Areas of darkness

Published : Aug 19, 2015 12:30 IST

Ratnakala Walke, mother of Nilesh, who committed suicide at Gunji village in Maharashtra's Amravati district on April 30.

Ratnakala Walke, mother of Nilesh, who committed suicide at Gunji village in Maharashtra's Amravati district on April 30.


Agony unabated

By Lyla Bavadam

OFFICIAL figures from Maharashtra’s Revenue Department show that 1,300 farmers committed suicide in the first six months of this year, compared with 1,981 for the whole of 2014. That is, the number of suicides this year is already 66 per cent of the previous year’s total and has crossed the 2013 total of 1,296. While the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) has not released the figures for 2015 yet, there have been discrepancies between the Revenue Department’s numbers and the NCRB’s data for previous years. According to the NCRB, 2,568 farmers killed themselves in 2014 and 3,146 in 2013.

To add to the data muddle, the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, a farmers’ advocacy group run by Kishor Tiwari, claims that even the NCRB figures are incorrectly presented. Tiwari said agricultural workers were not being considered in the category of farmer suicides because they were landless and added that they should be included in this category because they were essentially farmers without land and thus eligible for compensation (which they currently are not).

According to Tiwari, if the suicides of these landless farmers are included in the 2014 death tally, the total number of farmer suicides will rise to 4,000. He also estimates that this year’s numbers so far are far greater than those of the Revenue Department. He claims that there have been over 2,000 suicides in the first six months, 800 of which occurred in the Vidarbha region and 600 in the Marathwada region.

The Revenue Department’s region-wise breakdown shows that 671 suicides, more than half of this year’s figure, occurred in the Vidarbha region, 438 in the Marathwada region, 158 in northern Maharashtra, 32 in the western part of the State and one in the Konkan region.

Fending off accusations by the opposition, State Revenue Minister Eknath Khadse said he preferred to focus on the “schemes being implemented to give relief to farmers and also to conserve water”. He also said his government “expected the number of suicides to come down”.

Khadse said he was not keen on loan waivers as they had been ineffective because “the suicides have continued”. Instead, he said, his government was trying to create alternative employment opportunities such as dairy and poultry farming and encouraging farmers to sell fish. The last is a project entailing a cost of about Rs.66 crore, which raises the question why the government cannot fund small irrigation schemes instead of sanctioning money to set up an entirely new infrastructure for an as yet unproven business activity.

The government seems to be avoiding the fact that one of the main reasons for the suicides is bankruptcy. It misses the point when it talks about alternatives because in a way it questions the farmers’ skills instead of addressing the core issue, which is lack of access to money.

If the government is serious about stopping suicides, it should look at the Marathwada region as a case study. Since 2002, the region has seen about 300 farmer suicides every year but now the numbers are climbing. In the first six months of this year alone, there were 438 deaths. The eight districts of Marathwada are in a rain shadow area. The year 2012 was a drought year in the region, while 2013 saw between satisfactory and heavy rains. There was scanty and unseasonal rainfall in 2014, and the beginning of 2015 saw hailstorms that completely destroyed the rabi crop. To date, the 8,000-odd villages of the region have suffered more than 50 per cent crop loss. The India Meteorological Department said that until the first week of August, there had been a deficit of 51 per cent in the region’s normal rainfall. To add to this, Marathwada has the lowest percentage of irrigated land area in the State, and the government’s irrigation schemes and so-called water management programmes have at best yielded nothing and at worst made the situation even more unsustainable.

Take the Jayakwadi dam, for example. A canal irrigation project meant to benefit the nearby town and surroundings of Paithan (famous for its woven saris) was started from the tail end of Jayakwadi rather than from the dam itself and has now been halted. If the canal work had been commenced from the dam, at least 35 villages would have received water, but now no one along the route has benefited.

The dam has been a controversial one, and the State government has been accused of spending too much on it and neglecting traditional water sources. This is exactly what happened in Jalna town too, where the municipality spent more than Rs.250 crore on a pipeline from the Jayakwadi dam to supply water. Two neighbouring lakes and a small local check dam that used to provide the town and the surrounding farm areas with water were neglected in favour of the pipeline, and the lakes are now mud-choked. The check dam was cleaned and has recharged a considerable number of borewells in the area, but only some of the 18 or so bottled water companies that have started in Jalna have benefited. Already scarce, water in the Marathwada region is made even scarcer by borewells that go as deep as 700 feet; the permissible level is around 150 feet. Going deeper not only empties aquifers but also poses tectonic threats.

