On July 31, 2022, Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde chaired a regional review meeting in Aurangabad in which many MLAs raised the serious issue of the increase in farmer suicides in the region. Shinde asked the administration to conduct a comprehensive survey of the situation to help chalk out a plan. The Revenue Department’s regional office brought in agricultural experts, psychiatrists, farmer activists, and agriculture college students to prepare a questionnaire of 130 questions. The questionnaire was then taken to 13,28,482 farmer families in Marathwada region’s eight districts.
A 60-page report on the survey was submitted to the government on June 30, the highlight of which was the finding that more than one lakh farmer families in the region come under the highly sensitive suicide-prone category.
Farmer suicides in the State have been in the headlines for the last two decades. As per State government reports, 26,566 farmers died by suicide between 2013 and 2022. This is an average of 2,657 suicides a year—an average of seven farmers died by suicide every day in the last 10 years. This figure is shocking for Maharashtra where policymakers continuously speak of farmers’ welfare.
The survey data revealed that more than 80 per cent of the farmers who died by suicide were aged between 18 and 60 and were mainly small- and medium-scale landholders. Of these, 93 per cent were married, increasing the number of people impacted by the issue.
The report also states that farmer suicides, especially in the Marathwada and Vidarbha regions, are linked to loans taken from private moneylenders. Multiple factors, including crop loss due to drought and heavy rain, and medical expenses force farmers to approach private moneylenders who charge usurious rates of interest. Farmers need immediate money and are left with no choice but to depend on these lenders.
55 per cent of Maharashtra’s population of over 12.5 crore is dependent on agriculture, directly or indirectly. It includes those who work in the micro, medium or mega industries dealing in seeds, fertilisers, agricultural apparatus, and so on. Agriculture’s share in the State’s total income is 11.9 per cent. According to the State’s Economic Survey for 2021-2022, there are 1.53 crore agriculture account holders. The total land being used for cultivation is 204.66 lakh hectares, and the average land holding in the State is 1.34 hectares, about three acres.
Sunil Kendrekar, Aurangabad Divisional Commissioner, while submitting the report to the government, attached a nine-page note to it, which has since become the talking point. Kendrekar suggested shutting down all ongoing farmer welfare schemes and, instead, giving Rs.25,000 a hectare, or Rs.10,000 per acre, to each landholder.
The Maharashtra government refused to accept the report. Maharashtra Relief and Rehabilitation Minister Anil Bhaidas Patil, in a written reply to the Assembly on July 26, said that it was “not feasible and thus the State government won’t accept it”. Sanjay Shirsat, a Shiv Sena (Shinde) MLA from Aurangabad district, asked, “Why has [Sunil] Kendrekar given such a report? He should tell us what he was doing as an officer during his years in service.” Kendrekar resigned within two weeks of submitting the report.
Maharashtra has 206.95 lakh hectares of land in cultivation, which includes 152.97 lakh hectares for kharif and 53.98 lakh hectares for rabi crops. The total grant amount thus works out to Rs.51,737 crore. Even if all existing schemes are cancelled, the amount saved will amount to Rs.31,595 crore.
Kendrekar’s note has created political buzz, especially since the Bharat Rashtra Samiti (BRS), Telangana’s ruling party, has been trying to gain ground in Maharashtra. Telangana Chief Minister and BRS chief K. Chandrashekar Rao has addressed seven rallies in Maharashtra so far, and his target area is Marathwada and western Vidarbha where small- and medium-scale farmers have been facing a serious agricultural crisis over the last two decades. The BRS is trying to capitalise on the note.
Telangana has the ‘Rythu Bandhu’ scheme, expected to cover 70 lakh farmers in 2023, under which farmers with 10 acres or less land get Rs.5,000 a year as cultivation assistance. Andhra Pradesh has the Rythu Bharosa scheme, with a similar focus. Both States, however, continue to implement all other Central and State agriculture welfare schemes.
The budgetary allocation for Rythu Bandhu in 2023 is Rs.15,079 crore, while that for Rythu Bharosa is Rs.4,020 crore. Compared with this, to implement Kendrekar’s suggestion Maharashtra will need Rs.51,000 crore. Even if money is given only to farmers with holdings of less than 10 acres, it will cost the government around Rs.30,000 crore.
FACTBOX: Will Sunil Kendrekar’s suggestions help farmers?
