Debating India

FARMER’S SUICIDES

A Question of Human Rights

K.R. VENUGOPAL

Friday 2 July 2004, by VENUGOPAL*K.R.

The continuing neglect of the life-and-death problems faced by the farmers in Andhra Pradesh constitutes a serious violation of human rights enshrined in the Constitution and various international covenants. A policy regime that recognises farmers’ rights as human rights is the need of the hour.

THE Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted by the United Nations in 1948 affirms in Article 3 that everyone has the right to life. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966, which India has ratified, affirms in Article 6 that every human being has the inherent right to life. The Declaration on the Right to Development adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1986 affirms that equality of opportunity to development is a prerogative of individuals within a nation and that states have a duty to formulate appropriate development policies that aim at the well-being of all individuals on the basis of their meaningful participation in development and in the fair distribution of the benefits resulting therefrom. It also calls for state intervention for the realisation of the right to development by ensuring equality of opportunity for all in their access to basic resources.

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A. Roy Chowdhury
At Obulavari village in Anantapur district, daily wage workers hunt for rabbits, the only source of food during droughts. The Central and State governments simply neglected agriculture. This is something every agricultural economist has observed during the past decade.

The UDHR affirms in Article 21.2 that everyone has the right to equal access to public services in one’s country. Article 11.2(a) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), 1966, which India has ratified, refers to reforming agrarian systems in such a way as to achieve the most efficient development and utilisation of natural resources. Article 25 of the UDHR stipulates that everyone has the right to security in the event of widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond one’s control.

Discrimination is an attitude that is frowned upon by every instrument in the universe of human rights. And equality of treatment and dignity in every circumstance of life is upheld in these instruments.

India’s Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993, defines human rights as "the rights relating to life, liberty, equality and dignity of the individual guaranteed by the Constitution or embodied in the International Covenants and enforceable by courts in India".

In the current context of farmers’ suicides in Andhra Pradesh, what strikes one most is the fact that these farmers had taken their own lives. In doing so, they forfeited their right to life, a right and freedom acknowledged as most precious by Justice Douglas of the U.S. Supreme Court decades ago. The Supreme Court of India in any number of judgments has held that the right to life guaranteed in Article 21 of our Constitution includes "the right to livelihood because no person can live without the means of living, i.e., the means of livelihood". The life so guaranteed, "does not connote mere animal existence or continued drudgery through life" but a right to live with human dignity, free from exploitation.

There are several reasons why farmers in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have taken their own lives. The major reasons among these are absence of adequate and timely credit, especially institutional credit, driving farmers into the arms of the usurious moneylenders, inadequate crop insurance schemes that lack timely reimbursements and exclude non-loanees, spurious seeds and insecticides and fertilizer pricing. These permanent features of our system have been compounded by continuous droughts, leading to ill-directed investments in failed borewells and failed crops and driving the farmers to desperation. There are regional variations but what has been constant is the non-recognition of the need to tackle all these problems together as a package, with appropriate regulatory, supervisory and extension mechanisms in place, strict discipline in tapping groundwater and provision of full credit requirements and insurance cover for failed wells.

THERE are other structural issues as well. Tenant farmers cultivate more than 60 per cent of the land in Andhra Pradesh. However, their landlords ensure that there is no record to show this. In the absence of a recorded tenancy, the tenant is unable to secure any institutional credit for his agricultural operations and is driven to the moneylenders. This leads to gross exploitation. Everyone associated with agriculture knows this truth but there has been no effort at enforcing a transparent regime of agrarian relationship. The situation that is affecting the tenant cultivators in Andhra Pradesh is a negation of Article 11.2(a) of the ICESCR. Their situation defeats the overall objective of the amendment to Article 31 of the Constitution. This is also a violation of Article 38(2) in Part IV of the Constitution, which lays down, as a fundamental principle of governance, that the state shall in particular strive to minimise the inequalities in income and endeavour to eliminate inequalities in status, facilities and opportunities, not only amongst individuals but also amongst groups of people. It is also a violation of Article 39(b) and (c) which state that the ownership and control of the material resources of the community are so distributed as best to sub-serve the common good and that the operation of the economic system does not result in the concentration of wealth and means of production to the common detriment.

