Rs 82,000 crore spent, yet Vidarbha is counting its 117th suicide this year. ROHINI MOHAN nails what’s wrong with the Prime Minister’s giant relief fund. Photographs by VIJAY PANDEY
THE STORY AT A GLANCE – Rs 82,000 crore spent, 80 percent farmers left out • Only 11 percent farmers use irrigation, rest depend on rain. Yet, 3/4ths of PMpackage geared for former • Waivers only valid for farmers with bank loans. But 75 percent borrow from moneylenders • Scheme ignores farmers with over 5 hectares, dying or not • Lethal fine print: if a farmer with a partially waived loan doesn’t repay outstandings by July 9, 2009, the waiver will be annulled • Multi-crore scam in PM’s cow subsidy • PM package sells soyabean seeds at Rs 3,500 per quintal, while it costs Rs 2,700 in MP. Worse, the state buys the farmers’ harvest at Rs 2,160, a rate lower than its own selling price
ONLY COWARDS commit suicide, they say. Only those who don’t have a fight in them; those who want to run away just when life gets tough. So what is the highest denominator of grief a man must choke back before he’s allowed to give up?
The temple courtyard in Wagdha village is filled with farmers, standing and squatting, looking at their feet in mournful silence. This is the 117th time this year that one of them has been driven to suicide. For the 117th time this year, a farmer lay flat on his back in his parched cotton field, looked skyward at the blinding sun and decided it wasn’t worth living. For the 117th time, a familiarly desperate life ended too soon.
The mourners tell the story of this 117th cotton farmer: Mangalchand Pratap. In the bone-dry Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, Mangalchand had endured more than any average 35-year-old could. The only legacy from his father to his three sons was an endless spiral of debt. Since he was 20, Mangalchand had struggled as the sole farmer in the family, while his brothers did manual labour in nearby cities. In 2008, a pest infection called ‘laal’ killed the entire crop on his five hectare field. He was left with nothing except the rising interest on the bank loan he had taken to buy cotton seeds. His wife, Surekha, recalls it as the year when the usually affable Mangalchand turned sour. “Each meal we fed our three children last year felt like a miracle,” says Surekha.
5. BADU ONKAR
This year, with renewed hope and a prayer to the rain clouds, Mangalchand took a crop loan of Rs 30,000 to buy cotton seeds. On the morning of June 24, however, when he walked into his field, he saw the freshly sown cotton seeds ruined by “chota paani”or a small drizzle that drenches the seeds just enough to destroy them. That very evening, Mangalchand drank a bottle of pesticide. His brother Dhyaneswar saw Mangalchand crash to the ground, his mouth frothing and his hands clasping the dry black soil. Today, holding his brother’s eight-year-old daughter, Dhyaneswar says, “How much can a man struggle when he sees that his children are going hungry? My brother is just one of the many farmers that will commit suicide this year.”
|Vicious cycle A fresh round of borrowing begins every year around May-June, when seed sowing starts|
This ominous prophecy is, unfortunately, Vidarbha’s darkest truth. The cotton belt of Maharashtra has been infamous for farmer suicides since 2001 — activists and journalists have screamed themselves hoarse for the governments to respond. As more farmers committed suicide, the Congress-led UPA government announced a series of fire-fighting measures. The first of this came after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s two-day visit to Vidarbha in July 2006. In the face of a shocking 1,448 suicides that year, Singh announced a special relief package of Rs 3,750 crores for six drought-hit districts of Vidarbha. Later, in 2008, he offered a bigger bounty: Rs 71,860 crores by way of loan waiver for farmers across India. The waiver also served as a pre-poll sop that was critical in bringing the Congress back to power in 2009.
Till date, more than Rs 82,000 crores have been allotted to farmers through state and Central relief packages. Political gains have been reaped, and most of the money has been spent. Yet, every year, Vidarbha reports almost the same number of suicides, if not more (In 2001, 52 farmers committed suicide. In 2008, the number had risen to 1,267) So why have the packages failed to quell the suicides? Why is Vidarbha in an unending worst case scenario?
