July 2, 2004

An agrarian tragedy

Print edition : February 06, 2015

In Chilpur, Warangal district, village elders mourn a farmer who committed suicide. Photo: P.V. SIVAKUMAR

Nalgonda, 2004: A farmer of Yerasaingudem village in Kattangur Mandal who consumed pesticide battles for life at the government hospital. Photo: P.V. SIVAKUMAR

Chenvelly, Ranga Reddy district, June 2004: At the inauguration of the Rajiv Palle Bata, a biweekly mass contact programme, Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy consoles family members of a farmer who committed suicide. Photo: Mohammed Yousuf

THE macabre dance of death that rocked Andhra Pradesh ten summers ago remains a stunning reminder of how neoliberal policies have snuffed out the lives of the Indian peasantry. Andhra Pradesh, which in 2004 already enjoyed the dubious distinction of being among the front-ranking States in terms of the number of suicides by peasants, surpassed itself that year. Earlier waves of suicides—in 1987-88, 1997-98 and 2000— were episodes that were either concentrated in certain parts of the State (Anantapur, Guntur and Warangal, primarily) or were confined to peasants growing specific crops such as tobacco, cotton, chillies and groundnut.

In 2004 death was everywhere; cases of suicide were reported from every single district, barring Hyderabad. In the space of a few months hundreds of suicides were reported. Significantly, in the one month after N. Chandrababu Naidu, widely heralded as the poster boy of liberalisation in India, was swept out of office in May 2004, more than 300 peasants committed suicide in the first month of Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy’s (YSR) leadership of the State. There was much irony in this because YSR’s triumph was widely attributed to the “pro-farmer” plank he adopted in the run-up to the elections.

Why was there a spectacular spike in the number of deaths, soon after a popular government that offered new hope, assumed office? It became clear that moneylenders of all hues who feared that the YSR government would accede to the popular clamour for a moratorium on repayments, started mounting extreme pressure on peasants to repay the loans. Indeed, there was a noticeable lull just before the elections, when lenders backed off just before the elections, but returned with a vengeance after they were over. But YSR, who rode into office on the back of a strong performance in rural Andhra Pradesh, categorically ruled out a moratorium, a clear indication that he was unwilling to take on the entrenched interests that dominate rural life.

to do a cover story on the subject for Frontline, When I hit the road in early June to do a cover story on the subject for Frontline, it quickly became evident 2004 was very different from the past. Until then it was customary to blame suicides by peasants—infuriatingly homogenised by the media, treating all rural folk as “farmers”, which implicitly ignores the differences in access to land, resources and power—on drought. This made it possible for those in favour of liberal policies to lull people into believing that the growing human toll in the countryside was purely the effect of natural phenomenon. But 2004 was a different story altogether. How could one explain the suicides in West Godavari, the heartland of the Green Revolution, where tenancy, merely sanctified by oral “contracts”, required peasants to pay rents as high as 40 per cent of the produce? Clearly, what was happening in 2004 was different, not only in terms of the scale of human tragedy, but because it blew away the veil of pathetic excuses strung by those defending neoliberal policies in agriculture.

Indeed, B.V. Raghavalu, Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (in an interview that was part of Frontline’s coverage of the issue) pointed out that the nature of landlordism had transformed. The landlord, who was earlier part of a “trinity” (the other two being the supplier of inputs such as seeds, fertilizers and pesticides and the trader who purchased the peasant’s output), was now had a hand in every conceivable market. Not only did the rich peasant and landlord now control land but he also doubled up as the provider of credit (at usurious rates of interest), the supplier of a wide range of agricultural inputs (seeds, pesticides, fertilizers) and controlled the terms on which the peasant sold his/her produce.

A recurring thought in my mind as I made the sombre week-long journey through the human wreckage was the deeply fatalistic attitude of the families of the victims. There was no rancour, let alone anger, against those who could be clearly identified as being responsible for their fate. Perhaps that is what the market does to people—make the victims feel responsible for their plight even if the responsibility belongs elsewhere.

