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HomeFrom the GrassrootsWhat Makes Rural Life Unlivable? Notes from Vidarbha

What Makes Rural Life Unlivable? Notes from Vidarbha

by Dr. Aarti Sethi

Excerpt from manuscript, titled “The Life of Debt in Rural India.” Dr. Sethi has spent over five years in Vidarbha, which has come to be defined by the high rates of farmer suicides among cotton cultivators. In sections selected from her “Introduction” reproduced here, we learn of the broader context, the intimate reality of those trying to combat the crisis, and hear Dr. Sethi’s call for a very different approach to the problem, one that requires us to turn away from narrowly studying the suicide and its “causes” to studying the entirety of the world that farmers find unlivable. 

More than a quarter of a million farmers have committed suicide across India since 1995, a vast majority of these deaths occurring in the central Indian cotton belt of Vidarbha. Since what one report published by New York University Law School terms the “largest wave of recorded suicides in human history” (Center for Human Rights and Global Justice: NYU Law 2011) first received attention in the mid-nineties, the public, and now juridical, figure of the “farmers’ suicide” has become a potent, politically charged symbol for intense public, and scholarly, debates on India’s experience with neoliberal structural adjustment, and the failures of state and society. Scholarly and activist discourses have attempted to establish causal links between the widespread suicide of farmers and the large-scale industrial transformation of agricultural production in the early 1990s (see Kennedy and King 2014; Munster 2012; Mohanty 2004; Srinivasalu 2015). In these analyses, neoliberal economic policies implemented by the state following structural adjustments have made small-scale peasant producers, particularly cotton cultivators, vulnerable to price volatilities in global commodity markets. As cotton cultivation has been intensively capitalized (i.e., reorganized at the point of production and sale for the market) without a concomitant expansion in economies of scale and the consolidation of land holdings, peasant producers tilling small plots of rain-fed land have found themselves entrapped in downward debt spirals. In these regions, cultivators have shifted from subsistence food-grain cultivation to export-oriented cash-crop cultivation (cotton, coffee, tobacco, etc.) without the resources of scale and efficiency required to compete in the global commodity markets.

Under the aegis of wide-ranging economic reforms in the early 1990s, implemented as part of a structural adjustment package developed by the IMF and the World Bank, the state withdrew subsidies for agriculture, minimum price support for agricultural produce, removed trade restrictions on imports bringing small cultivators into competition with the international market, and encouraged a shift from food-grain to cash-crop cultivation, resulting in a large-scale industrial transformation of agricultural production, wherein rising input costs in the form of genetically modified seeds, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides forced small cultivators to take out large loans (from institutional credit sources such as banks and informal loans from moneylenders). The decline of rural banks and sources of institutional credit, and increasingly low returns on investments as a result of price volatility in the international market, resulted in a series of crises in which cotton farmers found themselves entangled in a network of debts they were unable to pay off. The highest numbers of deaths were subsequently reported as emerging from the six cotton-growing states of Punjab, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab; and from Kerala (the primary crops being spices) and Chhattisgarh (which remains a mystery). Since the deaths first began emerging from the cotton fields of Vidarbha, the state has attempted to respond to the crisis by offering monetary support to surviving kin in the form of a compensation package addressed to “suicide-prone districts” (atmahayta-grasth kshetra) for the surviving kin members of a “farmers suicide” (shetkari atmahayta). All these terms appear on the compensation forms in casefiles, in judicial depositions, and official correspondence, as well as are used in the news reporting on suicide deaths in Vidarbha.

This manuscript shows that this category of the “farmer’s suicide,” as a juridical category of state policy and an affective category of public investment, has emerged at the conjunction of the massification of suicides in a state archive of casefiles of deaths established in 2002 as part of a state monetary compensation scheme for surviving kin, and public concern about the “agrarian crisis.” However, in enshrining the “farmer’s suicide” as a juridical term, it is the category and not the individual death that is recognized by the state. It is the category that then circulates in the wider public sphere, in which the individual death acquires meaning only as a point located in a series of deaths, which when viewed together are taken as the symptoms of and evidence for the crisis of cash-crop farming post structural adjustment. However, the means by which the suicide deaths of cotton cultivators in Vidarbha come to constitute this name—“farmers suicide”cannot be understood through this category which is, the manuscript argues, a legal fiction devoid of social history or empirical content. Rather than looking at cotton cultivation or suicide deaths, this manuscript attempts to locate the scales along which a possible future analysis of the operations of monetary-debt as it realigns social relations in contemporary rural Vidarbha must proceed.

