Drowning in debt


in Amravati
Sheikh Bhura Sheikh Ramzan has set up his home under a tree this monsoon. He sold his house to pay his debts. “When it rains heavily, we sleep in the village school,” says Sheikh, a resident of Dhanora Fasi village in Amravati.
Even after selling the roof over his head and a third of his three-acre plot, Sheikh still has an outstanding debt of Rs 10,000 with the local moneylender.
Lakhs of cotton cultivators in the Vidarbha region have been crippled by enormous debts after their crops failed due to unseasonal rain, hail storms and pest attacks.
Sheikh doesn’t know how he will make it through this kharif (monsoon) season. “The banks will throw me out. The moneylenders will not lend me any more money. It’s difficult to get work in the fields because people can’t afford to hire labourers. In any case, no one wants to hire an old man,” he says.
While Sheikh has endured the adversity, others have not. More than 80 suicides have been reported in the state so far, 60 from the Vidarbha region. Hounded by the moneylenders and tormented with anxiety about how to find the funds to prepare their fields for this season, they felt there was no other way out.
Manjurabai Thakur found her husband Hari (60) lying dead in the fields two days after he drank pesticide. “For days, he wouldn’t eat or talk. We don’t even know how much money he borrowed. After his death, moneylenders came here asking for Rs 10,000,” says Manjurabai from Januna village in Nandgaon taluka of Amravati.
Manjurabai was forced to lease out her tiny plot. “I try to find work in the fields to run the house,” she says. “When the school term begins, I will request the schoolmaster to give my grandchildren note books. There is not enough food in the house and we wait for the khichdi that the younger one brings back from his balwadi.”

Repaying debts to moneylenders at interest rates of 60 to 120 per cent has pushed several families like Manjura’s to the brink. At the root of the problem is the weak rural banking system here, which caters only to a small section. Bank credit accounts for a mere Rs 256 crore of Vidarbha’s total credit requirement of Rs 2,456 crore, according to Kishor Tiwari, a local BJP activist.
Banks seems unlikely to increase their credit in the near future since they have recovered only 5 to 13 per cent of crop loans, due to last year’s climatic crisis. The few large farmers who do receive credit say that the amount of money given per hectare does not meet all expenses. It is less than half the amount recommended by the agriculture department and the National Bank for Agriculture and Development (NABARD).
NABARD’s executive director S.B. Sharma admits that nationally, banks cover a mere 20 per cent of the cost of agricultural production. He explains, “Since agriculture is considered an unstable business heavily dependent on the monsoon, commercial banks are reluctant to lend. Moreover, with liberalization, they are cutting costs by restricting the number of small borrowers in order to compete with foreign banks.”
Funds in co-operative banks are corners by the politically powerful. “Politicians are on the bank’s board of directors and have total control over the funds. We can see that the money is not reach the most needy farmers,” admits a senior district co-operative bank official.
Pointing out the “bias against agricultural finance”, Mr Sharma explains that both agriculture and industry contribute an equal 26 per cent to the GDP. Yet, agriculture receives only 12 per cent of gross bank credit while industry gets 54 per cent.
Although an “unstable business”, there is not comprehensive crop insurance scheme to reduce the risks in agriculture. “Of the few who are insured, a small handful have been able to claim compensation for crop damage,” says a district cooperative bank official. Only 11.24 lakh of the 94.69 lakh cultivators in the state are covered by the insurance scheme.
Profitability of farm produce is also shrinking, making the farmer’s tightrope walk for survival even more precarious. “Every year, fertilizer and seed costs increase by 10 to 15 per cent. Produce prices have not increased proportionately. While we produce the crop, traders cartels control prices. Why doesn’t the government stop this exploitation and regulate the market?” asks Pramod Lade, a farmer and Panchayat Samiti member from Wardha.
“Early this year, the market price of tomatoes was fixed at 50 paise per kg and brinjals at Re 1. Normally, these vegetables are sold at Rs 15 to Rs 20. Since it would cost us more to transport our vegetables to the market, we decided to let them rot,” says Suryapal Chavan from Amravati.
4 July 2006, The Times of India, Mumbai

Trade: A free for all ?

Trade: A Free for all?