A TRAGEDY of unprecedented proportions is unfolding in Andhra Pradesh. According to the Andhra Pradesh Ryothu Sangham, close to 300 peasants in the State have committed suicide after the Congress government headed by Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy assumed office on May 14. (The government has put the figure at 194, for a month after May 14.) Deaths have been reported from every single district, barring Hyderabad.

Unlike the rounds of suicides in 1987-88, 1997-98 and 2000, when peasants growing particular crops such as tobacco, cotton, chillies and groundnut died, this time death stalks everywhere. No crop appears safe and no section of the small peasantry appears insulated. The overwhelming proportion of the death toll is among small and marginal farmers and tenant cultivators, who have no claim on the land they cultivate and who pay exorbitant rents to landlords.

It is becoming increasingly evident that nothing but a reversal of the agrarian and agricultural policies pursued in the past decade or so, under the garb of liberalisation, will stem the curse of death. While politicians and bureaucrats waffle on what the peasant actually needs, the issue of an unqualified moratorium on repayments of loans by small peasants—whether from private or institutional sources—has become literally a life-and-death question.

The Chief Minister, who led from the front the Congress’ surge back to power, reacted immediately by announcing on the floor of the State Assembly a relief package for affected families. He followed this up with several other promises on June 13, when he launched the Rajiv Palle Bata, a biweekly mass contact programme. He promised 150-180 days of work in a year to agricultural workers and the limiting of the interest rates of loans drawn by farmers to 12 per cent.

Institutional credit has virtually collapsed in Andhra Pradesh and the peasants are at the mercy of powerful moneylenders, who are acting in collusion with a range of interests that dominate life in the countryside. Less than 20 per cent of the borrowings by small and marginal farmers come from credit cooperatives and state-owned banks, the remaining being provided, at a minimum rate of interest of 24 per cent, by moneylenders; fertilizer, pesticide and seed dealers; rice mill owners; landlords; and “relatives and friends”. However, the Chief Minister announced that the state machinery, particularly the police, would intervene to prevent harassment of peasants by moneylenders. He assured farmers that they “will be spared of trouble from lenders till you harvest a good crop”.

What explains the unprecedented number of suicides in such a short duration? Several theories float in Hyderabad. The theory popular among sections of bureaucrats, politicians and the intelligentsia is that the peasants have committed suicide because of the assistance package announced by the Chief Minister. N. Chandrababu Naidu, former Chief Minister, who steadfastly clung to the notion that a relief package for victims would spur more farmers to their death, remarked on June 2 that the “unusual spurt” in the number of suicides after Rajasekhara Reddy assumed office was because of the package.

However, the most plausible reason for the spate of suicides appears to be related to the fact that farmers are engaged in the task of planning their next crop. May and June are months when they prepare for sowing the kharif crop in late June and July, when the monsoon arrives in most parts of the State. Those sympathetic to the plight of the farmers argue that small and marginal farmers across the State have reached the end of the road. Unable to clear their existing loans or to get fresh loans for the next season, and seeing no hope on the horizon, they have taken their lives, they say.

The shortage of water, often nonchalantly labelled “crop failure”, misses the point that far too many things are wrong with agriculture. Over the past 10 to 15 years, as Utsa Patnaik points out, the state has stepped back from its role as a promoter of agriculture. Significantly, the state has not only vacated the space that truly belongs to it as the custodian of the poor and marginal farmers, but actively facilitated the entry of the landed gentry to occupy this vital space. This is felt in every aspect of the agricultural sector in Andhra Pradesh today.

In the area of irrigation, for instance, much of the incremental addition to irrigation capacity in the last 15 years has come from well irrigation. This means that the burden has fallen on individual farmers. Experts agree that the current crisis, particularly in the Telengana region, reached its logical conclusion with the depletion of groundwater resources. Farmers in this region have repeatedly made heavy investments in borewells and failed. The State has not only failed to provide irrigation facilities, but actually imposed a squeeze on credit for such purposes when it was needed most. As a result, peasants, in a desperate search for water, have had to borrow at usurious rates of interest.

