IN 2000, Andhra Pradesh was rocked by revelations that more than 26 debt-ridden farmers of Guntur district had sold their kidneys. Many of the cases were reported from the Palanadu region in Guntur district, where peasants grew cotton and chillies.
Deep in debt following periodic losses suffered because of poor crop yields and low prices for chillies, Sheikh Hassan (45), a farmer-turned-agricultural worker of Kambampadu village in Macherla mandal, sold his kidney that year. He had taken two acres on lease to grow chillies, but his crop failed and he ran up debts amounting to more than Rs.25,000. He and three others were taken by a "kidney broker" to Delhi, where, after medical tests, his kidney was removed. After returning to the village he was paid Rs.50,000, "as promised" by the broker.
Sheikh Hassan told Frontline that he heard about the possibility of "getting some money" by selling his kidney from two other persons in the village. In fact, one of them, a relative, had sold his kidney a couple of years earlier. Hassan said he needed the money badly to cover the cost of his two daughters' marriage and also to clear his debts. A year after the removal of his kidney, Hassan stopped taking land on lease as he was unable to work hard. He is now an agricultural worker, earning about Rs.30 a day, when he finds employment and is able to work. He still has to clear debts amounting to about Rs.15,000, the money he borrowed for the marriage of his daughters and the 24-30 per cent annual interest accumulation on earlier debts.
Hassan said he experienced severe back pain and was unable to lift heavy objects. He went to the local government hospital where the doctor told him "the pain would continue life-long". Unable to find money for regular visits to the doctor, Hassan now gets the medicines directly from the local medical shop if and when he can afford it. His wife is the main breadwinner of the family now. She manages to get 90-120 days' work a year.
Duggimpudi Chinna Venkat Reddy (45) of Rentachintala sold his kidney six years ago. The broker, "Eluru" Raju, contacted him through Murthy, a chilli merchant in Guntur, who acted as a sub-broker. Incidentally, Venkat Reddy used to sell his chilli crop to Murthy. Venkat Reddy, who had no land of his own, used to lease seven acres to cultivate cotton and chillies. His investments used to amount to more than Rs.20,000 for each crop. He complained that the poor quality of inputs (sand in the fertilizer, kerosene in the pesticide, and spurious seeds) and lack of water in his well resulted in a series of poor harvests.
Venkat Reddy said he was promised Rs.1 lakh for his kidney, but he received only Rs.40,000 from Raju. He said that at least 10 others accompanied him to Delhi, where, after a series of medical tests, his kidney was removed. He said that he did not consult his family about the sale, fearing that they would object to it. His health deteriorated immediately after the surgical removal of his kidney. Unable to do sustained work or heavy physical work, and because of his mounting debts, Venkat Reddy sold his house in 2001.
K.B. Prasad, a mechanic in a cement plant in Macherla, told Frontline that as many as 40 cases of kidney sales had been reported from the area in the past few years. The area suffered severe drought for the past several years. The highest number of cases have been reported from Rentachintala mandal in the Palandu area. Prasad said that tenant cultivators were particularly vulnerable because of the serious risks they faced in cultivation. Ironically, the area has abundant black soil, ideal for growing cotton, but poor irrigation facilities neutralise this advantage. Water is scarce here although the Nagarjunasagar irrigation project is barely 25 km away. Dealers of inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers advance money to the farmers at high rates of interest. Prasad says that the rates could reach up to 60 per cent in some places.
He says the State Agriculture Department "has totally failed the farmer". Many posts have been lying vacant for a long time, he alleges. Moreover, peasants who approach nationalised banks and credit cooperatives have to pay commissions to their staff. There is a chilli yard at Macherla, established by the Agriculture Department. But it is virtually defunct. The majority of the farmers sell their produce in Guntur, where the bigger commission agents, acting in collusion, set the market price.
Tenant cultivators have increasingly taken to commercial crops in the past 25 years. Prasad noted that this had made agriculture "an extremely risky proposition" for this section of the peasantry. The government failed them by not making extension services available to them, especially when they needed them badly, Prasad said. Reports of suicide by farmers have regularly come from Guntur district since 1987. Prasad said that at least six cases had been reported from Veldurthy, adjoining Macherla, since May 25.
"Death by suicide," he said, "is among the most horrible consequences of the policies of the government. What is even more shocking is that the government ignored the repeated cries of distress of the peasantry."
In 2000, Dr. Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, then the Leader of the Opposition, had remarked that suicide deaths and the sale of kidneys by farmers "clearly show that there is no place left for farmers in the State". Will he make agriculture sustainable for these poor farmers now?