From the field: Vidarbha

Cotton farmers in distress

Print edition : April 17, 2015

A trader checking the harvested cotton crop at an auction centre in Yavatmal, Maharashtra, on February 4. Photo: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

SUICIDES have become commonplace in the rain-fed cotton-growing belt of the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. Farmers, cotton traders and activists say the cause for concern is not just the suicide rate but the entire agrarian situation. Suicides are only an indication of the miserable condition of farmers. Agricultural distress has plagued this region for close to 15 years. The crisis has deepened in the cotton-producing region. Signs of misfortune are visible in the fields of Wardha and Yavatmal districts. Last year, the fields were covered with tufts of bright white cotton hanging from the slender stalks, ready for picking. This year, acre upon acre had specks of wilted stalks and shrunken cotton balls.

Unseasonal rains and hailstorms have ruined the cotton crop. The produce is almost half of what was harvested in 2014. An unfair minimum support price (MSP) and inflation have raised the debt levels of farmers. Additionally, exports to China and the United States, the two countries that buy a significant portion of Indian cotton, have almost come to a stop.

According to the Jan Vikas Andolan Samiti (JVAS), an advocacy group in Nagpur fighting for the rights of farmers, the 11 districts of Vidarbha have witnessed close to 2.7 lakh suicides since 2001. A spate of deaths occurs every time the harvest looks bleak. The JVAS said from January to December 2014 , there were 1,022 suicides.

The National Crime Record Bureau’s Accidental Deaths and Suicides Report for 2013 said there were 11,744 farmers’ suicides reported across India that year, and Maharashtra recorded nearly 27 per cent of them, at 3,146, the highest for any State.

Kishor Tiwari, who leads the JVAS, said: “There has been a 40 per cent rise in suicides in the past six months not just in Vidarbha but in Marathwada as well. We are still to see the worst. Farmers have not fully harvested their crop but they already know how badly damaged it is. Both the kharif and rabi crops have failed. Never before has the plight of the farmer been so bad.”

The Central government announced an MSP of Rs.4,050 a quintal this year. In the past three years, the MSP has steadily decreased from a significant Rs.7,000 a quintal in 2011-12. The insufficient MSP and the crop failure are the reasons for the crisis. “We expected a better outcome from the Union Budget, but the Narendra Modi government has let us down,” Tiwari said. It promised to set the MSP at investment plus 50 per cent profit, but that did not happen. Farmers say it is very difficult to cope under these circumstances. “Inflation has caused the costs of seeds, fertilizers and pesticides to go up. Even if we get Rs.5,500 a quintal, we shall not be able to recover our costs,” Keshav Devidas Takrande said.

Takrande owns 15 acres at Fatehpur in Deoli taluk of Wardha. He depends entirely on rainfall. “I get an average of seven quintals an acre but this year I got only three quintals. Even my soyabean harvest is just half of what I got last year. I have a debt of Rs.2 lakh.” His son is yet to finish his education and his daughter has started working in the village school. Money is difficult to come by but he says he is not as badly affected as others. “Last month, a 55-year-old farmer committed suicide owing to mounting debt. His son is looking after the land now. His family does not have food. We are trying to help, but even we don’t have enough,” Takrande said.

Arun Dadaji Selukate said, “Taking one’s life may not be a solution but farmers are driven to it. At least, the family benefits from the compensation although getting the amount depends entirely on the local government and proper recording of the death.” If the Collector does not say that the death was owing to farm debt, the widow will have to run from pillar to post to prove that agrarian crisis was the reason in order to obtain the compensation amount.

“Increase the MSP and provide better water and electricity, at least 80 per cent of the problem will be resolved,” Pawan Singhania, who owns a cotton ginning and spinning company in Vaygaon near Wardha, said. “The government should realise that in a bad crop year other mechanisms should be put in place to prop up the farmer. It must not add to his burden by declaring a reduced MSP when he is already affected by the weather.”

Singhania said the situation was terrible last year when the MSP was approximately Rs.5,000. But the harvest was good and some farmers were able to manage. Tempos and bullock carts loaded with cotton would line up the road leading to his ginning unit. But this year, there were only a dozen vehicles a day and the quality of the cotton was poor, Singhania said. He is one of the private traders in the area who claims to give a better rate for the produce than the government. “At least we take the cotton [even if the quality is poor]. The government will not buy the produce if it does not require it.”

A farmer said if the harvest was not good, private traders would pressure them into selling at a lower price. The farmer is often at a disadvantage and so he succumbs. Agricultural operations in Vidarbha, in the eastern belt of Maharashtra, are largely dependent on rain. Since 2001, the vagaries of the monsoon, absence of irrigation facilities, and economic conditions relating to cotton have severely impacted this region, which once fed textile mills across the country.

The staggering rise in suicide cases owing to rural distress has been discussed and reported widely. But it has not helped ease the situation. “Loan waivers and compensation help solve the problem in the immediate term. We are asking for a long-term solution,” Tiwari said. He said in order to tackle the situation, the government should address the problem of lack of irrigation facilities and improve the availability and use of agricultural credit and water and electricity supply in the region. “Give the younger generation better education and employment opportunities. No one wants to dig holes,” he said referring to the projects under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.

The State government officially declared that 60 per cent of the villages were facing a severe drought and that almost 90 lakh farmers were affected. Of the 39,453 villages, 23,811 have been declared drought hit. While, Wardha, Yavatmal, Buldhana and Amravati districts in the Vidarbha region have been declared severely affected, Beed and Aurangabad in Marathwada are said to be facing disaster.

On March 24, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis announced that the Central government had sanctioned a Rs.2,000-crore relief package for the State’s farmers who were hit by last year’s drought. A Rs.500-crore package was given last year. Fadnavis has been talking about relief packages, but Tiwari said, “Unless the fundamentals are looked into, we are not going to see any relief.”

On February 25, the body of Arun Dadaji Arle was found at the far end of his five-acre cotton farm at Deoli in Wardha district. Unable to bear the burden of debt, the farmer had ended his life by drinking a pesticide. “If we are paid the money, the loan may be taken care of, but how are we to live?” asks his widow, Vimal. She has managed to pick five quintals of cotton an acre, when normally they would get 25 quintals. Even soyabean and tur dal, which were cultivated as alternative crops, were destroyed in the rains, she said.

Almost every village in Yavatmal district has recorded a suicide death due to farm debt. Although each case is different and each family has its own story of misery, these deaths are becoming mere statistics.

Can farmers of the region find an alternative source of income? Unfortunately, there are not many options. Generations of Vidarbha farmers have grown cotton, soyabean, wheat and a few pulses. Most landholdings are small averaging between five and 10 acres. Cotton, however, has been their mainstay. Experts say that until a decade ago the cash crop was exceptionally profitable.

The reasons for the growing crisis are manifold. Over the years, yields have been low owing to erratic rains. The costs of inputs and cultivation have increased and inflation has added to the woes. Economic reforms, poor prices offered by private traders, decrease in exports and the lack of farm credit and insurance have had an adverse effect. Besides, farmers relying on one crop have been at a great disadvantage.

According to the Cotton Corporation of India, almost 14 lakh hectares are under cotton in the Vidarbha region. Even though it has the highest acreage under cultivation, Maharashtra is only the second highest cotton-producing State, after Gujarat. In 2013-14, Maharashtra produced 85 lakh bales of cotton while Gujarat produced 125 lakh bales. Interestingly, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan have a higher cotton yield although their acreage under cotton is only a quarter of Maharashtra’s.

Anupama Katakam in Nagpur

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