EXTRACTS: 'Cotton for my shroud' contends that this huge wave of farmer deaths cannot be characterised any longer as suicides but qualifies as genocide under UN rules.
...the film weaves together a horrific tale. Primarily it is the exploitation that begins when farmers are sold expensive Bt seeds that cost as much as Rs 4,000 for a one-acre (0.4 hectare) field...
1.Reviews: Genocide of farmers
Down to Earth, December 31 2011
Film >> Cotton for my shroud ”¢ by Nandan Saxena and Kavita Bahl ”¢ Produced by Top Quark Films ”¢ 81.30 min HDV Documentary 2011
FOR week upon week, for months and years on end, farmers have been taking their own lives, adding up to a horrifying figure of over a quarter million suicides in the last 16 years. This is described as "the largest recorded wave of suicides in human history". Most of the farmers who kill themselves are cotton cultivators and sadly, much of it occurs in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra where cotton once reigned supreme as white gold. Although the country is now familiar with these grim statistics, there has been very little media focus on the reasons that have driven farmers to this grim end despite some landmark studies by economists.
It is to answer the overwhelming question of why farmers continue to cultivate cotton in the tough terrain of Vidarbha that documentary filmmakers Nandan Saxena and Kavita Bahl made two visits to Vidarbha in 2006, once at the time of sowing and the other at the time of harvest. What they portray in 'Cotton for my shroud' is the usual story of neglect and exploitation of rural people, particularly the tribal population. Neglect by a callous bureaucracy and exploitation by greedy agriculture input companies who are on a roll in the region selling farmers genetically modified Bt cotton seeds, which are not suitable for the heavily rain-dependent districts of Vidarbha.
The early part of the documentary may tend to flag when villages complain about the lack of potable drinking water and basic facilities like schools and primary healthcare. But once Saxena and Bahl settle down to tell the story of the killer cotton crop it becomes a gripping and heart-breaking tale. They meet families where suicides have taken place even when the loan was as little as Rs 27,000, families where a scheduled wedding takes place while the body of its breadwinner lies in the morgue. That is the fate of village folk who know any postponement of a wedding can lead to further tragedy.
Talking to government officials and activists such as Kishore Tiwari who heads the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, the film weaves together a horrific tale. Primarily it is the exploitation that begins when farmers are sold expensive Bt seeds that cost as much as Rs 4,000 for a one-acre (0.4 hectare) field compared with as little as Rs 30 less than a decade ago when farmers were using their saved seeds or varieties bought from the market instead of costly hybrids. There is also the cost of other inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides which skyrocketed. And credit for sowing too is at a premium. The ultimate betrayal occurs when farmers take their produce to the market and are fobbed off with prices that are way below the minimum support price fixed by the government.
Bahl and Saxena describe themselves as ex-journalists and yet it is their journalistic coverage of the killing of a farmer in Wani in police firing that brings together the last strands of a powerful narrative. In December 2006, Bahl tracks the sequence of events that led to the farmer's death. Around 2,500 trucks and bullock carts had waited three days at the marketing yard to sell their precious cotton, but cotton inspectors and traders were summarily rejecting the crop as substandard, unable to cope with huge supplies coming daily. That’s when frustrated farmers went on the rampage, setting fire to the Wani market yard office.
The most interesting part of the film to me was the case of Phoolsingh Pawar. Till the death of his relative Dhansingh Pawar who commits suicide when his crop fails and he cannot repay creditor, Phoolsingh has not tried Bt cotton although he is tempted by a few success stories that he has heard of. But a year later the filmmakers are in for a shock. They find Phoolsingh has also gone in for Bt cotton but with disastrous results: yields are a miserable two quintals (1 quintal=100 kg) per acre although the seed company had dangled the figure of 25 quintals before him. Worse, the drop in global prices has made the prices collapse in Maharashtra.
The film, replete with stark images of widows and devastated family members, fleshes out the stories behind the statistics of suicides that no longer make news in mainstream media outlets. It also makes some vitals points that explain the suicides phenomenon in India. Cotton turns into a shroud primarily for small farmers who have given up growing food crops in favour of cash crops and have no cushion to fall back upon unlike the larger farmers who can use their land as collateral for much-needed credit. A significant reason is that any kind of non-agricultural employment has disappeared from the region.
