Villages for sale in Vidarbha

Print edition : March 24, 2006

Debt-ridden farmers announce that their villages, and some their kidneys, are for sale.

DIONNE BUNSHA in Amravati and Wardha

"Kidney Sale Centre," proclaims a banner sprawled across a ramshackle bamboo tent at Shingnapur village in Amravati district of Maharashtra. The farmers here are threatening to sell their kidneys. "We have invited the Prime Minister and the President to inaugurate this kidney shop. They should allow us to sell our kidneys. We are all ruined by debt. Many farmers are killing themselves. Our kidneys are all we have left to sell," says Madhavgir Champat Giri, who sold all his land to pay his bank loan.

Residents of Shingnapur and other villages such as Dorli, Lehegaon and Shivni Rasulapur in the Vidarbha region have adopted a novel way of highlighting their plight by declaring that their village is up for sale. Farmers are no longer able to survive off the land. Every day, local newspapers report at least two cases of suicide by farmers. Since June 2005, 309 farmers have killed themselves, unable to bear the pressures of huge debts, grim poverty and loss of self-esteem. However, it is the first time that people have protested.

"Earlier, I even had money to dig a well on my field. Now, I have nothing," says Madhavgir. "I sold my land. I can't find work. No one can afford to pay farm labourers. There's no food at home, no clothes. We have become hungry and are roaming like dogs. We just drink water to fill our stomachs and go to sleep."

This once-prosperous cotton belt in eastern Maharashtra has faced the brunt of 15 years of liberalisation. Production cost of cotton has multiplied three to five times, but its market price has fallen from Rs.2,500 a quintal in 1991 to Rs.1,785 now. Prices of other crops have also fallen. Most farmers are running up huge losses and have to borrow heavily to keep afloat. Since most of them have defaulted on loan repayments the banks are unwilling to extend fresh loans. Their only recourse is to borrow from the trader-moneylender at 60 to 120 per cent interest. This has ensured that the farmers are trapped in debt.

"This year has been very bad," says Suryapal Chavan, an All India Kisan Sabha activist from Shingnapur. "Both the soya and cotton crops were washed out by heavy rains. Worse, the government has lowered the price at which it procures cotton by Rs.500. People are worried about how they will run their homes and get money to sow in the next season," he says.

It is the end of the harvest season, but the government has not even opened procurement centres to buy cotton. Yards that were once crowded with bullock-carts loaded with cotton and where farmers waited for days to sell their produce are now deserted. Farmers now sell to traders since they offer a rate that is only slightly lower than the government rate - Rs.1,500-Rs.1,700 a quintal. "There was a time when cartloads of cotton would leave this village. This year not a single cart has left," says Giri. Government procurement is just 6.25 lakh quintals this season where as it was 185 lakh quintals last season. Last year, the government opened 410 procurement centres. This year, there are only 160.

Once cotton was considered `white gold', and Vidarbha's black soil was perfect for its cultivation. There are 2.5 million cotton producers in eight districts in Vidarbha. With liberalisation, the `white gold' became worthless. The government has withdrawn market controls, tariffs and subsidies for agriculture, leaving Indian farmers to compete with farmers in the United States and the European Union who are protected by trade restrictions and provided with billions of dollars as subsidy. The 2002 Farm Bill in the U.S. alone gave $190 billion to large companies growing cotton, wheat, corn, soybean, rice, barley, oats and sorghum.

"Ten years back, the international price of cotton lint was $1.10 a pound ($2.42 a kilo) but now it is 52 cents. The retail price of cotton then was Rs.40 a metre, and it is now Rs.80. Retail prices have doubled but farmers are forced to sell their produce at half the price," says Vijay Jawandhia, an activist of the Shetkari Sanghatana. The government does not even provide proper infrastructure such as irrigation or marketing facilities.

A banner that announces the "sale" of the village.-DIONNE BUNSHA

The Central government can protect its producers from imports and crashing international prices by hiking the import duty on cotton. At present it is only 10 per cent. Import duty on other products such as sugar (60 per cent), rice (80 per cent) and secondhand cars (180 per cent) are much higher. "The government is willing to protect sugar farmers and foreign car manufacturers here but not cotton farmers. Imports have flooded the market and prices have fallen," says Jawandhia.

