Sreelatha Menon: Blood cotton, blood silk

Sreelatha Menon / November 27, 2011, 0:43 IST

Greek hero Agamemnon pays for the indulgence of walking on a rich tapestry with a bloody end. For farmers in the country, the aspiration to earn more seems to have become their hubris — whether it is the case of cotton, silk, or even ginger, with the state remaining a mute witness.
They are walking to their deaths on carpets of unsold cotton and silk. Or, cotton and silk that is fetching next to nothing compared with their input costs.

Farmers are killing themselves in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka unable to bear losses. The Andhra Pradesh government has reported 96 suicides in October this year alone. In the case of cotton, the reason is poor crop and a crash in global prices. Also, farmers have put most of their land under cotton.

The government had a minimum support price (MSP) of Rs 3,300 a quintal for cotton when the going price last year was Rs 7,000 and the cost of production is about Rs 4,000. The prices are down to Rs 3,800 in Vidarbha to Rs 4,200 in Gujarat, leaving farmers in huge debts and no other alternatives as far as crops are concerned.

Ashok Gulati, the chairman of the Committee on Agricultural Costs and Prices, under the ministry of agriculture, blames lack of irrigation (just five per cent compared to 50 per cent in Gujarat), rather than uneconomical MSP of cotton for Vidarbha’s woes. Maharashtra needs to invest in irrigation to improve yields, he says.

The suicides are not a new development. These happen every year, almost in same numbers. Only the reasons change. Between 1998 and 2010, 2.5 lakh farmers committed suicide, an average of around 16,000 or more a year.

In Andhra Pradesh, nearly 25 per cent of all arable land was put under cotton, about 47 lakh acres as against 25 lakh acres last year. In Vidarbha, which is rain-fed and too dry for a water-consuming crop such as cotton, half the arable land was put under cotton.

There is this one instance of Allam Sattenna, a 35-year-old farmer who committed suicide in October this year in Perkalaguda in the Adilabad district. He had two acres and had leased three more for Rs 6,000 for each acre. He planted cotton on all and got just a quintal worth Rs 3,000. A bag of seeds alone costs Rs 900 and the fertilizer as much. His debts were over Rs 70,000, his wife Vijaya told activists of ASHA, a group of farmers organisations.

The case of silk farmers in Karnataka was different. The government lowered import duty on silk last year (33 per cent to five per cent) flooding the market with Chinese silk. About 97 suicides have been reported by the state government till this month. The figures were over 200 for 2010-11, according to the state records, which are always lower than central figures

In Kerala, ginger farmers were faced with a crash in global prices compared with last year, Rs 500 a quintal now against Rs 3,000 last year. Suicides have followed.

Agricultural activist Vijay Jawandhia says if global prices are low, the government should give export subsidies to farmers in the form of transportation subsidies, allowed under the World Trade Organisation agreements. Besides, MSP should be revised, he says.

When prices crash, the American farmers never commit suicide. They are cushioned by subsidies of $ 4.6 billion, he says. He cites what Kamal Nath said, when he was the commerce minister, that Indian cotton farmers are pitted against the US treasury, not US cotton farmers.

Political parties are making hay. The Bharatiya Janata Party and Shiv Sena are demanding Rs 6,500 for cotton in Maharashtra while their governments in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh have not offered such a price.

They are the chorus to the Greek tragedy of Indian farmers.

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