Drought, crop failure, land grabbing – many Indian farmers live in a constant struggle. And some give up the fight.

Indian farmers live in constant struggle.
Indian farmers live in constant struggle.

He climbed up a tree, a Gamchha (white stole) on his shoulder. All around him, the rally organized by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi against the government’s land acquisition ordinance was in full swing. Delhi Chief Minister and AAP party leader Arvind Kejriwal was addressing the crowd waving a broom, the party symbol. The audience simply thought that this man climbing a tree wanted to take the floor in an unusual way, so didn’t pay particular attention to him.

He unwrapped his Gamchha, tied one end of it around his neck and the other to a branch. And jumped.

That’s how 40-year old Gajendra Singh, a farmer from Rajahstan, took his own life on 22 April 2015. He is one of the thousands of Indian farmers who are under distress because of the current agrarian crisis. Every day we hear about farmers all over India committing suicide. It has been happening for so long that it barely makes the news now. But someone who does it in India’s capital city, at a political rally and in front of cameras – well, that’s another story.

A lot has been researched on what brings a farmer to take his own life, and some of the identified reasons are drought, debts, stress and family responsibilities, use of genetically modified seed, use of chemical fertilizers and crop failure, public health and government economic policies – often a combination of at least three of them. Whatever the reason, the result is the same: a life is taken; a woman becomes a widow; children lose their father, parents lose their son.

Often it means a family losing its main bread-earner.

Since the beginning of the year, Indian farmers have a new reason to worry: the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (RFCLARR) Ordinance dated 31 December 2014. The original RFCLARR Act was promulgated in 2013 and had been generally welcomed by social movements. As opposed to the earlier 1894 land acquisition law that allowed the government to acquire land only if it was for public purpose, the 2013 law expanded this possibility also to land needed for projects in partnerships with or even owned entirely by the private sector. This did not meet with favour among farmers and NGOs. But some additional provisions in the Act managed to reassure interested groups, because they require following before any land acquisition:

  • A Social Impact Assessment (SIA),
  • The consent of 70% of the affected people; 80% in the case of projects entirely owned by the private sector.

This meant that no land acquisition could take place unless such consent was sought and a SIA process was duly carried out.

In addition to this, the 2013 law ensured that

  • no irrigated multi-cropped land would be acquired – except ‘under exceptional circumstances’ – in order to safeguard food security.

Such provision was needed in a country where most of the food comes from land. As per World Bank statistics, through 2010-2014, 60.3% of the total land in India was agricultural land and 70% percent of India’s population reportedly depends on agriculture for their livelihood.

Finally, a clause in the RFCLARR foresaw the return of the land to the owners in the cases when

  • neither physical possession nor corresponding compensation had taken place for five years.

But then, in March 2014, a new Government came into place (and with what force!), and the country’s priorities considerably shifted towards rapid economic development and growth. This means building new infrastructures, attracting foreign capital, creating industrial corridors and strengthening the private sector. This means: land. So nobody was really surprised when in December 2014, the Indian Finance Minister announced that the provisions of RFCLARR would have been amended through an ordinance.

The loss of land: An additional reason to worry

Apparently, the RFCLARR 2013 had made a lot of influential people in the private sector quite unhappy, because carrying out SIAs and seeking consent, would have delayed land acquisition and thereby the launch or construction of industrial or infrastructure projects. The new government ordinance addresses exactly the provisions of the 2013 Act that were giving farmers some sort of at least ‘perceived safety’: A number of projects (listed in the new Section 10A) are now exempt from the SIA or consent clause, even in cases of complete ownership by the private sector.

This means that an Indian farmer would have to worry not only about the insufficient or excessive rain (like what happened this March, causing dramatic losses in crop all over India) – all of a sudden his land could be taken from him, without his consent, if it fell within areas deemed relevant, for example, for defence, rural infrastructure, or industrial corridors purposes.

Well” – our Indian farmer might think – “mine is a multi-cropped land, so I’m safe. We need this for food!

He would be wrong. As per the ordinance, the projects listed in the new Section 10A are the ‘exceptional circumstances’ that allow the government or the private sector to circumnavigate the RFCLARR provision on multi-cropped land.

But our Indian farmer could still try to remain optimistic. Land that had previously been taken from him by the government, had not been constructed upon for at least five years: this means it would return to him now. And, again, reality would crash our farmer’s hopes, because he and his community had gone few years back against the land acquisition proceedings: The time during which the proceedings were paused on account of the injunction, will now be excluded while computing the period of five years. This might explain why all of a sudden excavators popped up on the land he and the other farmers were hoping to get back.

Gajendra, the farmer from Rajasthan who hung himself on 22 April, blamed the unseasonal rain that had damaged his crops, and the fact that his father had therefore thrown him out of the house, as the reason for his suicide. But I can easily imagine how the fear of losing one’s land for many now becoming certainty, could exacerbate the several other worries that Indian farmers constantly have, and lead one of them, or even many, to such an extreme gesture.

Thankfully, Indian civil society does not sit idle to watch.

At the end of February, a massive demonstration was organized by Ekta Parishad, a known NGO with whom Welthungerhilfe is associated, and the very famous peace activist Anna Hazare. During five days, 5000 adivasi, farmers and landless labourers from over 12 Indian states, started from Haryana, in North India, and walked for 60 km all the way to Delhi. Thanks to the support of Anna Hazare, more than 200 social organizations and movements with thousands of followers gathered in Delhi to oppose the Land Acquisition Ordinance. The publicity such demonstration had led the founder of Ekta Parishad, Rajagopal P.V., to say, at the end of the demonstration:

The country woke up again on the issue of land. The government is seriously under pressure and has to act.For us, the Yatra (procession) was also a visibility of nonviolence.

Unhappy about the lack of progress since February, Ekta Parishad is now planning a hunger strike in Bhopal, to bring back the attention of the media, the government and the general public to the fact that development cannot take place at any cost and that the conversion of agriculture land into non-agriculture land in the name of economic prosperity is bound to make hundreds of thousands of farmers landless. With such radical action, Ekta Parishad hopes to get national and international support to the cause.

How many more farmers need to die, how many rallies need to take place, how loud do people have to raise their voice, for the Government to finally hear them, hear us? Gajendra had lost his crops, his family and ultimately his life. I can only hope that his gesture and the international media attention on it might help the other thousand farmers out there not to lose their land.

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