Gujarat's growth

Hype and hard facts

Print edition : March 08, 2013

A drought-hit cotton field in Saurashtra. Around 35 lakh hectares of cotton and groundnut crops have been destroyed owing to the lack of timely rains in Saurashtra . Photo: photographs by ANUPAMA KATAKAM

Bharat Jhala, the RTI activist who exposed farmers' suicides in Saurashtra. A cotton farmer himself, Jhala is fighting for loan waivers and more subsidies for agriculture. Photo: ANUPAMA KATAKAM

The spate of suicides by farmers in Saurashtra and continuing agrarian distress give the lie to Narendra Modi’s assertions of Gujarat being a developed State. Text & photographs

"Wrong things are happening in the name of vikas [development]."

-Laluba Jadeja, a farmer in Jamkhampalia, Jamnagar district, who has lost most of his crop due to the failure of the monsoon.

DRIVING past one massive industrial unit after another on Gujarat’s superfast highways in Saurashtra, it is hard to imagine that just a few kilometres off those roads lie villages ravaged by drought and untouched by development.

The situation this year is bleaker than before. Saurashtra appears to be on the brink of a massive agrarian crisis, which from all accounts can only be addressed by the state. With the cotton crop failing owing to the lack of timely rains, farmers, steeped in debt and seeing no hope of relief, are ending their lives in tragic ways. Chief Minister Narendra Modi had some years ago declared that there were no suicides by farmers in Gujarat. To test the veracity of this statement, a team of activists filed an application under the Right to Information (RTI) Act on farmers’ deaths. The official data revealed an explosive situation.

From 2003 to 2007, there were 489 instances of suicide by farmers in Gujarat. While the reasons for their deaths were not given, it is understood that most of them were due to the victims’ inability to repay their debts. More official data, released following another RTI application last year, reveal that there were 112 deaths from 2008 to 2012. Around 40 more farmers died in 2012 between August and December, according to other sources verified by police reports.

‘Progressive’ image

An informed source points out that the police have not recorded the deaths accurately and the numbers are believed to be much higher. “Typical of autocratic governments, the police and the administration are told to suppress the data or not record them at all,” the source said. “The Gujarat government is notorious for not revealing the truth because of the need to preserve its ‘progressive’ image.”

Gujarat has been trying hard to project itself as a State that is much ahead of others in development and industrialisation. Modi’s “Vikas Yatras” have become well known. The large number of suicides, however, fly in the face of his claims and, in fact, indicate that development in the State is clearly not balanced and definitely not in favour of the poor farmer. In fact, experts say investment in agriculture has been compromised in an effort to favour industry.

This year in the Saurashtra belt, close to 35 lakh hectares of cotton crop has been damaged. Almost 80 per cent of the region’s population is dependent on agriculture and almost every marginal or small farmer has been affected. Yet, experts say, the government appears focussed only on wooing investment from big industrialists, as was seen in the Vibrant Gujarat show held in January. Frontline visited the districts of Rajkot, Jamnagar and Amreli in the Saurashtra region where the harvest, which takes place from November to March/April, has been miserable and distress is beginning to take its toll. In fact, the largest number of suicides by farmers (40, as mentioned above) were recorded after the rains.

The events leading up to these suicides are distressingly similar. Often ultimatums and a barrage of notices from banks prove to be the tipping point for the victims. Banks threaten to repossess their land if the loans are not paid back. Inevitably, it gets too much for the farmer and he ends his life by consuming poison. Sadly, the loan amounts are low, some as low as Rs.10,000. It is a shame that drastic measures such as suicide are needed to get the government’s attention.

Unfortunately, it has been proved in other such farming crises that death hardly solves any problems—in fact, it only makes the situation worse. For families stuck with unpaid loans, having no means to pay them back and with absolutely no relief coming from the State government, it is a tragically hopeless situation. Some of the women Frontline spoke to did not have a clue as to where even to seek relief. Even where the sarpanch was knowledgeable, he or she did not have the resources to help the family out.

Problems may worsen

The crops grown in this belt are largely cotton and groundnut, both of which have failed owing to the scanty rainfall in August last year. As April approaches, it is expected that the crisis will deepen as this is the month the loans have to be repaid.

