Farmers' Rally

Rally for justice

Print edition : September 04, 2015

At the rally organised by the AIKS in New Delhi on August 11. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Praveena of Poongavur village in Thiruvarur district of Tamil Nadu. Photo: T.K. RAJALAKSHMI

Meena, wife of Yudhbir, who committed suicide in Sonepat district of Haryana. Photo: T.K. RAJALAKSHMI

Banne Singh and Megha, father and daughter of Gajendra Singh, the Rajasthan farmer who hanged himself in April. Photo: T.K. RAJALAKSHMI

Savitriamma Kempaiah of Mandya district in Karnataka. Photo: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

Soumya of Mandya district. Photo: M. Rahul

Dasari Rama Devi, Patlothumangamma, Balamma, Pittala Sujatha and Aeku Anitha of Telangana with pictures of their husbands who committed suicide. Photo: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

The AIKS brings together in a rally in New Delhi the family members of farmers who committed suicide in 12 States.

THE WOMEN, WITH CHILDREN AND SOME male relatives in tow, had come to New Delhi from far-flung villages in 12 States. These surviving relatives of farmers who had committed suicide in the past few years undertook the train journey to reach the national capital accompanied by All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) leaders for a two-day rally.

The 100-odd affected families wished to draw the attention of the Central government to their plight, which was caused by the insensitive agricultural policy of successive governments, especially in the fixing of unrealistic minimum support prices (MSPs) for their produce, compounded by the vagaries of the weather. This was the first time that any farmers’ organisation had mobilised the families of those who had committed suicide. Most of the men who had taken their lives were young. They resorted to the extreme step in view of their inability to repay the heavy loans they had taken from banks or private moneylenders.

Once the victims’ family members reached the capital, they were shocked by the total lack of response from the Central government, which had claimed to be the champion of farmers. Save the AIKS, no other organisation had bothered to address their issues. Among the political parties, only leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and those representing the National Alliance of People’s Movements addressed them.

The AIKS, which got in touch with the families, found that the majority of the farmers who had committed suicide were landless or small or medium farmers belonging to the Dalit community or the Other Backward Classes. If it was prolonged drought that caused crop losses in some regions, in others it was hailstorms or excessive rain. Frontline spoke to a number of these hapless women who attended the AIKS rally. Although geographically separated and linguistically disparate, they faced similar circumstances and hoped to be pulled out of the morass of debt and death affecting the farming community.

Praveena from Thiruvarur

Dressed in a sari with the loose end neatly pinned to her blouse at the shoulder, 21-year-old Praveena appeared to be a doughty stoic. She took the train from the cotton-growing belt of Thiruvarur in Tamil Nadu, accompanied by her one-and-a-half-year-old son and her mother-in-law. This was the first time the second-year undergraduate student had travelled so far from Poongavur village. It was not an easy decision to step out of the confines of Poongavur, now that her husband, Mathiyazhagan, 29, was no more. Praveena had been married for only two years. On July 4, Mathiyazhagan consumed poison after his cotton crop was destroyed by heavy rains in June. For 24 hours he lay in hospital battling for life. A small farmer and cultivator, Mathiyazhagan owned two acres (one acre = 0.4 hectare) of land. He had taken five acres on lease for which he had borrowed Rs.4.25 lakh. He took Rs.4 lakh from moneylenders who charged Rs.3 as interest a month for every Rs.100. That is, Mathiyazhagan paid Rs.12,000 a month as interest on that loan. The remaining amount was borrowed from a government cooperative bank.

Yet to come to terms with her personal grief, Praveena said: “It poured continuously for 40 days. The crop didn’t survive. He was worried about paying back the loan. We told him not to lose hope. That day he fed our son and seemed okay. I don’t know why he took his own life.” She has given an application to the Collector seeking a job and compensation, but she has not heard from the collectorate. The family is making both ends meet by selling water in the village.

This year, four farmers in the State died under unnatural circumstances after suffering crop damage, said P. Shanmugam, the AIKS’ Tamil Nadu unit secretary.

