Farmers in distress

Print edition : April 04, 1998

Reported suicides by farmers in the northern districts of Karnataka point to perennial problems such as lack of irrigation facilities, adulteration of pesticides by dealers and the misuse of pesticides.

THE hardy farmers of the backward northern districts of Karnataka have lived through harsh climatic conditions. They have traditionally cultivated a variety of crops with virtually no State-assisted irrigation. However, a combination of factors now appears to have caused them immense economic distress, and several farmers have reportedly committed suicide. The reports of suicides have come from the districts of Bidar, Gulbarga, Raichur and Koppal. Significantly, several cotton farmers of Andhra Pradesh had committed suicide in similar circumstances late last year.

Between December 1997 and March 1998, nine cases of suicide were reported from Bidar district, which shares borders with Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. The victims included two women. A farmer of Gulbarga district reportedly committed suicide in his village, 15 km from the border of Bidar district. According to reports, two farmers in Raichur and Koppal districts committed suicide on March 16 by consuming a pesticide.

The factors that led to the spate of suicides include crop failure, the inability of the farmers to cope with changes in the environment, a poor monsoon, unseasonal rain that followed it, pest attack on crops, frustration at the failure of pesticides and above all, debt.

At the home of a 35-year-old farmer, Bharat Shankarappa Dhanuray, in Halhalli village in Bidar district. The farmer reportedly committed suicide by consuming pesticide.-PICTURES: RAVI SHARMA

The relatives of the farmers who died in Bidar and Gulbarga link the suicide to the failure of the tur dal (red gram) crop. It is said that several families are in debt - to the extent of Rs. 50,000 in most cases - following the failure of the crop.

As in the case of instances in Andhra Pradesh, farmers in these districts also appear to have been in the clutches of pesticide dealers who ran organised networks to sell spurious pesticides on credit at high interest rates. When the crop failed, they faced the prospect of not being able to pay off their creditors. The value of their lands is in the range of Rs. 75,000-1,25,000 a hectare. In most cases they cultivated lands leased from their relatives.

Bidar district presents the worst picture. Of the nine reported cases of suicide in the district, seven occurred in Bhalki taluk, within a 30-km radius of Bhalki town. The other two were in neighbouring Humnabad and Basavakalyan taluks. Significantly, no case of suicide has been reported from Aurud taluk, which is even more backward.

However, mystery surrounds some of the deaths in Bidar district, which were reported belatedly to the police. There have been allegations that these were not actually cases of suicide. Although the local custom is to inter the dead, in some cases the relatives of the deceased cremated the bodies. Sources in the district administration suggest that the families of the victims did this at the behest of a powerful Bidar politician.

According to police records, only three cases of suicide in the district, at Siddeshwara, Kasartagaon and Soldabhka villages, can be linked to the failure of the tur dal crop. The State Government has agreed to pay compensation only to these families.

It ordered an investigation by the Corps of Detectives (CoD) of the Karnataka Police on March 10. The CoD is faced with the difficult task of finding out whether the other reported deaths were cases of suicide owing to crop failure.

In February, the Deputy Commissioner of Bidar, Sandeep Dave, submitted a report to the Government, in which he stated that "crop failure cannot be summarised as the reason for the suicides". Investigations into the deaths by the police and the district administration revealed discrepancies between the statements made to the police by the relatives immediately after the deaths and later. The district administration and the Agriculture Department have taken the stand that farmers in Bidar did not rely on the tur dal crop alone, and that other crops such as jowar ought to have provided them some relief.

Tur dal cultivation in northern Karnataka.-

Consider the case of Bhojraj Dulappa, 35, a farmer from Bhatambra village who died on February 14. His brother Yuvaraj, a lorry driver, informed the village accountant that Bhojraj died of snake bite. Two weeks later, the police were informed that Bhojraj had committed suicide because of crop failure. Bhojraj cultivated tur dal on 6.5 hectares belonging to the family.

Bharat Shankarappa Dhanuray, 35, a resident of Halhalli village, committed suicide by drinking pesticide on February 9. According to the first information report filed by the police, Bharat died because of heavy drinking. The family agrees that this is what they told the police, but they said that they revealed the truth later when a local politician assured them support.

When asked why they had not informed the police about the real cause of the death, the stock answer from most families was that they were afraid of the consequences of reporting unnatural deaths and that they also did not have the money to "pay" for post-mortem and other formalities. Some people said that they got the courage to report cases of suicide because of the support from politicians.

It would appear that in the heat of the election campaign, some local politicians highlighted the state of affairs to try and derive political mileage from it. It is also possible that in such a context, some cases of death that were unrelated to the crop failure were sought to be portrayed as cases of suicide owing to crop failure. One reason for this may have been that the kith and kin of some of the dead would have wanted to claim the amount of compensation announced by the Government in respect of the cases of suicide linked to the crop failure.

Frontline investigations show that Shivaraj Revanappa Mainhalli, 42, of Siddeshwara, Prabhu Nagasankare, 40, of Kasartagaon, and Lakshmi Bai, 38, of Soldabhka had incurred debts and their crops failed. It is probable that they committed suicide. Only in the case of Prabhu, who had taken on lease his brother's land and had borrowed around Rs. 25,000, the police were immediately informed that crop failure was the reason for the suicide.