Credit is certainly a material resource that enhances agricultural income and is vital for those with little or no assets. The Supreme Court has also reiterated the well-recognised paradigm that in the context of agrarian reforms, the greatest incentive for maximum production is the feeling of identity and security, which is possible only if the ownership of the land is with the tiller (AIR 1987 SC1518). All this has to be viewed in the context of Article 48 of the Constitution, which casts a responsibility on the state to organise agriculture on modern and scientific lines. Even if the state is lacking in the political will to take up land reforms, it should, along with the banking system, explore methods such as group security to nullify the veto that the landlords exercise today on credit to the tenants. The banking system should play a lead role here to rectify the tilt that exists in favour of the non-farm sector - a tilt distinguished by gargantuan non-performing assets (NPAs).

The total volume of agricultural credit requirements estimated by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) for Andhra Pradesh is about Rs.11,000 crores. Many experts place the actual requirement at about Rs.20,000 crores. Against this, even by NABARD’s estimates, the actual flow will not exceed about Rs.9,000 crores. This serious gap is compounded if one realises that the actual credit flow was around Rs.7,900 crores in 2003-04 - a gap of 28 per cent in the credit "targeted" for disbursement. Add to this the gap in policy and implementation as the Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) announcement that no security is required for loans up to Rs.50,000 for production loans, while public sector and cooperative banks insist on such security on the field. Farmers’ associations say that lending to the agriculture sector does not even touch 10 per cent whereas the guidelines stipulate 18 per cent of total lending. There are three different rates of interest charged by banks depending on whether they are in the cooperative or public or private sector. The Expert Committee on Farmers’ Suicides in Karnataka says: "...the preference to borrow from moneylenders when compared with formal institutions, clearly reflects that the opportunity cost of going through the process is equal to the difference between formal and informal lenders."

Juxtaposed with the flourishing market for informal credit, these facts show that there is neither equality nor equity in the availability of credit to the farmers. This is a violation of the principle governing the rights mentioned in the Declaration on the Right to Development. Banks should consciously promote equal access to credit to all the farmers. In canalising credit micro-level efforts must be directed at specifically reaching tenants and small and marginal farmers.

LET us look at two typical cases that I looked into on behalf of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in Anantapur district in 2002. Boya Narsimhulu of Cheyyedu committed suicide at the age of 48. His widow, Lakshmamma (40), has four children - two girls and two boys. They had five acres of dry land with no water facility. Groundnut, their normal crop, failed for five years successively, affected by `Bud Necrosis’. He had contracted a debt of Rs.1,50,000 (principal alone) including that borrowed from as many as 15 farmers at an interest rate of 24 per cent and Rs.40, 000 from the Primary Agricultural Society and Rs.30,000 from a public sector bank. Incidentally, the economic condition of the agricultural families in the two married daughters is also now in the doldrums.

Crop failure was the sole reason for her husband’s suicide, says Laksmamma. Her husband was constantly worried and burdened by the thought of his debts. She was in dire straits as the creditors were pressing her hard for repayment of the debt. The only way she could do this was by selling her 5 acres, which would render her a destitute for life. She was reduced to the position of a daily wage labourer at Rs.20 for 9 hours of work a day but such work was hard to come by because of drought conditions. Often she was without work. Her son, Jayaram (17), who had studied up to the Standard VII, went to work in a quarry from 5 a.m. to 4 p.m. at a maximum wage of Rs.50 a day, depending on availability and out-turn. For two months prior to my meeting them, there had been no food-for-work programme in the area. Jayaram benefited by this programme for a few days earlier but it had been stopped.