In Kedapur village, people point us to the house of Chandrakala Misra. “Most widows hire farm hands or simply sell off the land after their husband’s death,” says a neighbour, “But Chandrakala is a fighter.” Three years ago, she had woken up to find her husband Gangaram Misra hanging from the ceiling. Since then, Chandrakala has learnt to plough the land herself, a job traditionally reserved for men because of the difficulty in herding the oxen. “If you’ve come to promise me some package, don’t think I’m a fool,” says Chandrakala. “Every government official, media person, or NGO I have met has sold me empty promises of help.” Today, Chandrakala trusts no one but herself. She works 12 hours through every day of the year, as farm labour for big landlords and as a housemaid in three houses. She sends her two daughters to school, admittedly on huge loans from the moneylender. She has not a moment to breathe, and not an iota of help.
|WHAT FARMERS WANT
Loan waiver based on amount of outstanding loan, not acreage
Crop insurance in drought years to cushion harvest failure
Greater farm-related subsidies for non-irrigated farmers
Incentives to grow food crops, at least enough to feed family
Agricultural income tax to penalise those investing black money
Government must guarantee to buy produce at the right price
Chandrakala’s life today is proof of how crores may have been spent, but not much of that money has reached the neediest hands. She was rejected by the tehsildar for the Rs 1 lakh compensation given to widows of farm-related suicides. “Some government babus came and asked me if I wanted monetary compensation or education for my children,” says Chandrakala, “I asked for both. I got neither.”
An officer at Yavatmal’s district collectorate says Chandrakala’s husband must’ve killed himself “in a state of drunkenness” or because of a “domestic dispute” – the two most common official excuses for refusing compensation to bereaved families. As for the loan waiver, Chandrakala says, “That’s for people who were given bank loans in the first place. We were refused bank loans for at least 10 years and had to borrow from the sahukar (moneylender).” Today, Chandrakala is running the risk of losing her five hectare to the moneylender. “I now understand why my husband gave up,” she says.
|In the blue Kishtabai’s husband drank rat poison last year. Her son Gajanand (in pic) dropped out of engineering college to do farming|
|Dispirited future Meera Kachru with her daughter in their village hut. Meera’s husband hung himself in 2005 due to harassment from a moneylender|
|On empty stomachs Surekha, whose husband committed suicide in 2009, says each meal the couple fed their children last year felt like a miracle|
|Spirit to struggle Chandrakala, a widow, works 12 hours every day as farm labour for big landlords and as a housemaid in three houses|
People like Chandrakala are the reason relief packages were put together. But it is the Chandrakalas that they have ultimately looked right through. In 2008, Kedapur village’s Bhujanna Vittal was refused a full loan waiver because he had a landholding of five hectares (those with less than two hectares got a full waiver, and those with up to five hectares got a partial waiver). Of his Rs 50,000 bank loan, about Rs 20,000 was waived off in October last year. Two months later, Bhujanna went to the market to sell his much depleted cotton harvest. With the proceeds, he bought a kilo of rice, some tomatoes, and a bottle of rat poison. He was found on his cot the next morning, his face as blue as the walls of his house. “He had spent more money on growing the cotton than the harvest finally sold for,” says his widow Kishtabai, “I was not surprised when he committed suicide.” Her son, 20-year-old Gajanand, is less forgiving, “I was in engineering college on a full scholarship and have had to drop out to do farming. Without my father around, I’m expected to be the sole breadwinner.”
Worse, Gajanand and the close to six lakh farmers who received partial loan waivers in Vidarbha have now been informed by their banks of a lethal fine print: if they do not repay their outstanding loans by July 9, 2009, the waiver too would be annulled.
As the deadline looms, panic has spread through Vidarbha. Farmers in some villages have boldly declared that they will never repay their loans. Others quietly hope for another quick-fix package. This repayment clause was an unmentioned fine print in the much-touted loan waiver announced by then Finance Minister P Chidambaram. Since the average farm landholding in Vidarbha is five hectare, most farmers here got a partial waiver, unaware that they would have to repay the rest or forfeit the waiver. “We work on the fields from June to December, investing every borrowed paisa, and when it doesn’t rain and crops fail, we end up with no money to buy even food with,” says Hirasingh Chavan, a farmer in Washim district. “How am I supposed to repay my outstanding Rs 23,000? And if I can’t, why should I lose the waiver of Rs 20,000? What kind of package is this?”
