Driven to suicide

Print edition : March 12, 2004
in Bangalore

Suresh, son of Thirkappa Mudukappa Sadar, near the tree from which his father hanged himself to death last year at Devihosur village in Haveri district. At the time of his death, Thirkappa owed over Rs.1 lakh to private lenders.-G.P. SAMPATH KUMAR

THERE was a time when life did indeed appear to shine briefly for Venkate Gowda, a small peasant of Dasandoddi village of Mandya taluk in Karnataka. That was six years ago when he was able to add an acre (0.4 hectare) to his inheritance of two acres of land. He then started growing mulberry for sericulture, thereby augmenting his earnings from agriculture.

This glow of relative prosperity was, however, short-lived, something that four years of drought, together with the drying of water in his three borewells and the stranglehold of high-interest private debts, effectively ensured. Indeed, by the end of it all there was so little to feel good about that Venkate Gowda, who had toiled stoically and unremittingly through the better part of 65 years, decided that he could no longer face life. He committed suicide by consuming poison, leaving a shattered family faced with few livelihood options.

His 40-year old son, Narase Gowda, angry and embittered at the situation which forced his father's death, decided to leave the village - he knew not where - once his daughter finished her final school leaving examinations. He had a debt of nearly Rs.40,000 to repay to private moneylenders, borrowed by his father at the extortionist interest rate of 5 per cent a month. This was in addition to a loan of Rs.25,000 to the Primary Land Development Bank in his district. The family received no monetary compensation from the State government for Venkate Gowda's suicide, as his land was registered in his son's name.

Venkate Gowda may have been pushed to suicide by a set of compulsions that were personal and that related to the specific circumstances of his life. Nevertheless, his death is illustrative of a larger reality in Karnataka where over 650 farmers, according to official statistics, have committed suicide in the past 10 months, unable to cope with three successive years of crop losses and mounting debts. As distraught families pick up the pieces and shoulder new burdens, the economic problems that drove their breadwinners to suicide have not gone away. Therefore, to claim, as the governments at the Centre and in the State have been doing, that a climate of economic vitality and hope has been created in the countryside is really something of a cruel joke.

A small but important exercise that provided striking evidence of a persistent and gnawing `feel-hungry' factor for the majority of the 1,877 households in Nandibevuru gram panchayat of Harapanahalli taluk in Davangere district was recently held by the Right to Food Campaign. The coalition of about 80 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Karnataka chose this gram panchayat to conduct a "social audit" to monitor the implementation of nine government food security schemes, as part of a series of such social audits it has planned in the State. The audit provided valuable empirical evidence of what there is an abundance of media writing on - the exclusion of the poor from the public distribution system (PDS) and the serious leakages in its implementation.

"For the last two years I have not received any provisions from the fair price shop on my ration cards," said 26-year-old Lalithamma from Kongana Hosuru village in her written and oral testimony in front of assembled district officials at the two-day public hearing that followed the social audit. "Despite my application to the district officials in June 2003, nothing was done" she said. "Because we have no ration cards, we are totally destitute" said 55-year old Gurukanthamma, who owns two acres of land, in her submission. "Give us the Anytodaya card. There are seven families in my village who are in extreme distress", she said.

In a letter to the Director of the Food and Civil Supplies Department in Bangalore, 15 below poverty line (BPL)-category residents of Kongana Hosaru complained of being denied provisions for two years by the local fair price shop. "The ration shop owner says we have to get a new card which we applied for but which we have not received. We do not get work for even Rs.10-15 a day in our village," the letter said. It is in such a situation that the State government has reduced food subsidies to Rs.170 crores in 2003-2004 from Rs.295 crores in 2000-2001. In its Medium Term Fiscal Plan, the State government claimed success in weeding out "bogus ration cards" and in reducing the number of ration cards from 62 lakhs to 42.7 lakhs.

