Death and distress

Print edition : December 05, 2003

Even as more and more farmers commit suicide in Karnataka, rigid and bureaucratic norms deny families in distress even the meagre compensation that they are entitled to.

in Bangalore

THERE does not appear to be any major let-up in the rate of suicide among farmers in Karnataka. Between April 1 and September 19, there were 276 reported cases of suicide. The figure then rose to reach 478 on November 10 . Hassan district recorded the highest number of suicides (54), followed by Mandya (38), Belgaum (34), Davangere (33) and Chitradurga (31). The many-sided agrarian crisis that has precipitated these tragic deaths remains unchanged in the State.

The S.M. Krishna government, which recently entered its fifth year in power, has challenged its own figures on the total number of suicides. "We have rejected 299 of the 478 reported cases as ineligible for compensation after detailed scrutiny," Vijay Gore, Development Commissioner, Government of Karnataka, told Frontline. "The number of suicides in the State last year was 7,098 which is much higher than this year. This year, however, the cases have been reported in the media," he said.

The two sets of figures are hardly comparable. The figures cited for last year are for all categories of suicides, whereas this year it is the sudden rise in the number of suicide cases among farmers as a special category that has given rise to concern. Secondly, independent investigations, both by the media and by research groups, have been very critical of the criteria adopted by the State government in deciding the cases that deserve compensation. The guidelines are rigid and bureaucratic and appear certain to keep deserving families out of the compensation net. At least 50 per cent of the cases that have come before the district committees set up to decide compensations have been declared ineligible for compensation on narrow, technical grounds.

A compensation of Rs.1 lakh was paid only in 116 out of the 426 cases considered. Since the majority of the people who killed themselves were breadwinners of families and were driven to death by the burden of irredeemable debt, timely cash compensation would certainly have provided immediate relief to their families. The compensation guidelines formulated by the government do not seem to recognise that it is informal credit and not institutional credit that is driving farmers to suicide. At present a family will receive compensation only if it is proven that the suicide victim had borrowed from a bank or a cooperative society, and that the inability to repay the loan drove the person to suicide. In such cases, the relevant documents must be produced before the committee.

However, loans from moneylenders are, in the majority of cases, conducted through oral transactions. The government guidelines therefore do not allow the grant compensation to families of suicide victims who were in debt to moneylenders as there are no records of the debt. Many deserving families have fallen outside the compensation net on this account alone.

"The process of deciding compensation eligibility is both inhuman and bureaucratic," said Esha Shah, a social anthropologist on the faculty of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Environment and Development, Bangalore. As a member of a fact-finding team on suicide deaths in Karnataka organised by the People's Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) and the People's Democratic Front (PDF), Esha Shah met a number of families of suicide victims in Mandya district. In the district, compensation was issued for only seven out of 34 cases that came before the committee. "Even in these cases, the sum of Rs.1 lakh never reaches the victim's family. The outstanding loan from the bank is first deducted from the compensation amount and the balance is paid to the family. If the person had taken consumption loans from private moneylenders, then compensation is denied to his family, though it is pretty obvious that consumption loans too are linked to agrarian distress. Very often the land may not have been in the name of the person who committed suicide. It may have been in the name of the victim's father or eldest brother, though he managed the credit needs of the family. In such cases too, compensation is denied.

Harvesting withered crop to be used as fodder, in Haveri district. The drought that is now in its third year has ensured a steep rise in the number of farmers committing suicide, mainly on failure to repay loans taken from moneylenders.-G.P. SAMPATH KUMAR

Finally, in some cases I came across, the post-mortem report may rule out suicide on technical grounds, as in the case of a farmer who hanged himself but tied the rope around a scarf on his neck, and the marks of strangulation were not clear. The post-mortem report said he did not die of strangulation, and compensation was denied to the family. In such cases, the committee must surely get a report from responsible persons in the village."

IN Kolar district, compensation has been given in only four out of 11 cases. "In Kolar we noticed the existence of a notional joint family system," said V.S. Sreedhara, a member of the fact-finding team. "When it comes to agriculture, one son takes overall responsibility though the land may be in the father's name, and in the event of a crisis it is he who commits suicide. In all such cases the committee rejects the compensation claim as the land is technically not in the victim's name." Take the case of 60-year-old Agthathota Appayappa and his wife Muniyamma from Nakkaladinna village. The elderly couple entered into a suicide pact and drank a pesticide in their own fields. Both were rushed to hospital where Muniyamma died. But because the land was not in her name, compensation was denied to her husband after her death. "The State creates a framework and wants all cases to fit into it," said Sreedhara.

