Harvest of grief
- By Niranjan Takle
Sat Nov 12 11:27:38 GMT 2011
Subhash Kharode did the best he could do to convince the authorities of the nature of his death—he wrote his suicide note on a 050 stamp paper. “I am not getting the right price for my crop because of the inconsistent policy of the government. I am depressed and committing suicide. A similar note to the district collector has been kept in my pocket,” said the note by the farmer.
Kharode hanged himself on a tree in his farm at Akot in Akola district of Vidarbha in Maharashtra. But even the stamp paper failed to do the job, as the police, after the inquest, called it an “accidental death”.
“This is a new ploy of the state government and the police department,” said social activist Kishor Tiwari, “to claim cases of suicide have gone down.” Cruelly, in cases where they record the death as suicide, they leave some loopholes and make the family ineligible for the compensation of Rs:1 lakh,” he said.
Farmers die by the dozen in Vidarbha every week. Till September, there had been 654 suicides in the region this year. That is, every 13 hours a farmer commits suicide. “This is the official number. The deaths not recorded as suicides by the police would be another 250-300,” said Prakash Pohare, an activist-journalist in Akola. After Kharode’s suicide, Pohare led a rally to the police station protesting the fudged inquest, but to no avail.
Everybody knows why farmers commit suicide: debt trap due to crop loss or poor crop prices. So why can’t the government fix it? Faulty and skewed policies, in fact, are at the bottom of the farmers’ suicide story.
Sangita Panchalenwar’s husband, Nilesh, killed himself with pesticide on September 10 last year. He had a loan of Rs:40,000 from Central Bank and had suffered heavy losses because of excess rainfall. “It has been a year but I have not received any compensation. I don’t even know what they wrote in the inquest,” Sangita says. She has given her five acres to a farmer neighbour on contract and gets Rs:1,000 a month. She has to work as a contract labourer on other farms to feed her two children, and has no idea how to repay the loan without getting any compensation.
Sangita’s village, Hivara Barsa in Yavatmal district, has 150 houses, and most of them are in the debt trap. The village has seen three suicides in the past nine months and the people fear more will happen. “I have a loan of Rs:9 lakh on my 28-acre farm. This year the excess rainfall has destroyed my cotton and soybean. We can’t even afford to educate our children,” said Prakash Bolenwar, a farmer. “I think many suicides will happen in the months to come.” Yavatmal, which is considered to have the most fertile land in the region, has seen the most suicides in Vidarbha in the last decade.
“The government is not showing any will to address the real reasons. The promotion of chemical fertilisers and pesticides and modified seeds has really been the reason of this tragic state of agriculture in Vidarbha,” said Pohare. Farmers’ input costs have shot up and the returns seldom match them. “The input or production costs in cotton farming with chemical fertilisers, pesticides and Bt cotton have increased 10 times in the last 10 years but the returns are dropping every year,” said Gopal Shelke, a cotton farmer in Kanheri in Akola. In fact, all the farmers cultivating Bt cotton in his village are in the debt trap. Shelke’s friend Rajendra Sarap committed suicide two years ago.
Though the worst affected by the debt trap and suicides, Vidarbha is the least benefited from the government’s loan waiver. The properties of the joint families in the region are often in the name of all the family members (unlike elsewhere in the state where the family-owned land is divided in the names of individual members and every individual has the status of an independent farmer) making them ineligible for the loan waiver which requires a farmer to hold not more than five acres.
Take the case of Sunita Sarap, whose husband, Rajendra, committed suicide by taking pesticide. He had 12 acres and a loan of Rs:1 lakh. Sunita had to sell seven acres to pay back the loan after his death and to meet the expenses of her daughter’s marriage. Though she has a well for irrigation, her crops suffer from the long hours of load shedding. “We don’t get electricity for 14 hours a day. We get it late in the night when we can’t go to the field because of snakes and wild boars. It is as good as not allowing us to cultivate,” she said. She did not get any loan waiver because her husband had owned more than five acres.
Even for many of the farmers who got the loan waiver, the benefit was restricted to Rs:25,000 and the balance amounts were just rescheduled, said Tiwari. Since 2001, as per official data, six of eleven districts of Vidarbha—Amaravati, Akola, Yavatmal, Buldhana, Washim and Wardha—had more than 8,000 farmer suicides but only 2,497 of them have been “eligible for the compensation of Rs:1 lakh”.
“Every year the percentage of ineligible farmers is increasing because of the wrong and faulty panchanamas done by the police and this happens at the behest of the government,” said Tiwari.
Zaabaji Ramachandra Kale of Ganeshpur in Yavatmal committed suicide on September 6, 2011. “We didn’t get any benefit of the loan waiver,” said his wife, Taanebai. Zaabaji had submitted all the documents to the tehsildar for division of land in his and his sons’ names. “The officer asked for a bribe of Rs:10,000, which we couldn’t pay,” said the wife.
Zaabaji, who had a loan of Rs:1.5 lakh, cultivated 7.5 acres of the 15 acres his family owned. The delayed monsoon this year destroyed his cotton and soybean crops. “We had suffered similar loss last year also. Though the government announced a Rs:1,000 crore relief package, we didn’t get a penny. The agriculture officers didn’t even turn up to see the loss,” said Sachin, Zaabaji’s son.