While farmers in developed countries, constituting less than three per cent of the population, enjoy huge subsidies, India actually taxes its farmers. With substantive cuts in subsidies for power and fertilizer, and a fall in the selling price of agricultural produce due to dumping by developed countries, farmers face a crisis that needs to be addressed immediately.
He stood defiantly as the truck hurtled straight towards him. And he refused to budge. The truck did not relent either. While participating in the boycott of British cotton imports, Babu Genu was mowed down by a truck carrying foreign cotton. He died instantly.
Babu Genu’s fight is as relevant today as it was 70 years ago when he was killed on December 12, 1930. He died fighting against the colonial government’s free trade policy, which gave British textile imports an unfair advantage over the Indian textile industry and affected the livelihoods of thousands of workers and weavers. In memory of Babu Genu’s fight against imperialism, the Maharashtra Kisan Sabha held state-wide protests on his death anniversary last month to highlight the adverse effects of trade and power sector liberalisation.
At a Kisan Sabha rally in Dindori, Nashik district last month, farmers said that their livelihoods are being destroyed by the new economic policies. Trade liberalisation, cuts in fertiliser subsidies, reduced infrastructure investment and privatisation of the power sector have adversely affected the profitability of agriculture. While costs of inputs like fertilisers and electricity have risen steeply due to cuts in subsidies and privatisation, the prices at which farmers sell their produce have declined due to the glut of imported products in the market.
“Prices have fallen substantially. I used to sell a tonne of sugarcane for Rs 1,000 last year, but this year, the price is only Rs 500. The price of garlic has decreased by around 70 per cent. We are not able to recover the costs. Debts keep accumulating every year,” said Pandit Gangorde, a small farmer from Shendvad village in Nasik.
Pressurised by the US government to “free trade”, the central government agreed to lift quantitative restrictions (QRs) on the import of 1,200-odd items by April 2001, many of which are agricultural products. During his recent visit to the sub-continent, Bill Clinton managed to persuade India to free QRs two years prior to the April 2003 deadline agreed to by OECD countries.
“Foreign countries give their farmers many benefits. They get huge subsidies. But our government has lifted even the most basic protection for her farmers. Imported products are being allowed to enter India at cheap prices. We cannot compete, and will be totally destroyed.,” said Ambalal Sonvane, a farmer from Varkheda village. He added that small farmers have suffered heavy losses due to the government’s liberalisation policies. “We are being hit from all sides. Our costs have risen because the government has reduced fertiliser subsidies and electricity rates have doubled due to privatisation and deals like the Enron project. At the same time, output prices are falling due to imports.”
Agriculture has borne the brunt of liberalisation on many fronts. Cuts in government spending have resulted in reduced public investment in agriculture as well as smaller subsidies. Dismantling of procurement agencies, greater imports and falling world commodity prices have also reduced profitability. The central government’s Report of the Commission for Agricultural Cost and Prices for Crops Growth for the 1995-96 and 1996-97 season warns that wholesale price indices have not risen commensurate to the considerable increases in the prices of important farm inputs.
Moreover, imports have also reduced market prices. “If milk from Denmark (where farming is highly subsidised) enters our market at Rs 7 per litre, when the current price is Rs 13 per litre, do we stand a chance?” asked Chintaman Gavit, Kisan Sabha Nashik district president in Maharashtra. “At first, the consumer may benefit. But once our domestic production has been totally wiped out, they will be at the mercy of foreign producers.”
Surprisingly, the government can do something to prevent the dumping of agricultural imports, but has chosen not to. Says S.R.Pillai, national president of the Kisan Sabha, “Even the WTO rules allow the government to impose tariffs of up to 300 per cent. But despite this crisis, the government has only imposed tariffs ranging from 15 to 40 per cent. In addition, it can impose anti-dumping tariffs. But it chooses not to exercise these powers.”
India actually taxes its farmers rather than subsidising them, according to an article written by Binu Thomas of ActionAid India. “Each farmer in the developed countries gets on average a subsidy of US$ 29,000 a year. The US domestic support for its farmers was US$25.5 billion in 1996, while for the EU it was US$ 85 billion. In both the US and the EU, farmers constitute less than 3 per cent of the population. In contrast, India’s domestic support to its farmers worked out to a negative US$ 23.7 billion in 1995-96 even after providing for fertiliser, electricity, irrigation and seed subsidies.”
Moreover, trade liberalisation has resulted in bizarre situations where India is exporting wheat at a price cheaper than what most Indians are paying. Wheat from Food Corporation of India godowns can now be exported at the same price at which it is sold to people classified as living ‘below the poverty line’, says economist Madhura Swaminathan. “Millions of undernourished and vulnerable people, who are still classified as being ‘above the poverty line’ have been told to pay a higher price for wheat than the price at which the government is willing to sell the same wheat to foreign countries,” Dr Swaminathan points out.
Concern about the Indian farmer’s survival has sparked quite a few protests of late. Last month, farmers from Punjab held a massive rally outside parliament to protest against the reduction of procurement prices offered to farmers by the Food Corporation of India. The Telegu Desam Party recently stalled proceedings in Parliament, objecting to the central government’s failure to ensure that paddy farmers were getting the minimum support price for their produce. In a recent interview, TDP leader Chandrababu Naidu said that farmers need adequate protection from the adverse effects of free trade and the World Trade Organisation.
The themes underlying farmer’s struggles today ring familiar to those fought by freedom fighters like Babu Genu. From colonialism to globalisation. We’ve come a long way. Or is it full circle?
The Hindu Sunday Magazine, 11 February 2001.

