Blood as the new ‘cash crop’ for farmers

Farmers in India selling blood to survive economic hardships created by persistent drought conditions

Ehtesham Shahid
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If intermittent reports of farmer suicides have desensitized us to the issue completely here is a piece of news that should jolt our collective conscience. It was reported last week that some farmers in India are selling blood to survive economic hardships created by persistent drought conditions.

Over the years, a large number of agriculture workers in the country have been driven to despair because of repeated crop failure, lack of institutional support and non-availability of alternative means to earn a living. Some of these challenges remain even though India has made rapid economic progress in recent years.

Farmer suicides are also not a new phenomenon in the country. According to the National Crime Records Bureau data, as many as 12,360 were reported in the year 2014. In one of the most industrialized states in the country, Maharashtra, the total number of suicides was 1,000 last year and over 3,000 in the last three years. This number could be even higher considering a lot of cases are not reported to the authorities and several others not registered as suicides.

Figures compiled by governments have often been contested by NGOs and there are those who believe suicides are not always related to financial conditions. A member of parliament recently went to the extent of calling it “fashion trend” before regretting his “choice of words”. Whichever way one looks at it, reports of farmers selling blood have added another layer to the challenge of farmer suicides that have gone on for years in the country.

Misplaced attention

More than the magnitude of the problem, it is the apathy within the system that should cause concern. This goes beyond the government of the day and even the policies being pursued. In general, it boils down to implementation, or lack of it, at the grass-root level. Benefits of welfare programs often don’t reach the needy due to corruption.

The day the reports of farmers selling blood surfaced – mostly in international media – there was hardly any mention of the same in the local press. Majority of television channels were instead busy giving airtime to issues that most farmers would consider inconsequential to their plight.

This is disheartening also because we routinely read reports of high-flying industrialists and influential corporate houses misappropriating funds worth millions and getting away with credit default. Even a miniscule proportion of the money laundered out of the country can go a long way in ending the financial miseries of hundreds if not thousands of farmers.

More than the magnitude of the problem, it is the apathy within the system that should cause concern. This goes beyond the government of the day and even the policies being pursued

Ehtesham Shahid

A holistic approach is needed to properly utilize any country’s human and natural resources. During an interview conducted last week, Hassan Al-Damluji, Head of Middle East Relations at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, told me there is a case for raising productivity as “the single biggest source of employment for the poorest people is agriculture”.

“However, when we raise the productivity of poor farmers, it is worth noting that this not only increases their income, it also increases the supply of food to nearby urban centers, where poor urban people live,” he said. This is even more relevant in a country like India where the rural poor’s plight are not very different from those in urban centers.

Challenges related to harsh weather conditions, and related crop failures, are not unique to Indian farmers. Similar reports have emerged in recent times from South Africa, the Philippines and even France. However, the scale and persistence have somehow assumed notorious proportions in India.

Efforts are indeed being made to address the situation. The prime minister last month launched a new crop insurance scheme for farmers and a digital farm market platform is to be launched in April. But even as these mega projects take roots, the government should first ensure conditions in which farmers don’t have to sell their own blood. The media fraternity would do well to enhance coverage of the problems faced by people who feed us all.
Ehtesham Shahid is Managing Editor at Al Arabiya English. For close to two decades he has worked as editor, correspondent, and business writer for leading publications, news wires and research organizations in India and the Gulf region. He loves to occasionally dabble with teaching and is collecting material for a book on unique tales of rural conflict and transformation from around the world. His twitter handle is @e2sham.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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