“We predict the [death] toll will increase unless the State government pays some attention to the problem. They have to waive the loans and launch relief measures, otherwise this belt will become like Vidarbha [in Maharashtra],” says Bharatsinh Jhala, the RTI activist who first filed the application that uncovered the farmers’ misery in Saurashtra. Jhala, a farmer himself, says: “Close to 35 lakh hectares has been affected by the lack of rains. The little yield was not enough to pay back the loan and meet the cost of farming. It costs Rs.15,000 to till one hectare for cotton or groundnut in these regions. Our estimate of the damage this year is Rs.30,000 a hectare. No farmer can survive this.” Jhala, who has travelled across Saurashtra collecting data on the suicides and is a witness to the distress in cotton/groundnut farming, says some of the several related reasons for this disaster can be addressed. Prices of pesticides, fertilizers and seeds have increased.

For instance, the price of fertilizers, depending on the company, ranges from Rs.300 to Rs.1,200 for 50 kilograms and that of pesticide is much higher. Bt cotton seeds cost about Rs.2,000 for 20 kg. An acre (0.4 hectare) needs 30 kg of seeds. Insurance premium is pegged at a huge 15 per cent for Rs.1 lakh and the minimum support price (MSP) for cotton between Rs.800 and Rs.860 for 20 kg, much lower than the Rs.900-1,000 of the previous year.

“The banks have not paid insurance for the failure of crop two years ago. How can we expect anything this year?” asks Jhala. The insurance is taken against the loan amount and a premium of 15 per cent is paid along with it. “They have to declare the region drought-hit and allow us to claim this insurance. Without such a declaration we will not get any relief.”

Defining drought

The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) clearly states that “agriculture is the first sector to be affected by drought. Within the agricultural sector, marginal and small farmers are more vulnerable to drought because of their dependence on rain-fed agriculture. Pressure and fear of losing social status due to drought-induced poverty forces farmers to take drastic steps like suicide.”

It defines agricultural drought “as a situation when soil moisture and rainfall are inadequate to support healthy crop growth”. It states that administrative units for drought declaration also differ from State to State—while some States consider taluks as units, some choose mandals and some others districts as units. In Gujarat, all taluks in the region have to be declared drought-affected for the disaster management schemes to kick in. There are 132 taluks in Saurashtra and not all are very badly affected and hence the region has not been declared drought-hit yet.

The NDMA also says: “The final figures in respect of kharif crops are available only in December, while those for rabi crops are available in March. If drought is declared as late as December or January, relief works will start only after such a declaration. It will be too late if the distress signals have appeared in the wake of rainfall deficiency. Also, if the drought is declared in January or February, the Central Team would visit much after the crop is harvested and it would not be in a position to assess crop losses. To promote management of relief measures in near real time it is necessary to declare early season drought by end of July and mid-season drought (growing season) by end of September.”

Jhala says the authority seems to define drought correctly and is perhaps aware of the consequences, but that is only in theory. Nothing happens after reports are written. Clearly, Saurashtra will lose out this year if the authorities follow the disaster management guidelines—as it is too late to declare the region drought-hit, claiming insurance will be very difficult.

Suppression of facts

“When we did our research, I got the impression there were many more deaths due to crop failure. The issue is the police do not record the deaths accurately and then it is an uphill task for the families to correct the inaccurate records,” says Rakesh Sharma, a film-maker who has made a documentary, called Khedu Mora Re, on the suicides in Saurashtra. The film demolishes the myth of “Vibrant Gujarat”. It researches the farming crisis extensively and speaks about Modi’s lopsided policies favouring industry.

Sharma tells Frontline that unfortunately the administration is completely under the control of Modi and does not have the courage to go against him. Suicides look bad for his image and therefore they are not allowed to report them.

Corroborating this, a district police officer told Frontline: “We have been told not to write crop failure [as a reason for farmers’ deaths] but put accidental death instead.” Such is Modi’s anti-farmer policies that when Kanubhai Kansaria, at that time a BJP MLA, exposed problems in the State, such as those in the agriculture and salt sectors, Modi kicked him out of the party. To this, a farmer reacted: “If he doesn’t spare his own man, what will he do for us?”

Sharma says the crisis has its roots in 2002 when Modi came to power and the emphasis shifted to giving all kinds of concessions and sweetheart deals to industry and corporates. While they say the infrastructure is better in Gujarat, farmers hardly get 10 hours of electricity a day—of this, six hours are at night, leaving little time to run borewells and other machinery. There is minimal irrigation in Saurashtra, and the hope of Narmada waters reaching this region has not materialised.

