Vidarbha's trauma

Print edition : August 13, 2004

The Vidarbha region of Maharashtra sees a spate of suicides by farmers, but the State's Agriculture Minister denies any connection between these incidents and government policy.

Text & photographs DIONNE BUNSHA in Yavatmal district

JUST before the monsoon, farmers in Vidarbha arrange frog weddings to welcome the rain god. Villagers make one male and one female frog pose in separate earthen pots for their baraat (wedding procession). The procession finds its way to the local temple, where the frogs are "married". After the wedding, the couple is given a send-off to a local water source and set free. If they croak, it means that they have been told that the monsoon is near. (Local people believe that frogs are harbingers of rain.)

Nirmala Atmaram Shinde. Her husband committed suicide on June 26.-

This year, the frog weddings were followed by several funerals - not of frogs, but of farmers. The Vidarbha region in northeastern Maharashtra, in the cotton belt, has seen a spate of suicides in the past one month. It is close to the Andhra Pradesh border, another State where mass suicides have been reported. Many farmers, disappointed by the poor rainfall and burdened with many debts, killed themselves. Around 45 suicides have been reported since June, but the Chief Minister's Office has awarded compensation to the families of only eight so far.

Atmaram Shinde (55) from Pada village in Yavatmal hoped that this monsoon would help him wipe away his accumulated debts. He sowed his field on time, but the seeds dried up as there was no rain. He planted a second round of seeds, but the monsoon did not arrive. The Rs.22,000 he borrowed to spend on seeds and fertilizers went down the drain. On June 26, Atmaram killed himself by swallowing endosulphan, a pesticide. "He was very disturbed. For the last two years, the crop had failed. Loans had piled up. We have to get our daughters married," said his wife Nirmala. She has not lost hope. She recently borrowed another Rs.4,000 from a local moneylender to sow the field for the third time. But the rains have not yet arrived. Chief Minister Sushilkumar Shinde visited Vidarbha in an exercise of damage control just before the Prime Minister's anticipated visit. Shinde said that farmers should have no problem getting loans since the government had ordered banks to convert short-term loans into long-term ones. The Chief Minister also instructed district administrations to prepare for a drought situation by starting employment works and providing for the supply of drinking water and foodgrains. However, there has been no mention of compensation for crop loss, which in any case is not a permanent solution.

Mass suicides associated with the agricultural crisis have been reported in Vidarbha since 1986. In 1987, more than 80 suicides occurred, and in 2001, 90 were reported. The underlying factors that have led to such distress need to be tackled. Agriculture is no longer viable for most cotton farmers here. "Whatever we get at the end of the crop season goes into repaying the loans. Yet, every year, we continue to sow the fields, hoping that it will be better. What else can we do? This is the only work we know," said Namdeo Maraskoche, a farmer from Pada village. Last year, after paying off some old debts, he was left with Rs.7,000 - hardly enough to sustain his family. His family works on other people's fields and earns a daily wage to survive. (Agricultural wage rates are Rs.40 for men and Rs.25-30 for women, far below the government-fixed minimum wage of Rs.90 and Rs.70 respectively.)

After liberalisation policies were introduced, agriculture has become unprofitable. The cost of inputs - seeds, fertilizers, pesticides - has risen dramatically. Market prices for farm produce have not kept pace. Even with a good crop, farmers barely break even, and a bad crop can spell disaster. This vulnerability is heightened by the absence of sufficient rural credit. Bank interest rates for farmers are around 14 per cent, much higher than those for urban consumers. Crop loans sanctioned by banks cover barely 70 per cent of the input costs, say district officials. Farmers claim that bank credit provides for only 15 per cent of their needs. They rely on moneylenders and traders for the rest, who charge interest at rates varying between 30 and 120 per cent a year, which is enough to kill any hope of a surplus.

Vidarbha's farmers mainly grow cotton, soyabean and jowar during the kharif season. Most crops are totally dependent on the monsoon. Only 15 per cent of Maharashtra's gross cropped area is irrigated, as against the national average of 32.9 per cent in 1989-90. Amravati division's share of gross cropped area under irrigation is a meagre 9 per cent, says Divisional Commissioner N. Arumugam. Government expenditure on rural infrastructure has also shrunk. Vidarbha has several irrigation projects, which have not yet got off the ground. Development funds have not been utilised, says Opposition leader Nitin Gadkari.

Yields in Maharashtra, especially for cotton, are low. Farmers keep experimenting with costly new varieties of hybrid seeds in the hope of getting better crops. Pests have become resistant to pesticides, so farmers keep increasing the doses of deadly pesticides such as endosulphan, which are banned in other countries. The unregulated commercialisation of agriculture has resulted in further losses for small farmers.

Maharashtra's Agriculture Minister Govindrao Adik denies that the suicides have any connection with government policy. "What can the government do if the rains fail?" he asked. Adik went on: "The suicides occur for different reasons - some victims were very poor, others had drinking problems, some may have been gambling. What can we do? Are we responsible? In the past also there have been suicides. Why are the media highlighting them now?"

Considered one of Maharashtra's least developed regions, Vidarbha has seen not only farmer's suicides but also malnutrition deaths in its tribal areas.

Vidarbha has of late been an important political battleground. The BJP-Shiv Sena has made inroads into this traditional Congress stronghold. In the recent Lok Sabha elections, the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance won only one of the 11 seats. A few local politicians have also been demanding separate statehood for the region. They complain that it is neglected by the State government compared to western Maharashtra, the domain of politically connected sugar barons. With the State elections in the next few months, the Congress-NDA alliance government has woken up to the suicides.

Jitru Kannake's family at 13th day ceremony after his death. He committed suicide on July 4.-

But how much will that help Jitru Kannake's family? A farmer from Vadavna Bazar village, Jitru killed himself on July 4. He sowed his nine-acre farm three times hoping for rain. The most recent sowing cost him Rs.29,000. His debts kept mounting. He had other outstanding loans, including one of Rs.50,000, which he took for his children's marriage in May. "He gave last year's entire crop to the moneylender. Still, he had to pay him Rs.20,000 more. Then, there were bank loans pending. And he borrowed Rs.50,000 for the weddings. There seemed no hope of ever paying back," said his son Ganesh. "Farmers never have their own money. We have to keep borrowing from somewhere."

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