The roots of a tragedy

Published : Jul 15, 2005 00:00 IST

A report compiled at the request of the Bombay High Court makes a detailed study of farmers' suicides in Maharashtra and the reasons for them and suggests ways to support the farming community which is in distress.


IT is estimated that 644 farmers committed suicide across three of Maharashtra's six regions between January 2001 and December 2004. The families of only 20 per cent of them have received any compensation from the State government. The number of deaths is by no accounts small. But what seems even more disturbing is that the tragic trend will continue until the State and Central governments acknowledge that there is an agrarian crisis in Maharashtra and take steps to prevent the farming community from resorting to the extreme measure, says a recent report by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).

The report, a copy of which is in Frontline's possession, is perhaps one of the most comprehensive documents on farmers' suicides in the State. Acting on a public interest petition filed by the All India Biodynamic and Organic Farming Association in December 2004, the Bombay High Court requested the TISS to submit a report on the possible causes of the suicides. A team from the TISS' rural campus in Tuljapur in Osmanabad district spent eight weeks in 12 districts in the Vidarbha, Marathwada and Khandesh regions of the State (these regions have had the largest number of suicides) early this year studying the causes of the suicides and the reasons for the desperate situation of farmers. It submitted its findings to the High Court in March 2005.

Although the report's conclusion is not different from the conclusions of several experts in the field, its strength is that it contains consolidated and substantial information. Going by records, the government has not done such documentation. The contents of the report make powerful evidence in support of the case to improve the lot of a community desperately trying to survive against the ravages of corporate globalisation.

The team investigated 36 of the 644 cases of suicide. It used this sample to arrive at the findings. While speaking to the families, the TISS team focussed largely on socio-economic variables such as family composition, education, history of agriculture, cropping pattern, landholding, input costs incurred, expected output, holding capacity, history of loans taken by the head of the household and causes for taking such loans, mental state of the person, addictions, and any other information each family wished to share. It also spoke to other residents of villages where the death had occurred. The data generated through field investigation were examined against a number of documents obtained as secondary source of information before the team made its recommendations.

"Just getting the total number of deaths that has occurred in the past few years was a tedious task. We arrived at the final number of 644 after extensive cross-checking in the field," said Ajay Dandekar, who led the TISS team. He said the government did not have the figure and the figures that it had seemed conservative. The team's correspondence with District Collectors asking for figures and details of deaths was either met with silence or, as in the two cases where it did receive some information, proved wrong on cross-checking.

THE report reveals that the suicides are not restricted to one income level or landholding category. They have occurred among owners of large landholdings and the landless, and across all caste groups. The causes, however, are common: repeated crop failure, inability to meet the rising cost of cultivation, and indebtedness. In all cases the extreme step was taken only after all avenues were exhausted.

Understanding the profile of the victims in their social and economic contexts can help gauge the depth and spread of the tragic phenomenon, says the report. Fifty per cent of the total sample was constituted by small landholders (who owned up to five acres), 43 per cent by medium landholders (who owned between five and 15 acres) and 5 per cent by large landholders (who owned more than 15 acres). The remaining 2 per cent owned no land. "The overwhelming numbers are reflected in the small and medium-sized holdings across caste groups. This is suggestive of a problem that is widespread, cutting across caste and class barriers," says the report. Of the sample, 89 per cent were married, and this indicates the pressure to provide for a household. A startling 81 per cent were literate, primarily because the majority of those who committed suicide were men and there is a bias in allowing male children to pursue their education.

Seventy per cent of the total number of suicide victims grew cotton as their primary cash crop. The cost of cultivation for cotton is between Rs.2,500 and Rs.3,000 an acre. Another 5 per cent took up horticulture as the major occupation. The remaining 20 per cent cultivated tur, urad, soybean, jowar, vegetables and sugarcane. Once again the data suggest that cultivators of all crops in the region are affected.

