A farm crisis and suicides

Print edition : April 14, 2001

Forty-one cases of suicide were reported in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh between September and November 2000. A Frontline investigation shows that crop failure, indebtedness and related problems caused a majority of these deaths

PARVATHI MENON in Anantapur district

PADMAMMA, a farmer from Penakacherla village in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh, was the head of a family consisting of an ailing husband, two daughters and three sons. She not only worked hard raising groundnut on the 3 acres (1.2 hectare) of rain-fed land that the family owned, but also worked as an agricultural labourer for Rs.20 a day. Fifty-year old Padmamma was a political organiser of the Vyavasaya Coolie Sangham (agricultural workers' union) and had mobilised women and men in her village in agitations for higher wages. Nagamma, her friend and co-worker in the Sangham, remembers Padmamma for her selflessness and vitality. "She was our leader. She would listen to all our problems but would hardly speak of hers. And she was always forthcoming with help. If anyone had difficulties, she would even collect money and give it to them."

Small farmers of Marthadu village gather to speak about their burden of debts.-M. KRUPAKARA RAO

But of course Padmamma was weighed down by her own share of worries. Like most other small farmers, she was deeply in debt. She was worried about her husband who needed treatment. Her daughters were married in simple ceremonies and had moved out, but her wage was hardly enough to keep the family going. She planted groundnut on her land in July last year and hoped that her harvest would help pay back a part of her debt of Rs.30,000 to the local agricultural bank and to private moneylenders. Midway through the season, the groundnut crop was hit by bud necrosis, a disease that wiped out a large part of the kharif crop in Anantapur last year. She sprayed her crops with monocrotophosphate, the pesticide that the government had distributed free of cost to groundnut farmers, but it made little difference. One evening Padmamma came home from work, and as usual went into her fields. As she surveyed her lifeless crops, something snapped in this once strong and resilient person. She drank the pesticide meant for her crops and died in hospital a few hours later.

For G. Ramanjineyulu, a small farmer owning 5.5 acres of land from Jakkalcheruvu village, the breaking point came when his motor pump burned out under low voltage conditions. Its repair would have cost him another Rs.3,000, so when it happened, Ramanjineyulu, who had a shared loan of Rs.1,00,000 with his brothers from the agricultural bank, plus an individual loan of Rs.60,000 from the village moneylender, decided he could take it no more. He returned home and drank pesticide. A day later Anita, his 12-year-old daughter, distraught with grief at her father's death, also consumed the pesticide and died. "His motor died, his bullocks died, the bank people and moneylenders were pressuring him to repay, and there was no expectation of a crop," said Irojamma, a resident of the village.

Rami Reddy, Padmamma's husband, does not work. The debt burden now falls on him and his sons. He got just two bags of groundnut valued at Rs.2,000 from his harvest, after investing between Rs.5,000 and Rs.6,000 on the crop. After Padmamma's death, the family got nothing from the government in terms of either ex-gratia payment or help in kind. Mangamma, Ramanjineyulu's wife, was sanctioned Rs.10,000 from the family benefit scheme, although she has received only half that amount. The government is also financing the construction of a small house for her in the village.

Devarlu Balanna and his wife, from Marthadu village in Anantapur district, with the photograph of their son Devarlu Rajanna, who committed suicide last October.-M. KRUPAKARA RAO

These two were among a rash of 41 suicides, 18 of them by women, in Anantapur district over the months of September, October and November of 2000, by the consumption of monocrotophophate, according to figures released by the Anantapur district administration. This particular pesticide was distributed by the district administration as an antidote for bud necrosis, a virulent disease that spreads through insects and kills the crops. In addition, there were nine attempted suicides by monocrotophosphate poisoning. Of these two were by women. The administration's report does not ascribe all the deaths to problems of crop failure and indebtedness, although an independent investigation of such cases by Frontline in the villages of Jakkalcheruvu (Gooty mandal), Marthadu and Penakacherla (Garladinne mandal), Ammavarupetta (Bukkarayasamudram mandal), and Maruru (Rapthadu mandal) showed that it was indeed for these and related reasons that a majority of these deaths seemed to have occurred.

The official report, such as it is, does provide some insights into what happened. To begin with, all 50 suicides and attempted suicides were by monocrotophosphate poisoning. Of the 41 suicides, 34 were by farmers (including 15 women) who owned land, mostly unirrigated and between 1.5 and 10 acres in extent. The pesticide was distributed by the district administration to families who either held or leased land (leasing land is a common practice in these parts). A majority of the farmers were in debt to agricultural banks and moneylenders. A majority of the women (16) who died were in the 15-30 age group, whereas a majority of the men (17) were between 21 and 50 years.

The other feature of what appears to have been an epidemic of suicides is that but for one village where three members of a family committed suicide the same day, there is not more than one suicide in a village, and the villages are in mandals that are in many cases far removed from one another.

It was pressure from an alert and conscientious local press in Anantapur, that highlighted each case of suicide soon after it occurred, that forced a discussion of the issue in the Andhra Pradesh Assembly. The district administration's report on the deaths was a sequel to that. What therefore is now information in the public realm is that 50 persons, a majority of them groundnut farmers with small holdings of unirrigated land, and all of them in debt of varying magnitude, felt that death was preferable to the life of acute hardship that they were living.

