The spectre of suicide

As rural Karnataka reels under an unprecedented wave of suicides by farmers, the State administration looks on, unwilling to address the reasons that have rendered rural livelihoods fragile.

Published : Aug 19, 2015 12:30 IST

Eight-month-old Poorvi, daughter of Srinivas, 35, and Kalavathi, 30, of Talakere village in Tumakuru district who committed suicide on their farm on July 26.

Eight-month-old Poorvi, daughter of Srinivas, 35, and Kalavathi, 30, of Talakere village in Tumakuru district who committed suicide on their farm on July 26.

DEATH stalks rural Karnataka. In the 41 days between July 1 and August 10, as many as 245 farmers committed suicide, an average of six a day; since April 1, 284 farmers have taken their lives. As a bewildered State government gropes for an explanation for the massive and unprecedented spike in the number of suicides, there is not a semblance of a “solution” to the human tragedy that is yet unfolding. Instead, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has offered platitudes like urging his supporters to have only low-key celebrations of his birthday, or announcing that this year’s Dasara festivities would be low-key, in keeping with the sombre consequences of the farmers’ collective despair.

But what is striking is the complete unwillingness of not only the State government but also the principal opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to seek out the reasons for this human tragedy. Perhaps that has to do with the fact that several Ministers in the Siddaramaiah Cabinet and several BJP MLAs (and former Ministers) own the sugar mills that not only have brazenly delayed this year’s cane-crushing season but also owe several thousand crore rupees in arrears to farmers. It is not surprising that the sugarcane-growing districts of Mandya, Belagavi, Bagalkote, Vijayapura and Raichur account for a significant proportion of the suicides in the past few weeks. As the accompanying map shows, this is not merely a “sugarcane” crisis, as some have chosen to portray it. For instance, a large number of deaths have been reported from Tumakuru, Hassan, Haveri and Dharwad, too, showing clearly that the crisis is far wider.

On August 11, the State Cabinet declared 98 taluks—out of the total of 177 in the State—as “drought-affected” and announced a relief package whose major component is aimed at delivering drinking water to the affected areas. Yet, blaming the “drought” or even the sugarcane crisis for the wave of suicides appears to be both lazy and callous on the part of politicians, officials and sundry intellectuals. As the Frontline team found during its travel through the most severely suicide-hit countryside, peasants involved in sericulture and banana, coconut, tobacco, cotton, pomegranate, potato, ginger, ragi and vegetable cultivation have taken their lives. And, although there was a general complaint of the scarcity of water in several places, the suicides themselves were triggered by factors far beyond those that can be attributed to natural phenomena such as the failure of the monsoon. Although Karnataka has consistently remained among top farmer suicide-prone States in the country for a long time, what is different this time is the extent, scale and intensity of the tragedy.

As the toll surged in July, pop sociologists had a ready explanation in the media. Suicides, they said, were a complex phenomenon. They blamed farmers’ rising lifestyle aspirations, which, they said, put pressure on incomes, resulting in unsustainable debts that drove them to the ultimate step. The media, which for some time were exercised over the rising toll, soon descended into merely adding to the daily “tally”. A few Kannada newspapers, which presented a daily tally from the districts in July, stopped doing this in early August even as the tally kept mounting through the month. Missing from the media coverage and explanations by experts was any effort to search for answers within the way the agrarian economy and society are structured, especially whether and how policies that impacted agriculture and the wider rural economy had pushed farmers, many of them young, to their sudden and grim end.

As the number of suicides reported in the media surged dangerously high, it became evident that the niceties of waiting for “actual” data from the government to come in would just not do. In order to report urgently on a tragedy that was happening on a here-and-now basis, Frontline based its tally on official record from April 1 to July 30. The tally from July 31 to August 10 is based on sources such as the Karnataka Prantha Raitha Sangha, affiliated to the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS). In most cases, this has been compared with media reports to validate them. Of course, when the government releases the “official” tally, it is likely to be smaller than the computation made by Frontline . However, it is important to recognise that the “official” tally is likely to be biased for several reasons. For one, being politically emotive, there is a motive for the government to understate the data. Secondly, from an administrative perspective, there is the motivation to minimise the compensation paid to surviving family members. But most important, the “eligibility” criteria are loaded against several major categories of farmers—women, those who have leased land, or those who have been beyond the purview of institutional sources of finance.

