Distress and death

Print edition : March 08, 2013

R. Devi of Koorathangudi village in Nagapattinam district.

S. Selvi, wife of Samabasivam who committed sucide at Alathur village in Tiruvarur district. Photo: M. Moorthy

Salamad Begum, wife of S. Abdul Rahim who comitted sucide at Aandangarai village. Photo: M. Moorthy

R. Banumathi, wife of R. Ramesh, a Dalit farm worker who committed sucide at Kezhuvathur village. Photo: M. Moorthy

A VISIBLY shattered Devi could not control her tears when she started narrating the circumstances that pushed her husband, T. Rajanagam, to end his life. Vishwa, her four-year-old son, was playing with a cousin in the front yard of the tiled-roof house at Koorathangudi village in Nagapattinam district unaware of the tragedy that had struck his family. Rajanagam, 31, committed suicide on November 24 after his efforts to salvage the samba crop raised on six acres of land in the tail-end region of the Cauvery delta failed.

Rajanagam used to pledge his wife’s jewels every year to raise funds for his farm operations and often redeemed them after harvest. This year, however, he faced a severe financial crisis. He pledged Devi’s jewels as usual but the available funds were inadequate for agricultural operations. He raised a loan from private moneylenders at a high rate of interest. Although he opted for direct sowing in order to conserve water, he suffered a blow as the crops were destroyed by the rainwater dumped by the ‘Nilam’ cyclone. Without losing heart, he started the cultivation process afresh with the hope that water flow in the canal close to his land would help him manage to raise a crop. But the flow stopped and his last-ditch efforts to irrigate the field did not succeed.

Rajanagam started brooding over the grim future that awaited his family. He spent most of his time in the fields, staring at the wilting crop, and even stopped eating a few days before he ended his life. When Devi called him to have dinner on November 24, Rajanagam reportedly went away to the backyard of the house, only to consume a powerful pesticide. He was taken to the government medical college hospital in Tiruvarur, where he died. “I don’t know what to do now,” Devi laments.

However, Devi is not alone in bearing the brunt of the agrarian crisis that has gripped the delta region.

People living in areas in and around Aandangarai were thoroughly shaken when they heard that S. Abdul Raheem had hanged himself from a tree in broad daylight on December 8. “I never had an inkling that he would resort to this extreme step,” Salamad Begum, wife of the 55-year-old small farmer, said. He had lost all hope of salvaging the samba crop raised on his two-acre land.

R. Ramesh, a 30-year-old Dalit farmer of Kezhuvathur village in Tiruvarur district, ended his life by consuming a pesticide on January 18. Four years ago, he went to Kerala as a migrant worker. After returning to Kezhuvathur, he took four acres of land on lease and raised the samba crop with funds borrowed from private moneylenders. “He has ended his life, abandoning me and my three children,” his helpless wife, Banumathi, said.

‘Elephant’ G. Rajendran, an advocate, filed a public interest petition in the Madras High Court in December seeking a compensation of Rs.20 lakh each to the families of farmers who “committed suicide in the delta due to crop failure”. But the State government contended on January 12 that it was not correct to say that farmers were committing suicide. Official records showed that the deaths were due to health or family problems. There were also “accidental deaths”, it maintained.

When the issue was raised in Parliament, MPs representing the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) denied that farmers were committing suicide in the State. The issue found its echo in the State Assembly, too. When Members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) brought it to the notice of the government on February 5, the government denied any suicide on account of distress in farming.

While announcing a relief package for the delta farmers, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa said Rs.3 lakh each would be disbursed to the families of nine farmers “who committed suicide, even though crop failure was not the cause”.

Unofficial sources claimed that the agrarian crisis had claimed the lives of 17 persons, including 10 small and marginal farmers. Others had died of heart attacks and shock, they said. The deaths were mainly due to indebtedness triggered by crop failure. In some of these cases, the first information report registered by the police had also acknowledged this fact. Apart from the Cauvery tangle, the cyclone ‘Nilam’ also played havoc with the lives of farmers. Almost all the victims had taken loans from private moneylenders at exorbitant rates of interest. The deaths had occurred in Nagapattinam, Tiruvarur, Thanjavur, Pudukottai and Cuddalore in the delta zone and Virudhunagar district in southern Tamil Nadu.

A two-member independent fact-finding team,which visited the delta districts of Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam, has confirmed distress in farming as the major reason for all the suicides. S. Kannaiyan and Jayaram Venkatesan, in their report released on January 25, said four of the seven cases taken for study—Rajanagam of Koorathangudi, Selvaraj of Magizhi (both Nagapattinam district), Abdul Raheem of Aandangarai and Sakthivel of Kadambangudi (both Tiruvarur district)—were suicides. Among the deceased were four Dalits. The report also revealed that six out of seven farmers had borrowed money from private moneylenders at interest rates of between 24 per cent and 60 per cent.

S. Dorairaj

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