The rich got richer, the poor took their lives

MUMBAI: If India vs Bharat clash is for real, then Maharashtra was unmistakably its epicentre in 2006. The year saw the industrially progressive Maharashtra regain its leadership position by bagging a slew of big-ticket investment commitments, including a record number of SEZs, whereas its rural underbelly kept bleeding.

When urban Maharashtra was chanting the makeover mantra, its rural hinterlands were in the throes of an agrarian crisis. And all this, notwithstanding the Union agriculture minister representing the state.

The worst-hit was the cotton belt of Vidarbha-Marathwada-Khandesh, which reported more than 1,500 suicides in 2006. In relatively prosperous western Maharashtra, sugar-cane growers fought a losing battle for better prices from sugar mills owned by political biggies. Onion farmers in north Maharashtra, too, had a similar tale to tell.

They took to killing themselves when messy policies led to crippling price fluctuations. Floods damaged cash crops like paddy, soybean, and jowar, while bird flu in north Maharashtra gave such a scare that the poultry industry ran up heavy losses. In 2006, rural Maharashtra was in ruins, virtually.

Numbers tell the morbid story. Half of the 1,100-plus farm suicides in 2006 in Vidarbha were reported after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh doled out a Rs 3,750-crore relief package.

In December 2005 when the Vilasrao Deshmukh government rolled out a Rs 1,075-crore relief module, more than 200 farmers had taken their lives. An alarmed Congress government in the state did almost everything that it could in the first half of 2006 to curb the suicide rate.

The state rescheduled crop loans, waived off interest on outstanding debt, banned illegal money-lending, encouraged diversified crop pattern and ancillary activities, and gave direct monetary assistance to widows of farmers. Towards the end of the year, the government even came up with an aid of Rs 1,500 per hectare for cotton growers.

The suicides sparked off politics in the state as well as in Delhi. The Congress subtly tried to blame it all on NCP head honcho and Union agriculture minister, but failed in its efforts, thanks to Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s intervention.

At the state level, the moribund Opposition, BJP-Shiv Sena failed to cash in on the crisis, and the Congress won handsomely in the recently-held polls to municipal councils and Assembly bye-polls also.

The relief measures did make some difference, but suicides continued unabated. In July, an alarmed prime minister flew into the killing fields of Vidarbha and announced the Centre’s package.

The Centre also announced interest waiver, moratorium on loan recovery, and allocation for long-term measures like completion of pending irrigation projects. Post-July, suicides started showing a slight decline, but the larger crisis, which apparently runs deeper than what the suicide numbers convey, just refuses to go away.

The only purple patch in Maharashtra’s farm story for 2006 has been a record cultivation of Bt cotton and projections of a bumper yield. The state hopes to better its record of 25 million quintals yield in 2004, thanks to Bt cotton and other related factors.

The chief minister hopes that the situation in 2007 would offer a different story. “Long-term measures like completion of irrigation projects, institutionalised agriculture credit at 6% rate of interest, and diversified crop pattern would show positive results,” Mr Deshmukh predicts. Sceptics, however, may have a word of caution on the CM’s optimism.

abhiram.ghadyalpatil@timesgroup.com

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