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Vappala Balachandran | 5 MAY, 2015

Farmer’s Suicides: Can Israel Help?

From the files: Police push back protesting farmers in Hyderabad


Our politicians sometimes try to correlate incomparable situations to solve our problems. In that process they arrive at distorted conclusions. On April 30, 2015 Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Phadnavis revealed that Tel Aviv’s help would be taken to curb farmers’ suicides. This was after his 4 day visit to Israel where he met President Shimon Peres who assured him all help. Phadnavis said that a “pilot” project would be started with their help in Yawatmal and Osmanabad districts to “combat agrarian crisis”.

It is certainly true that Israel has been a pioneer in agriculture and a role model for farm production. Since their independence in 1948, they have succeeded in increasing cultivable land from 1, 65,000 hectares to the present 4, 35,000. During this period agricultural production grew sixteen fold, three times their population. However they do not have any experience on our specific agrarian problems especially on farmers’ suicides.

This tendency of rushing to Israel for solving our problems was noticed earlier too. In 2009 Maharashtra government sent a delegation led by their Additional Chief Secretary (Home) to Israel to study how they tackled terrorism, instead of studying our 26/11 terrorism enquiry report wherein we had made 27 recommendations for systemic improvements in our counter-terrorist (CT) methodology. The profound knowledge they gained from their Israel trip could have been available in India itself since former Union Home Minister L.K.Advani had led a high level security delegation to Tel Aviv in 2000 to study their CT methodology. Advani was accompanied by Union Home Secretary, chiefs of BSF, IB and CBI. Tragically the 2000 high level visit did not result in any country-wide improvement in our methodology including intelligence integration, as was evident from the 26/11 attack.

Now Maharashtra wants Israel’s help to prevent farmer suicides. Here again the situations are incomparable. Agriculture in Israel is organized on a totally different pattern compared to India. In 2014 Indian agriculture employed 237 million which was 50% of our total work force. Israel had only 72,900 who depended on agriculture out of a total workforce of 2.7 million. Eighty percent of Israel's agricultural products come from the cooperative sector, both family farms in “Moshav” and their collective farms in “Kibbutz”. In India majority of land holdings are privately owned. The proportion of our marginal holdings (less than 1 hectare) has increased from 61% in 1995-96 to 65% in 2005-06. We have declining share of agriculture to GDP while the pressure of population depending on agriculture is increasing.

In Israel farms have better safety net. In Moshav system the cooperative society purchases all farm supplies for its members and markets their farm products. Kibbutz is a commune where they work together as a production cooperative. They also receive all their daily needs like food, housing, health care, education, and clothing from the Kibbutz. When technological opportunities outside agriculture widened, they started diversifying their income sources. Members of Moshav shifted to part time farming and found employment outside the farms. Kibbutz started establishing non-agricultural employment opportunities in manufacturing and services for their members. To quote Prof. Zvi Lerman of Hebrew University: “ As a result, today, only a third of Moshav members draw all their income from agriculture, and in Kibbutzim farming contributes only a third of the total income”.

Lerman says that the most important contribution made by Moshav and Kibbutz is “Financial intermediation” by arranging wholesale credits for their members and “inter linkages between cooperative credit and marketing of farm products through the cooperative created the institutional guarantees for repayment”. As against this Indian farmers are “born in debt, live in debt and die in debt” as the old saying goes. He is alone in tackling his problems. It is a shame that this problem has not been solved since our independence even after the B.Venkatappaiah Committee had gone into this question in the 1950s.

However the dark side of the Israeli success in agriculture has been highlighted recently. For doing the farm work they employ foreign labour, mostly Thais. Early this year BBC highlighted the pitiable conditions of about 22,000 Thai workers in Israel who were “low paid, worked excessive hours and denied the right to change their employers”. This has been reported by the Human Rights Watch too. BBC report of 30 Jan 2015 says: “One of the most serious allegations concerns a number of farm-worker deaths. Between 2008 and 2013, 122 Thai nationals died while employed on Israeli farms, according to government figures reported by Israel's Haaretz newspaper. The causes ranged from accidents, alcohol poisoning, heart failure and suffocation, to fire, suicide, beating and stabbing, Israel's Ministry of Health says”.

No serious study seems to have been made why our farm suicides are continuing despite various measures undertaken by our governments. We have established subsidized irrigation facilities, credit through Co-Op institutions, regional rural banks, National Bank for Agriculture & Rural Development (NABARD) and introduced ‘Kisan Credit cards’. We have also passed state laws for debt relief and for regulating money lenders. In addition, our governments have undertaken competitive waiver schemes of agriculture loans for electoral dividends. Still there is no answer to this problem.

The constant feature is political mud slinging. The Congress party which ruled India for 10 years could not find any solution and now blames BJP for farm suicides. In July 2014 YSR Congress alleged that the TDP led Andhra government was trying to push the massive loan waiver scheme into cold storage. On 21 January 2015 there was a report in a financial daily that land prices in Telengana and Andhra Pradesh were soaring after the announcement of a series of urban and rural development projects by the governments of the two states. “Ever since Telangana was carved out of Andhra Pradesh in June last year, the two states are locked in a battle of one-upmanship as they try to woo foreign as well as domestic investors”.

It would appear that our politicians have lost interest in farmers. They follow only a “band-aid” policy by promising “pilot projects” which will silence the critics temporarily when the issue of suicides erupts.

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