Farm activists and agriculture experts have serious objections to the scheme, not to mention that the scheme does not cover tenant farmers. Ajit Nawale, general secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha, said, “Schemes like benefits for buying tractors or other apparatus need to be reviewed and if possible closed. But schemes like food security must be strengthened. The money saved through personal benefit schemes can be used for direct transfer of money to farmers.” Nawale said that heavy expenses on health were also a reason for farmer suicides. “Governments should strengthen civil hospitals and offer free treatment for all possible diseases. This will help farmers save money in a major way.”
Raju Shetti, former MP and farmer leader from Kolhapur said that shutting down all farmer welfare schemes was not the right way to deal with the problem. “The government cannot be a corporate entity that gives salary to employees and ignores their issues,” he said. “The government is a welfare state. Shutting down welfare schemes will be a fundamental mistake.”
Transferring money instead of running welfare schemes is a neoliberal thought that is contested worldwide. Maharashtra’s social activists are already fighting the proposal to shut down the public distribution system and begin transferring money to beneficiary accounts directly. Sanjay M.G., a veteran social activist, said, “Right now, it is just a note by an IAS officer. But this idea itself is dangerous where an officer takes the liberty to suggest stopping welfare schemes. Transferring money to farmers is okay but not at the cost of the welfare state.”
The idea evoked a mixed response fromfarmers that Frontline spoke to in the Marathwada belt. Beed’s Dhondarai village of Georai tehsil has seen 14 suicides in the last three years, the most recent on August 2.
Mahadev Dasharath Sakhare, 35, died by suicide due to his inability to repay heavy loans. He had spent almost Rs.4 lakh on his father’s knee operation two years ago and could not repay the amount to a private lender. Mahadev lived with his wife, parents, and four other family members. He had bought a tractor for which he did not receive a subsidy despite repeated requests to the Agricultural Department.
The family has three acres of land on which they cultivate cotton and soybean. “The cultivation cost for cotton per acre is Rs.15,000; our total cost is Rs.45,000. We grew six quintals of cotton this year. (One quintal is 100 kg). The rate we got per quintal was Rs.6,500 and we made Rs.39,500. It is a loss-making business now,” said Mahadev’s brother Balu.
Mahadev’s family supports Kendrekar’s suggestion. “It will help us to survive,” Balu said. The family was ready to sacrifice all other benefits under various schemes for an annual financial grant.
Sima Ashok Sakhare, 54, is also from Mahadev’s village. She said, “Money comes and goes. But if we have guarantee of wheat and rice from the ration shop, our children won’t sleep hungry. It helps many families survive in tough times.”
In Borkhed village of Beed tehsil, Sambhaji Arjun Ashtekar died by suicide on March 7. He was 23. His family comprises his parents in their 60s and an older brother with a mental disability. Arjun, though young, used to run the farm. The family has six acres but no proper irrigation. This year, they were expecting good money for their onion crop. But when kharif onion crop prices fell in February, their dreams were shattered.
Arjun’s father said, “Monetary help is important, but we need the security of crop insurance and food ration too.” As his wife pointed out, “We lost our son. If the government stops giving food, then it will become very hard for us. Money is necessary but guarantee of food is more important.”
The flagship Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana is a scheme that insures farmers against extreme weather events. Farmers pay 1.5 to 2 per cent of the premium and the rest is borne by the State and Central governments. It is a Central government scheme implemented by State agriculture departments as per the Centre’s guidelines. In this year’s Budget, the Maharashtra government announced that the farmers in the State would be able to insure crops by paying just Rs.1 as their share of the premium.
Farmer welfare schemes are regularly announced and, as regularly, replaced, but the number of suicides keeps rising. The reasons vary from natural disasters to the rigid approach of the bureaucracy and government indifference. The situation has worsened in the past five years with unseasonal rains washing away crops every season. Ensuring reasonable prices for crops, creating a network of agriculture-based industries such as dairy, and covering farmers’ medical and educational expenses are the only ways to help them survive.
- Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde requested a comprehensive survey to address farmer suicides in Marathwada, resulting in a 60-page report. Notably, the survey identified over one lakh farmer families as highly suicide-prone in the region.
- The report by Sunil Kendrekar, Aurangabad Divisional Commissioner, gained attention as Kendrekar proposed discontinuing ongoing farmer welfare schemes and, instead, offering Rs.25,000 per hectare or Rs.10,000 per acre to landholders.
- The Maharashtra government declined to adopt the proposed scheme. Farm activists and agriculture experts also expressed strong reservations regarding this initiative.