November 26, 2011 By K.P. Sethunath DC Kozhikode
Suicide is a major scourge facing the contemporary Kerala society with the average rate of suicide in the State staying three times higher than the national average.
Although social scientists started flagging the phenomena long ago, the issue entered the mainstream political lexicon in the state only six years ago with the debt-ridden farmers choosing to end their lives.
The epicenter of farmer’s suicide was mainly in Wayanad district in northern Kerala. The suicide of farmers in Wayanad has to be viewed in the background of the structural crisis facing the agricultural system in the district known for its cash crop economy dominated by coffee and pepper.
The ‘farmer’ tag to the suicide phenomena in the state was prompted by crash of coffee prices in early 2000.
The price of coffee hit a 32-year low in 2000-2001 all over the world, which hit the Wayanad farmers badly. Pepper, the other major crop in the district meanwhile faced a major problem in the form of diseases.
The main pepper growing areas in Wayanad such as Pullpally, Mullankolly and Poothadi were the worst affected forcing many farmers to look for alternative crops.
Ginger, banana and vegetables became the main attractions for the farmers facing a diminishing rate of return from coffee and pepper.
The modus operandi for ginger cultivation was based on taking land in lease mainly in the neighbouring state of Karanataka.
The going was good as long as the ginger price remained high. But, the price of the spice in this year crashed to Rs 500-600 rupees per bag of 60 kg from a high of Rs 2,000-3,500 last year.
According to South Indian Coordination Committee of Farmers Movements, it was the drastic economical pressures which have led them (farmers) to take such extreme measures.
Four out of the six farmers who ended their life in Wayanad four were landless or having negligible holdings, it said. Most farmers have loan liabilities ranging from Rs 120,000 to 400,000.
According to SICCFM major loans were from public sector banks, scheduled banks, grameen banks and cooperative banks. The Kudumbasree (self-help groups) also played a major role in advancing money.
In the case of self-help groups, loans were availed in different names and were pooled together for agriculture activity by one family.
The loans were also spent on essential purposes such as education of the children and medical emergencies, it was pointed out.
A contrarian view
Although most people sympathize with the farmers under stress a section of people were also critical about sensationalising the issue.
We need to address the issue in a holistic manner instead of reacting emotionally, said an agriculture officer in Wayanad.
“We need to address the issues why farmers are turning to short gestation crops taking loans from money lenders,” he pointed out.
The farmers engaged in raising short gestation crops are mainly on leased lands and they are not entitled for financial assistance from banks or other institutional agencies as they will not be able to provide the land as collateral.
The lease rate is also very high with most people charging nearly 100,000 rupees as lease rent per acre, he pointed out.
“What we needed is a comprehensive policy with a view to ensure food security as the primary concern,” said Jose Sebastian, a Wayanad-based social activist.
According to M.P. Veerendrakumar, former union minister and prominent political leader from the area, the issue needed to be addressed in a ‘wider perspective instead of focusing narrowly on the single issue of famer suicide’.
He said reducing the problem to giving relief to the families of the victims could also be ‘misinterpreted as an incentive to committing suicide’.
The impact of climate change in the overall agriculture system in the State in general and Wayanad in particular also needed to be taken in to account, he said.
A comprehensive survey of this change over the decades has led to decreased rainfall, hotter temperature, soil degradation, depletion of water bodies and lesser yields, he pointed out.
Yes, the agrarian crisis that has unfolded the State, particularly, Wayanad district needs urgent government attention. Any delay in solving the crisis will only result in further suicides.