Sugarcane turns bitter Madegowda,48, a sugarcane grower in Kothathi village of Mandya district, committed suicide on July 25. Speaking to Frontline , his friend Jawaregowda, who was also the vice-president of the gram panchayat, said Madegowda’s last crop, grown on three acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) of leased land (he grew paddy on his own land extending to two acres) had yielded 120 tonnes of sugarcane. “Last year’s crop, which was to be harvested in July 2014, was lifted by three sugar mills in Mandya only in October 2014,” said Jawaregowda. The delay meant a loss in the crop’s sugar content, and the average price was Rs.2,250, which was below last year’s minimum support price (MSP) of Rs.2,500 a tonne. To make matters worse, Madegowda received payment for only 30 tonnes, from one mill. This implied that the unpaid dues from the last harvest amounted to more than Rs.2.25 lakh. Meanwhile, Madegowda had invested in his next crop, amounting to about Rs.1.25 lakh an acre, according to Jawaregowda.

Since Madegowda had already exhausted the credit limit available from institutional sources (the local State Bank of Mysore branch and the cooperative), he was forced to turn to “hand loans” (story on page 13) to the extent of Rs.3 lakh, half of which was charged at 1.5 per cent a month, implying an annual rate of interest of 18 per cent. “How can a small farmer approach the sugar mills for what is due to him when even the Chief Minister says he is helpless in getting them to pay us?” asked Jawaregowda.

Asked if farmers like Madegowda ought not to diversify their crop base instead of depending on a single crop, as has been suggested by several experts, Jawaregowda turns visibly angry. “What do they know about farming? Farming is not an electrical switch that can be turned off and on at will. All these years these same experts had egged us on to grow sugarcane and now they say grow something else.” Observing that sugarcane is a crop that is planted in a three-year cycle, he asked: “Are these experts suggesting that we waste the investment we have already sunk in the crop? In any case, how much can a two-acre farmer diversify?”

The Sargur Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) yard in H.D. Kote taluk in Mysuru district, which was built 20 years ago, is deserted. This is cotton—of the Bt variety—territory and ought to be busy with cotton sales in July, but there is not a bale in sight. That is not surprising, said Vivek Cariappa, who has been doing organic farming in the area for three decades. Cariappa, a former activist of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS), which spearheaded several agitations in the past, said prices had crashed. Medium staple fibre cotton was being sold at about Rs.3,500 a quintal in July, compared with Rs.5,500 last year, said Mahadevaswamy, a Bt cotton grower (with a holding of three acres) who also works on Cariappa’s farm.

H.D. Kote, which was traditionally known for its long-staple and extra-long-staple cotton, had come under the sway of Bt cotton in the last eight to ten years, said Cariappa. “I also usually grow cotton, but I stayed away this year because I anticipated a decline in global demand and prices.” Cariappa said farmers opted for Bt cotton mainly because of the suffering wrought time and again by poor-quality seeds of the traditional variety supplied by private traders.

In parts of nearby Nanjangud taluk in the same district, cotton was being sold at below the MSP, said Mahadevaswamy. Several farmers in H.D. Kote and Nanjangud told Frontline that cotton growers were forced to sell their produce to the seed dealer who also doubled as the dealer of all inputs as well as the source of credit. “The dealer adjusts the price against the cost of the produce, after deducting interest for the loans we have taken,” said Mahadevaswamy. When Frontline visited the area in late July, farmers were desperate to sell because, as Mahadevaswamy explained, the weight of the harvested crop declined rapidly, resulting in losses. “Most of the produce in the area is sold outside the APMC, which only collects taxes based on self-declared invoices and weights declared by the trader,” said Cariappa. Cariappa said there was a danger that textile mills saddled with old (and more expensive) cotton stocks would not enter the market for fresh purchases, which would result in a further slump in prices. “There is a danger of larger traders defaulting on their payments to local trading agents, which may put farmers at risk,” he warned.

On July 26, a farmer couple, Srinivas, 35, and his wife Kalavathi, 30, in Talakere village in Tumakuru district committed suicide. Their main source of income, according to Srinivas’ cousin, was the ragi and horsegram they cultivated and the 30 coconut trees in their 3.5-acre farm. Srinivas had outstanding loans from several sources—a regional rural bank, microfinance agencies and “hand loans” from moneylenders—amounting to about Rs.1.5 lakh. The cousin told Frontline that the indebtedness mainly arose from a failed borewell that cost Srinivas Rs.1 lakh.