In Shivaraj's case, the police were informed of his suicide after 45 days. He incurred a substantial loss because he had borrowed money to raise the tur crop on five acres.

In Lakshmi Bai's case, her husband Eknath left home to sell the family's pair of bullocks to pay off a loan of Rs. 10,000 after they lost a season's crop grown on a part of their five-acre plot. Lakshmi Bhai then committed suicide.

Another case is that of Jeeja Bai, 42, of Morambi village, who died on February 6. Her family grew tur on a one-acre plot even though the family owned 15 acres (six hectares). Jeeja Bai committed suicide after the family, which had fixed the marriage of a daughter, had taken a loan on a fixed deposit of Rs. 60,000.

In Ghatboral village, Vaman Rao Inchure, 55, hanged himself. The bajra crop that he had grown on two acres had not failed totally, but the tur crop on less than an acre was lost. The family also owns a petty shop in the village. The members of the family told Frontline that Vaman Rao had borrowed Rs. 30,000 from a private finance company and was unable to pay it back.

Veerabhadrappa Kurbar, 40, of Veerupapur village in Sindhanoor taluk in Raichur district reportedly owed money to landlords and fertilizer dealers. He is said to have committed suicide after he lost his groundnut and jowar crops because sufficient water was not available from the Tungabhadra Left Bank Canal. Agriculture department officials said that a bridge collapse had affected the flow of water to the area.

Tur crop affected by the pest Heliothis armigera.-

Heliothis armigera

Basappa Hosalli, 45, of Habalgatti village in Kustagi taluk in Koppal district (an arid area that is expected get water under the Upper Krishna Project) reportedly committed suicide because his groundnut and jowar crops failed. According to his wife, the pesticides that he had used on his crops were spurious.

The reason for many of the deaths will remain opaque at least until the CoD submits its report. Whatever the circumstances that led to the alleged suicides, they have served to highlight problems that have affected farmers in all the northern districts of the State.

SUCCESSIVE administrations have ignored the demand for irrigation facilities in Bidar. Although the Karanja and Manjra rivers and the Chulki and Dev canals run through the district, there is no irrigation project to tap these resources. The Karanja project, started in 1972, has not been completed. Canals meet barely one per cent of the district's irrigation requirements. The district meets its irrigation needs from 30,000 wells and 3,000 borewells. The harvesting of groundwater is woefully inadequate. The situation in Gulbarga district is no better.

The State Government has offered a compensation of Rs. 100,000 each to the families of farmers who committed suicide because of the failure of the tur dal crop. An Agriculture Department official said: "The total amount paid by the Government as compensation may seem large - Rs. 6 crores to 8 crores - but in reality each farmer will get only a small sum. It would have been better for the Government to approve low- interest loans, conversion of short-term loans into long-term loans, free seeds and loans for fertilizers and pesticides."

The State Government has also offered sums ranging from Rs. 500 and Rs. 2,000 a hectare to farmers who grow tur dal. Some view this as a mere fire-fighting measure. V.G.Patil, a social worker in Ghatboral, said: "Paying Rs. 1,00,000 to some families is not the solution. We are all suffering the same fate, the only difference being that we are still alive. What use is Rs. 500 a hectare when what we need is irrigation projects?"

Only farmers who avail themselves of crop loans from the local cooperatives come under the crop insurance schemes; the premium is up to 2 per cent of the loan amount. Statistics show that only 6 per cent of the farmers in this region are covered by crop insurance. However, crop insurance does not guarantee compensation. To be eligible for compensation under this scheme, the yield from land has to be below the taluk average for a five-year period. Although the intention is to consider the whole taluk as a block, the yield is often calculated on the basis of the average for 16 to 20 villages. As a taluk has more than 100 villages, the yield thus calculated does not reflect the situation in individual villages.

Members of the family of Vaman Rao Inchure, a 55-year-old agriculturist who is said to have committed suicide because of his inability to pay off debts after crop failure.-

Agriculture Department officials like to see the entire farming community under the umbrella of crop insurance. They suggest that the yield should be calculated at the level of the gram or mandal panchayat, which comprises between 30 and 40 villages, rather than considering an entire taluk as a block.

S.B. Biradar, Joint Director of Agriculture in Gulbarga, said: "The people of this region have demanded a tur board on the lines of the Coffee Board. This will help improve crop management practices at the growing, processing and marketing stages. Now farmers do not make money but middlemen do." Farmers sell a quintal of raw tur at between Rs. 1,800 and Rs. 1,900, while processed tur sells at more than Rs. 3,000 a quintal.

Pesticides worth Rs. 60 crores are sold every season in Bidar and Gulbarga districts. Farmers are unable to control pests without pesticides and often overuse them. Unscrupulous dealers sell adulterated pesticides. They offer the farmers pesticides but at inflated prices; at the end of the season they claim their dues in cash or kind.

Biradar said that 53 out of 264 samples of pesticides sold in Gulbarga were found to be spurious. Cases were booked against 33 manufacturers and 40 dealers under the Insecticide Act of 1968 and the Insecticide Rules of 1971. In Bidar, three out of 100 samples were found to be spurious. It is alleged that some lower-level staff of the Agriculture Department were hand in glove with these dealers.

TOUGH times need tough action, but can the beleaguered J.H.Patel Government do enough to mitigate the suffering of the farmers in the northern districts of Karnataka?

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