The cotton farmers' plight

Print edition : May 13, 2000

"Pesticides have become the curd rice of the peasantry..."

- from a contemporary Telugu ballad.

A DAY after a bank notice was pasted on his door asking him to repay his crop loan, G. Shivaiah, a cotton farmer who owns three acres (1.2 hectares) in Gangapur village in Jadcherla taluk of Mahbubnagar district, committed suicide. The 45-year-old father of three children drank the pesticide he used for his cotton crop and died by the time he could be taken to hospital. Shivaiah's debt to the bank was small compared to his indebtedness to the trader - around Rs.45,000 - but it was the small rectangular piece of paper, filled with writing that he could not read, that when stuck on his door in full view of the village pushed him to take the last desperate act.

The bank notice, which has been pasted on many a door of debt-ridden cotton farmers in Shivaiah's village, is treated as an instrument of doom. "My husband died of heart failure soon after he received this notice," insisted Pochamma. A notice was served on her husband, T. Jangaiah, on January 1, 2000 to repay a loan of Rs.3,819 which he had taken from the Primary Agricultural Cooperative Society in Badepally.

Pochamma, wife of T. Jangiah, a cotton farmer who died of heart failure after he received a bank notice asking for the repayment of a loan.-H. SATISH

According to official figures, 26 farmers have committed suicide although the actual numbers are higher (the name of J. Lakshman Naik, a 35-year-old cotton farmer who committed suicide after consuming pesticide in October last year in the hamlet of Gaira ngadda, for example, does not find mention in the official list). The deaths are the result of the huge debts that cotton farmers have incurred after the failure of their crops caused by the use of spurious seeds and ineffective pesticides and the failur e of the rains over the last season.

Cotton is not a major crop of the district but is one of the more profitable ones. Of the total area of 7.23 lakh hectares that was sown in the kharif season, cotton was cultivated only on 57,000 ha, jowar on 1.17 lakh ha and castor on 1.65 lakh ha. Cott on farming was taken up with success by the prosperous agricultural community of peasant settlers from the Andhra region in Mahbubnagar. It is a high-input crop which requires a knowledge of cultivation practices that small and marginal farmers do not al ways have. They took to it in recent years seeing the returns it gave the larger cultivators.

The trader in the village is invariably the supplier of seed and pesticide for the small farmer as also his agricultural consultant on cotton farming, and the stories of how individual farmers got into debt are amazingly similar. The sheer numbers of pes ticide shops in the small towns and villages of the area are testimony to the important role the trader plays in the economy of the area. The trader supplies the farmer seed on loan. A portion of this is usually spurious, which the unwitting farmer does not know. This condemns his crop at the very first stage. He then makes him buy pesticides, and if the crop does not do well, urges him to increase the quantity of pesticide used. All this is done on loan, of course.

"These pesticide sellers are drinking our blood," said Mudavath Jumani of Gairangadda."Our whole village is in debt to one trader in Jadcherla. We looked at others and sowed cotton on four acres. He would keep telling us that we needed to put more and mo re pesticide. Now our crop is finished and we owe him almost Rs.30,000." The traders thus fund all the operations till the harvest stage, and if the crop fails they tell the farmer that it was his bad crop management that was the problem. And yet farmers are less fearful of the trader/moneylender than of a bank official and prefer to go to him.

"We prefer the moneylender to the bank. He gets us everything we need and tells us what to do," said Yadamma, a young woman in Gangapur. Caught in the vicious cycle of debt, unable to repay now that the crop has failed, some farmers take the ultimate ste p of suicide.

After the death of her son, Shivaiah, Chandramma was given Rs. 10,000 by the government through the District Revenue Officer. She put Rs.5,000 in a bank account in the name of her grandchildren. She brought the rest of the money home and the moneylender came the same evening and took Rs. 3,500 from her. "The government is now offering me a job," she said. "I am 80 years old and nearly blind. What work can I do? It was my son who needed the job, not me."

When the growing incidence of suicides by farmers was brought to his notice, a senior member of the Chandrababu Naidu Cabinet is reported in the media as having said that he would send a team of psychiatrists to the villages to treat depression that had suddenly become rampant and had led to people taking their own lives. This let-them-eat-cake attitude could have been ignored if the problem was being seriously addressed and measures taken to prevent the escalation of debt-driven suicides. But the State Government's promises that it will waive bank loans for indebted cotton farmers has remained on paper, and this glib statement of a senior Minister seems only to add insult to injury.

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