Padmamma (at right), photographed at the marriage she arranged of a young woman in the village. Padmamma committed suicide unable to cope with the debts she had accumulated, following the failure of the groundnut crop.-M. KRUPAKARA RAO

While the spate of suicides peaked in October-November last year, they have not ceased. Cases of suicides continue to be reported in the media from different parts of the district. In March, two cases of suicides were reported - one by 33-year-old Krishna Naik, a peasant from Mariampally Tanda in Gumagatha mandal and the other by 40-year-old Lakshmidevi from Siddiramapuram village in Bukkaraya-samudram mandal. Both committed suicide owing to a burden of debt they could not repay. In April three cases of suicides were reported: 35-year-old Lakshmamma of Konduru village in Lepakshi mandal; 20-year-old Dadvali, a weaver from Singanmala mandal headquarters, and 18-year-old Rama Devi of Bandameedapalli village in Rapthadu mandal. Rama Devi reportedly killed herself when she lost her gold ear-rings and was scolded by her parents for her "carelessness". Parents had reportedly told her that they could not get her married because they were so deeply in debt.

Drought is the catch-all phrase that is used by the officialdom to explain away agricultural distress. In fact, most farmers themselves readily accept this explanation. There is no question that Anantapur is a rainfall-deficient district, with an average annual rainfall of 520.4 mm. It is the second lowest rainfall district in the country (after Barmer in Rajasthan). In 2000, the average rainfall was 540 mm, well above the average. The previous year was one of acute rainfall scarcity with Anantapur receiving only 360 mm. Yet the severe drought in 1999 did not drive cultivators to suicide. In fact, groundnut production in the kharif 2000 season (April 1 to September 30), despite the ravages of bud necrosis, was 9 lakh tonnes, according to the district administration. (The Oilseeds Growers Federation estimated the production at 7.25 lakh tonnes.) Compare this with the production of the 1999 kharif season which was just 3 lakh tonnes, and it becomes clear that drought and falling production alone do not explain the phenomenon of suicides. Further, in Andhra Pradesh last year there were suicides among cotton farmers in Mahboobnagar district, and among tobacco growers in Guntur district. Never in the past has there been such a situation.

The immediate reason for the suicides was a mounting burden of debt that the families concerned could simply not hope to repay, added to a widespread sense of despair when the bud necrosis attack broke out. Underlying this was a web of factors, some specific to the groundnut economy, and others related to the impact of liberalisation policies on the larger agricultural environment.

Anantapur district has the largest acreage under groundnut in the country. Last year the kharif crop, which is entirely rainfed, was sown on 7,35,000 ha. "Bud necrosis was seen in August, a month after sowing," said T. Yellamanda Reddy, principal scientist at the Agricultural Research Station in Anantapur. "The disease is present in sunflower and in roadside weeds, and spreads through insects." According to him, the disease caused damage ranging from 1 per cent to 80 per cent of the standing crops in a particular field. "In Anantapur, the average yield of groundnut is 1,100 kg a hectare, although yields here can go up to 2,000 kg a hectare. This year, however, the average yield was only 850 kg a hectare," said Yellamanda Reddy. The disease also coincided with the first of two dry spells in August and September. Monocrotopho-sphate turned out to be totally ineffective, partly because it was used too late as the crop had already been hit by the second dry spell which lasted between 12 and 23 days in different parts of the district. The rabi crop (October 1 to March 31) is an irrigated one and has been sown on 20,000 ha. According to Yellamanda Reddy this crop too has been affected, but to varying degrees in different areas.

The inherent risks of rainfed agriculture have increased with the rather dramatic rise in the costs of cultivation. In Andhra Pradesh, power rates were hiked in 2000 pushing up costs for the agricultural sector by 25 to 70 per cent, while the duration of power supply for agricultural operations was cut to nine hours a day. This is usually during night. In actual fact, cultivators find that their borewell pumps work for just six hours at night.

Electricity, or the lack of it, both for agriculture and domestic use, was a major issue of concern among the farming families this correspondent met. In Jakkalchiravu village, a group of small farmers said that yields have fallen substantially in the last two years because of power cuts. "From six to eight bags of groundnut per acre, we got just three bags this year. If our pump fails because of voltage fluctuations, then it costs another Rs.4,000," said J. Narayanaswamy, who owns five acres of land. (A bag takes 40 kg.) Viramma, a farmer from Jakkalchiravu village, owns 3 acres of irrigated land. She spent Rs.10,000 on the land, which included the cost of seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, power and labour. "I have a 5 hp pump for my borewell," she said. "I pay Rs.260 a month for electricity. Just before the increase in power costs, it was Rs.60 to 70, and nine years ago it was only Rs.7."

