization has consequences that policymakers cannot foresee

  • 86% of all currency was made illegal overnight
  • Farmers who are generally paid in old notes and have never been to a bank before and suddenly have to go to one
    • Because they have all of their money in cash and have the appearance of a “poor” person, bank workers assume they have stolen the money or hid it for someone else and call the police and/or tax officials
  • Destroyed the mid-day meal for school kids
    • Vegetables are usually bought with cash and bought on a daily basis as schools do not have storage
    • Thus, no adequate meals for the children

The crisis in a nut shell

  • Switch from food crop cultivation to cash crop cultivation
    • Cash crops carry a high remuneration risk and are associated with high debt
    • Their prices are set by a few corporation and only 8-10% of the profits (probably even less) make it back to the production country
      • 4 companies control the coffee plantation and none of them are the producers
    • ⅘ farmer suicides are cash crop farmers (1 suicide every 32 minutes)
    • Cash crops are single largest reason for farmer suicides
  • Not just an agricultural crisis but rather an agrarian crisis
    • Agricultural crisis subset of agrarian crisis, agrarian crisis is broader and larger (every sector of agrarian society is effected)
    • In 5 words: Corporate takeover of agriculture
    • Largest displacement in history without firing a single bullet
    • Carpenters depend on farmers for work and compensation (both money and produce)
    • Weavers lost their first market as farmers used to wear their woven cloth in the fields in the hot weather (now wear t-shirts made in other countries)
      • Free-fall decline of 20% in the last 3 censuses
      • China allowed Indian weavers to settle in Hong Kong and pursue their weaving designs
      • Each tribe used to have their own style of weaving
    • Farmer suicide is the outcome/consequence of this crisis, not the origin
  • Census definition of farmer: operating plot of land for more than 180 days (not necessarily owner of the land)
    • Less than 180 days is considered a marginal worker
    • Population of farmers declined by 15 million (~2000 farmers lost per day)
    • Demoted from farmers to agricultural workers
      • The underclass
    • Andhra Pradesh cultivators alone declined by 1.3 million in 10 years while landless laborers increased by 3.4 million
  • Impact on women
    • Farmers are unable to get their daughters married
      • 3600 farmers’ children unmarried in a survey condicted in 5 districts in Maharashtra
    • Fathers end up committing suicide
    • Daughters later end up committing suicide because they see themselves as burdens for being unmarried
      • Even if they don’t think it societal norms of their community will eventually lead them to believe their father’s suicide is their fault, leading to suicide
    • 65% of all agricultural work is done by women despite not being able to own land due to property ownership customs
    • Women suicides are not counted toward farmer suicides because women aren’t considered farmers
    • Similarly if a farming family is struggling and they have to choose between their son or daughter to continue school, they will choose the son irrespective of whether the daughter outperforms the son in school
      • Daughter might commit suicide–considered student suicide not farmer suicide
    • Women’s farming work has doubled because men have migrated
      • Have to take care of livestock and crops now, as well as the children
      • Negotiate with bank manager and money lenders
  • Predatory commercialization of the countryside
    • Deskilling of the countryside
    • Exchange of seeds, crops, etc all commercialized
  • 2001 – 2011 marked the greatest migration
    • Rural to rural, rural to satellite cities
    • URGD (urban rural growth differential) is the highest it has been in 20 years
    • 1st census where urban added more people that rural
      • 91 million in urban areas versus 58 million in rural areas
    • Incorrect justification for migration: fall in family size, reclassification of towns/villages to cities
    • Footloose migration taking place where families have no clear destination but rather keep moving for work in a nomadic way
      • This means that their children (especially the girls) never go to school
        • They might leave a boy child behind to live with family and go to school but never a girl
    • Last time this type of large migration happened is during the Spanish influenza outbreak
  • Man-made hydrological droughts
    • Groundwater drought
    • Not just meteorological/climate
    • Opportunity cost of women waiting in line for water has to include the time lost waiting when they could have been working
      • Pay 45 paisa for a litre of water
      • Alcohol companies pay 4 paisa for 1 litre of water
    • Transfer of water from rural areas to cities
      • 400x rate in Maharashtra
      • Building high rise apartments where each floor has it’s own swimming pool