The state, by failing to regulate the supply of inputs, has also seriously jeopardised the interests of farmers. Spurious seeds have been a major problem. All that the state has done is to enter into a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with seed companies. In fact, the state has no control over the quality of seeds. The large number of suicides in Warangal, for instance in 1997-98, were caused by the widespread use of spurious cotton seeds provided by private seed companies. Similar complaints about adulterated pesticides and fertilizers have been reported from across the State. It is estimated that fertilizer costs have increased fourfold since 1992. The problem with seeds is not confined to their quality; farmers now pay much more. Paddy seed prices, for instance, have doubled since 1990; prices of cotton and chilli seeds have increased fourfold during the same period. The rise in the cost of inputs, apart from the sharp increase in electricity charges during the Chandrababu Naidu regime, has placed the farmer in Andhra Pradesh at a disadvantage when compared to those in other States.

The liberalised policies, which are geared more towards creating a pan-Indian primary commodity market with a unified price, in alignment with global prices, have clearly worked against farmers in the State. The cotton farmer in Warangal district, for instance, was cajoled into producing cotton by the state more than a decade ago. Prof. Sudarshan Reddy, who participated in an inquiry into the suicides by farmers in the district in 1997-98, said that the state encouraged the farmer to grow cotton but has since then left him in the lurch. The state did this despite the soil conditions being unsuitable for cotton cultivation.

Rising costs of cultivation have meant that the cost of production of paddy in Andhra Pradesh is higher by about 16 per cent when compared to the cost in Punjab; the cost of growing cotton is higher by more than one-third when compared to that in Gujarat; and the costs of groundnut production is 38 per cent higher in the State when compared to that in Gujarat. Severe fluctuations in the prices of produce have added to the uncertainty in the lives of farmers. Although the State has several agricultural market committees, which are supposed to act as procurement agencies and provide remunerative prices, it is obvious that they are defunct. In 2002, a committee, which conducted an inquiry into the phenomenon of farmer suicides in the State reported that these committees were procuring an insignificant portion of the total produce in the State.

The burden of the agrarian crisis has obviously fallen on the small and marginal farmers. More than 80 per cent of the landholdings are of sizes up to two hectares and constitute 43 per cent of the cultivated area. Moreover, tenant cultivators with little or no land pay exorbitant rents to landlords. High rents charged by absentee landlords in coastal Andhra Pradesh, amounting to more than half the annual produce of the farmer, is a serious burden on the peasantry. The Rajasekhara Reddy government’s ambivalence over declaring a complete moratorium on the repayment of debt by the peasantry is to be seen in the context of the sway that the rich peasants have established over state policy in the last couple of decades.

The Chief Minister's promise of a moratorium appears inadequate at this stage for two reasons. First, past experience of such declarations by the State indicates that it has little leeway with institutional sources of credit since the onset of liberalisation in the financial sector. For instance, the Chandrababu Naidu government did announce a debt relief package after the wave of suicides in 1997-98. However, by October 1998, the institutions rescheduled the loans to the extent of only Rs.182 crores against a target of more than Rs.700 crores. However, the more significant problem in implementing a moratorium pertains to the fact that most poor peasants are now almost entirely dependent on the lenders who also control markets of every sort in their villages.

So far the Rajasekhara Reddy government has remained silent on the issue of how a moratorium on repayments by farmers to private lenders is to be implemented. Although the Chief Minister has promised that the police would stand by the farmer if he is pressured by moneylenders, matters are not so simple. This would imply that the government ought to be prepared to face a backlash from moneylenders, who would stop lending to farmers. The State government does not seem to have planned for this eventuality.

An increase in the suicide rate in a population is generally known to indicate acute stress that people undergo during a phase of social churn. More pertinently, the phenomenon of suicides among sections of the peasantry—not only in Andhra Pradesh but also in Punjab, Karnataka and Rajasthan—indicates that the Indian peasantry is going through a deep churning. It is also obvious that this churning has been caused by the neo-liberal prescription for agriculture.

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