The toughening of loan recovery norms through the years has increased the pressure on the distressed farmer. “For instance, it is very hard for some communities such as the Darbars to tolerate the stigma of being in debt. They have some pride. So it’s easier to end one’s life than live in debt or have your land taken away,” says Sharma.

Bt cotton is another big area of concern, he says. While the yields have been good, unfortunately, the crop is not resistant to new strains of disease. The problem with monoculture, which has taken place in the region, is that the soil loses fertility. Furthermore, probably the dependence on one crop, even if it is a high-yielding one, should not be there.

Agriculture moves backward

“Once upon a time, the Prime Minister of India said that everything could wait but not agriculture. Today, we can safely conclude that everything has moved on but agriculture,” says Ajay Dandekar, a professor at the Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA).

“The overall context of practising agriculture is untenable for most of the farming households. As the pressure increases on fiscal deficit, the tendency of the Government of India is to cut subsidies. The minimum support price mechanism has failed to meet the needs of the farming households, thus driving them into debt,” says Dandekar.

That Gujarat has given priority to industry is a well-known fact. It, perhaps, is not that well known that the resources to industry have come at the cost of agriculture.

Two arguments are put forth by planners and agriculturists, says an expert who has studied the State’s economy. On the one hand the State claims there is a 10 per cent growth and many agree that there has been agricultural success in Gujarat largely owing to the thrust towards commercial crops. However, activists dispute this, saying the realities are different and the growth rate may just be 3 to 4 per cent. The Saurashtra distress is cited as one example of low growth.

At this time of the year, the cotton market yard, as it is known in Rajkot, should be bustling with activity. However, when Frontline visited the yard, there was the pathetic sight of barely half a dozen farmers bringing in a few bundles of cotton.

“I just sold the last of my harvest. This year I got just five quintals [500 kg] from three hectares of land. In a good year, we get up to 20 quintals. The cotton buyer gave me Rs.748 per 20 kg. That means I have made approximately Rs.18,700. It does not cover my costs,” says Praveen Patwa from Rajkot taluk. In good years, the average yield is 900 kg a hectare.

Falling yields

Saurashtra produces 28 per cent of the country’s groundnut and nearly 25 per cent of its cotton, according to a 2011 report of the Saurashtra Ginners Association. At 26.25 lakh hectares under cotton cultivation, Gujarat is the largest cotton producer in the country. Figures from the Cotton Advisory Board show that while the acreage has remained constant in the past 10 years, the yield has declined. From 772 kg a hectare in 2007-08, production dropped to 650 kg in 2008-09 and to 635 kg in 2009-10. This year, at 611 kg, the yield is the lowest in the past nine years.

The Saurashtra Ginners Association says cotton production in Gujarat is likely to be around seven million bales this year as against 12 million bales last year. Of this, Saurashtra’s production may not cross three million bales, which is almost 50 per cent lower compared with last year. “A terrible drop and a clear indication of a crisis,” says association secretary Anand Popat.

Saurashtra is neglected

Saurashtra is completely rain-fed. Plans to bring Narmada waters to this region have not materialised. “There is no surface irrigation and no move to create it. The problem is that most cultivation in this region is of cash crops, which are input-intensive, and that puts a lot of pressure on the farmer when the rains fail as they are entirely dependent on groundwater,” says Niti Mehta, a professor at the Sardar Patel Institute of Economic & Social Research, who follows Gujarat’s agriculture.

Mehta says it is not fully correct to say that the State government neglects agriculture. “There have been electricity reforms and micro and branch irrigation projects, which have definitely helped the growth rate.”

Irrigation was a major point during the recent Assembly election campaign. Modi, in fact, launched the Rs.10,000-crore “Saurashtra Narmada Avtaran Irrigation (SAUNI) Yojana” to fill the 115 irrigation dams of all the seven districts of Saurashtra with surplus Narmada waters.

The demands of the farmers include declaration of the region as drought-hit in order to get complete loan waiver and payment of higher subsidies on fertilizers, pesticides and seeds. Additionally, they want compensation for the families of those who committed suicide to help them cope with the loss of the breadwinner. Unfortunately, the suicides by farmers of Vidarbha have shown that once compensation is given, the suicide rate increases as farmers believe that it is better for them to kill themselves so that the families can claim the government payout. Hopefully, Saurashtra will not reach this extreme state.

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