Meena’s story

Yudhbir, 42, of Rewara village in Gohana taluk of Sonepat district in Haryana consumed a pesticide in May, unable to bear the extensive damage to his wheat crop, putting an end to a life ridden with debts. This is a region that flourished under the Green Revolution. About 12 cases of suicide were documented by the AIKS in Sonepat district alone.

In Yudhbir’s and in the other cases, the patwari (village revenue official) declined to make an assessment of the damage. Yudhbir’s wife, Meena, said: “I have three children—two girls and one son. My son is only four years old. The government doesn’t recognise his death as a suicide. He had taken three acres on lease at a rate of Rs.35,000 an acre. He took a loan of Rs.7 lakh. We own only 2.5 acres. I have nothing to sell to repay the loan. We borrowed money from the villager residents and also from the bank.” Meena and Yudhbir had been saving money for the marriage of their daughter. “It was the first time that he had taken land on lease. As we have only a small parcel of land, we had to take some on lease. We haven’t got a single paisa as compensation. We do not have a Kisan Credit Card. Any compensation will go to the landowner against whose land we took the loan. But the landowner also passed away. I do not know what am I going to do,” she said. Her brother-in-law, Jagbir, an Army jawan, is the sole support she has.

Rajesh, 32, of Teori village in Ganaur tehsil, hanged himself on May 1. He was neck deep in debt. He had taken loans from a bank at 14 per cent rate of interest and from private moneylenders at 24 per cent interest. He owned five acres of land and had taken 17.5 acres at a rate of Rs.45,000 an acre.

The Basmati rice that he had cultivated last year fetched Rs.6,000 a quintal; this year, it was only Rs.1,600 a quintal. Moreover, his wheat and paddy crops were completely destroyed in an severe hailstorm. His family could not make it to the rally in New Delhi. Haryana’s Minister for Agriculture added insult to injury by describing the farmers who resorted to suicide as “cowards” and “criminals”.

The tragedy of Gajendra Singh

“I refuse to support this government at the Centre. I have come here today with my granddaughter to make my voice heard. All farmers should unite on this issue now. The government should not be so insensitive,” Banne Singh said. His son Gajendra Singh, a farmer from Bandikui in Dausa district of Rajasthan, hanged himself from a tree in full view of the public at an Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) rally in New Delhi on April 21. Gajendra Singh’s death was politicised to nauseating levels by the media and by the parties involved, but the fundamental issues Gajendra Singh sought to raise about crop damage, MSPs, compensation for crop failure, and the state of agriculture and farmers were pushed to the sidelines. Political parties competed with one another to show how sensitive they were to farmers’ issues, but the lies were exposed at the AIKS rally where Banne Singh revealed that despite the high-profile visits by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, not a single family was compensated in Bandikui.

He said: “From one hectare, we used to get 30 quintals of wheat. Now only four quintals has been produced. That is why Gajendra hanged himself. It is not that we are landless. I have around 60 acres, but what is the use? I do not get the returns. We helped the BJP win in the last elections. You should ask the local Member of the Legislative Assembly [MLA] and the Member of Parliament representing Dausa how the Bandikui voters helped them. Why is the BJP government ignoring us?” Banne Singh said he had to look after Gajendra’s daughter and two sons. “Why hasn’t anyone from the Centre bothered to come to this rally?” he asked.

Dhuli Chand Meena, the AIKS’ general secretary in Rajasthan, said 60 farmers had committed suicide between March 16 and end-April in the State. Suicides were also reported from the canal-irrigated areas of Kota and Bundi districts. He said the majority of the farmers who had taken their lives owned middle-sized to small holdings, ranging from three to eight acres. He said: “In the past two years, the output of soyabean, which is the main crop here, has been very poor. Both soyabean and wheat, the crops grown in the canal-irrigated areas, suffered the maximum damage. So, the maximum number of suicides have taken place in the Bundi-Kota-Baran region. At Ramnagar village in Kota district, Vinod, a class 10 student, consumed poison and died. The police said it was because of examination stress. But his father said Vinod was the eldest child in the family and that the devastation of the standing crop due to a hailstorm pushed him to take his life. Vinod used to work in the fields with his father. I have seen their homes. The rooftops were completely destroyed by the heavy hailstorm. For days, several families took shelter in a government school.”

