An Elaborate Exercise In Obfuscation

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It’s a bizarre claim. Something that is crystal clear to the whole of Odisha is ‘not clear’ to the Odisha government! Even more bizarre is the assertion in the report sent by the Bargarh district administration on the suicide by Kalapani farmer Brunda Sahu earlier this month that it ‘may not be due to indebtedness’ even as it maintains that the reason that the sharecropper took recourse to the extreme case is ‘not clear’. For good measure, it adds that even his family members came to know about the suicide from TV and had no idea why he did what he did. For something that happened almost ‘live’ on television, the report of the district administration on Brunda’s suicide certainly makes for preposterous reading.

Now, let us examine the basis for the conclusion in the report that Brunda’s suicide ‘may not be due to indebtedness’. The report makes a big deal of the fact that the deceased farmer had not taken ‘any loan’ from banks or cooperative societies. It does mention the family members’ claim that he had taken personal loan of Rs 3-4 lakh, but adds the rider that they could not say who he had taken the loans from. The inference: Brunda Sahu must have lied to his family members about the loan he had taken before committing suicide, leading inevitably to the conclusion that he did not commit suicide due to indebtedness. It’s all so simple, really!

The dead farmer’s highly articulate daughter Priti (one should be not surprised if opposition parties are already wooing her as a possible candidate in 2019!), however, demolished the government theory by pointing out that her father could not possibly have availed any institutional loan since he did not own any land. “My father had asked for compensation and committed suicide because he did not get any,” she asserted. It is, however, her other assertion that forces one to sit up and take notice. The Collector and the SP did not conduct any inquiry, she claimed on Thursday, wondering aloud about the basis of their report sent to the government.

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As if the glaring anomaly about indebtedness was not enough, the report, while accepting that Brunda suffered crop loss in six out of the 16 acres of land he had leased as a sharecropper, does not even consider the possibility that it could be the reason behind his suicide.

Given the sequence of events in this highly publicised case, most people thought this would end up as the first farmer suicide case in the state which the government would attribute to crop loss/loan burden. Instead, the report followed the pattern set in 2015 when there were allegations of nearly 200 farmer suicides in the state where the deaths were either attributed to ‘domestic quarrel’, ‘alcoholism’ or ‘chronic depression’ – in short, anything but crop loss/loan burden. Some of the reports sent by district administrations at the time made for interesting reading. Many of them recorded the loans the farmers had taken and the crops they had lost, but entered ‘not clear’ in the column earmarked for the reason behind the suicide or, worse still, left it conveniently blank!

It is an abiding mystery of our times why governments – and not just the one in Odisha or even the states – have been so steadfast in not admitting any farmer suicide case and have gone to ridiculous lengths to rubbish such allegations. The same goes for allegations of starvation deaths. I often wonder if it’s just a refusal to stray off the beaten track (“No government has admitted it before, so why should we?”) or a sinister design to sweep things that could embarrass it under the carpet? If it’s the first, what could a government possibly lose by admitting that a farmer has indeed committed suicide because of crop loss/loan burden? After all, the government is not responsible for unseasonal rains/lack of rains or pest attacks which, more often than not, are the factors responsible for crop loss, is it? So why should it shy away from admitting something that is all too obvious? If it is the second, does the government really believe that such things can be swept under the carpet? In the case of Brunda Sahu, for example, who will believe the state government claim that his death ‘may not be due to indebtedness’?

The state government – like governments everywhere else – is perhaps wary of being seen as a dispensation that has failed its famers and apprehensive about losing its ‘image’. But the counterpoint to this line of thinking is: is the government’s ‘image’ protected/enhanced by refusing to acknowledge something that is visible to everyone? If anything, apart from denting its image, such a course also shows the government as a heartless, cynical liar, doesn’t it? Will it not be far more politically prudent – and humane – to acknowledge the truth and then initiate measures that would created some confidence in the distressed farmer? Experience shows that more than anything else, it is the lack of confidence in the government’s willingness to come to their rescue that forces a farmer to take his own life. Will it not be more worthwhile for the government to instill that trust rather than embark on an elaborate exercise in obfuscation as it is doing now?

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