Farmer suicides, ‘serious’ journalists, and Plato


The death of Gajendra Singh, a farmer from Rajasthan, has once again generated a lot of heat and dust over farmer suicides. The discourse on the subject reminds me of a great story and a great philosopher—Blind Men and an Elephant, and Plato. Politicians, political commentators, experts, journalists, and other opinion makers—blinded by the dogmas of statism—touch and feel one part or the other of the issue but are unable to see the elephant in the room. Added to the blindness is a big dose of sentimentalism, and the result is a high-decibel, multi-star melodrama complete with action, emotion, tragedy, rona-dhona, dialogue-baaji, et al.

The discourse, which is more like folklore, is oriented around flawed premises and partial truths. The first premise is that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between poverty and suicides; there isn’t any. According to a report by the World Health Organization, in 2012 the rate of suicide in South Korea was 28.9 per 100,000 and in Lithuania 28.2, whereas in India it was 21.1. Both South Korea and Lithuania have per capita income many times more than that in our country. At the same time, many countries poorer than India have lower suicide rates.

Official figures in India shower a much lower suicide rate. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 135,445 people killed themselves in 2012, the rate being 11.2. According to the WHO, 258,075 people had committed suicide in that year. Both figures, however, substantiate our contention that poverty has little to do with suicides. Intra-national numbers also deny any correlation between poverty and suicides. While Bihar, UP, and Jharkhand have rates below the national average, Goa, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu have higher-than-national average suicide rates. One need not be an economist to know that Goa, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu better placed than Bihar, UP, and Jharkhand.

The second premise is that farmer suicides are disproportionate to their population. This is factually wrong. According to the NCRB data, “11.4% of victims were engaged in farming/agriculture activities.” Now, there may be variations in the exact percentage of farmers in Indian population, but more than one-third of the people are certainly involved in the farm sector. So, farmer suicides are undoubtedly not disproportionate to their numbers.

In the case of farmer suicides, numbers just don’t add up to prove the disproportionateness.

The third premise of the professional mourners is that all farmer suicides are the result of bad agricultural policies; other factors like imprudence, profligacy, alcoholism, and ignorance don’t matter. But according to the NCRB, almost every second Indian who committed suicide did so because of either of the two reasons—family problems (25.6 per cent) and illness (20.8 per cent). There are no disaggregated figures for the causes of farmer suicides, but it will not be unreasonable to assume that the same set of causes applies here too. This assumption is supported by the NCRB finding that poverty was the cause of just 1.7 per cent of suicides. In the case of farmer suicides, too, it has been observed that it is relatively more prosperous ones who kill themselves, also evident from the low suicide rates in general in Bihar and Jharkhand.

This is not to say that there is no farm crisis; a sector is surely in trouble if, despite the involvement of half the population in it, its share in the gross domestic product or GDP is less than 15 per cent. At the heart of the problem is the socialist policy framework that has arrested growth and development in rural India. The problem gets compounded because of the fact that the intellectual class, or the preponderant section of it, is still in love with Leftwing theories and doctrines. Ensconced in the fortress of their ideology, they never get, to use Irving Kristol’s words, “mugged by reality.” For lesser mortals like us, seeing is believing; for the dwellers of ivory dwellers, believing is seeing. They don’t see the world and then theorize about it; for these grandees, it is the other way around; their emphasis is on canon-compliance, and farmer suicides are terrifically canon-compliant. But, as we just saw, there is no epidemic of farmer suicides; the reality does not correspond to the canon, so the question was how to make it canon-compliant?

A large number of “serious” journalists, pinkish activists, professional revolutionaries, and sundry intellectuals started focusing one aspect of the reality—farmers, after all, do commit suicide. Over the years, the focus became so sharp that everything else related to the real problems—India has the largest number of people killing themselves, there is an agrarian crisis—gets blurred beyond recognition, and everybody starts talking about what “serious” journalists and activists want them to talk about.

The most depressing part of the entire exercise is that the “serious” journalists and activists are themselves blind; they can’t see the elephant; they can perceive only a part of it and start screaming that they know what the elephant looks like. Interestingly, their blindness suits politicians who dip into the public exchequer to come out with endless packages to improve the lot of the farmer; the condition of the latter is rarely, if ever, improved but politicians and their flunkeys surely improve their own lot.

An informal alliance between the intellectual and the politician emerges: the intellectual provides justification for state intervention, which the politician laps up. All this is done by indulging in sentimentalist orgies—nourishing the poetic element, and undermining reason, in the public discourse.

In The Republic, Plato said there was an old quarrel between philosophy and poetry. According to him, if poetry was allowed in his ideal state, “not law and the reason of mankind, which by common consent have ever been deemed best, but pleasure and pain will be the rulers in our state.” And so he banished poets from his ideal state.

It is time that the foundational principles of polity in India got oriented around reason, commonsense, and truth; it is also time to purge the poetic excesses from political debate. Only this can redeem the farm sector in particular and economy in general.