At the margin of economic boom


Rasheeda Bhagat

There is a growing chorus against the viability of Indian agriculture. A checklist of concerns and a wish-list for Budget 2007…

The tottering Mulayam Singh government in Uttar Pradesh faced another blow last week as 35-year-old Maniram, a farmer from Mahoba district, tried to immolate himself even as the UP Chief Minister was thundering at a rally in Mahoba: “Not a single farmer has committed suicide in UP during my regime and those making such claims are Opposition-sponsored agents. Farmer suicides are taking place only in Congress-ruled states like Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.”

Maniram sustained over 50 per cent burn injuries and was in a serious condition. He was protesting the district administration’s “callous approach” in compensating him for the death of his animal. According to his neighbours, Maniram was in dire straits as he had already sold his land to pay back agricultural loans.

Add to this the continuing suicides in the Vidharba region and the agrarian crisis is getting worse as we are on the eve of another Budget.

Shabby governance, outdated or non-existent land records, lack of effective marketing mechanisms or value addition to their produce, bribes and corruption in accessing government subsidies or credit earmarked for them at low interest rates, and inability to access latest technology or agricultural practices have all contributed to making agriculture unviable in India. “In this backdrop, it is no surprise that the small and marginal farmers and wage labourers are increasingly at the margins of an otherwise growing economy. But they constitute the vast majority of India, and status quo cannot be sustained for long,” says Jayaprakash Narayan, National Coordinator of the Hyderabad-based Loksatta, which he prefers to call a `movement’ rather than an NGO.

On the threshold of yet another Budget, the bright intelligent faces of young men from Tamil Nadu one had met at the Infosys campus in Bangalore last year come to mind. Many of them were the children of farmers from Tamil Nadu, none of them wanted to follow the family profession and all of them were thrilled that children from medium-sized farm families were finally going to benefit from India’s booming IT sector. Their one-line answer to the shift from agriculture. “Agriculture in India is not viable.”

So what makes agriculture unviable in India? And what kind of intervention is required to make it viable? What would be a farmer’s wish-list if he could reach his voice to the Finance Minister?

Analysing the various factors responsible for the farmer’s dire plight, increasing numbers opting for suicide and high distress levels among farmers, particularly small farmers and tribals who cultivated their land, Narayan blames the ineffectiveness of our extension machinery; “most farmers are not able to gain from modern technologies for want of knowledge and poor availability of inputs.” He also blames wild price fluctuations adding uncertainty and gives the examples of tomato and onion prices that oscillate dramatically in the 1:30 ratio range. “No farmer can withstand such vagaries when the margin of survival is thin. Even non-perishable commodities like cotton witness wide price range, and farmers have no staying powers or storage facilities to wait for better prices. Industrial lobbies force government to lower tariffs, and OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) farmers often have a price advantage thanks to huge subsidies,” he says.

