Lessons from a tragedy

Print edition : September 12, 1998

Surveys done in the aftermath of the suicides by cotton farmers in Andhra Pradesh show that the tragedy was linked to the pursuit of market-driven agricultural policies.

MONTHS after reports of suicide by scores of debt-ridden and distraught cotton farmers rocked Andhra Pradesh, the concerns that they raised about the enormous human cost of pursuing market-driven agricultural policies in a country like India remain alive. According to the Andhra Pradesh Rytu Sangam (APRS), a peasants' organisation affiliated to the All India Kisan Sabha, the number of cases of suicide among farmers in the State has risen to 377 since December 1997, when the media first reported such deaths. Nearly 80 farmers in Maharashtra and at least 11 farmers in Karnataka have committed suicide. What are the circumstances that drove farmers, generally viewed as stoic and sturdy people, to suicide?

Two recent studies, based on surveys of the affected areas and the families of victims, focussed attention on the tragedy of farmers in Andhra Pradesh. The APRS, which constituted a three-member team to study the affected areas in Andhra Pradesh in February, released its report in June. The report focussed on aspects of the liberalisation policy in agriculture that caused distress among farmers. The APRS team interviewed farmers, scientists and local administration officials. It also gathered information from pesticide dealers, who faced severe criticism during the worst days of the crisis in early 1998.

Although indebtedness has been an endemic feature of the lives of peasant communities in India, instances of large-scale suicide by farmers are not common. Mass desperation is generally caused by the severe compression of rural incomes, caused either by a dramatic collapse of produce prices or by catastrophic crop failures. It is an accepted fact that the commercialisation of agriculture unaccompanied by safeguards such as adequate and timely crop insurance schemes can exacerbate the crisis.

In Andhra Pradesh, the deaths were mostly confined to cotton farmers affected by a serious pest attack that caused widespread damage to the crop. The failure of the Government's Extension Department to provide timely advice to farmers worsened the problem.

The APRS estimated that institutional sources provided only 10-20 per cent of the credit in the affected areas. Most of the remaining loans came from private moneylenders, who often doubled as pesticide merchants and occasionaly sold allegedly adulterated goods. The annual rates of interest on such loans have ranged from 36 per cent to 120 per cent. The APRS said that the farmers who leased lands to raise cotton crops were the most vulnerable of the lot. They were forced to turn to private financiers because they did not have their own land to offer as collateral to financial institutions.

The APRS suggested controlling the sale of pesticides by strengthening the regulatory framework and bringing it under the control of "publicly accountable agencies." It has also observed that when market forces prevail, prices - rather than agronomic and ecological conditions - determine what crop should be grown. The APRS has also suggested the setting up of crop-specific boards to "protect farmers from extreme pressures of market demands."

Another suggestion is that the Agricultural Extension Department in the State be strengthened and encouraged to organise demonstrations and educational activities for the benefit of farmers.

A HYDERABAD-BASED non-governmental organisation, Aware, conducted a survey among the families of the victims and released its report, also in June. It compiled a list of 307 cases of suicide and interviewed members of 92 families in 11 out of the 17 affected districts. The strength of this study is that it brings out hidden dimensions of the tragedy. It reveals that the victims were below 40 years in 144 of the 307 documented cases. Of the documented cases, 287 were male and 20 female. The worst affected district was Warangal, where 109 cases were reported. There were 250 cases in the Telengana region, 12 in Rayalaseema and 45 in the coastal districts.

Aware's study of landholding patterns showed that dry land (unirrigated) accounted for 83 per cent of the land owned by the affected families. A substantial part of the land cultivated - about one-third - was obtained on lease; 89 per cent of the farmers were cotton cultivators. Eighty-six per cent of the respondents told Aware that the victims had never sounded suicidal.

Aware says that cotton cultivation is a recent phenomenon in the Telengana region. According to it, the cost of cultivating paddy, jowar and other coarse cereals is substantially less than that of cultivating crops such as chillies and cotton. In fact, the APRS has said that farmers in the surveyed areas shifted to cotton cultivation after they suffered substantial losses in chilly cultivation. According to Aware, 61 per cent of the respondents shifted to cotton cultivation in the last five years (90 per cent had done so in the last 10 years). It is obvious that the farmers who made the shift received no support from the Agriculture Department in making this transition. Aware reports a senior government official as saying that the 3,500 workers in the Agriculture Extension Department are inadequate to cover the whole State.

The APRS study observed that banks and cooperative institutions disbursed only Rs. 62 crores in Warangal district, where the requirement was Rs. 315 crores. It has also quoted local farmers as saying that most of the credit disbursed by the cooperatives were "book adjustments" without actual cash outflows. Farmers were forced to sell their produce at substantial discounts to the moneylenders from whom they had borrowed.

How has the Government responded to this tragedy? According to the Aware report, 59 per cent of the respondents said that they had not received any compensation from the Government. About 15 per cent said that they received up to Rs. 10,000.

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