Karnataka Agriculture Minister BC Patil on Thursday stirred a controversy after he called farmers who killed themselves cowards, reported the Hindustan Times.

“Farmers who die by suicide are cowards,” said Patil, while addressing farmers at Ponnampet in Kodagu district on the benefits of bamboo farming. “Only a coward who can’t take care of his wife and children commit suicide. Once we are in the water, we have to swim and win, not die by suicide.”

Patil said that there are many farmer suicide cases in Mandya, despite the district having complete irrigation facilities, unlike the dry and more drought-prone Kolar district. “Do organic farming and there is profit to be made,” he said. “If not Israel model of agriculture follow the Kolar mode. Don’t be cowards and die by suicide.”

According to 2019 data, Karnataka is the only state after Maharashtra to record the most number of farm sector-related suicide cases, The Indian Express reported. Maharashtra registered over 3,900 suicides in 2019, followed by Karnataka with 1,992, Andhra Pradesh with 1,029, Madhya Pradesh with 541, Telangana with 499 and Punjab with 302.

Opposition leaders condemned Patil’s remarks. Former Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah said that people holding important positions should not make such irresponsible statements.

Karnataka Congress unit spokesperson VS Ugrappa sought an apology from the minister. “No farmer wishes to end life,” Ugrappa said. “There are many reasons such as floods and droughts, which have not been understood and solved yet. Instead of understanding the gravity of the problem, the minister gives such an irresponsible statement.”

The agriculture minister later defended his statement, saying that his remarks were taken out of context. “I have not called farmers cowards,” he said. “I have said committing suicide is cowardly. Those who give us food should never commit suicide but have to overcome all challenges is what I have said.”

Patil’s remarks came even as farmers are protesting in Delhi for nearly 10 days against the Centre’s farming laws. Tens of thousands of farmers, mainly from Punjab and Haryana, have gathered at Delhi’s borders and are agitating against the laws, demanding their withdrawal.

The farm laws

The Parliament had passed three ordinances – Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion & Facilitation) Ordinance 2020, The Farmers (Empowerment & Protection) Assurance and Farm Service Ordinance 2020 and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Ordinance 2020 – in September. They were signed into laws by President Ram Nath Kovind on September 27.

Taken together, the three legislations loosen regulations on the sale, pricing and storage of agricultural produce. They allow farmers to sell outside mandis notified by the Agricultural Produce Market Committee. They enable contract farming through deals with private sector companies. They take food items like cereals and pulses off the list of essential commodities, lifting stock limits on such produce.

Farmers and traders have alleged that the government wants to discontinue the minimum support price regime in the name of reforms. They fear that the laws will leave them at the mercy of corporate powers. The government has maintained that farm laws will bring farmers better opportunities and usher in new technologies in agriculture.

The government claims the new laws would give farmers the freedom to sell in the open market. But farmers say the laws will weaken the minimum support price mechanism under which the government buys agricultural produce, leave farmers to the mercy of market forces and threaten food security.

Most Opposition parties and farmers’ organisations across the country have strongly opposed the bills. The Shiromani Akali Dal, one of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s oldest allies, pulled out of the National Democratic Alliance in protest against these bills.