His name was Gajendra Singh. He hailed from a village in Rajasthan’s Dausa district. A note said to have been thrown down by him as he hanged himself to death during a political meeting in New Delhi sums up his reasons for ending his life.

Friends, I am the son of a farmer. My father has thrown me out of home because my crop has been destroyed. I have three children. Friends, I am from Nangal Jhamalwaran village in Dausa district. Please give me advice on how can I go home. Jai Jawan. Jai Kisan.

More details on the circumstances that pushed Gajendra to take the extreme step of a public suicide might take some time to emerge. But the broad context of the suicide is not hard to discern: this summer has been hard on Indian farmers. Just when the winter crop was ready for harvest, unseasonal rain and hail in February and March devastated hundreds and thousands of acres of standing crops across 13 states. From Punjab to Maharashtra, Rajasthan to Uttar Pradesh, farmers have been united in the trauma of seeing months of hard labour and heavy investments laid to waste.

What makes the damages particularly difficult to bear is that the weather downturn comes after a previous season of drought in some states. In the Marathwada region of Maharashtra, farmers have dealt with crop failure in three successive agriculture seasons. With more than half of the 90 million farm households in India under debt, weather fluctuations are often the last straw.

Rising suicides

Through April, reports of farmers committing suicide have been pouring in steadily. Two farmers hanged themselves to death in Uttar Pradesh, a farmer ended his life by consuming sulphate tablets in Punjab, another farmer consumed pesticide in Maharashtra. Common to all the cases is crop damage. These are just some of the cases that have made it to the newspapers.

Belatedly, both the centre and state governments have made noises about compensating farmers but much of the political energy has been consumed on debating the extent of the crop damage. On Tuesday, in Lok Sabha, the Minister of State for Agriculture, Mohanbhai Kundaria, put down the extent of crop damage to 93.81 lakh hectares, which led the Congress to accuse the government of concealing the actual figures. It pointed out that the initial estimates of crop damage upto March 16 came to 181 lakh hectares. So how had the estimate come down in April?

In the field, farmers have complained that the survey teams have been underestimating crop damage. The compensation rates, say farmers, is too low. Like other government benefits, compensation is also unequally distributed, with Dalit farmers in Maharashtra being left out.

Despite the large numbers of people affected in rural India, as well as the ripple effects on food inflation, which affect everybody and not just farmers, crop damage has simply not received the attention that it merited. This has much to do with the urban bias of the Indian media.

Perhaps, this is why Gajendra Singh chose to die in Lutyen's Delhi, in a place saturated by media cameras, at a stone's throw from Parliament. A day before he died, the government had informed Parliament that Rajasthan, the state where Singh hails from, had sought Rs 8,252 crore as financial assistance, which is the highest among the states affected by unseasonal hail.
But if Singh's aim was to provoke a national debate on crop damage, that hasn't happened. Minutes after his death, instead of focusing on agrarian distress, politicians took to blaming each other in what is, by all standards, a new low in Indian politics.