At a convention on Federation of Women in Local Self-Government organised by the Karnataka Women's Information and Resource Centre in Bangalore recently, many issues of daily livelihood were discussed in the context of women's leadership roles. "It is a difficult situation that most people face in my gram panchayat," M. Nagamani, an elected gram panchayat member of Karatigi in Gangavati taluk, Koppala district, told Frontline. "There are new classifications for BPL families. If you have a TV, fan or cycle in your home, then you are not considered poor. Nowadays, the `Bhyagyajyoti' light connections that used to be free for poor homes are metered. These connections are being cut, because people cannot afford to pay the bills. In my village 40 to 45 families out of 100 have migrated in search of jobs," she said. "Despite these problems, we try to fight and do the best we can from the limited resources of the panchayat. We may not be fully educated, but we have enthusiasm," she added.

"There is no question that the quality of life in my own family has deteriorated over the last three years," said Shakuntala, a former gram panchayat member from Tikkutta gram panchayat of Bijapur Taluk in Bijapur district. "There are nine people in my household. Although we have 18 acres (7.8 ha) of land, three out of four borewells have failed, and we borrowed heavily to dig them. We also had a ration card, and it was taken away because we owned land. Life is miserable, and in our gram panchayat there have already been around 10 suicides by poor farmers."

The impact of cumulative crop losses owing to three consecutive years of inadequate rainfall has been the proximate reason for the agrarian crisis. However, there have been droughts of even greater severity that have affected Karnataka in the past, but none with consequences as serious as this one. The impact of the drought has been devastating because of a series of policy changes in agriculture that have weakened the ability of poor and marginal rural populations to cope in adverse climatic conditions. Most of the cases of suicide involved small farmers who were deeply in debt to private moneylenders. The withdrawal of bank credit to the agricultural sector, and to poor farmers in particular since the late 1990s is well-documented. Nationalised banks have not opened any new branches in the rural areas in the past five years, and rural branches have been shutting down in this period. The Banking Service Recruitment Board (BSRB), set up for recruitment in the clerical cadre in banks, was abolished by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, as were the posts of rural development officers in rural branches. In March 2000, the total number of rural banks in Karnataka was 2,250, a number which came down to 2,201 in March 2002. The percentage of Agricultural advances in total advances from banks decreased from 21.38 to 18.86 in the same period. This went up again to 19.5 per cent in December 2002, but largely on account of corporate agricultural loans.

"Easy access to institutional credit is the exclusive prerogative of the big farmer, whereas the small farmers will have to depend upon private creditors," observed M. Veerappa Moily, former Chief Minister of Karnataka in a recent analysis of agricultural credit in Karnataka. "Most suicides are by small farmers who owe between Rs.50,000 and Rs.70,000 to private moneylenders, whereas their debt to banks or cooperative societies is minimal. It is also a matter of concern that unlike former days, the poorer farmers are struck off from the BPL category, thus becoming ineligible for subsidised food. It is for these reasons that a single year of drought or crisis can drive poor farmers into total desperation," he noted.

Preliminary conclusions from a survey conducted by the People's Democratic Forum (PDF), People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), and independent researchers in Bangalore, of 43 families of suicide victims in 51 villages in Kolar, Hassan, Mandya and Bangalore Rural districts reinforces media findings on the causes for the suicides. High indebtedness to private creditors was the primary reason for most suicides. In addition, drying of borewells, failure of pumpsets, increase in the cost of production owing to the lifting of subsidies on crucial agricultural inputs like electricity, fertilizer, water and seeds, and the fall in the prices of agricultural commodities, had greatly weakened the ability of farmers to meet the challenge of drought. "How can India be shining when the small landholder faces such a grim future?" asked V.S. Sreedhara, a Professor of English at Vijaya College, Bangalore, who was a member of the team. "For every case of a suicide death there are a hundred potential cases. What is clear is that there will be no change in the agricultural scene in the years to come," he said.

The lack of work in rural areas has been one of the most serious consequences arising from drought and related pressures on agriculture. "The drastic reduction in the number of workdays for anybody related to agriculture in Karnataka has increased because of drought and the fall in the prices of all agricultural commodities," said G.N. Nagaraj, vice-president, Karnataka unit of the All India Agricultural Workers Union. "Even prior to drought, there was a reduction in funding for rural development - towards capital investment in agriculture, credit flow to rural areas, and so on. In Karnataka, the mechanisation of public works, which is taking place on a large scale, has further decreased rural employment opportunities. This is resulting in large-scale migration. In Bijapur district there are villages where more than 50 per cent of the residents, including landholders owning up to 20 acres (8 ha), have migrated in search of work," he said.

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