The U.S., the E.U., Japan and Canada restrict trade from developing countries by keeping tariffs on food products at 350 per cent to 900 per cent. India provides incentives to agricultural imports. But the `free market' does not apply to all agricultural goods. Some are favoured more than others. For instance, Maharashtra's politically powerful sugar cooperative lobby has ensured that sugar remains protected. "The Central government regulates the flow of sugar into the market so that its price is steady. Why don't they do the same to protect cotton farmers?" asks Jawandhia. Left with no alternative, farmers in the region are threatening to abandon agriculture and to sell their kidneys.

The flashpoint in Shingnapur came when suicide struck closer to home, in the village. On the night of December 16, 2005, Jagdish Deshmukh, 40, killed himself by swallowing pesticide. "We held a meeting and decided that we have to organise people. So we started this kidney sale agitation. What other solution? People are so desperate that some would really sell their kidneys, if given a chance," says Chavan.

Jagdish's wife Sangeeta is left to look after their three children and repay the debt. He owed the bank Rs.11,000, but she does not know how much he had borrowed from moneylenders. "This season we got nothing, just 20 kg of cotton and no soyabean. Bank officials came to demand the loan five days before he killed himself. They also came three days after," said Sangeeta.

Now she grows vegetables on their farm and sells them to earn Rs.10 to 20 every day. "We have an electricity bill of Rs.7,000. Yesterday they came and threatened to cut our connection if we don't pay. If they do that, then I won't be able to grow vegetables without the water pump. We'll be left with nothing." Her 12-year-old son Sandeep dropped out of secondary school. Now he goes around the village selling vegetables.

The recession has affected all aspects of village life. People are selling off their cattle. For the first time, landless labourers from Shingnapur have migrated to cities. Meet the `Mumbai Return' gang - the eight who ventured out to try their luck in the big city. Their first adventure outside their village did not last long. "We went to a construction site at Nerul, where we worked for two days. Then there was no work and two of our friends got malaria, so we spent all our money to put them in hospital. As soon as they got out of hospital, we hopped on a train ticketless and came back home," said Maruti Ade, a landless worker.

Maruti and his wife Reena find it more difficult to get work even once a week. Those who own land cannot afford to hire people for work. "Many are shifting to soyabean, and cultivating less cotton and jowar because their prices are so low. That means less work for us, because there is no need for much labour in soyabean harvesting. Cotton harvesting gives women a lot of work, and men are needed for the jowar crop," said Reena. "Those who used to grow tur and jowar and distribute them to us don't have grain in their own homes now."

The crisis has affected all - rich and poor. Meet Anil Tatte of Lehegaon in Amravati district. He won a Krishi Bhushan award from the State government. His innovative farm techniques made his yield double that of other farmers. But, today he is sinking along with the rest of this village. They too have declared that their village is up for sale. He said: "This year I even tried Bt cotton. It is expensive. I spent Rs.80,000 on my 10 acres (4 hectares) and got only Rs.50,000."

The "Farmers'kidney Sale Centre" in Shingnapur village.-DIONNE BUNSHA

Lehegaon, situated in what was once called India's Orange County, was once prosperous. "In the last five years there has been very little water. I have had to cut all the 2,000 orange trees in my orchard. They all dried up," says Anil Tatte. As in most places in Vidarbha, the problem here is irrigation. Only 10 per cent of land in the region is irrigated. In Lehegaon, even private wells have run dry, as the water table has fallen. "The Upper Wardha dam is near our village, but we don't get water from it. Pipelines from there go to the adjoining Wardha district," Tatte said.

The ginning factory in the village, which used to employ 400 people, has not opened this season. Dairy has collapsed. "Ten years back we had 600 cattle. Now we have 60. The price we get for milk is too low. There is a bank here. But now only a few traders go there. Recently the government arrested many moneylenders. Even they have stopped lending. They were the only source of funds for farmers," says Nilesh Tatte, a young farmer.

Residents of Shivni Rasulapur, next to Shingnapur, has also said that they will mortgage the entire village to pay off their debts. "The only time officials visit us is when the bank officers come to collect our loans. Or when the electricity board threatens to cut our lines. Otherwise no one has bothered," said Purshottom Bansod, a farmer leading the agitation.

"I want to sell my land. But no one has the money to buy it," says Arun Chambhare, a small farmer from Dorli, the first village to be "put up for sale". "We are living in darkness. They cut my electricity line. My daughter studies for her Class XII exam with a lantern," he says. Dorli, a predominantly Dalit village, has 47 families, of which 32 are registered as below the poverty line. Many more are sliding further downhill. And many more villages will be put up for sale.

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