January 20, 2006

Of Nero and a breached dam

P Sainath is something of an inspiration to many of us journalists. On the Times Fellowship over a decade ago, he wrote with passion and knife-sharp incisiveness about rural poverty in this country. Even then, few journalists took the time to understand not just events in rural India, but processes. Sainath did. The stories he wrote then formed the basis for his superb book, "Everybody Loves a Good Drought."

And yes, I can think of several journalists whose work places them directly in Sainath's tradition, who make it their business to pound the bylanes and dusty cart-tracks of this vast land to understand it and report on it. (Yes, I like to think I am one, but in all honesty there are many others who pound much more diligently than I do).

Sainath spoke at St Xavier's College on Wednesday January 18, and you can get a sense of what he said, over at Vik's Vislumbres and Anand's Locana. Briefly, his focus was the suicides of farmers in Maharashtra, Andhra, Karnataka and elsewhere; but as always with Sainath, he was really getting at the processes that have led to these suicides. And, most intriguing of all, the attitudes towards them. How many of us know, let alone give a damn, about what is happening to farm India?

And that's why, for me, Sainath's most telling point that evening was not so much the figures and anecdotes that flowed like a breached dam. Instead, it was a point he has made before: about Nero's guests.

Nero fiddled while Rome burned; he also partied by the light of human torches. Now you can write off a monstrous Roman emperor -- how, after all, can you account for madmen, especially when they become emperors? You can write off his burning victims too. But can you so easily write off his guests, likely the elite of the greatest city of the time? What were they thinking as they sipped their wine and downed their pasta, while around them humans burned to a crisp? What does that say about the kind of society Nero's Rome was? What does that say about the eventual decline and fall of a great and powerful empire?

Think of farmers taking their lives, think of what drives them to do it, and then ask yourself: Who are Nero's guests today, here in this country, around you today? What are they thinking? What does that say about the kind of country we are?

And then try this: do you need to think of farmer suicides in remote rural areas? Are the sights that Nero's guests would rather not see closer than they imagine?


This was once a regular blog but, after six said...

Very nice. Reminds me of a line I read in an Arundhati Roy essay (not sure if she coined it though): Once you've seen injustice, not doing anything about it is as much a political statement as doing something about it.

Gautam said...

I am just curious, is the rate of suicide amongst farmers as a percentage of farmers higher than say the rate of suicide amongst urban students, or some other such group? What is the average rate of farmer suicides over the last 10 years, and how does it compare to other social groups?

Also though it is tragic that the suicides are taking place, there is a well known phenomenon of a report of a suicide increasing the number of suicides occurring in an area. There is to an extent a clustering effect of these phenomena. Malcolm Gladwell's 'Tipping Point' points it out.

Gautam said...


Swaminathan Aiyar seems to be Contra-Sainath.

Anonymous said...

While on this topic, here is an interesting article - Again by Tavleen Singh (Sorry I have overburdened Dilips blog by referring to her several times), but it is nice to see somebody dicuss real Bread & butter issues.


Roshan - Need to ask Arundhati Roy and her ilk what exactly they and their fellow travellers have done.
Go on Book promotion tours throughout Europe/USA and then write articles against those same countries and bourgeoise people and enjoy the same 5 star culture that they write against.
Neela - There is no problem if somebody genuinely wants to write about poverty etc, but English August raises a valid point about whether the likes of Arundati Roy ever suggest anything positive or whether they make a career of writing (rather badly) about other peoples miseries.
If Manmohans govt really wants to do something positive about agriculture, then they can be good enablers by building the infrastructure to enable the agri supply chains - cold storage, proper transportation etc.
Look at horticulture. We have such a fantastic bio diversity and the varieties of fruits and vegetables that can be grown, more than half the produce rots away due to lack of infrastructure.
If we could replicate the success of Amul or the green revolution in the area of horticulture, this would be a great step forward.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I like to think I am one, but in all honesty there are many others who pound much more diligently than I do.

Didn't know you saw yourself as a journalist rather than a writer.

Anonymous said...

Gautam, I read the Swaminathan Aiyar article. Frankly it is a load of bull. It seems to be saying - and you seem to be echoing that - that the farmers are NOT committing suicide because of indebtedness but any other reason. While other reasons may contribute (the number of suicides goes up in the summers!), one cannot ignore the primary reason.

Also, a farmer committing suicide means that many more are in distress. Suicide is an escape rout, an exit option.

Vikrum, who also attended the talk, reports:

Sainath then reported that a group of well-known psychologists and government bureaucrats were sent to Vidarbha and other areas to find out why farmers were killing themselves. Instead of looking at the economic conditions of the farmers, they believed that the suicides were a psychological problem – they were "mad farmers" who could be cured of their suicidal tendencies. The psychologists and bureaucrats asked hundreds of questions. At the end of one of the village visits, as the group was leaving, one courageous farmer stood up and asked the team, "Ask us why the farmers who are producing the food are starving?"

Out of decency, the government inspectors and psychologists did not answer the question. [Link: http://vsequeira.blogspot.com/2006/01/p-sainath-on-crisis-in-rural-india.html ]

Note also that Sainath has extensively travelled across rural India to do this reporting, unlike Swaminathan and you who are pointing diversionary causes in the air.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Gautam, you and Aiyar are correctly sceptical. We should look at the recent farmer suicides, in comparison with other groups as well as historically, to get a sense of what they mean. I'm trying to do some of that just now, let's see where I get.

But the mere clustering effect doesn't say much to me. Someone taking his own life is a serious thing, whether on his own or because of clustering.

In any case, I think the suicides do raise questions worth asking anyway.

