You are Right, Mr. Advani, The Farmer isn’t Feeling Good
February 28, 2004
Meeting a group of farmers last week, the Deputy Prime Minister said the rural sector had reason not to feel good. Tehelka correspondents fanned out to figure the truth about the condition of our farmers. A report from India’s crisis-ridden rural heartlands put together by VK Shashikumar
To the passing eye, Harikishenpura in Bhatinda is like any other Punjab village. But linger a moment and you will find something unsettling here, something almost surreal. And soon enough you know why. The village of 125 families has put itself up for sale. “We have asked Raja sahib (referring to chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh) to buy whatever remains of our village,” says farmer Jarnail Singh, defeat and resignation writ on his face.
The farmers of Harikishenpura once owned 1,170 acres of fertile agricultural land; they are now saddled with just 500 acres of broken, fallow earth. Banks and moneylenders have confiscated the rest.
“The banks, cooperative societies and other lending agencies would come to our doorsteps and cajole us to take loans. Everything was there for the asking when the times were good. Now they only come to hound us,” says Roop Singh who owes the State Bank of Patiala Rs 4,00,000; he does not know how he will pay that back.
Their death knell was sounded fourteen years ago when they took to cotton as their primary crop. The first two years fetched them bumper dividends producing as much as 1,000 kg per acre. However, the initial euphoria died down when bollworm pests began destroying the crop year after year.
“Initially we need just three or four sprays of pesticide to kill the insect, but gradually the number of sprays increased and now even 30 sprays are not enough to kill the insect,” says Lal Singh the nambardar (village record keeper) of Harkishenpura.
Today the productivity per acre has reduced by more than 60 percent and the farmer considers himself lucky if his field yields 350 to 400 kgs of cotton per acre. With little productivity and burgeoning costs of pesticides, the farmers resorted to loans. Now, they stand indebted for life; so indebted they have had to resort to the bizarre remedies like putting their village up for sale.
Harkishenpura’s collective debt stands at over Rs 4 crores. The village panchayat is serious about selling the village. The villagers in one of India’s richest agrarian states, meanwhile, wait to live, die or become insane. More than 20 farmers from Harikishenpura travel to nearby towns, Rampura and Balawali. They work as daily labourers in the vegetable markets and bring home around Rs 60 every day. The once prosperous cotton farmers of Punjab now struggle to eke out a living for their families and themselves.
A grey shroud has fallen over Punjab’s green revolution. There couldn’t be a more torturous irony than this. The farmers of Punjab who played a stellar role in making India self-sufficient in food grain production now despair for a turnaround. But many have given up already. In the last couple of years eight Harikishenpura farmers have killed themselves, unable to bear their crop failures. Five have gone insane in trying to figure out their reversal of fortunes. The once fertile and prosperous rural outback of Punjab has turned into a remorseless killing field.
“I lost both my brother Shabia Singh and sister-in-law Nazeem Kaur, because they lost all their pride after being under debt for nearly five years and did not know how to return the money,” says Kunda Singh a farmer of the village.
The burden of paying back the Rs 7 lakh loan has now shifted to Kunda who has inherited the four acres of land after his brother death. He, too, has this vacant look in his eyes. Is he thinking about hope or about the future? Maybe, future because ever so often he breaks down and cries the silent the cry. “Even if I sell all of the land the maximum it will fetch me is four lakhs,” he says in a matter-of-fact manner. Its almost like the last line of a suicide.
If such is the shape of the farmer in Punjab, the cradle of the Green Revolution, it’s probably no surprise he is much worse off in other parts of the country. The farmer isn’t feeling good, his India isn’t shining. And that’s bad news for all of us because this remains a country whose majority lives in and off the village.
In India’s north eastern states, however, banks and cooperative societies are wary of giving loans. In Assam the farmers complain of being unable to avail of the facilities provided by government schemes.
Batuwa and Golap Boro, farmers in Sonapur village, barely 25 km from Guwahati are preparing to sow their second crop of the year but do not know where the money to buy the seeds is going to come from. “Whatever rice we produced last year was consumed by the entire family over the past six months. There is no cash in hand for purchasing seeds,” Golap at 50, the elder of the two brothers says.
Hasn’t he heard of governments and banks giving out loans? “Those schemes are all on paper Sir. Despite several attempts for the last so many years, we have not been able to understand the system of getting loans. Every visit to the block office is futile and time consuming,” says Batuwa.