In June 2005, chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh announced a package of Rs:1,075 crore. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Vidarbha and announced a package of Rs:3,750 crore in July 2006. Of this, Rs:712 crore was for writing off the overdue interests, Rs:1,296 crore for rescheduling of the credit and the rest for irrigation projects. “It was all treatment of symptoms and not the disease. The irrigation projects take years to commence and many more years to complete. The core problems like rising production costs, falling prices, reducing productivity, food security and efficient crop insurance remain to be addressed,” said Pohare. Obviously the measures are not working, as more than 5,000 farmers have committed suicide since 2006.
As it received many complaints, the state government asked the Vasantarao Naik Sheti Swavalamban Mission to study the implementation of these packages. B.V. Gopal Reddy of the mission visited the sites, held hearings and submitted his findings. He noted large-scale misappropriation. “There were many instances of an MLA’s wife or zilla parishad office bearer taking the cows and buffaloes posing as farmers in distress,” said Tiwari. The government suspended 50 officers and initiated a departmental inquiry against 405.
A forced departure from the traditional way of cultivation is one reason the farmers end up in the debt trap. The cost of production has gone up with the usage of hybrid seeds and chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Green chilli hybrid seeds cost Rs:30,000 a kilo, brinjal seeds Rs:8,000 and tomato seeds Rs:65,000. If the rains are not on time, the farmers have to repeat sowing, at times more than once.
Hybrid seeds are highly susceptible to diseases, and the plants require a profuse use of expensive fertilisers and pesticides. “Traders always indulge in black-marketing and almost everything is sold at double the price,” said Pohare. “The government gives a subsidy of Rs:1.4 lakh crore to fertiliser companies every year. If it really wants to stop farmer suicides and increase productivity, it should stop giving crores of rupees to fertiliser companies and use it to encourage farmers to opt for organic farming.”
Pesticides are widely used by farmers of Vidarbha to kill themselves. “The government should ban pesticides. This is like a poison at hand for farmers,” said Aparna Malikar, whose husband, Sanjay, took pesticide. He had taken a loan of Rs:2 lakh from Pusad Urban Coop Bank for his cotton and soybean cultivation. But excess rainfall destroyed his crop. After her husband’s death, Aparna started tilling her farm to feed her daughters, who are in class two and in kindergarten.
In October, Aparna participated in the Kaun Banega Crorepati television show on Sony and won Rs:6.40 lakh. Moved by her plight, actor Amitabh Bachchan, who hosts the show, gave her another Rs:1.5 lakh. But she was inconsolable. “I lost my husband for the fear of repaying Rs:2 lakh. Today even if I have this money, I can’t get my Sanjay back,” she said.
Activists have some suggestions to end what Tiwari calls “farmers genocide”. Through his Vidarbha Janaandolan Samiti, Tiwari has been working on the agrarian crisis in Vidarbha for long. “The most feasible solution to this problem is to immediately opt for organic farming. It is the most cost-effective way of increasing productivity in terms of number as well as nutrition quality,” he said. He suspects a conspiracy behind the government promoting hybrid seeds and chemical fertilisers which are harming farmers.
Pohare, who has been doing organic farming successfully on his 25-acre farm at Kanheri in Akola, uses cow dung and the waste generated in the field as vermi-compost fertilisers, and natural pesticides like neem seeds. “This keeps the input production cost negligible compared with the hybrid seeds and chemical fertilisers. One acre of organic soybean farming costs only a few hundred rupees for me, while thousands of rupees are needed otherwise,” he said.
Pohare is also doing organic cotton farming successfully. “Indian cotton has always been better than European cotton and these foreign companies promoted Bt cotton to kill our quality and the traditional knowledge of cultivation,” he said. Pohare has been trying to spread awareness about organic farming among farmers in Vidarbha. “This awareness has to reach every farmer and this can’t happen without the government’s support. It has to think of the true welfare of the farmer,” he said.
The agrarian crisis in Vidarbha has been studied by the Vasantarao Naik Sheti Swavalamban Mission, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research and Dr Narendra Jadhav, former vice-chancellor of Pune University. All these studies have pointed out that only 3 per cent of the total farmers get the benefits of irrigation and the rest still depend on the rain.
The reports say the minimum support price that the dry-land farmers of Vidarbha get is only 55-65 per cent of the production cost. They also criticise the fall in the government’s spending on agriculture—from 20 per cent in 1990 to 6 per cent in 2000—and highlight the need for local water conservation projects rather than big irrigation projects.
About 90 per cent of the farmers in Vidarbha do not have access to institutional loans and go to private moneylenders, who charge 48 per cent to 60 per cent interest. “The home minister talks about acting against private moneylenders, but the state couldn’t make the institutional finance efficient and proactive,” said Tiwari. The state government, he said, was once even fined by the Supreme Court for the chief minister’s office stopping the police from acting against a politically powerful moneylender.
If the government is serious about helping the farmers of Vidarbha, experts say, it should get rid of the administrative negligence and take appropriate measures to plug the gaps in the system. It should proactively and empathetically look at their problems. Until then the number of widows in Vidarbha will keep rising.