The report points out that a host of interlinked reasons landed the farmers in debt. The cost of cultivation of most crops has increased owing to higher input prices. This, the purchase of larger quantities of inputs and high cost of labour, increased the demand for cash. The absence of a corresponding increase in the prices of the produce affected the viability of farming. Moreover, the complete mismatch between the cost of production and the low minimum support price and market price created huge losses for the farmer. Money is also required for social needs such as marriages and education. In some of the cases studied, the debts were as low as Rs.10,000. According to the report, the loans ranged from Rs.10,000 to Rs.3 lakhs.

In a detailed break-up of the loans, which includes the size of the land held by the farmers and their sources of funds, the report states: "The largest group of borrowers are the small and medium landholders. As most of the time the victims have run out of credit with the banks, the only other source of funds is private lenders, who charge exorbitant interest rates as high as 5 per cent per month. Some even pledge their crop to the moneylender. But if it fails then there is little recourse left."

According to the report, the private lending component, which includes borrowing from relatives, accounts for about 50 per cent of the total lending. Primary agricultural credit cooperatives contribute 21 per cent of the loans and commercial banks and land development banks together contribute 18 per cent. The remaining came from a number of small sources. "This lends itself to an argument that the largest offtake of credit is still being met by private sources," the report says. Essentially, "the resultant debt trap is due to the inadequate credit supply to cultivators at affordable prices and due to the rising costs of production that cannot be met".

While discussing the links between the suicides and the larger economic picture, the report says that heavy indebtedness is not a phenomenon that developed overnight. It has its roots in the credit policy that has been followed over a number of years. With the decline in investment in agriculture, there is a direct shortfall in credit given to cultivators. This is clear from the Planning Commission's Tenth Plan documents. The total investment in the agricultural sector as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) declined from 1.6 per cent in 1994 to 1.3 per cent in 2001. Allocation to agriculture and allied sectors from the total outlay for the Five-Year Plans has fallen from 14.9 per cent during the First Plan to 5.2 per cent during the Tenth Plan (Table 2).

Field data suggest that crops failed repeatedly in the past four years. This was not entirely owing to the failure of rains. It occurred also because of a reduction in the productivity of land owing to the over-use of fertilizers and pesticides and the reliance on hybrid seeds and to some extent on genetically modified seeds such as BT cotton. "Thus crop failure becomes a cyclical phenomena and not a one-time occurrence," the report says.

Moreover, the regions where the suicides occurred have little irrigation. Almost 60 per cent of the irrigation projects cater to the western region of Maharashtra, which produces sugarcane and accounts for just 30 per cent of the total area under agriculture in the State. Government apathy, absence of a safety net for cultivators, and lack of access to information related to agriculture are largely responsible for the despair farmers find themselves in.

In its final recommendations to the High Court, the report suggests that a compensation of Rs.2.5 lakhs be given immediately so that the bereaved families live with dignity. It recommends the constitution of a committee comprising experts in the field, activists and government officials to distribute the funds. Since the investigations revealed that the suicides were not properly recorded and investigated by the government, the report suggests that a team put together a complete list of deaths. It pleads with the court to direct government insurance agencies to create an insurance safety net that assures a minimum life support system to cultivators. The report requests the court to ask the state to provide information regarding cultivation to farmers through e-networks. Moreover, the government must be told to propagate alternative low-cost organic farming in the areas through its agencies and voluntary organisations, it says.

The report says: "Any relief is a short-term measure. Long-term measures should be the rehabilitation of a system, in this case the agrarian production system itself." This is where the Central government comes in. Until it overhauls the agricultural policies, the situation will not improve. The report suggests that the High Court direct the Central government to frame policies that would support marginal and small farmers to stick to their jobs as there are no livelihood options outside the agricultural sector for millions of them. Policies must support cultivation so that farmers stay out of the debt trap. Therefore, the court should make the Union government party to the present suit so that it takes note of the magnitude of the crisis, the report says.

The report's recommendations are points that several agriculture experts have been making for years. Yet this is the first time they have been presented before a court. It can, perhaps, be hoped that some measures will be taken to relieve the farming community of its plight.

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