The killing fields

Published : Feb 07, 1998 00:00 IST

Farmers in Andhra Pradesh, who resorted to desperate measures in their losing battle against pest attacks this season, ended up in debt. Some of them have committed suicide.

ONE evening in late December 1997, Chittadi Madhav Reddy, a 35-year-old cotton grower of Pathipaka village of Warangal district in Andhra Pradesh, drank a quantity of pesticide. He survived the suicide attempt thanks to his neighbours, who took him as quickly as possible to a hospital.

Nearly 55 other distraught cultivators, most of whom cultivate rain-fed crops in the Telengana region of Andhra Pradesh, were killed by the pesticide they consumed. The pesticide, which has had little or no effect on the pests that thrived on their cotton crop, killed them almost instantly.

Madhav Reddy spoke to Frontline of his close encounter with death; he said that he was not sure at all if he was better off alive. To die was to escape the grip of the moneylenders to whom he owed a lakh of rupees, a debt that is still mounting. In addition to that, he has now incurred medical expenses amounting to Rs. 40,000.

Suicides by cotton growers have occurred in the past in Andhra Pradesh. Nearly 100 farmers in Guntur and Prakasam districts killed themselves in 1987-88 because the number of pickings (cotton is picked four or five times during a season) were reduced due to pest attack. This season, not a day has passed since mid-December 1997 without at least one farmer ending his life as a consequence of the failure of the cotton, chilli and red gram crops in Warangal, Karimnagar, Medak, Rangareddi and Mahabubnagar districts in the Telengana region and Kurnool in the Rayalaseema region. Death has stalked Guntur too: one farmer committed suicide on January 8 after his crop failed.

Spodoptera litura

The component parts of this year's crisis are drought, inappropriate farming practices, large-scale destruction by crop pests and rates of interest of 36 to 60 per cent per annum on loans from moneylenders. While the State Government has published advertisements that exhort farmers to face the crisis with fortitude, it has failed to solve the long-standing problems of debt-ridden and desperate farmers. Small farmers in Warangal see a battery of operators ranged against them in this crisis; they include the moneylender, the pesticide dealer and the cotton merchant. Even workers at the market yard, who skim a kilogram or two of cotton from every bullock-cart-load (on the pretext of collecting 'samples'), seem to them to be on the other side.

The crisis has shown up the failure of different institutions concerned with the agricultural economy: the failure of agricultural extension services to influence farming practices, the failure of commercial and cooperative banks to be a real alternative to village usurers and merchants, and the failure of the Cotton Corporation of India (CCI) to ensure remunerative prices to cotton growers.

Cotton is a high-risk crop - it needs high investment and constant attention. Over the past decade and a half, cotton cultivation has attracted even small and marginal farmers, mainly because the returns, despite the risks, can be higher than from foodgrain and from other cash crops. If a cotton crop succeeds, the returns can be Rs. 12,500 to Rs. 15,000 per hectare. The area under cotton in Warangal district went up from 5,000 ha in 1983 to nearly 1.25 lakh ha in 1997, displacing traditional crops such as jowar and oilseeds.

Shayamala Mallaiah, for instance, owned an acre (0.4 hectare) and took two more acres on lease to grow cotton, despite his land being unirrigated. Drought and pest attacks damaged 90 per cent of his crop. He had borrowed nearly Rs. 70,000 at 36 per cent to buy a bullock cart and chemical inputs; he also had to pay the rent on the land that he had leased. With the collapse of his only source of income, Shayamala Malliah ended his life by drinking poison. He left behind his wife, three children and his aged mother.

"Cotton cultivators did something akin to killing the goose that lays the golden eggs," said Dr. L. Jalapathi Rao, Agronomist-in-Charge at the Agricultural Research Station attached to Acharya N.G. Ranga Agricultural University in Warangal. "They wanted to become as rich as the big cotton cultivators in Guntur. In their attempt to do so, they did not rotate their crops and they pumped in heavy doses of pesticides in the hope of increasing their yields."

