The government hasn’t reached Vidarbha’s farmlands, but its poison has. Sonia Faleiro ventures into the hinterlaland to discover cataclysmic tales of deprivation and despair wreaked by Bt Cotton cultivation
Bunty Bhoyar’s screams singe the hot, dry air of Kosara village in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district. The five-year-old in his torn shorts and T-shirt, mucus smeared across his face, body dusty from playing in the mud, cries himself into exhaustion as he awaits comfort his family can no longer offer him. His mother Lata, 25, is picking cotton; his brother Shubham, seven, is enjoying what may be his last days in primary school; his grandmother Gangubai, who cooks and cleans for the family, sits in the kitchen, stirring gruel for her grandson with a weary hand. On October 19, 2005, Bunty’s father, Lokeshwar Keshavrao Bhoyar, 30, committed suicide, jumping into the well, which for years, sullenly refused to provide water for his fields.
While Bhoyar may have jumped his debt to moneylenders, literally, his family is not as fortunate. Lata, an illiterate housewife, is now a daily wage labourer. She works ten-to-five, earning Rs 2 for every kilo cotton she picks. On a good day, she earns about Rs 120. When her husband died, she borrowed Rs 5,000 from the neighbours for his funeral. She is still unclear about how much he owes, but since his death, she also owes three months’ payment on the electricity (Rs 500), and annual land revenue tax (Rs 200). At night, exhausted and often hungry, she has a recurring nightmare: of moneylenders standing over her, mouths wide, hands outstretched. Their demands reach a crescendo, until the image is a blur, but for a distant well, its emptiness echoing with her husband’s screams.
For seven years in Maharashtra’s eastern Vidarbha region, which comprises 11 districts of which six produce cotton, farmers like Bhoyar have been committing suicide by hanging or drowning themselves, or consuming pesticides like Endosulfan. In these villages, the cries of a new widow are as commonplace as birdsong. From June 2 till November 25, 2005, there have been 136 suicides in Vidarbha. Yavatmal leads with 51, followed by Amravati, 30, Akola, 16 and Awashim, 10. “Pesticide is available in the remotest corner of Vidarbha,” says Nagpur-based journalist Jaideep Hardikar. “But if you want folic acid, you have to walk 50 km. The government hasn’t reached the people, but the poison has.”
The reasons for this despair are multiple, and have escalated over the years. One diseased crop or the misguided purchase of spurious seeds, for example, necessitates a loan. Only five percent of farmers are eligible for loans from cooperatives and banks, usually because of a previous default. The remainder are forced into the grip of private, often hostile moneylenders who extract approximately Rs 500 interest every four months on every Rs 1,000 borrowed. Once this loan is defaulted on — invariably the case in irrigation-starved Vidarbha — the farmer’s desperation for the sale of his cotton and soya bean increases. A fact the government isn’t unaware of. Yet, last year, the government paid the farmers in three instalments over a year from its date of purchase. This year, it’s not only paying less than the market price, it is deducting last year’s loans from the sale price.
While soya bean is harvested and sold in one lot in October-November, cotton pickings occur in several lots from October to February. Unless payment is made immediately, the farmer is unable to pay even the Rs 25 a day to daily wage labourers to help him harvest his crop. “In a normal cycle, the farmer picks his first lot, sells it, and uses the money to pay the previous year’s debt and fund the pickings that follow,” explains Shreenivas V. Khandewale, director, RS Ruikar Institute of Labour and Socio-Cultural Studies, Nagpur. “If the government takes all the cotton and doesn’t pay up to next June, what will the farmer do?”
This year has been the worst for Vidarbha’s farmers since the first farmer’s suicide seven years ago. In 2004, up to 80 percent of cotton growers harvested BT, genetically modified seeds produced by a company called Monsanto. Recalls Hardikar, “When actor Nana Patekar, the brand ambassador of Monsanto, toured this region last year to promote BT, his public meetings had a huge impact. Farmers went for BT in a big way. But it boomeranged badly.”
The seeds, with a starting price of Rs 1,600 (the hybrid variety cost Rs 450 a packet), have demonstrated no sustainability in the parched environment of Vidarbha. This year, the fungal infection Lal Rog struck the fields. Stretches of land in Yavatmal appear a hazy crimson in the distance. From close quarters, the withered cotton, branches red in colour, make for an eerie sight. In the shadow of each failed harvest, stands an entire family, emaciated and hungry. “Monsanto’s claim that a test application would involve minimum pesticides and maximum yield has proved fatal,” says Kishore Tiwari, president, Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti.