        • Farmers abandon agriculture because there is no water and move to cities to work construction
    • Rural areas need more water as they are doing manual/physical labor
    • Deccan Plateau prehistoric water wells are now being extracted by soft drinks/bottled water companies
  • Tax breaks for corporations
    • IPL cannot be in Maharashtra
    • Entertainment tax breaks for IPL even though these tax breaks are only applicable for educational purposes
    • IPL grounds are loaned to the owners for free (technically government property)
  • Society cannot be sustainable at these levels of injustice
  • Employment crisis
    • Agricultural labor is considered unskilled labor
      • Whatever women do is also considered unskilled labor
        • Takes away female bargaining power
      • Further marginalizes the poor
  • Credit crisis due to crisis of policy
    • Let markets rule and allow corporations to gouge prices
    • 90 day credit with 2% monthly interest considered illegal but payments are made under the table
    • 300-700% increase in the price of seeds (9 rupees/kg to  4000 rupees/kg for seeds)
    • BT seeds also need more water and sometimes multiple sowings
    • 65% of the weight of the cotton is from seek but once BT seeds came in, the seeds were not reusable, taking away control and bargaining power
    • Price increases and the nationalization of bank led to credit being taken away
      • Rural banking collapsed
      • Now have business correspondents who charge 250 rupees per transaction as a money lender
    • Bigger landowners open bank accounts in their employees names and keep the ATM card and withdraw money from there
    • Agricultural credit did not go to farmers and the smallest loans collapsed to half
      • 10 million/100 million rupee loans doubled/tripled and often were taken by corporations
    • Households in debt doubled from ~20% to ~40%
    • Setting prices without any input from farmers
  • Report on agriculture by Professor MS Swaminathan sent to parliament
    • Has immediate solution for farmer crisis
    • Parliament refuses to discuss report–recommendations ignored
  • A lot of studies published by/in Brookings or Lancet or Columbia do not define farming
    • Farming includes forestry and fishery as well
    • Just farmers is 8%, add marginal farmers 10%, add agricultural laborers 24%
    • Necessary measurements: population of farmers (note decline), absolute numbers, percentages, ratios of farmers to non-farmers, total population, etc.
  • Top states for farmer suicide: Maharashtra, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh
  • Farmers (especially in Andhra Pradesh) are leaving suicide notes (“notarized” ones addressed to Finance/State/Chief/Prime Ministers not to assign blame but explain their plight
  • Bad policy: potential decriminalization of suicide
  • 70% of food grain globally comes from family/small farms (USA is the enormous exception)
  • Farmer crisis is in every country
  • USDA states that most income for farmers in the USA comes from non-farming activities
  • Average monthly income for a farm family in India is 6426 rupees
    • Socio-Economic caste census states that 75% of rural families make less than 5000 rupees a month
      • 90% of rural families make less than 10000 rupees a month
      • 4% make more than 10000 rupees a month if adjusted for caste
  • Credit Suisse:
    • Inequality wealth/income growth in India more than any other country including the USA
  • Suicide is used as form of protest where violence is turned inward
  • Subsidies in the USA
    • Chicago Cotton Exchange influences price setting
    • Food prices are relatively lower in the USA and Europe
    • Americans had a farmer suicide problem in the 80s along the farming belt in places like Iowa and Minnesota

Potential solutions to the crisis:

  • Band together like women have to lease land and form collective bargaining and farming
    • Implement LISA and organic farming
    • Output cannot be taken to market until personal requirements have been met
  • Consider farming to a public service and instate rules that wages cannot fall below a certain level
  • Stop discriminatory practices against the poor
    • Putting poor kids in separate classes
    • Identifying poor kids my making them wear certain articles of clothing
  • Supreme Court has ruled three times that rights to work and education are no less important than the fundamental rights of the Constitution
  • Directive Principles of State Policy
    • Economic systems should not be prejudicially utilized to favor the few over the many
  • Policymakers also need to account for climate change and depletion of basic resources such as land and water


  • 2 national loan waivers in 1980s and 2008 but the 2008 loan never reached the farmers
    • Waivers only for banks not money lenders
    • Kerala: loans were treated as individual loans and a tribunal was committed and decided at an individual loan
      • Principal was paid then interest was waived, if not case by case decision



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: