New Internationalist

Blenheim & Bangalore

Issue 382

Indian farmers driven to suicide; British aristocrats subsidized by the EU: Rahul Rao traces the connections between the two.

Every time I visit Blenheim Palace, an aristocratic estate in Oxfordshire, I am reminded of the connections between its most famous inhabitant and my hometown – Bangalore, in south India. In October 1896, Lieutenant Winston Churchill of the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars was posted to Bangalore. He left no permanent traces of his stint in the city, barring an unpaid bill at the Bangalore Club for the sum of 13 rupees. Churchill’s debt is duly recorded in one of the Club’s yellowing accounting ledgers, which is carefully displayed in a glass case in the central lounge.

Recent news items in the British press suggest that Blenheim might owe Bangalore (and the world at large) debts of a less nostalgic sort. The British Government recently released data on recipients of subsidies under the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).1 The figures reveal that CAP subsidies go primarily, not to struggling, small or family-owned farms, but to large agribusinesses and wealthy landowners. The sugar refiner Tate & Lyle is the single largest beneficiary, netting a total of £127,324,713 ($223 million). About halfway down the list of top recipients (which includes the Queen and Prince Charles), stands the Duke of Marlborough, who receives a generous £511,435 ($895,000) annually for his Blenheim Estate.

Meanwhile, agriculture in the Indian state of Karnataka, of which Bangalore is the capital, is in crisis – particularly for small and marginal farmers. The recent spate of farmer suicides that has blighted the rural landscape is tragic testimony to the severity of the crisis. According to one estimate, 3,000 farmers took their lives in Karnataka between 2000 and August 2003.2 A recent Christian Aid report3 suggests that the situation in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh is even more acute: 2,115 farmers killed themselves in 2004, bringing the toll since 1998 to 4,378. These are regional snapshots of a countrywide phenomenon that has seen 22,000 farmers commit suicide over the past decade.

Farmers are driven to suicide by numerous factors, but the single most common trigger is severe indebtedness to moneylenders charging extortionist rates of interest. Marginal farmers lack access to institutionalized forms of credit – partly because landlessness and lack of assets make them ineligible for such credit, but also because banking sector ‘liberalization’ has meant a decline in preferential lending to agriculture. Farmers are driven into the informal credit sector where moneylenders sometimes charge interest at rates as high as 50 per cent.

Yet the moment one considers the factors that render farmer debt virtually unpayable, the culpability of globalization and structural adjustment in this human tragedy become evident. Farmers are increasingly unable to recover their investments thanks to soaring costs of inputs and the collapse of agricultural commodity prices. The former can partly be attributed to deregulation policies contained in the structural adjustment packages that are typically foisted on developing countries by the Bretton Woods institutions. For example, the first tranche of the World Bank-provided Karnataka Economic Restructuring Loan in 2001 came with the condition that the Government withdraw from the power sector as operator and regulator of utilities. This meant a partial withdrawal of the power subsidy that had hitherto been granted to farmers, discontinuation of free power for agricultural water pumps and significant increases in power rates over the next five years. Journalist Parvathi Menon writes that several of the cases of suicide reported in the media at the time were of farmers who, already reeling from crop failure due to drought and the pressure of debts previously incurred, decided to end their lives when confronted with a fresh payment burden from the Hubli Electricity Supply Company.4 At the same time, farmers are being squeezed by the collapse of agricultural commodity prices, a development that is also attributable in part to subsidies. Investigating suicides in Karnataka’s fertile Mandya district, Menon reports that the decline in the market price of sugar – thanks partly to the influx of cheap subsidized imports – was a critical contributory factor.5

Who is to blame? And how much?

The juxtaposition of these familiar scenarios – large subsidies for wealthy farmers in developed countries and destitution of subsistence farmers in developing countries – is disturbing in and of itself. It also invites some comment on the possibility of a connection between the two, although a claim that Blenheim was causally implicated in the agricultural destitution surrounding Bangalore would be ambitious for several reasons. For one thing, the unfairness of global agricultural trade rules is only one of a number of factors driving Indian farmers to their deaths. Further, the European CAP is by no means the sole instance of such unfairness, though it is guiltier of trade distortion than its counterparts in most other developed countries (subsidies account for under 5 per cent of farm income in New Zealand/Aotearoa and Australia, 20 per cent in North America, but 34 per cent in the EU – second only to a monstrous 60 per cent in Japan6). Finally, the Duke of Marlborough is only one of a number of beneficiaries of the European CAP, and his contribution to the destitution of Indian farmers is not the most proximate or weighty. These caveats mitigate, quantitatively and qualitatively, the Duke’s possible implication in the suicides of Karnataka farmers, so that he may – at worst – be seen as trivially responsible for the eventual outcome.

This by no means lets him off the hook. In his book Complicity: Ethics and Law for a Collective Age, Christopher Kutz suggests that ‘marginally effective participants in a collective harm are accountable for the victim’s suffering, not because of the individual differences they make, but because their intentional participation in a collective endeavour directly links them to the consequences of that endeavour. The notion of participation rather than causation is at the heart of both complicity and collective action.’7 Given the well-established relationship between subsidies in the developed world and falling agricultural commodity prices in the developing world, it seems uncontroversial to suggest that the CAP subsidy regime is a collective harm. The Duke’s intentional participation in this collective harm makes him complicit in the deaths of farmers in Karnataka.

