‘We are reaching out to farmers’

Interview with Agriculture Minister Krishna Byre Gowda.

Published : Aug 19, 2015 12:30 IST

Karnataka Bengaluru 23/07/2015 . Minister of state for Agriculture Krishna Byregowda in Bengaluru on 23rd July 2015 .

Karnataka Bengaluru 23/07/2015 . Minister of state for Agriculture Krishna Byregowda in Bengaluru on 23rd July 2015 .

MUCH of the opposition’s ire over the suicide by farmers in Karnataka has been directed at State Agriculture Minister Krishna Byre Gowda. He told Frontline , that the government was counselling farmers and putting in place confidence-building measures in the farming community. Excerpts from an interview:

The spate of suicides in districts such as Tumakuru, Belagavi, Mandya and Mysuru is worrying.

Yes. The suicides are difficult to explain and defy rationality. Of course, you have to understand that many other parts of the country are also going through an agrarian crisis. Karnataka is no exception to this.

But the sudden spike in suicides has clearly caught the government unawares.

Yes, we are unable to adequately explain why it is happening…. In most cases many factors come together to prompt the unfortunate step. And besides the frustration and desperation vis-a-vis the prevailing agrarian situation, there are also lots of non-farming causes, like social and personal reasons, including alcoholism and debts incurred because of non-farming activities. But many a time, caught in the frenzy of working out quick-fix solutions, these factors that are not related to farming don’t come out into popular discourse when farmer suicides are debated. This fact has been borne out by lots of studies. Further, what we have noticed is that most of the suicides are not by landless farmers but by farmers who own three to five acres of land, farmers who can dispose of a portion of their holdings and manage their debts easily.

Caught in this “frenzy”, the government seems to be clueless on how to tackle the situation.

We have taken a number of measures. Deputy Commissioners have been asked to send case-wise reports on these suicides. As a long-term measure, we are setting up a “vision group” under Dr M.S. Swaminathan to study agricultural conditions in the State. The group will have on board a social scientist, a financial analyst, a cooperative bank representative, a market specialist, a psychologist, and an agriculture expert. The farming community will also have representation. The findings of the group will help the sector and the government orient themselves, help the government understand the needs of today’s agriculturist, and provide the direction that should be taken.

Many of them are sugarcane farmers…

Less than 25 per cent of those who committed suicide were sugarcane cultivators.

Yes, but they seem to be in a state of total distress.

Their distress is a nationwide problem because of the crash in sugar prices—from Rs.33-34 a kilogram 18 months ago to the present Rs.19. We would be better off if prices firmed up worldwide. But we have tried to ease the situation. For the year 2013-14, as against the Central-government-fixed FRP [Fair and Remunerative Price] of Rs.2,200 a tonne for sugarcane, the Karnataka government announced a higher FRP of Rs.2,650 a tonne. We spent Rs.1,500 crore to bridge the gap. No other State has done this, and it is a very large sum of money for one set of farmers. Yes, dues in the range of Rs.1,700 to Rs.1,800 crore are pending from sugar mills/factories. And we have been pushing these sugar mills to make more payments so that the dues are lowered.

There is an overwhelming feeling that successive governments have been sympathetic only to the demands made by sugar mill owners, many of whom are influential politicians.

No, that’s not true. Even the opposition cannot pinpoint one decision where we have compromised the farmer’s [interests]. We have been taken to court by many of these sugar mill owners because of the punitive action that we took against them, including the raising of godowns of sugar factories. We have argued these cases robustly in court and many decisions have gone in favour of the government. We are constantly trying to get the factories to release the dues owed to farmers.

Despite strict laws, moneylenders have been charging e xorbitant rates of interest and harassing famers for repayment.

We have been cracking down on moneylenders who break the laws. We have arrested over 500 moneylenders and booked more than 1,000 cases.

Suicides are mounting, but the government appears helpless.

We have set up facilities where the farmer can be counselled that suicide is not a solution to his problems and where confidence is instilled among farmers. We will crack down on moneylenders who harass farmers. How much more can the government do?

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