A fresh round of borrowing begins every year around May-June, when seed sowing starts. At this point, Vidarbha’s farmer needs bulk cash — to buy cotton or soyabean seeds (around Rs 1,000 per acre), to plough the land (around Rs 1,000 per acre), and to purchase fertiliser and pesticide (around Rs 3,000 per acre). Years of below-average rain and crop has ensured that few farmers have any savings. Banks too refuse them loans because of their mounting previous debts. In 2006, the PM package had magnanimously directed banks to give crop loans even to defaulting farmers. Over 10 lakh farmers took loans that year, more than double the previous year’s numbers. But poor harvests for three straight years have meant that farmers are back to square zero. They’re unable to repay their loan and unable to borrow anymore.
|‘If you’ve come to promise me a package, don’t think I’m a fool,’ says Chandrakala|
MOST FARMERS haven’t repaid their loans for the past four years,” says RG Mahajan, manager of Bank of Maharashtra in Pahapal, Yavatmal district, “We’ve declared that 75 percent of farmers are not credit worthy.” A State Bank of India official in Amravati district says Vidarbha has always had the highest number of loan defaulters. “This year, we’re expecting the number of defaulters to rise further. Most of them are just hoping for another package to save the day.”
False promises, corruption and shameful indifference abound in the implementation of the PM relief package. An RTI petition filed by Yavatmal-based activist Vilas Wankhade in 2008 has revealed that the biggest beneficiaries of the PM package’s cow subsidy scheme (cows sold at a subsidy to bereaved families) were former politicians and sitting MLAs (see box). In 2007, a committee was formed to review the implementation of relief schemes in Vidarbha. Seven months later, economist Dr Narendra Jadhav, the head of the committee, spoke in a 102-page report of unmanageable corruption and supply of relief material at inflated costs. Soyabean seeds are sold under the PM package at Rs 3,500 per quintal while the seeds only cost Rs 2,700 per quintal in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh. “On top of that, the state government buys the soya from us at Rs 2,160 — so much lower than what they sell the seeds for,” says Narayan Vibhutey, a young farmer in Washim.
|‘I was not surprised when he committed suicide,’ says Kishtabai of her husband|
STUNG BY allegations of corruption and poor performance, the Maharashtra government appointed a committee to investigate the multi-crore scam, which submitted its report and recommendations in early 2009. The report is not public yet. When contacted, a committee member, Dr Prafulla Kale, hinted at massive corruption involving influential persons. He also admitted that the investigation itself was fraught with “pressures from various sources”. “We have, however, remained fair and objective. Now, we’re seeing that the money spent is reallocated to the right people,” Kale said.
Officials within the government too admit that the loan waiver and PM package have been largely cosmetic. Sudhir Goyal, Amravati’s divisional commissioner in charge of implementing the relief packages, himself says, “What is the need for a package like this in Vidarbha? Suicides are a symptom of a deeper agrarian crisis. For rain-fed farmers like those in Vidarbha, the main worries are the monsoon and prices. After spending so much on cash crops, farmers find that their costs are higher than their returns. This factor is worse than ever, so how will suicides stop? What’s the point of putting money into schemes that do not address the core issues?” Maharashtra’s Agriculture Minister, Balasaheb Thorat too admits that the packages only provided a brief hiatus, “This year, too, rains have been delayed and I expect that the situation will worsen. We’re ready to tackle this.”
|Under the cloud Badly designed, badly executed, the relief package is not reaching the people it is meant for|
|An RTI revealed that politicians and MLAs benefited most from the cow subsidy scheme|
When the PM package was announced, voices from the Planning Commission, the Left parties and agricultural experts warned that it was blind to Vidarbha’s unique issues that have plagued it since the 1970s. The premonition was not off the mark. Wardha-based agriculturist Vijay Jawandia says, “Eighty percent of the farmers were left out of the various packages. Those eligible were short-changed. The schemes showed little understanding of rural India and conventional agricultural practises.” For instance, the loan waiver and several other packages were open only to farmers who own less than five hectares. But in most villages, agricultural land is owned by a whole family, with the title deed in the name of the eldest male member. So though land revenue records show that a farmer owns 15-20 hectares, his actual holding is 4-5 hectares. Yet, he was technically not eligible for any benefits. Similarly, Vidarbha has always practised rain-fed farming and only 11 percent of its farmers have irrigation. Nevertheless, three-quarters of the PM package was earmarked for farmers with existing irrigation projects. “With the three rivers in the area running dry, the rapidly depleting ground water, and scanty rainfall, irrigation is but wishful thinking,” says Kishor Tiwari, president of the Vidarbha Kisan Andolan Samiti.