Some 87 per cent of agriculture in the Marathwada region is rain-fed and rainfall can be as low as 779 millimetres. Traditionally, jowar, gram, sunflower, moong and urad were grown in the region—crops appropriate for a traditionally water-scarce area. But these are not as profitable as sugarcane even though it is a monstrous water guzzler. About 2,30,000 hectares are under sugarcane cultivation in the Marathwada region, which has 61 sugar factories.

At the end of the 2014 season, 154 lakh tonnes of sugarcane was available for crushing, which means over 23 billion litres of water was used in the crushing process. Just taking a relook at this highly unsustainable activity would be a step towards alleviating the drinking water and irrigation woes of the region as well as resurrecting agriculture and preventing farmers from taking their own lives.


Distress all over

By Kunal Shankar

AKKULA Ravi is only 30, but there is no trace of any youthful vigour in him. He is the second son of Akkula Vittal, who killed himself in late January this year, unable to pay a private loan of Rs.60,000 taken to raise cotton on his one-and-a-half-acre plot. Vittal hailed from Pulkal, a village in Medak, Telangana Chief Minister Kalvakuntla Chandrashekhar Rao’s home district, which has witnessed a high incidence of suicide in recent years.

Vittal’s three sons decided not to file a police report as they did not want to subject the body of their 55-year-old father to an autopsy. None of them knew of the Rs.1.5 lakh compensation they could get from the State government if they had followed procedure and established that their father had indeed committed suicide owing to his inability to repay his farming debts. Neither did village elders advise them to file a claim, fearing “a lot of paperwork and running around between government departments”.

Now, the moneylender who loaned Rs.60,000 at 3 per cent monthly interest about a year ago is demanding that Vittal’s wife settle his dues—something Ravi says they just cannot do as the cotton crop has failed. Ravi’s mother is now entitled to Rs.1,000 every month as a widow; again, the family has no knowledge of the government’s pension scheme.

This story of distress—under-reporting of farmer suicides, lack of knowledge of government compensation schemes or people eligible for compensation being apprehensive about claiming it, and above all, the transfer of debts to surviving family members—is all too familiar across the 10 districts of Telangana, the State with the second highest number of suicides in rural areas after Maharashtra, going by the latest NCRB statistics for 2014.

The NCRB has classified all farmer suicides under five categories: bankruptcy and indebtedness; farming-related issues; illness; family problems; and other causes. Out of Telangana’s 898 recorded farmer suicides, the NCRB makes a special mention of over one-fifth (23.2 per cent) of the deaths, attributed to “bankruptcy and indebtedness”. While even this number is alarming, activists say that the NCRB’s effort is to make the crisis in agriculture appear less bleak and to make it harder for farmers to file compensation claims.

Speaking to Frontline in late May, Chandrashekhar Rao rubbished data on suicides compiled by political and non-profit organisations as exaggerated, suggesting that many of the deaths were being reported only to obtain government compensation. In order to prevent such “false cases”, the Telangana government has set out a lengthy and cumbersome process listing 13 documents required to file a successful claim.

Apart from the police complaint, the first information report (FIR) and the autopsy report, the documents include private loan and bank loan documents, dependent certificates for family members left behind, three years’ revenue records, passbook for the lands in question, and a three-member mandal-level verification report followed by a similar divisional report that would establish indebtedness as the cause of the suicide.

The NCRB has arrived at a figure of 146 deaths in Telangana for the whole of 2014 that were strictly due to “bankruptcy and indebtedness due to crop loan failure”, reducing the compensation figure to about Rs.2.25 crore.

According to the NCRB, the other major reason for the suicides is “crop-related issues”, and it lists 295 such deaths—a third of the total. These are because of crop failures. Going by the government’s strict definition, none of the family members of the 295 will qualify for compensation. And even if they do qualify for the government’s farm loan waiver scheme, it will be only for debts owed to banks and not to individual moneylenders, who continue to have a vice-like grip on Telangana’s rural credit economy, much like in the rest of the country.

What is missing in the report is the interconnectedness of all these deaths—prolonged dry spells and droughts leading to crop failures, which in turn worsen indebtedness and put immense strain on the social standing of a farming family, which could then lead to discord, marriage failures and even dowry deaths. Critics point to the direct correlation between the government’s agriculture policies and farmer suicides. On July 25, irate farmers and agricultural workers’ unions united under the banner of the Telangana Farmers Joint Action Committee headed by a retired High Court judge.

They released a charter of demands in Hyderabad, which included higher procurement prices for the 23 base commodities identified by the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices—the Central body which recommends and implements the minimum price at which the country’s top agricultural commodities are to be purchased by Central and State governments so that they continue to be viable for farmers.

