“Something is terribly wrong in the countryside.”— Professor MS Swaminathan, 2005
Two days before hanging himself to death on 24 March 2008, fifty-year-old farmer Shrikrishna Kalamb penned his own eulogy – all of six lines – and put it in his shirt’s pocket.
In chaste Varhadi, a dialect of Marathi spoken in the western Vidarbha region that the British called Berar, it begins thus:
Me aagala vegala, mahi nyarich jindagani;
mahye maran bhi aahe, jase avakali paani.
I am unique; my life an uncommon odyssey;
My death will also be like untimely rain.
Kalamb, a 5-acre, atypical, dry-land farmer from Vidarbha, a region in the news since 1995 for farmers’ suicides, wrote that his cotton was precious to him, like his poems. He likened its roots to the sweetness of sugarcane. In the poem, he built an image of his body hanging from a door – he had made up his mind to commit suicide.
Symbolism and emotion mark Kalamb’s poignant poems; he ended his life at his sister’s home in Murtijapur town, 30 kilometres from his native village Babhulgaon (Jahangir) in Akola. It is one of the six districts in Maharashtra – all in western Vidarbha – with high incidence of farmer suicides. He left behind five daughters and a bereaved wife.
Like most farmers, he had unpaid debts from banks and private lenders, and worried about the impending costs of his daughters’ weddings. A few years earlier, a devastating accident had left him with a limp. He could no longer physically work the way he used to in his heyday, which added to his frustration and financial woes.
In another poem, titled “Vasare” (Calves), he writes:
Amhi vasare vasare, muki upasi vasare
Gaya panhavato amhi, chor kalatat dhar
Tapa tapa gham unarato, unarato bhuivar
Moti pikavato amhi, tari upasi lekare
We are calves—dumb, hungry calves
We tend to cows, but thieves walk away with the milk and cream
We sweat and sweat on fields, we cultivate pearls,
But our children go hungry.
Kalamb was a sensitive man. A Dhangar (shepherd) by caste, a nomadic tribe in Maharashtra, his poems are rooted in the region’s rustic culture and offer invaluable insights into an average Indian farmer’s life. They are a reflection of the changing socio-economic, political and ecological landscape of rural India.
In another poem titled “Lek” (Daughter), he showcases the worries of a father who is a farmer. While the poem carries deep patriarchal undertones, it explains the structural social problems of Vidarbha, which once was a feudal region; though things have changed or are changing, caste and class animosities still subtly prevail. In “Itihaas” (History) he questions time for preserving only the glorious history of the rich, while wilfully burying the resilient struggles of the poor.
He wrote for farmers, and he wrote about them. It is a pity that his identity as a farmer quashed the poet in him. But he will, one can only hope, live on in his verses of revolt.
Kalamb wrote on small chits of paper, never preserving his work. He memorised all his poems and would sing them lyrically whenever his friends urged him to. After he was gone, his eldest daughter, Usha, meticulously searched for those chits in his trunk, bags and at his friends’ homes. She could find only fifty-odd verses of the several he wrote.
Most of these bring to us the small universe of a Berar farmer, forced to perpetually borrow money for all his needs, and who lives with the angst of being unable to repay it. Kalamb was pained by his tribe’s crumbling lives: a farmer lives and dies in debt, exploited by the market and the political class, beleaguered by fledgling farms, where even when production goes up the income rarely does. He was, as his poems strongly indicate, also intrigued and agitated by the social ills and superstitions pervading rural life, the slow pace of much-needed social reforms.
Usha would tell me days after his death that her father wrote whenever he was in a pensive mood. She was, and remains, sorrowful that her father did not give her a chance to financially support the family. She eventually got a government job to support the household.
It is not the event of Kalamb’s death that I seek to chronicle in this book, but the harrowing life of a farmer, which is what his poems portray. His deep, philosophical musings aptly capture the acute distress plaguing vast sections of the Indian peasantry.
In over two decades of my journeys into Vidarbha and across the country’s dusty countryside, I stood witness to human grief, struggle, brave fight-backs and several complex, crumbling worlds within that world – things that I hope to show in this narrative.
Around the mid 1990s, a liberalised and globalised economy engulfed great many unsuspecting farmers in problems that were beyond their comprehension, triggering suicides that surged in the early 2000s. In the cotton hinterland, I was waking up to life and living against the backdrop of premature deaths of young and old farmers and a new India taking shape in the new millennium. India’s economy was now fuelled by sectors other than agriculture, like services.
Local farmers’ markets were invaded by global markets, like that of cotton or food. Rapid upward economic mobility of sections of the population was creating newer inequalities, leading to a perception among the peasantry that they were losing out. The fast-changing economic conditions were also altering long-held social equations.