Power is only one component of the cost of cultivation, which has seen a sharp rise in the last two years. Fertilizer prices soared after their decontrol in the mid-1990s. "A 50 kg a bag of DAP fertilizer in 1994 cost Rs.180. In 1999 it cost between Rs.480 and Rs.520," said Vishwesh-wara Rao, a large farmer. Pesticide costs have also risen. When bud necrosis broke out last year, the district administration distributed monocrotophosphate to the value of Rs.6 crores in the district. The dealers make a killing by selling Rs.36 crores worth of pesticides. "The cost of cultivation is in the region of Rs.3,500 an acre (Rs.8750 a hectare)," said Vishweshwara Rao. "Because of the use of pesticides last year, it went up to Rs.4,000 and even up to Rs.4,500 an acre."

Seeds cost more too. With the breakdown of the government seed distribution centre, farmers are dependent on private seed dealers, and this has affected both the price and quality of seeds. There has also been a breakdown of institutional safety nets, such as the public distribution system, procurement support, crop compensation schemes and so on, which in the past may have softened the blow of agrarian crises.

By the middle of the kharif season, there were fears among farmers of the entire crop getting wiped out. But this did not happen, as the overall production figures cited above show. However, each farmer was carrying the debts of the previous drought year and had borrowed yet again to invest in the kharif crop. But the worst was yet to come. When it came to the sale of their crop, they found that groundnut prices had crashed. "From Rs.1,400 a quintal in October 1996, groundnut prices peaked in September 1998 at Rs.1,700 a quintal." said Vishweshwara Reddy, district general secretary of the Andhra Pradesh Raitha Sangham. "This year prices fell from Rs.1,300 a quintal in September 2000 to Rs.1,250 in October, and it is now Rs.1,150," he said. "The government declared a minimum support price of Rs.1,220 a quintal, but procurement has been inadequate. Of the total kharif production of 7.25 lakh tonnes, procurement has only been one lakh tonnes." The fall in the cultivated area and prices of oilseeds in India is the direct consequence of cheap edible oil imports (Frontline, February 2, 2001). As long as cheap imports continue, there is unlikely to be any price stabilisation for groundnut.

MEANWHILE, debts among farming families are on the rise. A family's debt is typically divided between the bank and the moneylender. There is not a day when the Anantapur edition of Eenadu, a Telugu daily, does not carry notices of gold auctions. These notices list the names of farmers, the quantity of gold they have pledged, and the outstanding sums. A cause for consternation among the farming families this correspondent spoke to was the repeated notices that banks send defaulters, asking for repayment of interest, and threatening the attachment of land and other forms of property.

Bandi Naganna of Ammavaripetta village who attempted suicide, with his wife Lingamma and grandchild. He owes a bank Rs.1.5 lakhs.-M. KRUPAKARA RAO

Take the case of Bandi Naganna, a small farmer owning 5 acres in Ammavarupetta village, who survived a suicide attempt thanks to timely hospitalisation. He took a long-term loan of Rs.1.5 lakhs from the agricultural bank four years ago, which has now become Rs.2 lakhs. He has also taken Rs.10,000 from the moneylender at an interest of Rs.2 a month for every Rs.100 (which works out to 24 per cent per annum). When his crop was affected by disease, he decided to kill himself.

There is Venkatarama Reddy, whose 18-year-old sister Thulasamma committed suicide. He has 4 acres of orchard land, and made 10 attempts in vain to dig bores. Each attempt cost him Rs.8,000. He also leased 10 acres of land to grow groundnut and lost Rs. 20,000 in that venture. He owes Rs.40,000 to the Marur primary agricultural society and has received several notices from it. In addition, he owes a moneylender Rs.20,000 at the standard private interest rate of 2 per cent a month. "We had fixed a marriage for my sister but would have needed Rs.50,000 and at least 10 tolas (one tola equals 10 grams) of gold to get her married," he said. Thulasamma committed suicide soon after the crop failed.

On April 3, Narendra Reddy, a 26-year-old farmer from Kallapuram village in Pamadi mandal, was brought to the Praja Vaidyashala hospital in Anantapur in a critical state as he had consumed monocrotophosphate. Reddy had seven acres of land and had loans amounting to Rs.1.27 lakhs. His life was saved by Dr. M. Geyanand. It is ironic that the timely medical attention he received, which saved his life, may actually increase his debt burden, as it will be a few months before he can get back to work.

The Anantapur District Cooperative Central Bank Ltd is the major agricultural bank in the district. According to its president S. Suryanarayana, the bank gave short-term kharif loans amounting to Rs.56 crores in 2000, up from Rs.51.81 crores in 1999. Under its long-term lending scheme it has advanced Rs.17.28 crores in 1999-2000. "Our recovery rate for both short-term and long-term loans was just 30 per cent in 1999-2000," said Suryanarayana. "We have recovered 18.45 per cent this year and we are running at a loss of Rs.19.9 crores."

The mood is one of despair and frustration among the groundnut farmers. Good agricultural practices and favourable climatic conditions are no longer enough to ensure the farmer an adequate livelihood. With an import regime that now exposes agriculture to the uncertainties of global trade, groundnut cultivation and the lives of four and a half lakh farmers dependent on it are precariously poised in rural Anantapur.

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