Farmers’ bodies such as the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) contend that the minimum support prices (MSPs) offered right now for the 23 items do not even meet the production cost, leave alone being remunerative.

“The Central government issued an order directing States not to compensate for paddy and wheat over and above the MSP and to stop procurement by the Food Corporation of India (FCI) from such States on the pretext that it was market distorting,” Vijoo Krishnan of the AIKS said, explaining the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government’s agricultural policies. Moreover, FCI procurement has been steadily decreasing over the decades to nearly nil this year.

Krishnan said the Narendra Modi government was implementing exactly what it opposed at negotiations on farm subsidies at the recent Geneva Convention of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). In a recent article, he wrote: “The gap between public posturing, propaganda and the reality on the domestic scene is quite stark. Public posturing and propaganda create the myth of a nation resisting the diktats of the advanced countries and protecting food security and farmers’ interests. In reality it is the opposite. The very same demands made by the U.S. [United States] and the E.U. [European Union] at the WTO on cutting down agricultural subsidies, scaling down the food security programme, dismantling public stockholding programmes and price support for farmers are being implemented.”

The lack of institutional credit and insurance cover for crop failure and the highly fractured small holdings of the overwhelming majority of Telangana cultivators have led to a steep rise in tenant farming. The 2011 agriculture census shows that about 86 per cent of the cultivators own less than five acres of land, while the rest own 45 per cent of all farmlands.

The Rythu Swarajya Vedika (RSV) is a loose group of young urban professionals working to help farmers access measly government benefits such as suicide compensation, widow pensions and farm loan waivers. The RSV’s Mohan Kadimpalli said: “There is a significant number of families in rural areas willing to farm, but they do not have adequate land or the assurance of protective irrigation. There are also families who own land but do not have the intention or need to cultivate, neither do they live in their native villages. This has led to both increases in tenancy and agricultural lands being kept fallow, further deepening the distress of farming families, and is a major cause for suicides.”

Most such cases of tenancy are not officially recorded. Since the rent itself is informal, banks hesitate to lend, so the farmers end up taking high-cost private loans, which means an increase in production costs. This, coupled with the lack of insurance cover for crop damage or failure, means long-term indebtedness and a crippling sense of helplessness among them.

Sagari Ramdass of the Food Sovereignty Alliance (FSA), a network of agriculturists and academics demanding a return to traditional farming methods, said suicides were but one of the manifestations of the acute crisis in India’s rural economy.

During its annual meeting in Adilabad, the FSA said: “We alert all citizens to the rapid supermarketisation and corporate takeover of our food systems. These markets that offer ‘cheap food’ cover up a reality of massive injustice [to farmers] and hidden subsidies to multinational corporations. It is food produced off land that was once owned by peasants who are now displaced by corporations and large industrial food chains, or procured from producers under hugely exploitative conditions, or imported into the country from multinationals of the Global North.”

Telangana’s wave of farmer suicides began about two decades ago when N. Chandrababu Naidu took over the reins of undivided Andhra Pradesh from his father-in-law, N.T. Rama Rao, or NTR. They were largely attributed to the prolonged and crippling drought and Chandrababu Naidu’s focus on sunrise industries such as information technology at the expense of agriculture. But critics point to how this has been part of the nationwide phenomenon following Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s market-oriented economics since 1991, which steadily dismantled any kind of state support for agriculture—be it input subsidy on power, water and seeds; MSPs; bulk purchase of excess food grains; and, more recently, the drastic cuts in the 100-day rural employment guarantee scheme by the Modi government.

As for Ravi and his brothers, Vishnu and Srisailam, they just added another Rs.40,000 to their debt. That is the amount they spent for their father’s treatment for a week at a private hospital in Sangareddy, Medak district’s headquarters.


State of desperation

By Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta in Patiala and Mansa

DARA Singh’s (name changed) suicide came as a shock to many this June. One of the most affluent farmers of Patiala, Dara Singh owned almost 50 acres of fertile agricultural land. To most outsiders, he lived a comfortable life and showed no signs of distress until the day his death changed this perception. Over the last few years, farmer suicides in Punjab, known for its vibrant agriculture, have become commonplace. However, most farmers who killed themselves were either small or marginal farmers or agricultural labourers. Dara Singh’s suicide was one of the few incidents in Punjab in which a big farmer killed himself.

Dara Singh’s family members are still in a state of shock. They feel stigmatised today as their financial distress, which they had tried to hide all these years, has become public because of his death. His wife, who refused to be named or photographed, told Frontline : “He suffered huge losses this season. Because of untimely rainfall, most of our wheat was destroyed. The government refused to buy our wheat because it failed the quality test. [According to Punjab government rules, wheat crop with more than 12 per cent moisture is unfit for purchase.] He had borrowed more than Rs.50 lakh from various people. He was stressed but I had never imagined he would kill himself.”