|Dr Prafulla Kale hints at massive corruption in the scheme involving influential people|
Meera Kachru Chatale, a widow in Pahapal, narrates how government officials had brought a team to dig a well in her field. “They congratulated me saying my life would change, that my field will glisten with flowing water, that I will be a successful farmer.” Meera’s husband had hung himself in 2005 due to harassment from a moneylender. A local NGO submitted an application on her behalf when the PM package was announced in 2006 and she was found eligible. “They dug fast for two days, then got slower and slower,” says Meera, “In a week, they left, saying water has come.” Meera ran to the field and looked down the newlydug well. It was bone-dry. “There was not a drop of groundwater,” she says, “They were a bunch of liars.”
Over and over, the ill-conceived schemes ended up ignoring the genuinely deprived. A senior secretary in the Maharashtra agricultural department says, “Of the Rs 71,680 crore waiver, Maharashtra’s share was Rs 14,000 crores. The maximum benefit went to the more prosperous and wellirrigated western Maharashtra (Rs 7,000 crores). Vidarbha had to make do with just Rs 2,000 crores.” The very region whose farmer deaths had provoked the government into announcing the enormous packages was given leftovers.
|A state survey finds that three in every four cotton growing families is in ‘acute crisis’|
2009 is just beginning for Vidarbha’s farmers and already, they’re grappling with loan ultimatums and delayed rainfall. The state government’s own door-to-door survey finds that three in every four cotton farm families is in “acute crisis”. In the five days that TEHELKA travelled in the region, two suicides took place. It is but a gloomy news item for many, but every farmer who takes his own life leaves behind a lurking fear in Vidarbha. Packages may come and go, but as long as the suicides persist, so does the debilitating fear. While straightening the garland on his father’s picture, 20-year-old Gajanand morbidly challenges this reporter to return to Vidarbha a month later to check if he’s still alive. It’s not a threat, he says, but a cry for freedom from the fear.
Farmers Suicides categorized as ‘Genuine Farmers Suicides’ by the Government of AP. The data for 2011 shows only 66 suicides from all the districts where as our survey and the news paper reports show that more than 90 suicides happend in the last one month. Gajwel block of Medak district had more than 11 suicides in the first week of november where as the report shows only 7. apart from Medak, no telangana district figures in the list while adilabad, karimnagar, khammam, mahaboobnagar are reeling under farmers suicides. To consider as ‘Genuine Farmers Suicides’ and receive the compensation the victim’s family has to fulfil 13 criteria including land being on the victim’s name, pending which is exclusively spent on farming, crop failure….
The Farmers Suicides as per the Government records which they categorized as ‘Genuine Farmers Suicides’
“Should I cry for my son or for the debts? He has left me only with tears and the burden of his children and their future. What am I going to do?” said Lakshmi, mother of 30-year-old Srinivas who hanged himself to death.
In Chebarthi village, Srinivas had taken six acres on lease, at Rs. 10,000 per acre, in addition to his father’s land, to grow cotton. But the rains failed the crop. With no land in his name, he got no loan from banks. His debts, all from private sources, had grown to over Rs. 3 lakh.
At 30, Srinivas was father to Mounika in class VII, Akhila in class III and Anil in class one. He had been keen that his children should never have to drop out of school. He would repeatedly reassure his mother that he would work hard and take care of her and his father.
Srinivas’s young wife, Balamma, hardly 24, is not sure how she is even going to feed her children, forget ensuring they continue in school. Her immediate worry is that Sivaratri is approaching and that is the deadline debtors have set for repayment of debts. The warning: we don’t know what will happen to you if you don’t repay by then.