*  *  *

A back office in the Wardha District Collectorate holds over 2,000 casefiles opened on suicide deaths by farmers in the district to adjudicate compensation claims by surviving kin members. Under a relief package announced by the Prime Minister’s office in New Delhi in 2002, if through a process of judicial adjudication as per state-issued criteria it can be proved that a person committed suicide as a result of “debt” and not “social or personal factors,” then surviving kin are issued a compensation sum of Rs. 1 lakh from the Prime Minister’s relief fund. Every month state officials, NGO workers, farmer leaders, visiting social activists, the deputy collector, the district collector, the chief agricultural officer, and the block development officer meet in the District Collector’s office to go over the files for the month and decided whether surviving kin will receive funds. Journalists from the local and national dailies, from the English, Hindi, and Marathi presses attend these meetings, and reporters of state and national television news channels attend the public meetings on district suicide deaths held by the DC’s Office. Month and blockwise figures of suicide deaths are officially released and available on the Collectorate website. The casefiles are open for public scrutiny under the Right to Information Act 2005.

Every month the numbers and figures of suicide deaths in Vidarbha are released to the press, enter the records of the National Crime Records Bureau of district-wise country-wide unnatural deaths, and overworked, underpaid, and still-committed officials at various levels of the state, administrative, quasi-state, and welfare apparatus garner whatever meager resources are available at their immediate and reachable stations to extend help to the rural citizens whose welfare it is their task to serve. On the website of the Wardha District Collectorate can be read an official pledge and prayer taken by all government employees in Vidarbha. Written in Marathi the text states in English translation:

We the employees of the Wardha District Collectorate pledge that finding answers to the questions raised by farmers are a binding obligation on us. By educating ourselves on the many state schemes and packages available for farmers within the government, we pledge to find ways of reaching this information to farmers so they may benefit from state assistance . . . In our homes, neighbourhoods and villages not a single person should commit suicide, we will shoulder the responsibility of this care. Committing suicide resolves no questions, this we pledge to impress on the children. The honour of farmers is the honour of the country. We are the servers of farmers, in this role lies our pride!

While written in the stilted tones of state communiqué, the text still transmits a real concern and anxiety, which is manifest in the day-to-day functioning of the state machinery and bureaucracy, and few workers take their task lightly. I spent almost two years working in the Wardha District Collectorate, and interacting with state, administrative, and medical officials in both districts, at various levels of the state bureaucracy. While the usual problems of inefficiency and inadequate resources constrain governmental functioning and impact in Vidarbha as they do in the rest of rural India, as state governments and administrations go Maharashtra has an efficient and responsive regional bureaucracy when compared to other states. The suicide epidemic has deeply affected everyone who lives in Vidarbha, and while officials may grumble at the long hours spent dealing with kin, paperwork, cheques, and lists, the state officials I interacted with have a genuine concern for the people they serve. In my time state workers tried their best to respond to the questions and queries of kin, and in the monthly meetings officials tried as best they could to disperse compensation to as large a pool as possible, while balancing the pressure from higher levels of government and political interests more broadly to demonstrate a reduction in the numbers of cultivator suicides occurring in Vidarbha, which are tallied from the number of eligible suicide deaths, the rest being classed under “social and personal factors.” The doctors, staff, and nurses at the District Hospital, the Datta Meghe Institute of Medical Sciences, and the Kasturba Rural Hospital, where many of the postmortems of suicide cases are conducted, are committed and dedicated individuals, many of whom have given up lucrative city careers to serve in understaffed and underresourced rural hospitals serving poor patients with few incentives to improve care. The state officials, doctors, social workers, teachers, and counselors are strapped in what they can do despite their efforts, since the scale of the crises far exceeds the ambit of processes and entities the state or allied institutions have the power to control.

