Celluloid suicides

The statistics are chilling. Over a span of 12 years – from 1997 to 2008 – almost two lakh farmers in India committed suicide. Equally well documented are the links between these deaths and the implementation of neoliberal policies in agriculture (see article by K Nagaraj in this issue). The steady move towards corporatisation of agriculture, which began with the Green Revolution of the 1960s, gained further impetus after 1991, as the nostrum of free trade took hold of agricultural policy, leaving farmers with hugely increased input costs even as the prices available for farm produce dropped sharply. Caught in a debt trap and in danger of losing their land – their only form of security – many small-scale farmers were in such despair that they committed suicide, the only way they could think of to escape the situation.

The indifference of the mainstream media was almost as scandalous as the callous policy measures that had led to the suicides. For many years the deaths went unreported and unremarked upon, despite the simultaneous media explosion that was taking place in India. As P Sainath, the first journalist to extensively cover the issue, has pointed out, even today none of the major national dailies has a senior journalist who exclusively covers rural India, and the amount of space devoted to rural affairs remains negligible. No wonder the suicides went initially unreported. However, to blame the media alone would be unfair; contributing to this neglect was the indifference of the urban elites and India's middle classes generally to rural India and the problems of the rural poor.

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Himal Southasian