Landed farmers, once among the respected classes in a village economy, were now unable to meet their ever-growing needs, while the non-landed classes, absorbed in the unorganised service economy, migrated out of their villages to urban centres for better wages and work, doing marginally better than they once did as farm labourers.
There was a growing perception among the rural peasantry in Vidarbha that the new economic realities were doing them more harm than good. Cotton farmers, for example, saw their production costs multiply many times as energy, inputs and fertiliser prices soared. While generally the cost of living – health, education, and so on – went up, their real incomes stagnated.
Government subsidies were tweaked or withdrawn. The declining incomes and the rising cost of living, they rued, were by design and not coincidental. The villages I saw held that the state and central governments were biased in favour of the rich, and that living in villages had become difficult.
In protest, they came up with sensational – at times weird – ideas of protests to draw the attention of authorities. There were villages that put themselves up for sale – lock, stock and barrel. Some residents put up signboards saying that they were willing to sell their kidneys. Thousands of farmers took to the streets just to be heard. They still do, not only in Vidarbha but now increasingly across the country.
The dawn of 2021, for instance, brought droves of farmers in their tractors to the borders of Delhi to protest against the passage of three contentious laws that the Narendra Modi government claims will reform the farm sector. The farmers from Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh are unconvinced.
They are sceptical that the new legal regime will bulldoze the old architecture which provided them some support in terms of an assured minimum support price and timely procurement. They fear that the new laws will help big corporations usurp their only asset: their land. Instead of expanding the security net, the government is doing away with the existing support to farming, they argue. The way the laws were passed in Parliament in September 2020 – without a debate and despite opposition from several political parties – also came in for criticism and questioning.
A pan-Indian farmers’ fightback is finally happening. Over the last two decades, though, I witnessed what agrarian distress really looks like, up close and in the isolation of individual households. I met villagers who pooled in money to cremate the dead because their families could not afford to do so. I read farmers’ suicide notes addressed to district collectors, chief ministers, even prime ministers and presidents.
There was one in which a newly married young farmer asked his soon-to-be-widowed wife to get remarried but not to a farmer. I witnessed a village coming together to celebrate a wedding and perform three funerals within a span of twenty-four hours, a young farmer in Washim who watered his orange orchard for days with a bucket and a mug when his well ran dry, a widow who witnessed the suicides of four men in the family – her father-in-law, husband and two younger brothers-in-law – but fought to resurrect the family farm, repay her debts and become a progressive farmer. I also reported on women farmers’ suicides, suicides by young children.
The prevailing agrarian distress has a context with many factors: a giant interlinked global economy; commercialisation of farming and life itself; a rural population unable to withstand the new economic order in the absence of safety nets; an upwardly mobile and new affluent India disconnected from its villages; and the struggling poor even in the urban spaces.
Thirty years of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation have helped a class of Indians live the dream life, but for vast sections of the peasantry and rural populations this has been a tumultuous and deathly period, like a never-ending recession.
The chasm has grown so vast that the former does not care if it does not rain one season, affecting farm yields and pushing inflation. One glaring example of this disconnect was on display in the summer of 2020, when during the Covid-19 lockdown announced by the Indian government millions of poor migrants struggled to reach home. They walked long distances – often hundreds of kilometres in the punishing sun, with many dying along the way – while affluent Indians stayed indoors, enjoying a long vacation with minor inconveniences.
There was a time when, as my father recalls, the middle classes would keep an eye on the monsoon because it had a bearing on their own family budgets. Not any more. Today, these two worlds are starkly different. The universe of the top 10 per cent and that of the bottom 50 are sharply unequal. One example is how much gold upwardly mobile urban Indians buy every year while farmers sell or mortgage it – one to invest surplus money, the other to generate desperately needed cash to keep farmlands productive.
The countryside is, to put it in the words of Palagummi Sainath, India’s foremost rural affairs journalist, a different planet today, not a third, fourth or fifth world. And this world is unable to run the household with its abysmal farm incomes. I had hoped, both as a reporter and as a citizen, that things would get better for the agrarian masses over time, the way they have for the rest of us. My wish hasn’t come true so far.
It is of course true that some things have changed, where there have been public or private capital investments, since the country opened its economy in 1991. But life in villages in Vidarbha and many other regions in India, even if they are just a stone’s throw away from the big cities, has grown more cumbersome. Exceptions are few and far between. Economic distress continues to haunt the peasantry, particularly small and marginal farmers in rain-fed regions.
Nearly 4,00,000 farmers committed suicide in India between 1995 and 2018, if we collate the data from the annual reports of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) on “Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India”. What happened to them? Why did they kill themselves? How do the farmers survive hunger, debts, sudden and extreme climate events, price volatility, poverty, structural inequalities? What drives them? What are their – if at all they have any – dreams?
Excerpted with permission from Ramrao: The Story of India’s Farm Crisis, Jaideep Hardikar, HarperCollins India.