The government’s role in this gruesome charade is glaring. From November 12, it began a crackdown on unlicenced moneylenders, arresting 150 in a week. This has only increased the pressure on farmers faced with a failed crop. Says Tiwari, “After 2000, moneylenders became traders, loaning seeds and fertilisers. In return, they would take the crop at a downgraded price. So the farmers faced huge losses. But without them, the farmers have no recourse. The government won’t give them money, but it gives vehicle loans even to defaulting farmers, because it has a tie-up with the companies.”
The per quintal price of cotton has also been reduced by the government by Rs 500, and on an average, a farmer whose cotton subscribes to the standard of less that eight percent moisture, receives between Rs 1,700 — Rs 1,980 per quintal. Further, according to a Water Regulatory Bill passed by the Maharashtra Assembly this year, farmers must pay Rs 580 per acre for water every month.
A farmer, with up to 15 acres of land, earns approximately Rs 10,000 for a year’s toil. With this amount, he must feed his family, pay for his children’s education, save for their wedding, and purchase the increasingly expensive inputs for his land. An import duty of only 10 percent has led to the flooding of the Indian market with imported cotton. Combined with decreased subsidies and spiralling prices of inputs, it appears that the government is turning the screw. “Families are starving, committing suicide,” says Tiwari. “But not one family has been rehabilitated. It is a blot on our so-called progressive society.”
Sushila Tulsiram Aswale is 35; but as she stares at her hands slowly sifting grain in a small steel bowl, she could be mistaken for the grandmother of Mangesh, 19, and Vinod, 15. On September 9, Aswale’s husband, Tulsiram Maruti, 45, uncorked a bottle of pesticide, and poured a quarter capful of the expensive poison down his throat. After her husband’s suicide, Vinod continued his schooling. But Mangesh, who had left his education earlier to become a daily wage labourer, earning Rs 45 a day, was forced to harvest the five acres of the family land as his first step towards repaying a bitter inheritance of Rs 90,000 in debt.
When five bags of seeds produced four quintal of cotton after a year’s work, Mangesh began to feel as cornered as his father had in the days leading to his suicide. “I don’t even know about my father’s debts. I was never interested in farming. And now, I have the tension of feeding my family.” Although Mangesh has picked the cotton, he is yet to sell it.
Like him, an increasing number of farmers are hopeful that the government will augment its rates and are hence biding their time. If he doesn’t wait, and sells for the current rate of Rs 1,900 per quintal, Mang
esh will receive Rs 7,600 to feed his family and maintain his land for the next 12 months. Living on debt so far, the family requires between Rs 2,500 — 3,000 a month to feed itself. “What will we eat?” Mangesh asks, in despair.
The long-term effect of this institutional impoverishment is reflected in the physical deterioration of families like the Aswales and Bhoyars. Since they earn less, they eat less. In every family, the adults take turns to fast, one day each week, to stretch their limited supplies. As habitual debtors, they live in fear of their land being seized by moneylenders. It isn’t unusual for a small plot of land being cultivated by four brothers on an annual rotation. Children abandon their education, and with it the chance of a better life. Sons follow in their father’s ill-fated footsteps. Daughters tend the house, worried into sickness that their dowry, which must be no less than Rs 1 lakh, and the cost of their wedding, at Rs 60,000 upwards, is escalating their parents’ trauma.
“There are families whose girls are unmarried at 24,” says Hardikar, “when in these villages, the maximum age for marriage is 20, maybe 22. Now they’ll remain unmarried.”
On November 4, 19-year-old Neeta Pundalikrao Bhopat, who was studying for her BA, committed suicide. In her suicide note, she wrote, “My family can’t make even a thousand rupees a month. And I have two younger sisters. My parents can’t bear the burden of our marriages when we don’t have enough to eat. So, I am ending my life. Nobody should be blamed for it.”
Women, without doubt, are among the worst affected. Since her husband Sanjay Yadav Jeddevar, 28, committed suicide on November 11, Jyoti is looking after her 11-month-old daughter and one-and-a-half-year-old son with the help of her mother-in-law Sumanbai, 60. The two women are working to repay three loans of over Rs 1 lakh that Sanjay had borrowed from a moneylender, a women’s society and a state bank. After her husband commits suicide, if the children are young, the widow, who may even be illiterate, becomes the sole wage earner, and is responsible for the repayment of all debts.