Also, lack of effective marketing mechanisms, “except in Punjab and Haryana where Sir Choutu Ram’s Mandi Act created vibrant markets” and failure to create a linkage with retail chains have put producers at the mercy of middlemen. “You only have to see the fruit and vegetable markets to understand the plight of the farmers, and even small traders,” he adds.

K. Bhanumathi, Director of the Visakhapatnam-based NGO Samata that works for the rights of tribals in Andhra Pradesh, is sceptical about government schemes coming to the rescue of small farmers and tribals, whose land is consistently being taken away from them on one pretext or the other. “Even the Andhra Budget says it has allocated a large sum for agriculture; but the details tell you that the money is mainly for big dams and big irrigation projects and not for small farmers.”

She accuses the government of taking away land from farmers. “Under the land bank system the banjar (infertile or waste) land that was originally allotted to landless labourers is now being taken away from them for irrigation projects. What is effectively happening is that land is being taken away from one set of farmers/tribals and given to another set that is agitating for land. Empty promises are being made but we find that no real rehabilitation is taking place.”

She adds that any Budget scheme that seeks to help the small farmers should ensure that the land they already have stays with them, and they are given access to water and power at affordable rates.

Bhanumathi doesn’t agree that we Indians are paying too little for our food. “On the contrary prices of all commodities have gone up but the tragedy is that the farmers are not getting more money. The cost of their inputs — water, power, etc — has gone up; so what the government needs to do is ensure that there is more efficient distribution of water and power.”

Echoing Narayan’s thoughts P. Arunachalam, a sugarcane farmer, who also grows some paddy in Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu, says the fluctuating prices of grains hit farmers badly. “The price of paddy is very low during the harvest season and the increase goes up to Rs 200 per quintal. But how many farmers have storage facilities to wait for better prices? Farmers should be given godown facilities at affordable prices. For those who produce perishables such as vegetables or red chillies and tamarind should be given cold-storage godowns.”

With “agriculture being a gamble against the monsoons”, crops should be completely insured and the farmer’s entire family should be given medical insurance, he suggests.

Credit availability

Coming to accessing credit, Narayan says 60 per cent of Indian farmers have no access to credit from commercial and cooperative banks and borrow at 36-100 per cent. “Costs of private education and hospitalisation add to the burden. The cheap credit offered by government can at best reach the formal credit sector. Even there, given the corrupt and incompetent delivery system, there are too many leakages. In any case, government’s capacity to expand interest subsidies is limited, given the fiscal imbalances. There is no substitute to revitalisation of cooperative credit sector. Evidence shows that in most rural areas, the savings are higher than the credit disbursal. Despite adversity, rural people are naturally thrifty. We need to build a strong and viable credit system that can reach all rural families, backed by effective land records management,” he says.

K. Raghunandan, President, Sugar Division of EID Parry, adds that aggressive canvassing by moneylenders and bondage, along with “hassle-free availability of loan from them at much higher rates of interest” was pushing the Indian farmer into a deeper hole. “Add to this exploitation by moneylenders, local customs and celebrations exhausting working capital, and loan waiver schemes by state governments affecting his credit eligibility, most farmers fail to get new crop loans in time.”

He adds that banks give loans to crops like sugarcane as the recovery is assured with the support from the factory with which the farmers are associated. For other crops banks are hesitant to extend loans to farmers who are unable to repay them, as the price of their produce does not match the cost of production. Also, the labour component of farm produce has gone up from 11 to 25 per cent with migration of labour to
urban centres.

Budget wish-list

On his wish-list from the Budget for the agri sector, Narayan says, “Only a combination of daring and innovative strategies, and restructuring of rural economy will rejuvenate rural India.” The Vaidyanathan Committee recommendation to revitalise the cooperative sector should be implemented, but a second dose of debt relief similar to the 1989 Charan Singh scheme is not an option. “Ensure that coops are fully member-controlled, well managed, and financially viable in order to expand their reach and re-deploy rural savings in rural economy,” is his suggestion.

Boosting storage, marketing, and agro-processing through infrastructure, equity and technology support, and member-controlled markets is critical, he adds. For commodities like cotton that get huge subsidies in OECD countries, import tariffs should be raised to protect Indian farmers. “The largest number of suicides are by cotton farmers across the country, and unfair competition from abroad is at the heart of this crisis. Also, a massive boost to healthcare and agriculture will significantly reduce the burden on rural population. Again, altered incentives and accountability are the keys to outcomes. Mere allocations and pious platitudes are not sufficient.”