A coconut grower in the village told Frontline that farmers with just a few trees were at the mercy of local traders, who beat down the price. The APMC at Tiptur (in Tumakuru district), which is the biggest yard for copra trade in the country, was dominated by commission agents and copra merchants, said the president of the Tiptur taluk unit of the KRRS, Yogeshwaraswamy. He said that although online trading had been introduced at the APMC, the traders continued to exploit coconut growers. He explained that small growers, those with 35-40 trees, did not have the staying power to wait for up to 10 months for the coconut to mature into copra. “This requires investment in storage facilities in order to take advantage of the appreciation in value, which the small grower cannot afford.” Srikanth, a KRRS activist and a coconut grower, said several commission agents and traders operating at the APMC were registered moneylenders even though the APMC Act explicitly prohibited lending activity on its premises. Commission agents lent money to farmers at various stages of the crop cycle and charged 2 per cent a month, which was deducted at the time the crop was delivered to the trader, said Srikanth.

The case of ginger cultivators in Hassan is a little different even if the distress is just as palpable. The area under ginger has grown sharply in recent years, replacing traditional crops such as paddy and ragi. Chandrashekar, a resident of Musella Timmanahalli in Hassan taluk, recalls that the early adopters of ginger were migrants from Kerala who leased land in the area. He himself grew ginger on his three-acre holding, sowing 20 62-kg bags of seeds and reaping a harvest of 150 bags (each of 62 kg). But prices crashed this year—from about Rs.3,500 for a 62-kg bag last year to Rs.800-900. He attributed the crash to the complete absence of procurement and government intervention.

Thimme Gowda, 38, of Kuruvanka village in Channarayapatna taluk of Hassan district was, from the account of his brother-in-law, an ambitious farmer. The young man who grew banana, tomatoes, vegetables, and sugarcane on his five-acre plot was full of drive. Nothing illustrated this better than the one-kilometre long pipeline he ran from the only functioning borewell to his field and the sprinkler system he installed for his banana crop. “His search for water drove him to dig six borewells in the last two years, which were all futile,” said his brother-in-law. The only one running has water at a depth of 600 feet. He had run up debts amounting to more than Rs.1.5 lakh, apart from one in the name of his uncle for Rs.1.7 lakh from Canara Bank. “He paid huge donations in order to admit his two sons in a private school, apart from the money spent on his wife’s ulcer treatment,” the victim’s brother-in-law told Frontline . The family has received a compensation of Rs.1 lakh and is awaiting the enhanced compensation of Rs.2 lakh that Siddaramaiah announced recently.

Survivors’ plight In the case of potato, the issue is not one of prices but of the survival of the crop itself. Somagowda, whose wife Jayalakshmi, 40, committed suicide on July 25, said this year’s crop had been destroyed completely by late blight disease. The seed to yield ratio of his crop has declined from about 1:4 a few years ago to about 1:2. “I have been growing potato since my childhood, and I have never seen such a virulent pest attack as this year’s,” Somagowda said. He blamed the Agriculture Department for his plight, claiming that extension services had collapsed in recent years. “Yes, they did come, but only when it was too late to save the crop.” Moreover, the quality of the seeds supplied by “traders from Punjab” was very poor, he alleged. “The seeds are much smaller and soggy, not as hard as they ought to be.”

Somagowda, who has a three-acre holding, said he had borrowed more than Rs.2.5 lakh from institutional sources, from microfinance agencies, and from a moneylender. His wife had to bear the taunts and insults of the moneylenders and bank officials who visited his home, the last being two days before she ended her life. He said Rs.50,000 was spent on the funeral and other ceremonies; his friends and relatives bore the expenses. Other residents in the village told Frontline that it was unlikely that Somagowda would be awarded any compensation.

A tehsildar who is familiar with the administrative process that is followed in such cases told Frontline that women are unlikely to be considered as farmers unless land was shown to be in their names. Moreover, victims in whose case land is not in their name may not be given compensation. The families of farmer victims who had leased land for cultivation were just as unlikely to be compensated by the State unless they had documents showing a lease agreement or a mortgage, the tehsildar, who did not wish to be identified, told Frontline . He also confirmed that the practice of oral tenancy, which was “rampant”, was not recognised by the administrative process for confirming “genuine farmer suicides”. Above all, families have to prove that the victim has taken a loan from a nationalised bank, a scheduled commercial bank or a cooperative bank. Even in such cases, these would be recognised as “legitimate” only if a notice was served to the victim.

