"PRESS the right button and all your loans and electricity bills will be wiped out." That was the bait used by the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance to lure voters in Vidarbha, where around 550 farmers have committed suicide in the last four years. Suddenly, this neglected area in the eastern part of the State became the focus of attention, with prominent leaders campaigning for their parties - Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi, Pramod Mahajan, L.K. Advani, Uma Bharati, Sushma Swaraj, Mayawati and several State-level leaders.
The BJP-Shiv Sena placed huge advertisements in newspapers with pictures and illustrations of a farmer with a noose around his neck. The Congress-NCP's publicity pointed out that there were suicides even during the previous saffron regime. Until recently, both contenders did not bother with the deaths saying they were owing to alcoholism, family problems or mental instability. But with more than 100 suicides since June, they were forced to acknowledge the agrarian crisis in Maharashtra's cotton belt. It was not only about a bad monsoon; the underlying reasons for the farmers' vulnerability had a lot to do with a skewed agricultural and development policy.
"The costs of seeds, fertilizer and pesticide are rising, but prices [for the produce] in the market are falling. We don't get anything for all this effort. That is why people are killing themselves," said Digambar Shirude from Wagheda village in Wardha. His brother, Balkrishna, committed suicide on August 21 after his soya crop failed for the second time. "There's no road leading to this village; for 7 km it is a dirt track. Our children have to walk that distance and back to the nearest high school. We don't get electricity for six hours in a day," said Shirude.
This year, the region received only around 40 per cent of the expected rainfall, which accentuated the problem. Anticipating rain, farmers sowed their fields up to four or five times, increasing their costs and pushing them deeper into debt. But the monsoon came a month late. People anticipate a drinking water shortage in the coming months. Minor irrigation schemes have not been completed for 30 years.
Many feel that Vidarbha's vast potential has not been tapped by the government located in Mumbai, away from this eastern tip of the State. "How come drought-prone areas in western Maharashtra are prosperous, while Vidarbha, a region of assured rainfall and fertile soil, is poverty-ridden?" asks Dr. S. Khandewale, economist from Nagpur University. "It is because the sugar barons ruling the State have developed irrigation and other infrastructure in western Maharashtra, but have not bothered with this region. Productivity is much lower here, even though conditions here are favourable. Loan waivers or free electricity will not solve the problem. The entire agricultural economy has to be made stronger."
This unequal development pattern makes the people of Vidarbha feel like neglected stepchildren. Local politicians have used this sentiment to press for separate Statehood. But the demand has not cut much ice with the electorate. Most voters just want to see some relief, regardless of whether it comes with or without an independent Vidarbha.
The BJP is the only party supporting the demand for a separate Vidarbha. Even the Shiv Sena, feels that the region is an integral part of Maharashtra. For decades, Vidarbha, with 66 Assembly seats, has been a Congress stronghold.
But in the recent Lok Sabha elections it suffered a miserable defeat, losing 10 of the 11 seats to the BJP-Shiv Sena combine. (It led in only 17 of 66 Assembly segments.) In four Lok Sabha seats, the BSP cut into the Congress vote bank and spoiled the chances of its candidates. Since then, the saffron alliance has worked hard to keep up its victory in this region.
But in the Assembly elections results, it was a dead heat - 30 seats apiece for the two alliances and six to others. Again, the BSP spoiled the Congress-NCP alliance's chances of victory in 14 seats. The Opposition parties hectic campaign has not brought them the expected gains in the region. Voters remember that they had to grapple with the same problems when the saffron alliance ruled. They know their difficulties are not likely to disappear at the press of a button.