In the case of Pullalarevu Prabavathi of Ramanepalli village, the public sector bank from whom her late husband had borrowed Rs.20,000 had been demanding repayment and suggesting that she sell away her five acres of dry land, which would render her destitute for all time to come. She had other debts amounting to Rs.2.30 lakhs, borrowed from about 20 private creditors. Prabavathi was working as a coolie for a daily wage of Rs.20; that is, when such work was available at all. She said that sheer hunger, in the context of crop failure, forces people (like her husband) to borrow but credit is very hard to come by even at rates ranging from 25 to 36 per cent.

The point that should be remembered at all times in such a context is that the entire burden of the loss of a breadwinner owing to these dysfunctional policies and the failure of extension is borne by the women and children of the families concerned. If this burden is not lifted off their shoulders by the state, the rights assured for them in the U.N. Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, 1967, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), 1979, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989, all get compromised. Failure of the state in this regard discredits democracy itself. Failure to rehabilitate the agricultural system also postpones the welfare of the rural labour and other poorer sections of the population, especially jeopardises the whole range of rights, though these rights are being slowly ceded to them in terms of the various constitutional provisions both in Chapter III and Chapter IV in areas like the right to food, health, minimum living and fair wages and equal remuneration, thanks mainly to the intervention of the Supreme Court.

To the extent there was failure on the part of the state to go to the rescue of such families of suicide victims, there has been a breach of Article 25 of UDHR.

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A. Roy Chowdhury
At a drought-affected village near Kadiri in Anantapur district.

AS Leader of the Opposition in the Andhra Pradesh Legislative Assembly, the present Chief Minister Dr. Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, had taken up the question of farmers’ suicides in Andhra Pradesh in September 2001 by way of a complaint with the NHRC. He argued that the loss of lives was on account of state negligence and failure to implement policies leading to violation of human rights. The main thrust of his complaint was that the State government’s failure in its "duty to supply seeds of quality, power, fertilizers and pesticides" to the farmers and that it supplied spurious seeds to the farmers, particularly groundnut seeds in Anantapur district.

This resulted in crop failures, which trapped the farmers in huge debts, but the government itself through its instrumentalities such as the cooperative and commercial banks and through application of the Revenue Recovery Act had been pressuring the farmers to repay loans leading to their humiliation, social ostracisation and eventually suicide. Hence a prayer was made to the NHRC, inter alia, to direct the Government of Andhra Pradesh to pay a compensation of Rs.1 lakh each to the families of the deceased and declare that there was violation of human rights.

If we read the rights that the Constitution and the various international instruments provide to citizens in the context of the predicament faced by the farmers of Andhra Pradesh, the conclusion is inescapable that continuing neglect of the serious problems faced by the farmers would attract Section 12(a)(ii) of the Protection of Human Rights Act 1993, namely, negligence in the prevention of violation of human rights. There are judicial precedents of grant of compensation by way of relief where the deceased was the only breadwinner of the family if gross negligence on the part of the authorities to provide protection was shown, though the context might be different. However, as seen by us, here we have a plethora of actors involved in the tragedy that has unfolded over the years.

The central conclusion that emerges is that there has been failure of policy at the Central and State levels considering that under the Constitution under Schedule 7 both these governments have responsibilities for agriculture, banking and a host of other related issues that are at play. Normally responsibility has to be fixed on governments and individuals for neglect.

If we have to pinpoint the neglect then we have to say that the Central and State governments simply neglected agriculture. This is some thing every agricultural economist has observed during the past decade. The compensation that they should pay to the farmers of Andhra Pradesh in particular, and of the rest of India in general, should help restore agriculture to its rightful place in the scheme of governance. As for those families who can be identified as genuine victims of neglect, the present State government in Andhra Pradesh has extended certain immediate relief. What is further required is an agricultural policy regime that recognises farmers’ rights as human rights and develops policies that would stand the test of such rights.

See online : Frontline

P.S.

K.R. Venugopal, a former Secretary to the Prime Minister, is a Special Rapporteur for the National Human Rights Commission. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not represent those of the NHRC.

in Frontline, volume 21, Issue 13, Jun. 19 - Jul. 02, 2004.

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