Dara Singh hanged himself not because of one failed crop. His loans had been accumulating over the last few years. The rise in input costs, more so in Punjab because of its heavily mechanised farming, could not match the returns. He had also mortgaged his house and tractors, common loan guarantees for moneylenders in Punjab. In 2012, he had used most of his savings in buying around 10 acres of land on the outskirts of Patiala at Rs.30 lakh an acre, hoping to sell it off to industries at a later stage. However, the real estate crash dashed his hopes. Earlier this year, he sold his land at Rs.10 lakh an acre out of desperation to repay his loans. The failed crop last season just drove him to suicide. “He felt he had failed his family,” Dara Singh’s wife said. The burden of repaying all the debts is on her and their two sons, who are still in college.

Jagmohan Singh, State secretary of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), said that indebtedness was a huge problem among farmers in Punjab. “None of the farmers has enough capital to start cropping on their own. They rely on loans and hope to repay after selling their crop,” he said.

The burden of debt among small and medium farmers is considerably more. Some 64 per cent of the total number of farmers in Punjab own less than 10 acres of land each, according to a report by the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) in Ludhiana. For them, the burden of repayment is greater as they do not get substantial returns from their land in a time of high input costs and decreasing subsidies for agriculture.

Farmers usually take loans from three different sources: banks, agricultural cooperative societies and private moneylenders. Since institutional loans are limited, a farmer has to depend on private moneylenders for most of his capital. The private moneylenders are mostly commission agents known, as arhtiya s, in the grain markets. The annual interest rate that a private moneylender charges is anywhere from 18 per cent to 24 per cent. In most cases, a defaulting farmer functions like a bonded labourer with the arhtiya s (see “From prosperity to penury”, Frontline , April 17, 2015).

The Green Revolution introduced monocropping and heavy mechanisation in agriculture. The farmers in Punjab reaped substantial profits in the 1970s and 1980s because of the subsidies they received. However, economic liberalisation left the farmers without any protection. The subsidies were withdrawn gradually and at the same time the farmers had to face stiff competition from corporate farming and the import of grain at lower rates.

It took a while for the farmers in Punjab to realise that farming was no more a lucrative occupation. However, they had little scope to diversify because of their limited skills. “The capital-intensive mode of production, propagated by the Green Revolution in the mid-1960s, is turning out to be non-viable for the small peasantry and hence they are being involuntarily manoeuvred towards shifting away from farming. Based on a field study in Punjab in 2012-13, it was observed that 14.39 per cent of the farmers had left farming since 1991. A considerable proportion of marginal and small farmers who have been pushed out of agriculture become wage labourers,” writes Sukhpal Singh, professor of economics at the PAU.

The big farmers, too, were not left untouched by the diminishing returns in agriculture after subsidies were cut. “They used a substantial portion of their savings in trying to diversify their businesses in the late 1990s. Most started with buying many tractors and threshers which they rented out to small and marginal farmers. This worked well for a few years. But rents did not go up because the small farmer could not pay. The cost of maintaining these machines grew every year. This business became unsustainable,” Parmeet Singh, a farmer in Mansa, said. Some big farmers, like Dara Singh, tried to capitalise on the expanding real estate market. “They bought land at low prices and sold it at a premium. However, land prices crashed after the global economic crisis in 2008, and many big farmers were left with either huge debts or severe losses,” Jagmohan Singh said.

According to the Chandigarh-based Institute for Development and Communication, the rate of farmer suicides has been increasing every year.

The impact of such debt-ridden unsustainable farming in Punjab has affected small and medium farmers the most. Over the last two decades, many small farmers and agricultural labourers have committed suicide. In the last two years, some big farmers, considered a politically powerful group, have reportedly committed suicide out of distress. The latest trend should be alarming enough for the government of the day to acknowledge an all-pervasive agrarian crisis and adopt measures to address the issue.


Vicious circle

By Sagnik Dutta in Baghpat

The vast expanse of lush green sugarcane fields around the villages of Baghpat presents a picture of plenitude. But a visit to the villages provides a stark contrast to this. Western Uttar Pradesh, the largest sugarcane producer of the country, also popularly known as “Harit Pradesh”, was a stranger to the phenomenon of farmer suicides until about two years ago. But following a spiralling of the cost of production, delayed payment by sugar mill owners and lack of support from the government, the prosperous districts of Uttar Pradesh began to witness incidents of farmers overburdened with debts ending their lives. The ones who have braved the downturn are struggling to make ends meet, with daily needs and out-of-pocket medical expenses making an already debt-stressed existence even more stressful.