Across the breadth of the gangetic plain farmers share a unique, albeit, tragic kinship. Take, for instance, the 52 farmer families of Paramanandapur village in Orissa’s Bargarh district. They once earned their livelihood from agriculture. The lush green fields have now become dust bowls.
Nothing grows here anymore except for rising gusts of dust storms. Five years ago a severe drought hit this village. Ever since the women, children and men in this nondescript village have lived in hunger and penury.
For five months in a year, after monsoon rains fill up the dry katas (ponds) these villagers cultivate paddy in their small patches of land. “We earn some money but it is difficult to survive in the other seven months of the year,” says Ranjit Bibhar.
Bibhar, like most others, is a marginal subsistence farmer with a small patch of land. Years of unremunerative agriculture have forced many of his fellow farmers to sell their land. “We have become landless wage workers,” says Bibhar. “At least 15 people of our village have migrated to Andhra Pradesh and Raipur, capital of Chhattisgarh, to work in brick kilns as daily wage labourers,” says Dhruba Chechama, another farmer.
Thousands of farmers across the country find themselves helplessly trapped in a downward spiral of mounting debt and diminishing returns. Their quest for survival is swelling the ranks of daily wage workers in the country.
And all this while, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre has covered up the dark truth about the inexorable impoverishment of the Indian farmer; it has lied about the desperate straits he is in. On the Punjab issue, the government officially announced in the Lok Sabha that “an NGO documented alleged cases of suicide by farmers” and then took refuge in technicalities, stating that “the issue is sub judice before the Punjab and Haryana High Court.”
Clearly, ‘all lies on deck’ is the rallying cry of a government hell bent on making India feel good about itself. Take, for instance, another murderous lie: “No report has been received from any state regarding suicides by farmers during July 2002 to June 2003.” This was stated on the floor of the Lok Sabha on July 21, 2003. However, the government’s own records show 191 farmers committed suicide in 2002 in Andhra Pradesh.
In neighbouring Karnataka, 850 farmers have committed suicide in the last 10 months. In Kerala thirteen farmers, mainly from the plantation-rich Wynad district, have committed suicide in the last three years. Most of them had pledged t
heir properties to the local co-operative banks. The recovery procedures from the banks, including confiscation of their houses, led to their suicides.
Paddy fields are dry and uncultivated in most parts of Kerala today. The once famous Palakkad and Kuttanad fields wear a deserted look. Not only labourers and farmers with small holdings, even those with larger acreage are thinking twice before seeding their patches because agriculture has become unproductive and their debts are mounting.
For the rubber farmer in Kerala ,there is a slight recovery in the last year. But he knows very well that the price fell earlier due to entry of foreign rubber into the Indian market due to policy dilution.The increased competition led to the present recovery.“ This can end anyday and I am planning to sell my small estate and set up a shop or something or go to the Gulf’’. says newly wedded Aravindan off Pathanamthitta. Aravindan’s had been a family of traditional rubber farmers.His father had to sell nearly 50 percent of the holding before passing away, and passing the burden down.
This is a far cry from a situation ten years back when most of the `rubber kids’ went to schools and colleges in newly bought Marutis.
The plantation sector, coffee or tea, suffers equally.With the market hit badly, the plantation owners have cut down the wages .Unheard in the history of Kerala.Not resisted by the weak labourers.
Traditional sectors like coir or cashew are merely surviving.The subsidies extended by the Kerala Government make no difference. Globalisation has hit them badly. A few heavyweights survive.
It would be a shock for outsiders, especially Malayalis living outside Kerala without a recent visit home ,to learn that a nut in the market costs Rs 8. Kerala,named after ‘Kera’, or coconut, today is a seller’s market in coconuts.And who are the sellers? From the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.The diseases which have afflicted the coconut trees in the state have made coconuts a dear commodity.Nobody even bothers to climb the trees in many houses to pluck the dirty nuts.The offshoot industries like toddy are doing as badly.
Death is no longer a metaphor in the lush green lands of western UP. It’s a hard and sad reality. It’s been stalking the farmers of one of the most fertile regions in the country. Travelling through the once-prosperous western UP belt – Mathura, Meerut, Muzaffarnagar, Baghpat, Bulandshahar – you may not get an instant taste of the terrible living conditions. But look deeper and you will find people trapped in poverty and bondage. People do not venture out after dark. As the sun sets, gangs of bandits take over the highways and kuchcha roads. People are being killed for as little as Rs 50.