Since the entire farming community is in a similar cycle of poverty and debt, the widow receives no help from relatives or villagers. “If her family helps her out with food, they will go hungry. Everyone has bought BT this year, and his or her crops have Lal Rog. They may help later in getting the children married by searching for prospective partners, but they won’t give money,” says Vilas Bhongade, a farmer’s activist partnering NGO CRY, in Vidarbha.
In Kosara village itself, an estimated 100 of 1,500 people are living on loan. With two suicides in the last month, farmer Vijayanand Namdev Gowri has this explanation to offer as to why some give up: “Some farmers know there’s no hope, while others keep hoping. But the debts keep increasing, and soon we will all have to make this decision.” Santosh Shamraoji Martawar, 28, of Sutra village became the head of the family after his father drowned himself on September 9. His body was found two days later. Two failed harvests, and harassment from moneylenders, to whom he owned approximately Rs 30,000, prompted his decision. Martawar says, “I would tell him repeatedly that it wasn’t a lot of money, and that we would repay it. But he hated being in debt. For him, Rs 30,000 was too much money.”
Government compensation regulations haven’t been implemented to the advantage of the farmer either. A family has to fulfil 42 conditions, ranging from possession of a Below Poverty Line ration card to the loan having been taken from a bank or cooperative, to qualify for the Rs 1 lakh compensation given for a suicide attributed to crop failure. As a result, until November 2005, only 168 families had received compensation. Each receives Rs 30,000 in cash, while Rs 70,000 is placed in a fixed deposit. In a community without a tradition of remarriage, a widow is therefore sentenced to a lifetime of working the fields. According to activist Prajwale Tatte, “Women tell me that each evening, they stand at the door terrified that their husband may not return.” On November 1, seven years after her husband committed suicide, Meerabai Hatti Chavan of Ambezari village, Yavatmal, swallowed pesticide. Her four children must now take on the burden that their parents couldn’t.
Bharti Kishore Gowri, 30, has three daughters; Poonam, 10; Manisha, seven, and Sonu, two. Her husband Kishore Namdev Gowri consumed pesticide, three days before Diwali. The family had had no plans to celebrate the festival. Like everyone else in Kosara village, the Gowris had debts and a poor harvest — their 4.5 acres had yielded no cotton, and only one quintal of soya beans. “Karz, karz, karz,” says Gowri, were the only words her husband muttered, with increasing helplessness, in the days before he died. On October 29, a few hours after Bharti had left to work on the fields, Kishore bought pesticide from the village shop and while walking down the road to his hut, swallowed some. Gowri’s elder daughters are in school; she works in the fields earning Rs 30 daily, while her mother-in-law tends to the youngest daughter. “I’ll educate my children for as long as possible,” says Bharti. “I have over Rs 50,000 in debt, and one day I’ll have to marry off my girls. But I can’t think about these things now.”
As villages resound with cries of desperation and grief, a family in Yavatmal’s Telang Takari village has no tears left to shed. In 1997, when Ramdas Ambarwar consumed pesticide, he became the first farmer in Vidarbha to commit suicide over an inability to repay his debts. Ambarwar left behind his wife, mother, and four daughters. Perhaps because Ambarwar was the first victim of what would spiral into a phenomenon, and the Sarpanch of the village as well as a graduate, Chief Minister Narayan Rane visited his family and promised immediate compensation.
In 1998, as a result of Ambarwar’s suicide, a government resolution was passed assuring the waiver of bank loans, free education for daughters, compensation of Rs 1 lakh, and free agricultural inputs for three years to similarly bereaved families. The resolution, scoffs Tiwari, was never implemented.
Ambarwar’s wife Saraswati tends the 12 acres of fields, while her mother-in-law stays home with the children. Her debts have slowly accrued. She borrowed money first to marry off her eldest daughter Sushma, 22, then to pay for medicines for her second child Jaishree, who died at 18. While Manjusha, 15, still remains to be married, there are also piling medical bills for the treatment of a yet unidentifiable ailment that Meenakshi, 19, suffers from.
As they slowly walk in the same circle of crop failure and debt that their father felt strangulated by, the girls’ misery is tinged with an unwelcome déjà vu. “His death didn’t make matters better for anyone, only worse,” says Manjusha. “The Rs 1 lakh was spent repaying old debts. And now my mother will spend the rest of her life repaying the new ones.”
Tehelka, December 17, 2005.
Photos: (Late Ramdas Ambarwar’s mother, and daughters Manjusha and Meenakshi; Lata Bhoyar with sons Shubham and Bunty; Farmer at cotton yard) by Sonia Faleiro.
:: posted by Sonia Faleiro, 6:13 PM