The public wound of the farmers suicide is in a sense Vidarbha’s tragedy. Since it is only because of farmers committing suicides that the analytical gaze broadly definedmedia coverage; government, civil society, and administrative publications; independent and state fact-finding commissions and reports; scholarly articles; academic writing; grassroots and activist publics; farmers’ alliances; NGO circuits; the international anti-GMO lobby, and so onhas been drawn to and stays on in Vidarbha, and since the suicides began with the crisis in cotton cultivation crystallized in the image of Monsanto’s transgenic Bt Cotton, almost all analysis heretofore attempts to explain the former through examination of the latter: that is, it attempts to explain self-chosen death by persons who live in rural Vidarbha through cotton cultivation and monetary debt. Except when it turns to cotton cultivation, it does so through examining the input costs, monetary liabilities, and prices of cotton and pronouncing these to be unprofitable, which is proved by the fact that farmers have committed suicide.

There is no way in this parallax mirror to understand either suicide or cotton cultivation and their connection as two dimensions of the same material social reality, since the only way debt and suicide appear conjoined in analysis is as variables constituted in relation to each other. The lines of distraught kin at compensation offices in Vidarbha are a materialization of this analytical blindness, an institutional, administrative, policy, and social opacity that is now part and parcel of how the suicide epidemic is lived and experienced in Vidarbha. This manuscript argues that to say transgenic cotton cultivation causes suicide is as meaningless as saying cotton cultivation does not cause suicide. Trying to understand the suicides in Vidarbha through debt, or debt through suicides, soon produces a material tautology since it is not possible to get from one to the other, as neither lives to produce the other. No single event of suicide in its particularity can ever represent the conclusions about cotton cultivation that are nonetheless pressed out of it in public discourses, as suicide comes out of the question of the viability of rural life not of the profitability of cotton cultivation, and the force of monetary debt undertaken for cotton cultivation is to be found flowing through the exchanges and interactions of the living, not frozen as evidence in the bank details of the deceased. This manuscript attempts to understand the suicide of farmers by delinking the question of life and death from that of the productivity of cotton cultivation, in contrast to the vast majority of academic and scholarly writings on the suicide crises in rural Vidarbha.

*  *  *

This manuscript as a whole makes one argument, which is that if we wish to locate suicide deaths in Vidarbha in cotton cultivation, we must do so not in isolation but in totality, in the economy of cotton as a total social fact. Any attempt to locate the deaths (if it is death not cotton that is the concern) in Vidarbha in disjunctions of “the market” must attend to the scale and expanse of what the market has effected, that is what “the market” as an abstract realm trading in abstractions has materially produced in the social relations tasked with producing transgenic cotton for that market. This manuscript argues that while the public and scholarly focus on economic causes has illuminated the operations of market debt in the economy of cotton, to understand suicide deaths requires turning away from cotton cultivation and toward an understanding of the workings of the regime of contract that this kind of cultivation has unleashed.

The regime of contract’s violent reordering of the material supports and social values of a world toward the purposes of accumulationput in place through colonial and postcolonial interventions into agricultural life for cotton production for the global capitalist markethas taken the form of the appearance of individual suicides in contemporary Vidarbha. To understand how a world becomes unlivable for any single member of that world, such that large numbers of singular individuals choose in isolation to leave that world, requires turning away from the suicide event in Vidarbha and looking closely at this world. Since in becoming an event suicide only becomes visible through the massificatory logics and recursive inscription of the state in the media and public archive, where neither the individual death nor the world the living inhabit are present as anything other than evidence for the crises of cotton-cultivation, in order to understand what suicide may mean apart from the self-chosen death of a “farmer” requires understanding who this person is alongside this name, and the texture of this world apart from what its fields produce. For the reasons I have sketched above and explore in what follows, I realized if I looked at suicide itself I would never be able to see debt. This manuscript is thus an attempt to see the shadow of suicide in the life of debt in rural Vidarbha.

Aarti Sethi teaches anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. She thinks and writes about agrarian India.

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