Ramrao:  The Story of India’s Farm Crisis

On a trip to India 8 years ago, I picked up “A Village Awaits Doomsday” at an airport bookshop.  It appeared to be an interesting read and I was glad to find it in a shop that otherwise was littered with business titles and pulp fiction.  On the flight, I read it cover to cover and was at once impressed and moved- the book tells the story of a community caught in the middle of economic and climate tectonics and of a people whose stories most of us never intersect with.  The sheer desperation and poverty of hundreds of millions of rural Indians can scarcely be exaggerated while the monopolistic media houses only tell us of billionaires and shiny people.  Indeed the people of the village in question were not then seeing “ache din” nor have they since.  Nor does the future hold much promise for people in what is the largest human interest story in the world- the economic and social destruction of the Indian countryside.

I immediately thought of contacting the book’s author, Jaideep Hardikar, a journalist based in Nagpur.  I struggled to find his contact information until I had the idea- one that should have been obvious earlier- to ask my friend P. Sainath if he knew of Hardikar.  Sainath needs no introduction – and words fail to properly explain his contribution to the people of India, those very people who are neither rich nor shiny but who make up the country- it is after all they, they who are indeed Mother India.  Naturally Sainath knew Jaideep and quickly made the introduction.  That has led to a decade’s long friendship.  Normally, one would take a “review” of a friend’s work with a grain of salt- can a person be objective about the work? Is the reviewer simply inflating the merits of the work?  These questions are good ones and only the reader can judge.

Just as Sainath opened my eyes to a world I did not understand, Hardikar did so as well.  In December, 2014, I was lucky enough to spend several days with him in Nagpur and vicinity.  He took me to Wardha, an experience that moved me to another dimension.  He took me to Yevatmal, where I visited two families with him.  What I heard from them is as abject as anything I’ve heard since.  We can read and process others’ inputs but to see and feel them oneself is to change everything from that point on.

Sainath’s painstaking and heart-defining work introduced me to the epidemic of farmer suicides in India.  Many talks with him and later with Hardikar, allowed me to understand not simply the perverse manifestation but also the chains and linkages of causality that led to the largest bout of suicides outside of war-time that I know of.

During those December days in 2014, I met an old woman and her daughter-in-law in their small hovel.  Scampering around was a one-year old boy, cooing and laughing.  The daughter-in-law was pregnant.  They were courteous beyond anything we deserved, though they were sad.  The old woman lapsed into tears several times.

We were there because of tragedy.  Just days before we got there, the old woman’s son- the young woman’s husband- had died, writhing in pain.  He died by his own hand; he drank a bottle of pesticide and died in his small cotton field.   He had been driven to desperation- bad crops and low market prices, the burden of debt, and a complete loss of hope.  The amount of money he owed- was equivalent to $500.   He saw no respite from his lot and sought refuge in nothingness.  He left behind a one-year old, a pregnant wife, and an ageing mother.  In this community, widows don’t get remarried.  The young woman- 23 at that time- had a hard life ahead.  The young man, a cotton farmer, was not unfamiliar with suicide.  He had many acquaintances who had killed themselves, but more poignantly, his own father had died in the same way- suicide by pesticide.  The old woman had lost her husband and her son in the span of a few years.  She was old and frail and knew that she’d have to go back to the fields in order to earn.

We offered the family a bit of money and the promise to stay in touch. We then left to another house where we spoke to a man in his mid-sixties.  His son, too, had killed himself the day before.  The old man spoke in even, tempered tones.  He had another son he had to worry about.   He also spoke of the loss of hope, of a cycle of desperation from which people want liberation, at any cost.

In all cultures, children predeceasing their parents is the latter’s worst nightmare.  In just two hours, we met two parents who endured this fate.  Multiply that by hundreds of thousands and you get to understand the wreckage in the Indian countryside.

Through Jaideep Hardikar, I was able to meet these families and to meet activists who work tirelessly, under the worst conditions, to sound the tocsin of emergency.   Often it goes unheard.

But we must hear.

ram raoThankfully, seven years after his first book, Hardikar has returned to the publishing world with “Ramrao: The Story of India’s Farm Crisis.”  I hope, after reading “Ramrao” that Hardikar doesn’t wait that long for his third book!  The book’s eponymous protagonist, Ramrao Panchleniwar, a cotton farmer in Vidarbha, drank two bottles of pesticide in 2014, hoping to end his life.  Through the heroic efforts of many, his life was saved.  Hardikar gets to know Ramrao over the years and visits him regularly; in the process, Hardikar learns Ramrao’s story of happiness and desperation, of tragedy and the loss of hope.  Ramrao’s life is pocked by pathos- from poverty to widowerhood, from the collapse of farming to the travails brought about by BT Cotton, from the shame of inability to provide well for his daughters to the social stigmas of being a defaulter on personal loans.

Ramrao’s story is indeed the story of so many millions of farmers in India, but is also unique.  After all, Ramrao- like each of us- is a person with his own desires, feelings, biases, loves, and moments of contemplation.  “Ramrao” is full of instances of its protagonist’s humor- often gallows humor- that lead him to find some happiness in the interstices of his difficult life.

To understand his humor is to understand the existential crisis in the Indian countryside: Humor and the will to snatch joys out of a tough life are the only way to cope with unremitting pain and suffering.  Mental health difficulties hit everyone while the poor have to deal with them compounded with very real issues of survival, hunger, and hopelessness.

In a haunting passage near the end of the book, Ramrao tells Hardikar that he feels of himself as a person of privilege.  I’m taken aback at his strength of character knowing that I’d be no match for even a tenth of what he’s faced. Indeed, the resilience of the Indian agricultural family puts the rest of us to shame.

In an interview with Hardikar, the author tells me that the book is not just about death. “No,” Hardikar says, “It is very much about life, about Ramrao’s life, and about the lives of so many millions in India’s countryside.”

Hardikar’s writing is controlled and clear.  He blends a clear emotionality with hard statistical analysis, storytelling with history.   The book is written for everyone.  Two special treats- excellent color pictures of Ramrao in the center of the book and a thought-provoking cover design by Harshad Marathe and Saurav Das.

If you want to know about India, about perhaps the largest human interest story on the planet, you must read “Ramrao”.  Buy the book, share it, and reread it when you need a reminder.

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Romi Mahajan

Romi Mahajan is an Author, Marketer, Investor, and Activist

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