Dhuli Chand Meena said the State Agriculture Minister had made light of farmers taking their own lives by saying that the Rajasthan farmer was bold and incapable of committing suicide. Like Gajendra Singh and Vinod, Om Prakash Meena, 21, took his life at Ladpur village of Bundi district. He had taken land on lease and a loan of Rs.5.5 lakh from private moneylenders to pay for the lease. He had borrowed Rs.70,000 from a cooperative bank and Rs.3.5 lakh on his Kisan Credit Card.

His brother took part in the AIKS rally in the hope of getting some compensation. “It is impossible to repay such huge loans. Both the rabi and kharif crops have been completely destroyed. It is true that farmers never committed suicide even when they faced the most adverse circumstances. This is the first time since Independence that farmers in Rajasthan have taken such an extreme step,” he said.

Savitriamma Kempaiah of Madur

To lose a 35-year-old son is not a small matter. Shivanna, Savitriamma’s son, mortgaged the family gold for Rs.95,000. He borrowed Rs.75,000 from the cooperative society and additionally mortgaged his wife’s mangalsutra (a piece of jewellery worn as a symbol of marriage in parts of India) for Rs.40,000. On July 12, he ended his life by consuming pesticide, leaving behind three children, including a disabled son and a two-month-old baby, his mother and his wife.

No one from the Karnataka government or the ruling Congress reacted to the deaths in Madur taluk of Mandya district. Former Chief Minister S.M. Krishna visited the family after much hue and cry was made, named the baby Jeevika, and gave the family Rs.50,000.

“Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, who was touring all over the country, was pertinently asked why he was not visiting the farmers of Karnataka. It was then that the party high command instructed Krishna to visit Shivanna’s family,” Maruti Manpade, president of the State unit of the AIKS, told Frontline. He managed to bring the family members of eight farmers who had committed suicide in the State for the rally—five from Mandya district and three from Kalaburagi district. He said that in the past two months 211 farmers had taken their lives. Ninge Gowda immolated himself in his sugarcane field in his village in Pandavpur taluk. Manpade said of the 211 people, 40 were sugarcane cultivators, owning merely one or two acres of land. The import of sugar and the lowering of import duties resulted in sugar mill owners not buying cane from farmers.

Saumya’s sorrow

On June 18, Shiva Linga Gowda, 37, of Vannanaikanahalli village in Madnya district took his life, leaving behind his 28-year-old wife, Saumya, and his two children, both under 10 years. “For two years, the cane could not be sold. We have two acres only. He took a loan from State Bank of India and from Cauvery Grameen Bank. I don’t know why he took them, but it was to feed the family. The bank sent a notice recently, and he became very upset because of that. I think he felt insulted as our family is one of the most respected ones in the village. He did not want anyone to know about our situation. He did not eat the previous day. On June 18, he went to the paddy field and jumped into the well. I am told that we have a debt of around Rs.7 lakh to be repaid. I have got Rs.1 lakh from the Chief Minister’s relief fund and some relief from the Agricultural Department. I have come to Delhi to see justice is done to all. The farmer is the backbone of the country. The government should take the issue seriously,” she said. Saumya had been married for eight years.

The widows from Telangana

Patlothumangamma, 36, from Rangareddy district, Balamma, 45, from Medak district, and Dasari Rama Devi, 38, Pittala Sujata, Aeku Anitha, 25, and Sujatha, 25, all from Karimnagar district, have one thing in common: they lost their small or medium farmer husbands who had taken loans and land on lease and suffered extensive crop damage due to prolonged drought. Accompanying them was Bhaskar, 19, a Madiga Dalit orphaned by a double tragedy, from Gajvel constituency (in Medak district), the home constituency of Chief Minister K. Chandrashekhar Rao. Bhaskar lost his mother in December 2013, and his father took his life in the field in February 2015 unable to repay the accumulated debts. Bhaskar now has to support his siblings and repay the loans: he works as a farm labourer. “I have discontinued my studies,” he said.