Economic hubs should be created within rural hinterland, but “with a judicious combination of infrastructure, incentives and market mechanisms. Every family aspires for an urban house site whose value is likely to escalate significantly. This should be leveraged to promote these economic hubs, and encourage skill promotion and orderly migration to neighbouring small towns.”

On what corporates that are directly engaged in acquiring farm produce can do to help farmers, Raghunandan says, “We have an agri crisis because research findings or even inputs like seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, do not reach farmers in time. Add to this the vagaries of the monsoon and lack of irrigation facilities, no assured market for end-products, exploitation by middleman and rising cost of inputs.” Also, monoculture and non-application of organic content led to soil depletion and reduced yield.

Indian corporates, he says, can help by ensuring supply of farm inputs like fertilisers, pesticides and good quality seeds at reasonable cost; reducing the lab-to-land time, providing a one-stop-shop service concept, helping in the introduction of more organic farming and better storage facilities, investing in building food processing industry so that farmers can get remunerative prices through value-added products, developing field instruments to suit Indian field condition particularly for small farm holdings, coordinating with research institutes to improve services at rural level and also playing the role of marketing agencies to export agricultural products.

Land acquisition for SEZs

Narayan says the abdication of government in key social sectors and the appalling failure in education and healthcare impose a disproportionate burden on poor and rural population. “Low literacy and poor health diminish productivity. Access to even indifferent quality private services costs a great deal, and impoverishes farmers and agricultural labourers,” he says.

When it comes to land acquisition and SEZs he feels we have to create equity in land for the small farmer. “Certainly we need to industrialise, or build projects. But the land loser cannot be asked to pay the whole price for economic growth.” He suggests 20-30 per cent more land than required should be acquired and extra land, after development, should be re-allotted to the land losers; this in addition to the compensation at the time of acquirement. Rural people should also be empowered with skills to make them productive workers in non-farm sector, with credit and infrastructural support to help the transition from agriculture to industrial economy,” he adds.


EID Parry’s Raghunandan has these suggestions to help farmers:

Fix responsibility and accountability for extension workers, reward and award system needs to improve.

Reduce gap between lab and land.

Arrange easy availability of inputs in time.

Ensure remunerative price for end product.

Introduce strong and robust crop insurance scheme.

Like other countries give subsidy for agriculture.

Open more farmer training centres in villages.

Direct procurement of end product at field level.

Innovate and identify micro mechanisation suited to rural conditions.

Strengthen existing cooperative system for input service and procurement work.

Improve education and healthcare facilities in rural areas.

Provide water for dry tract and avoid water wastage to sea, improve storage.

Protect agricultural workers by effecting minimum wage rule.

Need-based and result-oriented research.

Mandatory and increased agri-business micro-credit by all lending institutions.

Doorstep services to genuine agri entrepreneurs.

Tax relief and incentive scheme to agri-oriented industry at rural level.

Change present government agricultural procurement systems.

Response may be sent to rasheeda@thehindu.co.in

Where's techno fix for farmers


Bitter Harvest 4
Litres of pesticide did not save his crop, but a few gulps of the lethal chemical ended his life.
Vithal Krishnarao Kamble (26) committed suicide in May, unable to pay back the loans he had taken from the local moneylenders. He did not live to see his son, born a few weeks later.
“Even the money he got from selling his mandap decoration business was not enough to settle his debts,” says his father Krishnarao, who doesn’t even know the extent of his son’s borrowings. What he does know is that Vithal bought Rs 34,000 worth of pesticide from the local dealer to rid his 18 acre plot of every cotton farmer’s nightmare – the American bol worm.
Though Vithal sprayed his fields 15 times, even when he knew it was not advisable to spray more than four, his crop was ravaged. The pesticide was ineffective for two reasons. First, unseasonal rains increased humidity, which is favourable for widespread proliferation of the pest. Secondly, cotton monoculture has made the boll worm resistant to pesticides, even in the most concentrated dose. Moreover, pesticides are only effective during the early stages of the boll worm’s growth.
Vithal’s tragedy illustrates the ill-effects of intensive methods of farming and unscientific agricultural practices, which are beginning to rear their ugly heads. “The green revolution made agriculture more commercial. Farmers, who earlier used indigenous inputs, are not dependent on companies for expensive seeds, fertilizers and pesticides. Never mind how high the costs or the ecological damage caused,” says Udayan Sharma from the Amravati Kisan Sabha.

