Soap opera aims to stop farmer suicides

Ashling O¿Connor in Bombay

  • March 26, 2007

Burdened by crop failures and unmanageable debts, thousands of desperate farmers are killing themselves every year despite the announcement of sizeable subsidies that were supposed to improve their lot.

There have been more than 200 suicides this year in the western state of Maharashtra alone, adding to 1,452 in the region last year. Official estimates put the death toll since 2001 on India’s western and southern farming plateaus at more than 5,000; unofficial surveys suggest that the number could be near double.

Faced with these alarming statistics, state officials have produced a docu-soap as a way of engaging with increasingly depressed and disenfranchised farmers.

The half-hour programme will run for three months initially on Sahyadri, the Marathi language channel belonging to Doordarshan, the state-owned national television network.

The concept is part enactment and part reality TV. A handful of professional actors would be required for some storylines but the central creative thread is that the farmers are the stars of the show.

The aim is to educate farmers on emerging cultivation methods, diversification options, available subsidies and loans as well as offer tips and counselling for dealing with a harsh and unwanted existence.

A popular quip among the 650-million-strong agricultural workforce is that, given the choice, they would rather be reborn a European cow than an Indian farmer.

Government officials are discussing deals with two production companies and hope to release the programme on June 6, World Environment Day.

“Television is a very important medium. It has a far reach, which means we can address their problems directly,” Leena Mehendale, principal secretary of Maharashtra’s animal husbandry department, said.

“One farmer can watch the serial and be entertained while another may pick up tips or good practices. The success of the programme will be judged on whether farmers have felt the need to participate and have felt that it will help them.”

The problem of farmer suicides has dogged a Congress-led administration aware that it must include agriculture in the Indian success story if the wider economy is to continue growing at 9 per cent a year and social frictions are to be avoided.

Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister, toured the worst-affected area of Vidarbha last July to assure farmers that their need for a fairer system of credit and improved irrigation facilities would be addressed.

His 37.5 billion rupee (£440 million) relief package has yet to make a real difference. After visits by more than 16 government committees, farmers in Vidarbha continue to borrow from loan sharks charging 60 per cent interest.

Nearly 2.8 million of the 3.2 million cotton farmers are defaulters and for every 100 rupees they borrow, about 80 rupees goes into servicing old loans, according to the Planning Commission. Meanwhile, only 3.5 per cent of the land is irrigated in a region that receives more than 800mm (30in) of average rainfall annually.

The docu-soap idea has emerged as pure monetary measures fail to stem the suicide rate. The Roman Catholic Church in India is thinking along similar lines. It recently began a counselling programme involving street plays, songs and art exhibitions to cheer farmers.

Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, the so-called hugging saint, has also announced a two billion rupee programme focused on farmers’ psychological, emotional and spiritual needs.


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