'Cotton for my shroud' contends that this huge wave of farmer deaths cannot be characterised any longer as suicides but qualifies as genocide under UN rules. One couldn't agree more.
Down to Earth, 29 December 2011
India's power elite is still seeking US solutions for our problems despite the havoc they have wreaked upon American society
Many decades ago when my generation was in its early teens and was captivated by the Merseyside beat of the Beatles along with bell-bottom pants of that era, disapproving elders told us that we were mindlessly aping the West. As far as I can see, dalliance with the rock music of the Liverpool Fabulous Four did us little harmeither in the appreciation of own music or in our outlook and values, much less in our dress sense. But "aping the West" was a scathing indictment and we preferred not to be accused of such mindlessness.
One of the oddest things about the Indian establishment though is the complete mindlessness with which it has been lapping up practically anything hawked by Western governments, corporations, financial institutions and other snake oil salesmen. And unlike adolescent whims, this kind of aping is far from being harmless; they can have deleterious effects on economies, livelihoods and societies. The wholesale import of policies more suited to developed societies that have gone through their industrial and post-industrial revolutions are hardly the panacea they are made out to be for the disparate problems of a developing country, specially one which carries the burden of the largest number of the wretchedly poor, the unschooled, the diseased and vulnerable people. Nowhere is this determination to import disaster more evident than in agriculture. Farming in the US and India are as different from each other as the atmosphere in Jupiter is to that of Earth. Take some basic facts. T
less than one per cent of its population claiming farming as their occupation and just about 960,000 persons who say farming is their principal occupation. The average farm size is a whopping 167 hectares (ha) while a large chunk of farms are between 40 ha and 220 ha. When it comes to farming in India, about 550 million people are dependent on agriculture and the vast majority of farm holdings are between 0.8 ha and 2 ha. Most of the farmers are, needless to say, dirt-poor.
It is in such starkly different circumstances that the top officials of the Planning Commission, the farm minister himself and the Prime Minister’s Office seek to transplant the US model of industrial farming here. And there's one other detail that should not be overlooked. American farmers receive huge subsidies. Between 1995 and 2010, less than a million farmers were paid $167.3 billion under the direct payment subsidy programme. These subsidies were doled out to grain and commodity farmers as a safety net regardless of their actual production. In the very same period, a total of 256,913 debt-ridden Indian farmers committed suicide.
It is in such a situation that the government has rolled out the red carpet for seed and pesticide multinationals. It is only a matter of time before the retail giants too walk in. As for the World Trade Organization (WTO), the intransigence of the EU and the US to cut its farm subsidies has resulted in a decade-long deadlock in negotiations to conclude a new round. But it matters little to New Delhi’s power elite. Inspiration still comes from the West, and, as a corollary, subservience to its demands will also continue.
It is not anyone’s case that the West has nothing to offer us. One policy worthy of emulation is its public-funded school system of quality education that covered the entire population. But, interestingly, this is one issue policymakers here have ignored while opting for shortcuts such as the Sarva Shiksha Abhayan, which is on the whole a shabby programme of third-rate schooling. That, however, is another issue.
What is curious is why the establishment, whether it’s the political, bureaucratic, academic or scientific establishment, still continues to draw its inspiration from a system that appears to be in tatters. Europe and the US are enveloped in a pall of gloom and seething rage against a theology that has failed the vast majority of people. And nowhere is the anger more widespread than in the US where an extraordinary mix of people across racial and ethnic divides, from laid-off workers, teachers and young and middle-aged professionals to the elderly and perpetually homeless, are living on the streets to seek a more equitable system.
Here are some of the reasons that have fuelled the mass outburst:
*Americans living in poverty: more than 46 million
*Americans without health insurance: close to 50 million
*Americans without jobs or underemployed: between 24 and 26 million
*Homeless Americans: 3.5 million
All this in a country with a population of just 312 million. If nothing, these statistics should serve as a reality check for those who believe the free market economy is the solution. Does it have to be said that India needs to find its own ways of dealing with its many crises?