Crop failure due to unseasonal rain, hail storms and the pest attack destroyed the harvest in Vidarbha causing 60 farmers to commit suicide. The government has announced compensation of Rs100,000 to 19 victims’ families.
Farmers sunk their money in pesticides that did not work. This points to the failure of the government’s agricultural extension services that are supposed to advise them on prudent farming techniques. The administration started publicizing advice about combating pest attacks only after much of the damage had already been done. With extension officers nowhere in sight, farmers were forced to seek advice from pesticide dealers. The same dealers who provide them credit.
Says owner of the Rathi Krushi Kendra, a farm products shop at Phalegaon in Yavatmal, “The farmers don’t know much. I explain techniques to them.” And how does he keep up with the latest farming practices? “Through the companies, of course, who come here with their pamphlets,” he says.
Aggressive and unregulated marketing by seed and fertilizer companies is pushing technologies that may be inappropriate. “In order to promote our research seeds, we cultivate a plot of land and invite farmers to see the results,” says a company salesman. Most of these seeds do not bear the government’s quality control label.
Many seeds promoted as super hybrid seeds fail to live up to the company’s claims. “I bought 100 grams of a Korean papaya hybrid for Rs 10,000. But it did not yield even half the expected crop,” says Suryapal Chavan, a farmer from Nandgaon in Amravati.
While companies go all out to market their products, the agricultural extension office remains far removed from ground realities. “Extension officials’ knowledge is outdated. In fact, it is the farmers who keep reading about new techniques,” adds Mr Chavan. Extension officials never reach the villages, but complete their quotas by conducting farm training session in each tehsil once a year. Moreover, training is conducted in only one crop after which they move on to the next tehsil to conduct training on another crop. Last year, even this was not conducted. “We shifted all our training sessions to Akola because the chief minister was keen on promoting the Israeli system of drip irrigation there,” says an agricultural officer in Wardha.
While the government is trying to promote drip irrigation, which is far too expensive for the ordinary farmers, it has failed to improve basic irrigation. Less than 10 per cent of Vidarbha is irrigated. Even the few irrigation projects are not efficiently utilized. For example, only 10 per cent of the irrigation potential created in Yavatmal district has been used.
This has resulted in excessive pumping of ground water, lowering the water table considerably, says Yavatmal district collector Rajeev Jalota. Heavy use of urea has also led to a soil imbalance.
Although Maharashtra accounts for nearly 20 per cent of Indian cotton production, its yield per hectare is one of the lowest in the country. In Maharashtra, the percentage of irrigated area under cotton is less than two as compared to Punjab (99 per cent), Rajasthan (94 per cent) or even Andhra Pradesh (12 per cent), according to a study by S. Mahendra Dev of the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research.

The Times of India, Mumbai, 6 July 1998

Vidarbha farmers fight crisis, try out low-cost techniques


Feb 22, 2007, 5:45 GMT

Bharsingi (Maharashtra), Feb 22 (IANS) Rather than give in to despondency, farmers in the Vidarbha region have resolved to overcome the daunting agricultural crisis by trying out a set of low-budget, high yield techniques.

As many as 3,500 farmers from six suicide-prone districts of Vidarbha attended a four-day workshop on natural farming in this progressive village near Nagpur and returned home with a pledge to end the sordid saga of suicides.

Most of those who took copious notes of the ‘zero-budget’ farm techniques in eight marathon sessions belonged to the families of debt-trapped farmers, hundreds of whom ended their lives during the last 20 months of acute farm distress.

Giving them lessons on farm operations – from sowing to harvesting – was a down-to-earth agricultural expert Subhash Palekar whose disciples have set up models of successful multi-crop farming at several places in Vidarbha and western Maharashtra.