Highlighting the magnitude of the problem, Sudhir Panwar, president of a farmers’ forum called Kisan Jagriti Manch and professor at the University of Lucknow, said: “The sugar mills owe about Rs.7,000 crore to the farmers for 2014-15. Sugarcane cultivation is the primary source of livelihood for 70 per cent of the population in western Uttar Pradesh. As a result of the delayed payments, some of the farmers have moved to paddy cultivation, but that has also not proved profitable.”

On May 27, the Allahabad High Court, hearing a petition about the mounting arrears of payments to be made to farmers by sugar mills, directed the private sugar mills to pay 25 per cent, 50 per cent and 75 per cent of their arrears by June 15, June 30 and July 15 respectively. But this has not translated into action on the ground: several sugar mills are yet to pay farmers their dues.

According to the NCRB’s report for 2014 on accidental deaths and suicides, 63 farmers in Uttar Pradesh under the category of self-employed persons in agriculture committed suicide, while 129 agricultural labourers killed themselves.

These deaths often have a debilitating socio-economic impact on the families as they are immersed in debt and get little relief from the State government.

The case of 38-year-old Manju Rathi, a resident of Tikri village in Baghpat district, shows the extent to which a farmer’s suicide wreaks havoc on the family. Manju Rathi’s husband, Rambir Rathi, shot himself on August 28 last year.

Rambir Rathi’s only source of income was the sugarcane produced on one hectare of farmland.

The sugar mills in the locality owed him about Rs.1 lakh. He was reeling under the burden of debt last year. He had taken a loan of Rs.1 lakh on monthly interest from Canara Bank to run the household.

The death of the only breadwinner has meant immense hardship for the family. Manju Rathi said that no help had come from the State government. “We have one buffalo. The money earned through selling milk is the only source of income as of now,” she said.

Her daughter goes to college and her eight-year-old son is in primary school. She depends on loans from family members to fund her children’s education. In addition to daily expenses, she also has to pay about Rs.5,000 a month to settle debts.

Rishi Pal of the same village, who had two hectares of land, killed himself on April 18 this year. He had incurred a debt of Rs.1.1 lakh from Bhumi Vikas Bank, which he was unable to repay.

Pushpa Pal, his widow, lives in a two-room house with her six daughters and a brother-in-law. She stares at an uncertain future for herself and her daughters. Pooja Pal, one of the daughters, laments: “I might have to drop out of college soon as we are unable to pay the fees.” Pushpa Pal said, “No one has come to help us yet.”

For Paro Tomar of Dhikana village, her brother Rahul’s suicide was a tragedy at several levels. Rahul Tomar was only 24 when he took this drastic step on September 13 last year. He was at his wits’ end trying to collect money for Paro’s expensive medical treatment for a complicated bone ailment. Rahul had huge arrears of payment due from sugar mill owners then but he had to take multiple loans. Paro Tomar learned of her brother’s suicide when she was admitted for surgery at a hospital in Delhi. Two of her brothers, Amit and Vikas, aged 20, have sunk into depression ever since. They refuse to speak to anyone.

Rahul’s young sons are also faced with an uncertain future. Paro said: “They both study in a private school, which charges about Rs.1,500 a month as fees. The payment of fees gets delayed because there’s no one making any money. The household runs on credit. I don’t know how long we will be able to sustain their education.”

The sugarcane farmers in the district highlight the nexus between politicians and sugar mill owners, as a result of which the mill owners exercise considerable clout. Magan Singh, a farmer from Jounmana village, recounted with astonishment how he had to approach the district magistrate to issue an order for the Malakpur sugar mill owner to release about 5 per cent of his total dues so that he could have an emergency heart operation.

“I received about Rs.1 lakh from the sugar mill owner after an order was issued citing medical emergency. It’s pathetic if farmers have to get district officials to issue special orders for their rightful dues to be paid, that too in case of a medical emergency,” he said.

The rest of the dues have still not been cleared. Magan Singh and his six brothers are all engaged in farming sugarcane on about five hectares. With everyone in the family engaged in farming, it is indeed an uphill task to make ends meet when payments are delayed for as long as a year.

Magan Singh’s son Arun Kumar said the interest payment on delayed arrears, which the mill owners promised to pay last year, was yet to be made.

Similarly, Nepal Singh, who owns about three hectares in Dhikana village, has not been paid his dues of Rs.3 lakh by the sugar mill in Malakpur for almost a year now. He was forced to take a loan of Rs.2 lakh from Union Bank of India to provide for the daily expenses of his family of five.

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