In Sannegowda Colony in Hunsur taluk in Mysuru district—not far from the birthplace of D. Devaraj Urs, who is widely regarded as a champion of social justice and whose centenary is being celebrated this year—which is in the heart of tobacco country, Shivaraja Gowda, 47, had committed suicide on the morning the Frontline team reached there. In a dimly lit house, where the victim had hanged himself, his wife, Manjula, said he had inherited the licence to grow tobacco after his father’s death. His father had taken a loan, which now amounted to Rs.1.5 lakh. As the loan was linked to the licence, he inherited both, explained Manjula. He had been served notices by the banks. Matters got worse with the crash in tobacco prices. The relative of another tobacco farmer, who was still recovering after a suicide attempt in nearby Chennasoge, said his crop had been affected by pests and that the price of tobacco leaf had fallen from Rs.150-170 a kg last year to about Rs.100 this year.

Sericulture in distress

Karnataka farmers have maintained a dominant presence in sericulture, and they too have been going through a serious crisis this year. This can be directly attributed to the Union government’s liberal policies, especially after Finance Minister Arun Jaitley reduced the import duty on raw silk from 15 per cent to 10 per cent. In fact, Union Minister for Textiles Santosh Gangwar wrote to Siddaramaiah in June conceding that the duty cut was in response to lobbying by the Varanasi- and Surat-based silk merchants before the presentation of the Union Budget. Gangwar justified the cut, claiming that the cheaper import of Chinese silk would make Indian exports of silk fabrics more competitive.

Sericulture farmers have pointed out that the nearly 30 per cent decline in silk cocoon prices has made their livelihoods uncertain (see chart). G.C. Bayya Reddy, president of the Karnataka Prantha Raitha Sangha, said the decline in prices had cost the farmer more than Rs.300 crore. The collapse of cocoon prices in the last few months had shut an avenue for farmers to diversify their income sources, especially in districts such as Mandya, Chickaballapura, Mysuru and Ramanagara, said Bayya Reddy. Farmers in several areas have burnt their mulberry crops or destroyed the cocoons because of the price crash.

Lingegowda, 60, a sericulture farmer and a resident of Dyapasandra village in Mandya district, took his life on July 15. Shankaralinge Gowda, a friend of the family and a former member of the gram panchayat, told Frontline that Lingegowda was completely dependent on silkworm rearing. He had taken a loan of Rs.50,000 from a public sector bank to enable his disabled son to establish a venture under the Prime Minister’s Rozgar Yojana, a scheme for generating self-employment. Meanwhile, cocoon prices dipped so low that they went below the cost of production, which, according to Shankaralinge Gowda, is at least Rs.105 a kg, exclusive of the cost of labour.

The pundits are right in that the phenomenon of suicides has many dimensions. But as Frontline’s reportage from across the country—not only from Karnataka but also from Maharashtra, Punjab, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab—shows (page 20), policies of liberalisation have had a powerful role in destabilising rural incomes and livelihoods. Even the focus on indebtedness as the proximate cause of suicides fails to appreciate the full extent of such policies. Unsustainable debt, as the reportage shows, is merely the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back; before that comes a whole array of policies stacked against the farmer.

For instance, the excessive reliance on monetary policy as a means of curbing inflation, egged on by its supply-side proponents, has resulted in a savage attack on the MSP in the last two years of National Democratic Alliance (NDA) rule. The increase in the MSP for most commodities has been paltry (table on page 7). This has had a powerful impact even if prices at which farmers sell are often below the MSP. In effect, the MSP, which is supposed to act as a floor price, has virtually caved in. The suggestion of the Commission on Agricultural Costs and Prices that the MSP be legally guaranteed as a right at which the farmer can sell produce to the government, though laudable, is only laughable given the collapse of the prices of several commodities.

Another dimension of the crisis has been the abandonment of the farmer to not only the weather but the caprices of the market. Take the case of cotton. In the last Budget, the government stated that it was committed to the promotion of a policy that resulted in a shift in the consumption of man-made fabric, a shift away from cotton. But those at the helm forgot to tell the cotton farmer about their plans; neither the Cotton Advisory Board nor the State governments thought it fit to inform the hapless cotton grower. The case of potato in Hassan district is illustrative of the utter failure to reach agricultural extension services to farmers; and the shrinking presence of field-level staff on the ground has hardly helped.

Meanwhile, a range of input suppliers—seeds, pesticides, fertilizers and many others—are filling the void caused by the shrinking presence of institutional finance, especially that which actually reaches small and marginal farmers. The absence of state intervention—whether in procurement and marketing, supply of quality inputs, provision of credit on reasonable terms and extension services—appears to have made livelihoods in agriculture more fragile. The farmers’ dependence on all these is based on tenuous links; and when one or the other snaps, it seriously jeopardises not only livelihoods but their very lives. Such is the price to be paid by the many for the follies of a few.

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