Less than five kilometres away, in Alirajapeta in Medak district, another farmer Vaikuntam killed himself after the cotton crop failed for a second successive year. He had paid an advance on four acres of leased land, banking on the high price cotton fetched last year.
Like most other cotton farmers, Vaikuntam also had to buy seeds in the black market, paying upto Rs. 2500 for a 450 gram seed packet that should have cost less than Rs. 1000. Fertiliser prices also doubled and pesticide cost too went up by at least a third in the last one year.
“It is all gone. Last time it was floods, this time, rains failed. With cotton, he thought he could repay debts but it is all dried up and gone,” said Vaikuntam’s wife Padma.
With the price of cotton going up to Rs. 6500 per quintal last year, the area under cotton virtually doubled to 47 lakh acres, or 25 per cent of the total sown area in the state – a clear recipe for disaster. But the government failed to act to avert the crisis.
At least 40 lakh acres of standing crop of cotton, maize, paddy and groundnut has dried up this kharif season. Independent field surveys have said that as a direct fallout, at least 90 farmer suicide-deaths have happened in just six districts of the state. The government is yet to collate data.
“The situation is very grim. Today the farmer has no confidence that he can repay because the system is designed in such a way that you end up in losses. There is no support from the government side. That is the whole crisis,” said G V Ramanjaneyulu, from Centre for Sustainable Agriculture.
Chief minister Prithviraj Chavan on Wednesday had to call off hisvisit to Delhi to discuss the problems of cotton growing farmers because prime minister Manmohan Singh cancelled the appointment due to prior commitments.
The cotton growing farmers have sought Rs6,000 per quintal for the crop —a price the state wants to consult with the Centre before making any commitment.
Congress leaders from Vidarbha are up in arms arguing that if the state can bear the additional burden of Rs4,000 crore for increasing the price for sugarcane farmers, it cannot ignore cotton growing farmers.
The top leadership in the Congress is worried as delay in the decision regarding hike in cotton rates would go against them in the civic polls.
The cotton growing belt of Vidarbha, which is perceived as the Congress stronghold, is turning into a political battle turf after BJP and Shiv Sena decided to launch an agitation from November 19 and 21 respectively.
State BJP chief Sudhir Mungantiwar said: “We will not allow winter session to take place in Nagpur (Vidarbha) if cotton farmers are not paid Rs6,000 per quintal.”
MPCC chief Manikrao Thakre, who hails from Yavatmal in Vidarbha, has taken the lead to drive the farmers’ plight through closed door meetings with top leadership of state. He held discussions with the CM drawing attention to the problems of farmers in Vidarbha.
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The Kerala high court has issued notices to the Central and state governments on a PIL seeking a direction to the Union Government to provide financial aid to debt-ridden farmers in the state. The notices were issued by a division bench comprising Acting Chief Justice Manjula Chellur and Justice PR Ramachandra Menon on a PIL by lawyer Basil Attipetty.
The petitioner said some farmers cultivating ginger and banana in Waynad district and other parts of the state had taken loans from various financial institutions and ended their lives following debt burden after their crops failed.
Maintaining that the Centre was “duty bound” to protect the lives of farmers, the petitioner said the union government should provide financial assistance to the state government to help the farmers.
The petitioner also sought a direction to state Farmers Debt Relief Commission to provide immediate relief to farmers in Wayanad district.
WAYANAD: A high level official team appointed by the government to inquire into the rising number of farmer suicides has said that the agrarian crisis in the district was severe.
Additional chief secretary K Jayakumar, who heads the panel, said yesterday that the price fall of crops compounded the ordeal of farmers who are already reeling under the price hike of fertilisers.
“We have found out that the issue is serious and requires urgent government intervention. A detailed picture of the looming crisis would be submitted to the government tomorrow for alerting them to take suitable steps,” said Jayakumar.
In a short span of a few weeks, three farmers had committed suicide in the district reportedly due to mounting debt.
The government has taken the situation seriously with the next cabinet meeting scheduled tomorrow is expected to come out with immediate steps asking the commercial banks to go slow on going ahead with recovery procedures against farmers and also provide some relief through a bailout package for the beleaguered farmers.