A welcome relief

Print edition : July 30, 2004

The Prime Minister doles out a generous package upon his visit to Andhra Pradesh to meet the families of farmers who committed suicide.

DASU KESAVA RAO in Hyderabad D. SRINIVASULU in Kurnool

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (right) and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Rajsekhara Reddy (centre) interact with family members of farmers at Somayajulapalli village in Kurnool district on July 1.-

HE came, he saw and was deeply touched. In the process, he also conquered the hearts of the drought-stricken and deeply distressed farmers of Andhra Pradesh.

Essentially that was what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's brief visit to Andhra Pradesh on July 1 was all about. The articulate advocate of India's economic reforms revealed the `real human face' of the reform exercise during his interaction with the families of debt-ridden farmers who had committed suicide.

Anguished by the continuing suicide by farmers, Dr. Manmohan Singh decided to make a first-hand assessment of the crisis plaguing the farm sector in the southern State, besides providing succour and moral support to the bereaved families. He visited Somayajulapalli in Kurnool district in the drought-prone Rayalaseema region and Dharmapur in the neighbouring Mahbubnagar district in backward Telangana. Manmohan Singh said afterwards: "I belong to a farmer's family and am well versed with the problems of farmers. But it is for the first time that I am witnessing such shocking realities."

After a wrap-up session in Hyderabad with State government officials, the Prime Minister announced a slew of relief measures which included a Rs.60-crore assistance from the Calamity Relief Fund, an additional 1.82 lakh tonnes of foodgrains, a new Seed Act to standardise quality seed, time-bound help from banks to ensure a steady income for the affected families, and the supply of entitlement cards to the families to meet their basic needs. Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, in a memorandum on behalf of the State government, had sought Central assistance to the tune of Rs.660 crores to ensure steady credit flow to the farm sector.

Earlier, at Somayajulapalli and Dharmapur, he announced a grant of Rs.50,000 from the Government of India. He sanctioned an additional Rs.50,000 in some special cases. The State government had announced a package of Rs.1.50 lakhs to each family.

The Prime Minister was accompanied by the Chief Minister and Union Ministers from the State S. Jaipal Reddy, K. Chandrasekhar Rao and P. Lakshmi. Manmohan Singh, a self-effacing person, revealed another facet of his persona - that of a good listener and a ready empathiser of rural people in distress.

The suicide spree continues unabated, but he succeeded in instilling some hope in the demoralised villagers. He said he would not be able to bring back the sole breadwinner of the family but would see how best he could help it. Manmohan Singh said at Dharmapur that the fact that he chose to make his first visit outside Delhi to Andhra Pradesh demonstrated how concerned New Delhi was about the plight of the State's farmers.

Very few among the largely unlettered rural folk of the arid region had ever heard about their eminent visitor. Despite this and the language barrier, he managed to establish a good rapport with them. Rajasekhara Reddy translated the Prime Minister's speech and acted as an interpreter during the interactions.

At Somayajulapalli, he spent more than half an hour with the local people listening to their ordeals and asked families that had lost their breadwinners what kind of support they required. He was moved by the plight of young widows, small children and aged parents who were left behind by the farmers who killed themselves unable to escape the debt trap. He described the tragedy as a "shocking reality". Bayamma, a widow, told the VIP visitor that her husband A. Pullareddy died in 1998 leaving behind a debt of Rs.7 lakhs and a handicapped son. Since then, both of them were surviving on the meagre income they got from a public telephone booth sanctioned to her son under the quota for disabled persons.

The pathetic story of two teenagers, Nagamani, a degree student, and her physically challenged brother, Madhusudan Reddy, touched the Prime Minister. After the death of their parents, they were staying with a maternal aunt. Nagamani had little money for her own education and for her brother's treatment.

The State government approved a list of 51 farmers in Kurnool district for the relief disbursement. The list included those who had committed suicide since 1998. The farmers' families will get, apart from the special package of Rs.1.5 lakhs, a house under the existing scheme.

Even after the Prime Minister's visit, there is no end to the wave of suicides. By July 5, four farmers had taken their lives in four days in Kurnool district. The deaths have a social pattern too, with the incidents occurring largely among the backward class communities which traditionally depend on agriculture. Most of the farmers committed suicide by consuming pesticide, which is easily available in every rural household. A few farmers resorted to hanging themselves.

At Somayajulapalli, Manmohan Singh held a meeting with senior officials, to discuss long-term measures such as completing pending irrigation projects, simplifying banks' lending procedure in the case of farmers, modifications in the crop insurance scheme, recognition of tenant farmers for institutional finance, and insurance for borewells that fail to yield water.

Somayajulapalli is representative of the current agriculture crisis witnessed in the semi-arid zones of the State. The crisis has claimed the lives of hundreds of farmers here. At Somayajulapalli, a backward caste farmer, K. Beesapati Pedda Rangaiah, 40, killed himself by consuming pesticide on May 22. Rangaiah was ruined financially by the failure of his borewell and cotton crops. He had borrowed Rs.40,000 from a bank and Rs.50,000 from private lenders. Deviating from his father's method of comprehensive agriculture, which involved the raising of 100 sheep and the cultivation of rain-fed crops, Rangaiah had dug an open well a decade ago by investing Rs.15,000 . Since it failed, he sank a borewell and succeeded in tapping water. But after a few years, the well went dry . By then, his debts had become unmanageable.

Many farmers in the village took to commercial crops in the recent past, encouraged by a few initial success stories. Out of the village's total cropped area of 744 hectares, cotton is cultivated on 265 ha and tomato on 175 ha. The area under food crops thereby declined - paddy to 6 ha, "korra" (fox-tail millet) to 4 ha, red gram to 24 ha and orchards to 20 ha.

Farmers here sank 89 borewells and 20 open wells to irrigate 135 ha of cultivated land. Thirty of the borewells and all the 20 open wells went dry because of drought in the last three years.

Analysing the agriculture crisis, Dr. G. Narasimha Rao, Principal Scientist at the District Agricultural Advisory and Technology Transfer (DAATT) centre in Kurnool, says that the increasing cost of inputs, non-remunerative prices for various commodities, and the drought situation have crippled the system. While the prices of agricultural commodities have witnessed a declining trend year after year, the prices of inputs have kept rising.

When farmers are short of money, traders tighten their hold and make the prices tumble. According to a study, for many commodities the difference between the prices paid by the consumer and the price paid to the grower is more than 100 per cent. Prices reached rock bottom during the harvest season and peaked when the stocks with the farmers exhausted. In the absence of an effective government mechanism to shield farmers from price fluctuations, middlemen claimed huge margins.

The unchecked sale of spurious seeds and pesticides has been hitting the farmers below the belt. Farmers who buy inputs on credit have to compromise on their quality. In the absence of easy access to experts in the field, farmers buy pesticides on the advice of dealers whose sole motive is to increase the volume of sales.

Of late, many farmers who have dug borewells have been digging their own graves in the process. Many of the farmers who ended their lives had dug several wells, all of which failed. One successful borewell provokes the digging of many more, but a cluster of borewells becomes a serious strain on the water table.

After the arrival of cash crops, farmers abandoned the practice of comprehensive agriculture which included domestic dairy and poultry units in addition to agriculture. Besides ensuring a year-long steady income to farmers, the allied units provided low-cost fertilizers thus limiting the use of chemicals and pesticides.

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