This post is based on a December 14, 2018 article from The New York Review of Books, by Rohini Mohan. A link to the entire article can be found at the bottom of this page.
India’s farmers are ready for climate action. Climate change is destroying their lives right now.
“Agriculture in India relies heavily on rain and temperature in the growing season; farmers here are highly sensitive to climate. They have already felt the beginning of the apocalypse in the form of dried-up wells, declining yields, and mass migrations of people.”
Below are three snippets about three Indian farmers that are participating in the protest of tens of thousands of Indian farmers New Delhi, India.
“Potteeswaran, a rice farmer, said he was holding the skulls of Murugesan and Laxmi, a couple from Trichy in Tamil Nadu, who had killed themselves over a bank loan they couldn’t repay. “When the bank seized their land, they saw no other solution,” Potteeswaran said.”
“In April 2017, more than 150 farmers from Tamil Nadu sat for almost a month at Delhi’s protest hub of Jantar Mantar. They sat buck-naked, holding the bones of neighbors who had committed suicide, and bearing dead rats and grass in their teeth.”
“In 2016, Tamil Nadu saw its worst rainfall in 140 years,” said Aiyyakannu, who led the farmers’ protest. “We wanted to symbolically shame our leaders into action.” They were back this time with farmers from five delta districts devastated by the Gaja cyclone.”
Art by Molly Crabapple
Thousands of Indian farmers are trying to call attention to their fate. While President Macron of France said in response to the protests of the Yellow Vest rioters in France, that people are not yet ready for climate action, tens of thousands of farmers in India say they were ready to fight climate change now.
“New Delhi, India—Tens of thousands of farmers marched through the city in the last week of November. They came on trains and buses from all over India, and spent a cold night in a convention ground named for the dramatized Ramayana epic it annually hosts. The next day, their stomachs half-full on roti and tea that Delhi’s Sikh temples and student unions donated, they walked to Parliament Street. In a city choked with unbreathable air, they spoke in eight languages of failed crops, erratic rains, and their precarious lives.”
Since India is much hotter that the temperate climates of the US and Europe, climate change is hitting India very hard right now. As a result life is close to impossible for many impoverished farmers in India. For years farmers have been killing themselves when they find themselves deep in debt they have no hope of repaying, the food is gone and their land has been repossessed. This may the face of much of the world in just a few more years.
Average rainfall has decreased in India and extreme events have become more frequent. Floods and cyclones devastate crops, but the seasons are also getting drier and drier. The monsoon comes later, and departs sooner. Studies show that the extent, duration, and intensity of monsoon droughts in India have grown since the mid-1950s. This is connected to reduced rainfall, which in turn is due to the narrowing temperature difference between the Indian Ocean and the Indian landmass. More farmers than ever are killing themselves over damaged crops.
More than two thirds of Indian farmland is irrigated by groundwater, which is fast running out. Taking a water break outside the Mahatma Gandhi memorial on the way to Parliament, Mallikarjun S. Doddamani said that every farmer in his village had dug at least two borewells in the past decade. Most are dry. He was from a southern district seeing its third year of drought. “The land is now like a beggar’s shirt—full of holes,” he said. After investing in four borewells in his six acres, Doddamani is now left with a 400,000 rupee ($5,500) loan he can’t repay.
Food insecurity, indebtedness, water scarcity, and depressed incomes underscored nearly every farmer’s story. Ramsingh Bharadwaj had traveled for thirty-six hours on foot, by bus, and finally by train from coal-rich central India to demand land titles for his community of indigenous forest-dwellers who both forage and farm. “As coal mines expand, we have lost both the forest and our access to whatever is left,” he said. On his phone, he showed me a picture of his lentil harvest, coated in black coal dust.
Climate change affects the rural poor the most. Karu Manjhi, an elderly Dalit farm worker from Bihar, had prepared a question for Prime Minister Modi: “How do you like it that a farmer in your country cannot feed his own grandchildren even one meal a day?” Manjhi’s two grandsons and three granddaughters ate rice with watery lentils at the government school, because he couldn’t afford to grow nutritious food in his one-acre homestead farm, now divided between two sons (63 percent of farmland belongs to marginal farmers owning less than 2.5 acres). “We all grow only one variety of rice because that’s the one the government guarantees a price for. One flash flood, and it’s all rotten.”
Each region and community had a different horror they couldn’t shake. They had waged their local battles, but the most generous state responses were short-lived fixes. Loan waivers to the drought-affected, flood relief, and insurance schemes do offer some assistance, but they don’t rethink what is grown, what farmers earn, and how water is used.
So the farmers had brought their bodies—ravaged by work, unaccustomed to television cameras after years of neglect, and weary from walking miles—to the seat of power. In a rare moment, landowning upper castes allied with landless farm workers; even if their interests often clash, they knew their destinies are linked. The farmers demanded a three-week special session in Parliament to discuss the agricultural crisis. Apart from laws on farm credit and remunerative prices, they wanted a debate on the water crisis and sustainable practices, in particular.
“We are the weather vanes, watch us closely,” said Laxmiprasad Verma, a farm worker from Varanasi who marched with his youngest son, eleven-year-old Naineeta. As thousands chanted “Marenge nahin, ladenge!”—we will not die, we will fight!—the farmers redefined themselves as the protagonists, not the fatalities, of the climate change story.
Farmers’ protests had almost doubled in two years—from 2,683 incidents in 2015 to 4,837 in 2016—and they continue to erupt. Tear gas and water cannons are regularly used against demonstrators. Last year, police firing with live ammunition killed six farmers at one protest. In March, about 35,000 farmers, most from indigenous tribes, walked more than 130 miles over seven days to Mumbai, demanding land entitlements. In north and west India, farmers dumped tractor-loads of onions and milk in town squares, showing their disgust for the prices they were forced to sell them at.
Women from southern Telangana walked with portraits of their fathers, brothers, or husbands who had drunk pesticide—the nearest available poison for a farmer drowning in debt. Banks tend to refuse loans to small farmers and farm workers, so they borrow from their friendly neighborhood moneylender at 300 percent interest. After her husband killed himself, Krishnamma received some modest compensation from the government. “The very next day, three debtors arrived at my doorstep—I gave them everything.”
The image at the top of this page is of Ponds in the
Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge
in New Mexico