Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sainath Blasts Rent-A-Report Absolving Govt For Farmers' Suicides

By Roger Alexander

My friend P Sainath, winner of the Magasaysay and many other awards for top-flight journalism has been accused by the Prime Minister’s economic advisor and vice chancellor of Pune University Professor Narendra Jadhav for misreading facts about farmers' suicides in Vidarbha, and termed his writing on the issue as “irresponsible”, reports Mumbai Mirror.

Sainath has been relentless reporting the agrarian crisis across India that has resulted in thousands of indebted farmers killing themselves to escape humiliation for more than a decade.

Jadhav who had been appointed by the state government as the head of a one-member committee to find out if the Prime Minister's mega relief package of Vidarbha farmers was being implemented properly or if any other help was required, has practically absolved the state government and said, “Sainath has unwittingly or otherwise used wrong parameters to defame the state and has migrated from truth. This cannot be condoned. It's irresponsible.” 

Incidentally, the PMO consulted P Sainath before the PM went to Vidarbha in 2006 with his relief package and Rahul Gandhi consulted him recently before he embarked on his Discovery of India tour.

Ironically, the Times of India, in its lead front page report on the same day as the Mirror’s front-page page story appeared, under the 5-column headline ‘Netas swallow farmer’s aid’, said a six-time former Congress MP Uttamrao Patil and his family members, sitting MLA Sanjay Deshmukh’s wife and mother, former minister Shivajirao Moghe’s near relatives, former MLA Wamanrao Kasawur’s four relatives and Congress leader Suresh Lonkar’s relatives are among the well-off people who have helped themselves to state subsidies for the poor and bereaved farmers to buy dairy cattle under the PM’s and CM’s “relief packages” in Yavatmal district, the epicentre of the farmers’ suicides. All of them belong to the Congress, NCP and other parties of the ruling alliance.

The revelations by social activist and journalist Vilas Wankhede who obtained the information under RTI point to large scale corruption and irregularities in the implementation of the schemes. Undeserving beneficiaries with political connections had abused the scheme under which 50 per cent of the cost of the purchase of a cow or a buffalo was subsidised by the government.

The scheme was meant to help the surviving members of a farmer’s family who had committed suicide because of the widespread agrarian crisis and crushing debt and BPL families living along the state dairy’s milk procurement route. Its purpose was to enable the distressed families to supplement their income as farming had become uneconomical in the unirrigated, drought-prone area. Interestingly, Sainath’s bestselling book is titled Everyone Loves A Good Drought.

Nonetheless, Jadhav has taken umbrage to Sainath’s use of phrases like "special elimination zones" for SEZs and "graveyards" in his reports in The Hindu (of which he is the rural affairs editor) to describe the plight of farmers in the state. Jadhav in his report says the writer had "defamed" the state by doing so. Citing figures of suicides in other states, Jadhav said that the noted journalist had been unjust to the state and his statement was misleading. 

However, activists working for the welfare of farmers in the area feel that the Jadhav Report is too harsh on Sainath and that the reported was prepared to please the powers-that-be in the state. 

Chandrakant Wankhede, a dissident Shetkari Sanghatna activist from Vidarbha, said in a press conference in Mumbai, "Going by the contents and its findings, it seems the Narendra Jadhav committee report has been written to please someone in the government. This report has gone far ahead of its terms of reference of evaluating the package announced by the state government and the Prime Minister. Basically, instead of writing almost 60 lines about P Sainath, the report should have some mention of the CM and his Cabinet colleagues like Manohar Naik and also Dr Abhay Bang who ridiculed the farmer suicides."

"Since I belong to Vidarbha and have been working for farmers there, I can say that people from each and every district of the suicide belt know P Sainath. He has toured every nook and corner of the region. These people hardly know who Prof Jadhav is," he added.

Jadhav was appointed by the state government as the head of a one-member committee to find out if the Prime Minister's mega relief package of Vidarbha farmers was being implemented properly or if any other help was required. Returning the favour, Jadhav has practically absolved the state government.

Sainath has hit back in his own inimitable style. “He is running a rent-a-report service. His report is nothing but a whitewash job for the state government. He says Maharashtra is not the worst state, but only the fourth or fifth worst state in the country as far as farmers’ suicides are concerned. He is like a child who tells his father that he is not the last in the class, but fourth or fifth last,” said Sainath sarcastically in a statement. 

Maharashtra is the only state where farmers are addressing their suicide notes to the CM and the PM. In Andhra, they wrote about policies, banks, moneylenders and others, but not the government. Here, they are telling the government we are killing ourselves because of you,” he said.

“In Maharashtra, we are putting our farmers in the pressure cooker and cooking them. And our CM says and I quote, ‘farmers should be grateful I am not prosecuting them as suicide is a crime’,” he added.

The veteran journalist added that contrary to Jadhav’s claims, the Maharashtra government had failed on every parameter, especially under Vilasrao Deshmukh’s leadership. Jadhav had claimed in his report that Sainath had used wrong parameters to indict the state government. 

“The National Crime Records Bureau statistics show that one-fifth of 1.66 lakh farmers’ suicides between 1997 and 2005 were in Maharashtra. Is this figure something to be proud of?” Sainath asked, adding that the farmers’ plight in Vidarbha was the worst in 2006, a year after the prime minister and the chief minister announced separate relief packages. 

“The year witnessed the highest ever number of farmers committing suicides since we started keeping records. Of the 17,060 farmers who committed suicides in the country, 4,453 were from the state, which is almost one-fourth. These figures are never rivalled by any other state. The closest figure was in 2004 - around 4,100 — and guess which state it was? Maharashtra, sadly,” he pointed out.

Countering Jadhav’s claims that Sainath chose wrong states (with less population to compare with Maharashtra), the journalist said even the population parameter didn’t save any grace for the state. 

“The increase in the number of suicides (527) in 2006 was four-and-half-times that of Andhra Pradesh that recorded 117 more suicides than in 2005. Is Andhra four-and-half-times more populous than Maharashtra?” he asked.

“It’s amazing that after committee after committee found the situation in Vidarbha grave, Jadhav absolved the government. “The reports by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Indira Gandhi Institute for of Developmental Studies, the Planning Commission, NABARD team, state investigators have been more adverse than the previous.

“How can criticising a state government mean criticism of the state…And whatever the parameters or ratings, 34,000 farmers committing this something to be proud of?” he asked.



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