But why single out the Duke of Marlborough (who, I have no doubt, is an honourable man)? Because of that eternal conundrum that social scientists call the structure-agency problem. We are all implicated in structures (modernity, capitalism, an anarchic states-system) that no identifiable agents are causally responsible for. This depressing realization often induces us to sleepwalk through life, pretending that structures – on their own – determine the behaviour of agents. This obscures the fact that structures are produced by agents, that some agents are more powerful than others, and that more powerful agents bear more responsibility for the structures they help to produce. Behind all structures are a number of agents – agents that have names, faces, addresses and bank balances. If structures are ever to change, it is necessary to identify the agents that produce and reinforce them (bearing in mind the structural constraints within which their agency operates).

What is to be done?

It should be evident that the CAP subsidy regime needs to be radically reformed to take into account the interests of farmers in the developing world. One way to generate the necessary political will would be to shame undeserving recipients of CAP subsidies. But what of deserving recipients? If CAP subsidies were intended primarily to support declining farming incomes, particularly on small family-run farms, this does not seem to be happening.

The moment one considers the factors that render farmer debt virtually unpayable, the culpability of globalization and structural adjustment in this human tragedy become evident

The largest 2.5 per cent of cereal-growing holdings account for 20 per cent of total CAP cereal payments while the smallest 30 per cent receive less than 6 per cent of the total.8 As for CAP sugar payments, the bulk of the support goes to large processors such as British Sugar and Tate & Lyle. Some of this is passed on to beet growers, who tend to be concentrated in prosperous agricultural regions such as East Anglia and Lincolnshire, on holdings that are almost four times the average EU size, generating incomes that are double the average farm income.9

The story of CAP milk payments is not very different. Large dairy companies such as Philpot Dairy Products, Nestlé and Milk Supplies figure prominently on the list of major subsidy recipients, even as net dairy farm incomes decline and small farmers leave the dairy sector in droves.10

It is clear that the CAP does not primarily benefit marginal farmers in Britain – the people who work gruelling 58-hour weeks for annual incomes of £7,482 ($13,700) in places like Derbyshire.11 If there is any justification for subsidies in the developed world it is surely the protection of these farmers (in addition to the promotion of environmental and other public interest objectives). The key ethical question that must be asked is whether the interests of marginal farmers in the developed world can be protected without harming the livelihoods of subsistence farmers in developing countries. Are the interests of these two groups necessarily zero-sum?

On closer consideration, they appear to be allied. To be sure, the plight of marginal farmers in a wealthy, welfare state like Britain is not comparable to the desperation of subsistence farmers in a poor, bourgeois-democracy such as India. However, both groups of farmers are similar in that they have been failed by their respective social contracts – small farmers in Britain, as a result of improper targeting of CAP subsidies; subsistence farmers in India, because of the increasing bias in agricultural policy towards corporate agribusiness and the food processing industry.

Under these circumstances, it seems advisable for both groups of farmers to advance their interests jointly. This would deny hypocritical European governments the opportunity to continue using their marginal farmers as moral cover for the continuation of CAP payments in their current form. At the same time, focusing on the plight of subsistence farmers in the developing world would ensure that the benefits of agricultural trade liberalization did not accrue solely to large farming interests in those countries. It is important not only to back demands for agricultural liberalization made by developing country governments in coalitions like the G20, but also to ensure that the fruits of liberalization reach the poorest farmers in those countries. Those poor farmers are, after all, often used as a moral figleaf by their own governments in international negotiations, only to be disregarded in the domestic division of the spoils. In this context, the convergence of marginal farmers from North and South in international networks such as Via Campesina is an encouraging development.

Rather more disappointing is the attitude of developed country governments, who seemed most reluctant – at the recently concluded G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland – to commit themselves to ending agricultural subsidies. Yet of the three issues that comprised the Africa agenda of the summit – aid, debt and trade – African countries prioritize trade, arguing that it is a more sustainable and less patronizing way of ‘making poverty history’. Trade justice also turns the debt question on its head: it is Blenheim, after all, which seems deeply in the red.

Rahul Rao, who lives in Bangalore, is currently a postgraduate student in Oxford – near Blenheim.

  1. The Foreign Policy Centre (London), ‘Revealed: Who Gets What from the EU’s Farm Subsidies’, Press Release, 22 March 2005. For the list of top corporate recipients see: www.freedominfo.org/case/cap/
  2. Shalmali Guttal, Farmers’ Suicides in Karnataka State, Focus on the Global South, www.focusweb.org/main/html/Article507
  3. Christian Aid, The Damage Done: Aid, death and dogma, www.christianaid.org.uk/indepth/505caweek/CAW%20report.pdf
  4. Parvathi Menon, ‘The Rural Anger in Karnataka’, Frontline vol. 21, issue 12, 5-18 June 2004.
  5. Parvathi Menon, ‘From Debt to Death’, Frontline vol. 20, issue 20, 27 September – 10 October 2003.
  6. ‘Farm Support’s Deep Roots’, The Economist, 22 June 2005.
  7. Christopher Kutz, Complicity: Ethics and Law for a Collective Age, Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  8. Oxfam, ‘Spotlight on Subsidies: Cereal Injustice under the CAP in Britain’, Briefing Paper No. 55.
  9. Oxfam, Dumping on the World: How EU sugar policies hurt poor countries, Briefing Paper No. 61.
  10. Oxfam, Milking the CAP: How Europe’s dairy regime is devastating livelihoods in the developing world, Briefing Paper no. 34.
  11. Peak District Rural Deprivation Forum, Hard Times, www.pdrdf.org.uk/hillfarmingreport.htm

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