The cross that the Roys and Sainaths of this world have to bear is that they make a career of misery. I would love to know, E August etc, what would persuade you that Sainath is a "honest messenger of bad news" but has not "made a career out of other people's miseries." (Or vice versa).

Therefore, fine: they make careers of others' misery.

As for solutions, I'm always surprised by this. Sainath is saying, don't pursue this XYZ policy, pursue this KLM policy instead. Why is that not a solution? Purely because you don't like KLM?

Anonymous said...

As for solutions, I'm always surprised by this. Sainath is saying, don't pursue this XYZ policy, pursue this KLM policy instead. Why is that not a solution? Purely because you don't like KLM?

Dilip -- You have put it so well. I think the solutions that Saniath etc suggest depends a lot on some form of redistribution. Some of us aren't happy with that word at all. So we want other kind of solutions. Nothing wrong in asking for other kind of solutions of course. But honesty demands acknowledging the solutions already proposed.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Neela, any samples of this "vague rhetoric"?

Shivam, I don't think Aiyar's article is bull and you shouldn't dismiss it that way. The suicides are tragic, but that doesn't mean we should not verify whether they are indeed an unusual phenomenon. In essence, that's what Aiyar and gautam are asking for. Also, I don't think it needs them to have travelled across rural India to ask that and expect answers.

Anonymous said...

I posted the following reference+comment on this topic separately, before realizing you are also discussing it here. FYI for those interested. Don't want to duplicate my comments across the sites, so here's just the link to it.
Here is the link


Bombayite said...

Hi Dilip,
Rather than discussing Swaminathan Aiyar's article as to whether or not there are more suicides among farmers, I guess it be more worthwhile to agree that quite a few farmers are debt-burdened and then discuss what, if anything, can be done about it? To me the Tavleen Singh article made most sense, nobody seems to be talking about it after the first mention by the commenter. Investing in irrigation, roads, good refrigeration facilities etc. can help and without redistribution. Without ridiculous subsidies you ensure that the farmers get a fair price for their crops and that will save them.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Re: Tavleen Singh, I try to make it a point not to say anything about her and her writing in public because she once reviewed my book.

Even so, I think she makes a valid point: there has to be a greater focus on agriculture because so much of our population is involved with it. I don't see that percentage (70, I think she says) coming down substantially for a long time.

I'm no agricultural expert, but on the face of it, I'm not sure it is necessary to process a large part of our farm produce.

Bombayite, the investments are necessary, but how does that "ensure" that the farmer "gets a fair price" for his produce? To me, the only way to ensure a fair price is to guarantee him such a price. In effect, a subsidy. Are we willing to do that?

Tanuj, before I continue, I need to say thanks for that howler re: Sadhana and Dev Anand.

I don't write to make people feel guilty. I don't think guilt is a particularly useful emotion. I write because I think there are these various facets of India that interest me, that therefore I think will interest you.

There are the occasional things I have done re: subjects and people I have written about that I think have made a difference. Some of them I've also written about, some remain private because I want it that way.

I think Vikrum has done things that have made a difference to kids who live in some slums in Bombay, for example. I think everyone has to decide for themselves whether they want to do something, and if so what that something is. There are ways to contribute without giving up day jobs.

Writing about issues can be a contribution. I had this driven home once in a small hamlet in Satara district, meeting some Pardhis. A guy came up to me and said, rather peremptorily I should say, "Write about us! Put it on TV! Make the whole of Maharashtra realize our condition! Only then will something change!"

Finally, it is a myth that the average middle class person cannot impact policy. Try it, see what happens. For example, just because of a small effort by middle-class people that I'm part of, three of us are going to be part of a consultation tomorrow on a proposed Act. Presumably we can make a difference to that Act.

Anonymous said...

Nice to see a good discussion here. Here is another good article on how a traditionally drought prone area has braved the odds.


I used to visit or at least travel past these areas on the way to Mangalore. The area is typical North Karnataka - Parched landscape -not much of greenery and terribly drought prone. IF the people can transform this area as per the story, it is truly remarkable.
Perhaps Road warrior Dilip can take this up for a future study.

Anonymous said...

Further to my earlier post, here is a piece on traditional Indian medicine.

Read the piece on traditional Indian medicine compared to Traditional Chinese medicine. Chinese medicine has the encouragement by the chinese govt. Is the Indian govt doing anything to really promote Ayurveda. This could also be a growth area, if a proper Industry/Agro cluster is formed that could encourage this as well as promote growing of medicinal plants.
But will the Indian govt take the initiative to do the necessary IP work. Remember how a US company tried to patent turmeric?

Anonymous said...

A good summary there. Again from my non-expert viewpoint, No 3 has had a success story - that of Amul. It has been vested interests of rich farm lobbies that have prevented this from being extended to other areas.
1 - HAs proved to be a success in the developed countries - US, Australia. At present Malaysia is also promoting agriculture. I think the chances of success in India are very high.
2 & 4 - Not much information on these.
5 - Need to be given only to the poorer farmers. Why give this to rich farmers. In fact things like fertiliser subsidies are the reason why people are not looking at alternatives such as Vermiculture or other Organic techniques.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Neela, frankly I have no clue. Your thoughts, as a catalyst, welcome.

kuffir said...

'I don't see that percentage (70, I think she says) coming down substantially for a long time.

I'm no agricultural expert, but on the face of it, I'm not sure it is necessary to process a large part of our farm produce.'

i agree with you - i don't think the percentage will come down as long as there is a percentage in keeping it at that level..
as the other thirty percent live in the cities, where do the rest of the indians live?
i think it is necessary to process a large part of our farm information..

Anonymous said...

sqvt i % fe 42