Dasari Rama Devi’s husband, Dasari Ravindra, had only one acre of land. He took five acres on lease at the rate of Rs.16,000 an acre. The land in normal years would yield 10 quintals of cotton an acre. This declined to below three quintals. Last year, owing to drought conditions, banks were loath to give loans to farmers, and despite the Collector’s report to the State, Karimnagar was not declared a drought-hit district. Moneylenders in this area are notorious for harassment. Dasari had borrowed Rs.5 lakh from a moneylender at 60 per cent rate of interest. Despite the Reserve Bank of India’s instruction that banks should give loans to the tune of Rs.1 lakh without demanding any surety from farmers, no loans were given. Dasari took his life on July 11 by consuming pesticide. In Telangana, at least 43 crop varieties are grown and 48 per cent of the land is under cotton cultivation. While the production cost of cotton was Rs.5,200 a quintal, the MSP was Rs.4,100. The MSP for paddy and maize were similarly low, at Rs.1,450 and Rs.1,686 respectively, while the cost of production was Rs.2,104 a quintal for paddy and Rs.1,325 a quintal for maize. “How can the farmer survive?” asked Benthalachandra Reddy, general secretary of the Telangana Ryot Sangh, the State chapter of the AIKS. He said 78 cases of suicide were reported in the past six months, the majority of them in drought-prone areas.

Patlothumangamma of the Lambada community (a Scheduled Tribe group) had never seen the inside of a train before. Her husband hanged himself in November 2014 unable to repay the Rs.1.5 lakh he had borrowed from moneylenders. She said he had borrowed money from a chit fund and from moneylenders to take nine acres of land on lease. “He dug five borewells but could not get water. The crop failed and the moneylenders humiliated him in public. They took him by his collar and beat him in the middle of the village. No one came to help. I have three children—one of them is married, two are very young. I will have to work as a coolie now to feed my children. I have done work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, but even that is not available,” she said.

Balamma, too, had never stepped inside a train before. She hails from Gajvel. Her husband, Ramaswamy, hanged himself on June 30. He had taken three acres on lease at the rate of Rs.25,000 an acre and a bank loan of Rs.40,000. “The yield was so low this time that we could not even cover the input costs. What to say of paying back the loan? There was no money even to buy provisions. I have not been granted the widow pension or any other compensation. I have one handicapped son and another who is studying. The Chief Minister has not visited us. Only the Kisan Sabha took an interest in our case,” she said.

Aeku Anitha’s husband, Raju, consumed pesticide on August 22, 2014. A landless farmer, he had taken five acres on lease at the rate of Rs.16,000 an acre and a loan of Rs.5 lakh from moneylenders at a monthly rate of Rs.5 for every Rs.100. The paddy dried up, the cotton crop got completely ruined. To top it all, there was no work in the village. “My parents are wage labourers. They are helping me and my three minor children,” she said. She started getting the widow pension three months ago.

Benthalachandra Reddy said: “It is a vicious cycle. If they don’t own the land, they don’t get loans. Then to repay the loan, they take more loans, especially in a year when there is crop failure. Low MSP only adds to their misery.”

Whether it is Arun, 23, from Palakkad in Kerala whose father hanged himself in 2012; Sameer Tawade, 20, from Wardha in Maharashtra, whose father hanged himself in 2010; Rekha Wadgude, whose husband, Manohar Rao, committed suicide by hanging on July 9, 2015, at Paonar village in Wardha; Jyoti, 45, from Uppakotai village in Theni district of Tamil Nadu whose husband, Alaghavel, a banana cultivator, consumed poison on May 4; they have all been left to fend for themselves in the face of indifferent Central and State governments. By bringing them all together to rally for justice, the AIKS just about managed to touch the tip of an iceberg.