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Ploughing a National Furrow

Ploughing a National Furrow
Protesting farmers at Jantar Mantar pleading for loan waivers
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The apex court enlarges the scope of a PIL filed on farmer suicides in Gujarat to encompass problems faced by the agrarian community across the country. This is a welcome step

~By RK Misra in Gandhinagar

What began as a Gujarat farmer’s effort to save those of his ilk from economic ruin and consequent suicides is now beginning to bear fruit after decades of struggle. Bharatsinh Jhala, director of the NGO, Citizens Resource Action and Initiative (CRANTI), finally had a reason to smile after the Supreme Court expanded the scope of his petition—filed on the plight of the farmers of Gujarat leading to a spate of suicides—to cover the entire country. Recently, the Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice JS Khehar and Justices DY Chandrachud and SK Kaul directed the centre to report to it about the line of action to be taken by state governments to deal with the “serious issue” of farmers taking their lives.

The apex court ruled: “Learned Additional Solicitor General PS Narasimha submits that the central government is in the process of taking steps but implementation should be at the level of the state. The central government sought two weeks’ time. But given the importance of the issue, we give four weeks for the proposed line of action to be taken to deal with farmers’ suicide. The proposed line of action may be filed within four weeks.”

During the hearing, the bench said that the government should propose a policy which deals with the root cause of farmers’ distress. The Supreme Court’s words were a source of joy for Jhala although he pointed out to India Legal that he was a mere cog in a big wheel that had stirred the country’s highest court into taking action. “So many have helped out in this endeavour, like Mallika Sarabhai who founded CRANTI, the late Mukul Sinha of Jan Sangharsh who aided the legal fight in Gujarat and Colin Gonsalves, who is fighting our case in the Supreme Court. He even paid for my travel to Delhi. It is the dedication and selflessness of so many of them that has borne fruit. Every farmer of this country owes them a debt of gratitude,” he said.

During the hearing of the case, the Supreme Court noted that the government was going in the “wrong direction” while addressing the issues affecting farmers. Asking the centre to apprise it of a policy road-map, it pointed out that paying compensation to the family of the victims “post facto” was not the solution. Addressing issues to redress the genuine causative factors leading to it, the court felt, was the right answer.

Drought and the vagaries of nature affect the lives of farmers all over the country. Photo: UNI
Drought and the vagaries of nature affect the lives of farmers all over the country. Photo: UNI

CRANTI filed the petition in the Supreme Court after the Gujarat High Court turned down its plea in 2013 on the plight of the farmers and the spate of suicides among them. The High Court felt these were policy matters on which it could not issue directions. The NGO had filed its petition on information it obtained through an RTI query which revealed that 692 farmers had committed suicide in Gujarat between 2003 and 2012. CRANTI had sought a compensation of Rs 5 lakh each for the families of the deceased.

Jhala contended that the perusal of the police documents related to the suicides indicated that the farmers did not get crop insurance money and this led to financial distress. It was for this reason that his organisation had sought a direction to the state government to announce a financial package for farmers during drought.

(L-R) Prime Minister Narendra Modi; Delhi CM Arvind KejriwalThe affidavit, filed in the apex court by the union ministry of agriculture, admits that of a total of over one lakh suicides in the country in 2013, farmer suicides accounted for a sizeable number. Data maintained by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) revealed that the number of suicides by persons self-employed in farming/agriculture was 11,772 in 2013, while the total number of suicides was 1,34,799.

Interestingly, during the 2014 general elections, farmers’ suicide in Gujarat was the subject of a slanging match between the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi and AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal. The AAP leader claimed that 5,874 farmers had committed suicide in the last ten years, while Modi put the figure at only one farmer who had killed himself due to crop failure. The actual figure given to Jhala in response to his RTI plea to the government stands at 692 in Gujarat for the period between 2003 and 2012 when Modi was the chief minister.

On March 24, Gujarat agriculture minister Chiman Shapariya stated in the assembly, in response to a question by Congress legislator Tejshree Patel, that 91 farmers had committed suicide across 14 districts of Gujarat due to crop failure in the last five years. While varying figures are quoted, the core issue of distressed farmers remains to a large extent unaddressed. This is the reason why Jhala is thankful that the highest court in the country has taken note.

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