The fact-finding team, comprising around 30 investigators drawn from a diverse range of professions, has not completed its field investigations. However, there are some preliminary findings that the investigators appear to have made. The first is a confirmation of the role that informal debt plays in driving farmers to suicide. The lenders are not professional moneylenders but cultivators themselves, who put considerable pressure on debtors to pay up. Second, most of those who committed suicide were small and marginal farmers.

"Indebtedness is a symptom of a larger problem," said Esha Shah. "But the reasons for indebtedness are derived from the almost totalitarian market-oriented dispensation which the farmer has to become part of to survive. He incurs loans by attempting to continue commercially viable agriculture, whether by digging a borewell (which then fails), or by the conversion of his mulberry crop to grapes." Across Kolar district, for example, and in the unirrigated parts of Mandya district, the widespread failure of borewells, which farmers dug after borrowing heavily, has been one of the reasons for suicide deaths. Borewells have failed because of power shortages and a falling water table.

The one ameliorative measure that the State government sought to implement, namely the payment of a compensation of Rs.1 lakh to the families of victims, has thus been totally inadequate in reach and scope. This apart, there is no other targeted programme to stem the rising tide of these deaths. In September the government announced a drought relief package of Rs.880 crores aimed at providing relief during the third year of drought that the State is experiencing. The package included the waiver of short- and long-term loans from cooperative banks (Rs.143 crores); provision of input subsidies for seeds, fertilizer and planting materials for Rabi 2003 (Rs.32 crores); price support for soyabean, maize and sunflower (Rs.200 crores); remissions on land revenue and water rates (Rs.117 crores); waiver of outstanding power dues (Rs.346 crores); and subsidies for sugarcane export (Rs.20 crores).

When asked by Frontline if the government had evaluated the impact of this package, Gore said that the "happy reactions" of people during the Chief Minister's recent Janaspandana (People's Contact) programme were proof that the package had been well spent. "We do realise that debt is a problem in the rural areas and we have therefore waived the interest on loans in the cooperative sector. We have persuaded the nationalised banks to waive interest above 9 per cent," he said.

There have been at least two instances of families committing suicide en masse. In Belgaum district, Ishwarappa Bhagoji, a 40-year-old farmer of Hadaginahal village in Gokak taluk, committed suicide with Sakkaravva, his 30-year-old pregnant wife, after poisoning their three small daughters, Shantavva, Basavva and Shobha, aged six, three and two respectively. Their eldest daughter, who was in her grandmother's home, survived. She was later admitted into a government girls hostel by the district authorities. Her father owned just under two acres of land and had outstanding bank and personal loans. The case came before the compensation committee but was rejected.

"The reason why compensation was denied was that Ishwarappa did not commit suicide because of the failure of crops or outstanding loans. It was because he did not have any male children," a senior official of the district administration said. The version has been dismissed out of court by independent investigators. "He had outstanding loans of at least Rs.20,000," said a senior journalist in the district. "No one in the village, not even his own brother who he was estranged from, recalled his ever having complained about not having a son. On the other hand many people in the village recall his worrying over his debts and his inability to repay them," he said. The district administration claims that Rs.1.35 lakhs, donated by political parties, VIPs and local persons, was put into an account in the State Bank of India in the names of his child and mother. Here is yet another example of how a deserving family was denied its due.

In Muktaramapura village of Kushtagi taluk in Koppal district, the six adult children (between the ages of 17 and 30) of Kanakappa and Hanumamma died in a suicide pact in August. Kanakappa was an agricultural labourer who was allotted four acres of unirrigated government land some years ago. There was no crop this year because of the drought. The death of the eldest of the children, a chronic asthmatic, in the early hours of the morning was the deciding event. Seeing their eldest sister die, the five remaining siblings poisoned themselves. Interviewed after their children's death, the parents said that poverty, ill-health and sheer desperation were the reasons for the suicide. The case attracted some attention and was discussed in the State Assembly.

"It was a clear case of hunger and poverty driving the family to suicide," said R.K. Desai, a lawyer in Koppal involved in the case. He explained: "The doctor who performed the post- mortem said that the family had not eaten for four days. Then the story was created that they were employed in relief work in the village. Our investigations show that this was not the case, and that in fact it was only after their death that works for just Rs.1 lakh was started in the village. Apart from Rs.20,000 and a one-room janata house, no compensation has been paid to the family." The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) sent a team to investigate the deaths and its report is awaited.

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