Young Karl Marx in a letter to his friend Ruge (1843) fervently noted: “Shame is a kind of anger which is turned inward. And if a whole nation really experienced a sense of shame, it would be like a lion, crouching ready to spring.” In the Tamil Nadu context, where every other chief minister, and actor, has been hailed as “revolutionary”, this rather distinctive “revolutionary” emotion is seldom present. And so, even as we praise thoroughly compromised leaders, most of us remain impervious to human hurt. A case in point is the death of over 250 farmers over the last few months: At best, we indulge in sentimental pity; at worst, we appear incapable of ethical or indeed any other sort of outrage.
While some among the farmers died of sheer shock, seeing standing crops wither in fields, others took their own lives, burdened by debt. As we know from farmers’ deaths in Punjab, Karnataka, Telengana and Andhra Pradesh, this is not an unfamiliar story. In the Tamil Nadu context, farmers’ deaths are somewhat new, though there have been reports of them taking their lives for some years now, especially in the ill-fated Cauvery delta, which includes seven districts.
The current season of death has come about on account of a failed monsoon: The inability to recover from losses due to the 2015 floods, in spite of loan waivers and insurance promises, for very little of these have materialised, and demonetisation. The last has meant that substantial parts of the agrarian economy went “cashless”; also, those who otherwise would have migrated from rural homes to find work elsewhere could not do so this year. For, no work was to be had in the usual places, such as Tirupur. In fact, migrants returned home, as the casual job market collapsed.
The crisis has been acute in the Cauvery delta districts, where the maximum number of deaths has taken place. The dead include land-holding peasants and tenant farmers. The latter’s debt burden is particularly high, since a tenant contracts debt for acquiring a land lease, agro inputs, oil motors for pumping water, etc. Typically, loans are taken from banks, private lenders and micro-finance institutions (MFIs); only a small percentage (less than 15 per cent) avails of loans from cooperative societies. Banks don’t lend to all and sundry, not to small and marginal farmers owning less than four acres. Or to those whose tenancies are not clearly defined. So, they turn to private sources; this has ensured that small peasant existence is never free of debt or debt servicing — this year, the debt trap turned fatal.
The suffering of agricultural labourers has been no less, with many dependent on the PDS or MGNREGA work for survival — and there is the additional problem, in some places, of delayed wages, since at least last May. If it were not for the Tamil Nadu government’s free rice scheme, the delta would have seen hunger on a larger scale.
Importantly, delta families tied to agriculture, be they peasants or agricultural workers, are crucially dependent for their everyday existence on a steady flow of money from competing MFIs. With income from agriculture never enough to meet even sustained food provisioning, and the rising costs of higher education and healthcare, families borrow to literally reproduce their already indebted households. So much so that whatever income might accrue from MGNREGA or migrant earnings is ploughed back into the debt cycle — as a labouring woman put it, it would appear that one earns only to service a debt.
For its part, the state government appears content to follow a well-trodden path, announcing loan waivers, soft loan options, and compensation in case of “proven” suicides. It does not appear to have a sense that what we have here is a crisis, one that has been in the making for decades. Yet, the government is not averse to systemic interventions — the World Bank has financed ambitious irrigation projects in the state. Also, from time to time, the government has declared its intent to convert waste land into cultivable land and uphold the ecological health of watershed areas.
Not only do these projects seldom dovetail into one another, they also remain opaque bureaucratic exercises — and do not bring about imagined and promised structural changes. To date, it is not clear what World Bank projects in the state have substantially achieved, given that water woes haunt all manner of farming operations. Neither do we have a shining record of reclaiming waste lands on such a scale that this offers an alternative to existing modes of extractive farming. Project completion reports routinely insist that objectives have been met, but perhaps only an independent social audit will allow us to draw a fair balance sheet. Meanwhile, farming continues as it has for the past four decades: High input costs, low procurement prices and a market that is not friendly to the small and marginal farmer.
Farming is not a matter of public concern in the state, and the farmer, unless he is the victim of river sharing crises, occasioned by Kerala or Karnataka, is seldom present to the public imagination. “Alternative” voices that resound on this subject ignore the systemic and human aspects of the agrarian question and instead extol the virtues of organic farming and the need for us to shift to more sustainable ways of being, eating and cultivating. Desirable as this seems, it is a “technical” response to a problem that is the outcome of agrarian inequality, caste-class tensions and top-down policy making, determined by World Bank imperatives. Hardly debated except in fringe political circles, the agrarian problem remains one that only farmers, their unions and unions of agricultural labourers are concerned about.
The agrarian question has had very little political traction in the state because it has been trumped by heady promises of governance — especially from the late 1970s, when M.G. Ramachandran converted government into his personal fief, governance waiting on personal whim. Planning and policy thereafter were conceivable only within the limits of an elaborate populism. Thus, the culture of handing out largesse has substituted every other form of state action with respect to poverty, employment and income generation; corruption and collusion with undesirable elements in trade, manufacturing and the service sectors drive growth and development.
Received wisdom is pretty clear as to how all this unfolds. As a farmers’ union spokesperson put it, solutions offered by the government help extend the heavy arm of the state and its official machinery into the hinterland, and provide opportune moments to the political and bureaucratic class to make money. Even radical protest has to content itself with salvaging what is possible out of government projects — the government, it appears, is beyond repair.
The season of death and discontent will no doubt pass on — and, in all likelihood, be forgotten. For Tamil public culture, when not in thrall to the power of the spectacle, has recourse to either tendentious protest rhetoric or clever humour. Neither makes for a sustained politics of creative protest — but they enable political revelry, of one kind or another.
Meanwhile, shame passes us by.
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