No one cares. So if you do not read this little news report all the way till the end, do not feel guilty. You are not alone. In fact, vast sections of Indian mainstream media actually ensure you do not read such a thing.
This is how it is done.
In 2007, Punjab police came up with a report which claimed that only seven farmers committed suicide in previous five years. The state revenue department put the number at 132. This was exactly the period for which the legendary chronicler of farmers' suicide in Punjab, Inderjit Singh Jaijee, had compiled an exhaustive list of 1,508 farmers from just one subdivision of Sangrur district.
Welcome to the world of suicide statistics, data fudging and plain, simple but deliberate blindness.
It is in this paradigm that the voice of the landless agricultural labourers is further lost, even when you are keen to listen to voices of distress. At a time when debate about the need to extend relief to farmers in the form of debt waiver was at a high pitch, and the state government was mulling steps to extend relief to families hit by suicides, its official statement on the floor of the Assembly completely left out landless labourers.
Even by the low standards of political machinations, it was a crude demonstration of institutionalised apathy. The officially stated reason? Punjab Government did not have any data of debt of landless labourers.
It showed that a large majority of farm labourers in Punjab – a shocking 80.07 percent – are living below the poverty line, and attributed it to "lack of employment opportunities and immobility of labour." An average farm labourer’s household reels under a debt of Rs 54,709, the study pointed out.
On three consecutive days recently, Punjabi Tribune ran a series citing yet another survey, this time exclusively covering farm labourers. Carried out by Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union (PKMU), the survey covering 1,618 families of 13 villages of Bathinda, Muktsar, Faridkot, Moga, Sangrur and Jalandhar, calculated that each farm labourer household was under a debt of Rs 77,038. At this rate, the seven lakh labourer households in Punjab are under a debt of Rs 53,926,600,000, or roughly Rs 5,393 crore.
Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union (PKMU) did everything it could to attract media attention. It invited well known agriculture policy analyst Devinder Sharma as a key speaker. This was the first time ever that a farm labourers' union had conducted an academic research survey. And still it was not found reportable by most of the mainstream media!
The PKMU leadership did everything it could to attract media attention. It convened a major meeting to release the findings of the survey, roped in well known agriculture policy expert Devinder Sharma, rural development expert and senior journalist Hamir Singh and a number of other intellectuals and activists who spoke at the event.
Lachman Singh Sewewala, the general secretary of the PKMU, painstakingly explained the nuances of the questionnaire, selection of respondents, sample size, research methodology etc.
It was an eminently reportable event, with so many firsts. When was the last time you saw a farm labourers' union conducting an academic research survey? And yet, no media house other than Punjabi Tribune cared to dwell on it in any detail. The Indian Express did carry a Jalandhar datelined report while the rest of the media just did not care.
Not even while the data from the survey left even Devinder Sharma shell shocked. "I was aware of the fleecing by Micro Financing Institutions, but the scale of it revealed in the survey was too shocking even for me," he told Punjab Today. Not only have the MFIs been charging an interest rate between 24 and 60 per cent, they extract 13 instalments in a year instead of 12. And a month comprises 28 days — not 30 or 31. No wonder that the Rs 5,393 crore of debt accrues an annual interest of Rs 1,294 crore!
And still it was not found reportable by the media!
Somehow, it still does not shock me. After all, there was no brouhaha in the state when three state universities, tasked with finding out the actual number of farmer suicides in Punjab between April 2010 and March 2013, took four years for their task. And when their findings were not released because these were considered 'politically damaging,' not one professor made any noise. And you thought academics did not do politics?
All this while, the Punjab Government continues to dither on providing debt relief to landless labourers. Now, a new report prepared by the Punjabi University, Patiala, has said the number of landless agricultural labourers committing suicide due to debt is much higher than those by farmers. Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, and Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana, are preparing separate reports on the remaining districts.
Rate of interest charged to poorest of the poor? 24 to 60 per cent! Number of days in a month? 28. Number of months in a year? 13. What will shock you into reading? The fact that three varsities took four years to count the number of suicides committed by farmers in three years?
Bet no money that you will see a lot of headlines when these reports are issued. It is not that professional editors are asleep on the job. In fact, they are very alert, keeping out content that they think their readers do not need. It is just that the agriculture labourers' demographic does not buy too many refrigerators, detergents or non-toxic exterior paints, and editors know that FMCG consumers are the actual groups that advertisers care for. Matter of fact, labourers do not even buy too many newspapers.
Coverage of activities of the top three organisations — Pendu Madoor Union, Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union and Zameen Prapati Sangharsh Committee — is abysmal in the English media, unless police arrests their activists or they become a target of higher castes' reaction.
So, stories of what is happening to Punjab's agriculture labourers rarely make it to headlines. And if you did not care to read those, please do not feel too guilty. They won't mind. They are too busy trying to keep the issue alive - by committing suicide.
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