No major river, except the Yamuna, runs through this region. But despite that, this dustbowl turned into the country’s sugar bowl in the late 1960s. The agricultural pattern of the area changed dramatically with the farmers growing mostly cash crops – sugarcane, potato and vegetables. It brought success and money initially; then cash-cropping boomeranged on them.
Four years ago, a drive through Karnataka’s sugar bowl, Mandya, was a visual treat. Lush green fields of sugarcane, paddy and ragi reflected the resurgence of the farming community. Not any more. Drought has parched this otherwise irrigated land of its water and forced farmers to fall into debt and death traps.
Take the case of Doddabanasvadi, a village about 12 kilometres from Mandya. It has feeder canals from the Krishnaraja Sagar (KRS) dam for irrigation. But in the last three years, these canals have run dry. A trip to the village poses more questions than offering answers.
All its villagers depend on agriculture for livelihood. But debts and drought have made land owners become landless labourers over years. Sixty per cent of Doddabanasvadi’s villagers are agricultural labourers. Their numbers are rising. It’s soil has lost fertility with extensive use of chemicals, say farmers. Canals going dry has forced farmers to either switch crops or dig borewells. Despair pervades Doddabanasvadi.
Thanks to crop failure with scarce rains in the past three years, the only farmers who manage a good crop are those who can afford to dig borewells. Even here, farmers end up in debt to dig a borewell. Digging borewells and fixing pumpsets has even led to family feuds as the ground water table depletes. The region that earlier never needed ground water finds itself in a water crisis now.
Mandya reported 22 of the over 275 debt-driven farmers’ suicides in the State last year between April and September alone. Consider this: Mallaiah, 50, has a hut and a one-acre plot to call his own. To marry his elder daughter, he took a Rs one lakh loan, and spent Rs 1.35 lakh. This was four years ago. It took them all these years to repay the loan. The income from his last crop was minimal, with the sugarcane crushing factory in Mandya not paying him on time. For the last season’s crop, he borrowed another Rs 10,000. He is planning to take another loan of Rs one lakh for his younger daughter’s marriage. Despair has driven him to alcohol and his wife bears the brunt. He beats her up often after a bout of drinks.
Has the government not helped with loans? “They are lying if they say they help,’’ he says. “Whether he places that flower before God’s picture in the morning or not, he needs that drink,’’ says his wife Sarojamma of her husband’s desperation.
Mandya’s social workers say that online lottery promoted by the State government has been an added bane. The temptation of easy money has made farmers take to gambling and losing their meager earnings. That has only compounded their crisis.
In western UP, farmers not used to poverty do not know how to handle it. Their average incomes are down to Rs 400 a month. But they don’t admit that. They take out their anger and frustration within their domestic walls. Women are actually facing the brunt of it. Unable to cope with the crisis, some of them think of suicide all the time. “There is a crisis in all homes. People are on the verge of breaking down,” says Inderpal Singh, a farmer in Shamli.
All marriages in the area in the past one year have been plain and simple; they can’t afford grand shows. They are so glum, they don’t feel like celebrating anything anyway. “In these conditions, we are only concerned about surviving, nothing else. We haven’t seen days as bad as these,” says Rauf Ahmed, who runs a jaggery plant in Bharaut.
Everyone – the old, the young and children are getting caught in the ripple-effect of the crisis in the countryside. The elderly are getting increasingly worried about the youth. Half-educated and not interested in agriculture, they watch television all day and by night they drink. Then, some of them disappear into the dark. In the morning, people hear about a robbery on the road or a murder near the canal. But no one talks about it.
Rural communities in India are on the verge of collapsing into chaos. If appearances are deceptive, it’s here that one has to look.
Farmers in western UP have also resorted to massive agitations in the last two years. It’s just that Shining India has not heard or seen them. The farmers have staged rallies, blocked roads and faced police bullets to demand better prices for their crops.
This is western UP’s paradox – rich agricultural land, bumper crops but not good enough prices and fewer buyers. The government fixes the price of their crops. They can’t sell it for more than that. In most cases, the rate is too low. And in many cases, they even don’t get that much. Result: unsold crop stands in their fields. They burn it as the season gets over. “Until the farmers get the right to decide the rate they want to sell their crops at, this problem cannot be solved,” says Ishwar Singh of Baghpat. Is someone listening?
Reported by Nitin A Gokhale (Assam), Shobhan Saxena (Uttar Pradesh), Arnab P Dutta (Punjab), M Radhika (Karnataka), TN Gopakumar (Kerala) and Sudarshan