The farmers committed their first mistake, according to Jalapathi Rao by abandoning the short-duration variety of cotton suitable for the low rainfall and shallow soil of Telengana. They planted long-duration varieties suitable to areas with assured irrigation. Erratic power supply and malfunctioning motor-pumps compounded the problem of poor irrigation. Many cultivators sprayed their crops with pesticides 15 to 20 times in a season as against the recommended six or eight doses. Excessive spraying increased the resistance to chemical pesticides of the most common crop-pests, Helicoverpa armigera or the American bollworm and Spodoptera litura, commonly known as the leaf-eating caterpillar.

G. Sudarshan, a village patwari, said that farmers vied with one another in spraying chemical pesticides despite their high costs - Rs. 500 a litre. They mortgaged jewellery to raise loans, and often ended up investing thousands of rupees on a hectare of crop. Disaster closed in. Overcast skies in September-November exacerbated the proliferation of pests, while intermittent rains hastened the growth of foliage on the cotton crop. Spodoptera litura, voracious by night, attacked the crop, moving in millions from field to field. The people of the villages reported that the outbreak went out of hand in October-November, when caterpillars could be seen creeping across roads to devour crops. Farmers realised they were doomed and, by mid-December, distress gave way to death.

The crisis has become a major concern for the Telugu Desam Party Government of N. Chandrababu Naidu. The Congress and BJP have demanded the resignation of the Chief Minister or of Agriculture Minister K. Vidyadhara Rao. Chandrababu Naidu visited the families of the victims and sanctioned Rs. 1 lakh as compensation to each of them, besides announcing the rescheduling of debts. Opposition parties demanded that Rs. 12,000 per acre be paid to affected farmers. Chandrababu Naidu announced relief package worth Rs. 50 crores. The package includes an ex-gratia payment of Rs. 1,250 per hectare to farmers who suffered crop losses of 50 per cent or more, the rescheduling of crop loans and timely market intervention by the CCI. These measures, however, fall far short of the long-standing demand for government aid to go in for crop insurance.

Prime Minister I. K. Gujral, who visited Andhra Pradesh twice in January, has also promised assistance totalling Rs. 50 crores. He constituted a high-level team of bankers, scientists of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), and administrators to investigate the reasons for the crop failure and suggest remedial measures by March 15. It has been pointed out in this context that the report of a high-power committee constituted in the wake of cotton farmers' suicides in Guntur and Prakasam districts in 1987-88 has not been acted upon. The committee, headed by Reserve Bank of India Deputy Governor P. D. Ojha, made several recommendations. These concerned a moratorium on the repayment of loans, pegging interest rates, developing pest-resistant varieties, allowing the import of chemicals for manufacturing pesticides, providing irrigation facilities for cotton cultivation and setting up a Cotton Regulatory Board.

According to Dr. Y. Sivaji, Member, Cotton Advisory Board and former member of Parliament, who represented the growers' cause in 1987-88, if the Central and State Governments had learned lessons from the past, the latest losses from crop failure - estimated at Rs. 100 crores - could have been avoided. The Cotton Advisory Board, it is alleged, is dominated by the mill lobby. At the beginning of a season, projections of cotton scarcity drive farmers to the market, although the season may, in fact, end in a glut. In 1996-97, the Board initially estimated the production at 148 lakh bales, while actual production was around 176.5 lakh bales. This huge difference indicates, according to Dr. Sivaji, that the initial estimates were "concocted".

Helicoverpa armigera

While Guntur and Prakasam farmers produce good quality Egyptian cotton, the prices they receive are not sufficiently remunerative. After Partition, a substantial segment of India's cotton-growing areas remained in Pakistan, while textile mills remained by and large in India. The Government, therefore, placed cotton imports under the "open general licence" category while restricting exports in order to feed the mills. The continuation today of trade policies that were introduced at a time when domestic cotton production was much lower than at present (and low in relation to domestic demand) is, according to representatives of cotton growers, the source of a bias against growers and in favour of mill-owners.

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