‘The workshop has given me new strength and confidence to toil on my farm for abundant yield, henceforth using the natural farming techniques taught by Palekar guruji,’ said Pandurang Rathod of village Ambezari of Yavatmal district whose younger brother and sister-in-law had committed suicide in 2002.

‘I will persuade other farmers in my village to adopt the low-budget, high-yield technique and ensure that there are no more suicides,’ he added.

All the inputs that Palekar’s technique involves – such as cow dung and urine; dried leaves and twigs – are available on-farm and thus require little money. Even seeds are supposed to be raised by the farmer employing a treatment that makes them pest-resistant. Besides, it needs less than half the water that conventional farm practices require.

A former employee of the state agriculture department and a farmer in his own right, Palekar has conducted several workshops across the length and breadth of the country benefiting thousands of farmers. Many more visit the models that Palekar’s disciples have been running on their farms with amazing results in terms of both quality and quantity of yield and drastically reduced costs.

A simple treatment with a mixture of cow dung, urine and limewater (‘beejamrut’) makes seeds pest-resistant – they also germinate faster. A more or less similar mixture with a larger quantity of water (‘jeevamrut’) serves as manure. Covering the sown soil with a bed of dried leaves and twigs (‘aachhadan’) prevents loss of water through transpiration and helps maintain optimum soil temperature and humidity, claims Palekar.

A few farmers from Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan also attended the four-day workshop organised by former agriculture minister Ranjit Deshmukh under the aegis of Vidarbha Pragatisheel Shetkati Sanghatan and Arvindbabu Deshmukh.

One suicide every 8 hours

One suicide every 8 hours

Jaideep Hardikar

Vidarbha remains a grim statistic. One suicide in every eight hours. More than half of those who committed suicide were between 20 and 45, their most productive years.  The Maharashtra government says as many as 1920 farmers committed suicide between January 1, 2001 and August 19, 2006. Nearly 2.8 million of the 3.2 million cotton farmers are defaulters, reports Jaideep Hardikar

Suicide count

There are no authentic figures on the exact number of farm suicides in Vidarbha, but the Maharashtra government accepts a figure of 1920 from January 1, 2001 to August 19, 2006. The Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS), a farmers’ movement, puts the toll at 782 from June 1, 2005 to August 26, 2006. And, in the last three months, there has been a suicide every eight hours.

Cost of cultivation

Across the country, the average cost of cultivation in cotton is a little more than Rs 16,000 per ha. With an average productivity of 460 kg per ha, it costs between Rs 35 to Rs 48 per kg to grow cotton. In Vidarbha, the cost of cultivation could go well beyond Rs 20,000 perha and if marketing cost is added, it crosses Rs 22,000. But the productivity is only 146 kg per ha. In other words, the cost per kg is almost double — well over Rs 70 per kg. In Maharashtra, the cost of growing cotton increased from Rs 17,234/ha in 2001-02 to Rs 20,859 in 2002-03.

Right age, wrong step

Among the farmers who committed suicide in the past year, more than 50% were between 20 and 45 years of age (their most productive years), according to a study by the Sakal Newspapers Limited of the two districts, Amravati and Yavatmal.

Cotton area

The hybrid cotton covers about 73% of the cotton area in Vidarbha, whereas desi varieties cover about 27%. Most of these produce medium to medium-long fibre.

Area under Bt cotton has risen from a mere 0.4% in 2002-03 to 15% in 2005-06 in Vidarbha, according to the agriculture department statistics. Only 3% cotton land falls under assured irrigation. Cotton area has declined from 16.12 lakh ha in 2001 to 12.18 lakh ha in 2005-6. Only 3% of it is under irrigation. The shift is towards soybean.


The Planning Commission’s fact-finding mission members found out that nearly 2.8 million of the 3.2 million cotton farmers in Vidarbha are defaulters. Of every Rs 100 borrowed, approximately Rs 80 goes back in to servicing of old loans.

PM’s promise

The Prime Minister in his Rs 3750-crore package jacked up an additional credit flow of Rs 1200 crore taking it to Rs 2000 crore for 2006-07. But the ground situation shows a credit disbursal of less than a thousand crore.

Is there light at the end of the tunnel?

