Lessons for India from soldier and farmer suicides in America
Earlier this month, President Joe Biden delivered his State of the Union Address, which is the annual message delivered by the President to a joint session of the United States Congress. It is always widely covered by the media. The President’s political comments and observations on international matters were also recorded by the Indian media, but none of our publications reported that President Biden had frankly spoken about the poor state of US veterans (ex-servicemen). There are several lessons for India that we should not miss.
The first point he mentioned was the rate of suicides among former servicemen. He said: “We cannot go on losing 17 veterans a day to the silent scourge of suicide”. According to the 2022 annual report of the Department of Veteran Affairs, suicides of ex-servicemen had increased from 5,989 in 2001 to a peak of 6,700 in 2017, then it came down to 6,261 in 2019 and 6,146 in 2020.
During 2014-18, more than 450 farmers had committed suicide across nine mid-western states
The second point President Biden touched upon is the “homelessness” of the veteran. He said that his government would help veterans pay their rent because “no one should be homeless in this country, especially not those who served it”. According to the report submitted by the Department of US Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to the US Congress, the number of “homeless” veterans was 33,136 in 2022. This has come down from the peak of 74,087 in 2010 and 37,252 in 2020.
Suicides and attempted suicides, which may or may not necessarily be related to homelessness or financial conditions, are also a problem, given the country’s high per capita income of US$ 70,248 (2021). In 2020, there were overall 45,799 suicide deaths in America. The “Commonwealth Fund”, a private US research organisation for health care said in their annual report for 2020 that the US has the “highest suicide rate of any wealthy nation”. According to them, this is twice the number in Britain. Part of the reason is the high rate of mental illness, increasing number of substance use, drug overdoses and the inability of many people to pay for mental health treatment.
The main reasons were plummeting commodity prices by about 50% since 2012, farm debts jumping about by a third from 2007 and reaching levels last seen in the 1980s. Also, bad weather, which prevented farmers from planting nearly 20 million acres in 2019 alone, and political reasons like the U.S. soybean exports to China dropping by 75 percent from 2017 to 2018 amid trade tensions
It was a revelation to me, when I studied this subject further, that even America has a big problem by way of farmer suicides. There are many reasons. On March 9, 2020, USA Today published that U.S. farmers were “saddled with near-record debt, declaring bankruptcy at rising rates and selling off their farms amid an uncertain future clouded by climate change and whipsawed by tariffs and bailouts.” During 2014-18, more than 450 farmers had committed suicide across nine mid-western states. The paper said that the toll could be more as all States had not provided data.
According to this paper’s survey, the main reasons were plummeting commodity prices by about 50% since 2012, farm debts jumping about by a third from 2007 and reaching levels last seen in the 1980s. Also, bad weather, which prevented farmers from planting nearly 20 million acres in 2019 alone, and political reasons like the U.S. soybean exports to China dropping by 75 percent from 2017 to 2018 amid trade tensions.
On November 27, 2019, Time Magazine wrote that the “picturesque American family of small farms” had been declining for generations and remained only on holiday greeting cards. They were affected by foreign policy tensions like trade wars, climate change, falling commodity prices, new technologies, globalisation and corporate farming. “Chapter 12 farm bankruptcies” had gone up by 12 percent in the Midwest from July of 2018 to June of 2019 and up to 50 percent in the Northwest. This is a special legal provision for farmers (a version of the “Chapter 11 bankruptcy” for non- farmers) to retain ownership provided they reorganise their finances within a stipulated period of time. As a result, thousands of small farms just stopped their farming as they felt that they would not be able to reorganise their business through this route. Thus, the US lost more than 100,000 farms between 2011 and 2018, with 12,000 between 2017 and 2018 alone.
It all began in 1970 when the then Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz pushed the idea of large farms and asked the small farmers either “to get big or get out”
On 9 March 2019, The Guardian(UK) went to the root of the problem, which was “ Factory Farming” or what we call “corporate farming”. One feels proud of our farmers that they had stood defiantly steadfast to prevent such a situation in India during 2020-21.
It all began in 1970 when the then Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz pushed the idea of large farms and asked the small farmers either “to get big or get out”. It said that President Richard Nixon “plucked him out of Purdue’s agriculture department and planted him in the USDA-Department of Agriculture”.
‘Grist’, a non-profit “Climate Solutions” organisation (Feb 8, 2008) said that Butz wanted a “hyper-efficient, centralised food system, one that could profitably and cheaply feed the world by manipulating mountains of Midwestern corn and soy”. Amazingly, Butz was then serving as a board member of several “AgriBiz” corporations like Ralston Purina. He rejected criticism that his corporate connection would compromise his government policy decisions.
Low paid migrants who were imported from outside came in - a text book story of how capitalism kills the soil and the worker, as Karl Marx once said
Listening to this, many farmers took big loans and expanded their production. However, President Jimmy Carter’s 1980 grain embargo against the Soviet Union struck a big blow, wiping off farmers’ income overnight. Simultaneously high interest rates drove up costs and debts increased for family farms. Land prices collapsed and banks started attaching farmers’ properties. “Every blow to independent farming made it more of an opportunity for large corporations to come in. The paper found that in 1990, small and medium-sized farms had produced nearly half of all agricultural production in the country. Now it is less than a quarter. When small farms collapsed, the local businesses helping their lives also crumbled. Local seed and equipment suppliers closed their shops as “corporates” purchased things from wholesalers or manufacturers.
“Demand for local vets collapsed. As those businesses packed up and left, communities shrank. Shops, restaurants and doctors’ surgeries closed. People found they had to drive for an hour or more for medical treatment. Towns and counties began to share ambulances”.
Many owners who had to take up jobs after bankruptcy moved out. Low paid migrants who were imported from outside came in - a text book story of how capitalism kills the soil and the worker, as Karl Marx once said.
The writer is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat. His latest book is ‘Intelligence Over Centuries’. Views are personal)