Revive traditional crops. Pump money back into the rural economy, say experts

“In Vidharbha, it is too risky to adopt expensive technologies. Small farmers who take loans for cultivation have no capacity to meet the calamity of crop failure. Traditional crops like jowar should  again be revived. The funds allotted under the Prime Minister’s package for seed replacement should be used to promote jowar, pulses and legumes. Also, organic farming and crop-livestock integration should be promoted on both ecological and economic grounds. Vidharbha can be declared as the Organic Farming Zone of Maharashtra, so that its oranges, jowar, cotton and other crops become known as organic products and thereby gain in market value.” — MS Swaminathan Chairman, National Commission on Farmers

“It’s not true that suicides are taking place only in Vidarbha. They began in Andhra and spread to other parts of the country. But why did farmer suicides begin after 1994? The answer is we liberalised the economy and devalued our rupee. As a result, the cost of energy went up, the cost of agriculture rose and living costs soared. The 5th Pay Commission was a vindication of this. But the farmers remained in a low-cost economy. The promise that exports in a free market would bring profits to farmers was never kept. We imported 110 lakh bales from 1998 to 2004.” — Vijay Jawandhia Wardha farmers’ leader, social commentator

“The point is we need to understand that green revolution has  collapsed. Continuing suicides by farmers is a reflection of that. Suicides are more alarming in those areas where green revolution was pushed with force. But that doesn’t mean there is no agrarian crisis in other areas; it’s all over the country now. A few areas like Vidarbha are peculiar with socio-economic, agro-climatic and other factors. We borrowed a technology that did not fit into our socio-economic milieu. Tractor is today a symbol of suicides. Fertilizers and pesticides have destroyed our natural base. Farmers in Vidarbha and elsewhere are the victims of policies that have siphoned money from the rural economy.” — Devinder Sharma Former journalist, agriculture expert

It's suicidal not to address real problems of farmers




MUMBAI: The state government’s claim that farmers’ suicides in Vidarbha region are in decline has been called into question by the local NGOs and social activists. Though the figures for the past three months offer some solace, the slump in numbers hides the real agrarian crisis and the catastrophe could revisit Vidarbha in 2007 as well, they point out.
According to the government website that has been tracking the issue in six districts of Vidarbha, more than 1,450 farmers had ended their lives in 2006 alone. It claims that the number has come down in the recent months. “Farm suicides due to agrarian reasons have come down in past couple of months mainly because of government measures. There are non-agrarian reasons behind suicides like social problems, general rural distress, family issues, but they cannot be termed farm suicides,” said Sudhir Kumar Goyal, divisional commissioner, Amravati. This apparently is one of the six districts where the state as well as central government’s relief measures are being implemented, and Mr Goyal acts as the director of the government mission.
In December 2006, a little more than 100 suicides were reported from the six districts. This is alarming, but the previous months are no better which had reported between 115-125 suicides. In January, the number was down to 73, and 60 suicides have been reported till February 20.
Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, an NGO engaged in documenting suicide stories and extending relief to the widows of farmers who have killed themselves, thinks that the larger tragedy behind the statistics has not been addressed by the two relief packages worth more than Rs 5,000 crore announced by the Centre and the state government. “Number of suicides may have come down, but the root causes of the crisis have not been addressed so far.
Farmers in general, and cotton growers in particular, are not getting a good remunerative price which could make cotton farming a profitable venture. Very few farmers have access to institutionalised system of lending and the rate of interest on farm credit has not been slashed to 7% as promised. Finally, farmers are increasingly getting exposed to genetically modified seeds without being made aware about the technology and modern farm practices,” said Kishore Tiwari of the Samiti.
There are some who believe that even those suicides which the government claims have not taken place due to agrarian factors must be attributed to the socio-economic plight of farmers. “If a farmer does not have money to marry his daughter, is it not a reflection of his financial status? If there is low productivity, who is to blame for lack of irrigation,” asks Vijay Jawandhiya of Shetkari Sanghatana.
The decline in suicides could, however, be attributed to factors that are not entirely in the purview of the government relief. Measures like a moratorium on recovery of debt, rescheduling of loan repayment and the government’s initiative to marry off farmers’ daughters have helped, no doubt. But the fundamental issues could come back to haunt the region again when the next farming season begins post June 2007, those in the know say.