Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Hindu : Columns / Sainath : Of luxury cars and lowly tractors

The Hindu : Columns / Sainath : 17,368 farm suicides in 2009

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Blueprint for farm growth

Blueprint for farm growth

Mohan Dharia

Acting with determination and firm action, it should be possible for India to step up its agricultural growth rate to 10 per cent.

The 11th Five Year Plan seeks to achieve 4 per cent growth rate in agriculture by the end of the Plan period. The Planning Commission is working towards an overall 9 per cent to 10 per cent growth rate.

But the target of 4 per cent growth rate is too low. If specific efforts are made to step up the rate by aiding the farming community, India can attain at least 10 per cent growth in the agriculture sector alone. The 11th Five Year Plan period will soon come to an end and the Planning Commission has already started the exercise of the 12th Five Year Plan.

Since the start of the 11th Five Year Plan, the growth rate in agriculture has virtually remained stagnant. Recently, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appealed to the farming community to work to achieve 4 per cent growth.

Yet, the government has not introduced positive measures to attain even 4 per cent agricultural growth. It will need to initiate firm measures, encourage the farming community to produce more for its own prosperity and that of the country. Towards this end, the Vanarai Trust, as also other organisations, have proposed certain steps.

One of these is the provision of easy credit for everything from purchase of seeds to harvesting, marketing and other operations at 4 per cent or lower rate of interest. The committee constituted by the Central government under the chairmanship of Dr. M.S. Swaminathan also suggested that the rate of interest should not exceed 4 per cent.

As the needed loans are not always available from the nationalised, commercial or cooperative banks, farmers are often forced to approach moneylenders. The rates of interest they typically charge vary from 25 per cent to 100 per cent, or even more. It is advisable to waive all loans, including private loans, availed by farmers who have holdings up to 4 hectares in rain-fed areas. Even loans availed by those who have less than a hectare of irrigated land should be waived.

The government should arrange to supply quality seeds and seedlings of high-yielding varieties taking into account the edaphic factors. It should also supply fertilizers and pesticides, laying emphasis on organic manures. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides have done great harm to the soil texture. It has been revealed that more than 20 million ha of land under perennial irrigation has lost its producing capacity following the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and excessive amounts of water. This has made such land saline or water-logged.

Some 65 per cent to 68 per cent of the cultivable land area in India is in rain-fed areas. There is no assured water supply. Because of the vagaries of nature, often crops dry up and the producers, among others, suffer. It has, therefore, become imperative to protect farmers against such losses. If such an assurance is not given to farmers, they may give up farming and turn to some other vocation or employment. India's growing population requires more and more foodgrains, and farmers need to be dissuaded from giving up farming.

About 20 per cent of foodgrains and 30 per cent of perishable crops are lost during transit from production centres to marketing points. This calls for proper arrangements to store produce in godowns or cold storages in the respective centres. The losses are not only of individual farmers but also of the country as a whole. If due care is taken to save crops, India's foodgrain output may reach 250 million tonnes.

Transport services to carry agricultural produce are inadequate. It is necessary to arrange to transport produce easily from fields to marketing centres, and help avoid losses in transit.

Support prices to particular crops are often announced after sowing operations are over. The government should announce support prices ahead of the sowing season. If there is any delay in announcing the support price, it should be ensured that support prices extended during the earlier year are offered in the current year along with additional cost of inputs. This will give the farming community the confidence to produce crops.

Instead of merely providing verbal assurances, the government should activate the public distribution system (PDS) uniformly. With a view to providing remunerative prices to producers and ensuring reasonable prices to consumers, it is essential to do away with middlemen. This calls for strengthening the PDS by creating a network across the country. The PDS is not only meant to distribute articles. A scientific PDS as suggested by the Report of the Dharia Committee constituted by the Planning Commission in 1974 comprises five basic main components. The first of these is production. Then follow procurement, storage, transport and distribution. If such a system is introduced for essential commodities and articles, it will become possible to control and maintain the price line. It is the middleman who purchases agricultural produce soon after harvesting who raises prices by creating artificial scarcity. Without the middleman, producers and consumers will get justice.

It is necessary to introduce a price index system for agricultural produce on the basis of inputs required by farmers. The government has a system of paying dearness allowance to government employees and others on the basis of the index of prices. Similarly, prices of industrial products are fixed on the basis of the cost of inputs. Such a system is all the more essential for the farming community, which comprises nearly 65 per cent of the population.

Out of India's geographical area of 329 million ha, nearly half is degraded or waste land — rather, wasted land. By means of a scientific micro-watershed management programme in all the six lakh villages, it is possible to conserve every drop of water wherever and whenever it rains, prevent soil erosion and bring most of the land under grasses, tree crops, foodgrains, pulses, oilseeds, vegetables, fruits and so on. Approximately 65 per cent of Indians live in the rural areas. Their long-term survival will depend on the introduction of a scientific micro-watershed management.

Along with the production of foodgrains, fruits, vegetables and so on, it is possible to produce quality grasses on private and forest lands. The availability of such fodder can enhance the production of milk, meat, wool and so on. This will add to the agricultural growth rate. A missionary approach and the involvement of farmers are necessary to attain 10 per cent growth rate in the agriculture sector. This is no dream. China attained 10 per cent growth rate in the initial stages, prior to its focus on industrial development.

Systematic and scientific planting of various species, such as teakwood, sandalwood, bamboo and red sanders, which have commercial value, could be undertaken on large tracts of land. Different crops could be raised depending on the rotation cycle of particular species. This can yield a lot of revenue, create employment opportunities and expand the green cover in the rural areas.

In order to fulfil the need for fuel in every village, energy plantation should be undertaken. Such plantations will prevent indiscriminate cutting of trees from forest land for domestic use. In a vast country like India with six lakh villages, diversification of energy sources will help effect huge savings and protect the environment.

A shoreline of more than 7,000 km and water reservoirs are great natural assets. These should be fully utilised to produce more fish and marine products. Mangroves help fish to breed. They require protection both from people and the government. Five-star culture and lavish lifestyles have done great damage to mangroves and the environment. If not simple living, it is possible to adopt moderate living and high thinking to save nature and the environment.

Fields surrounded by ‘windscreens' of trees help increase crop production. This method adopted by some countries should be used in India to attain higher growth rate in agriculture.

In order to attain a growth rate of 10 per cent in the agricultural sector, it is essential to introduce a compact package of all such measures. If the government introduces and implements such a package deal, the farming community can show better-than-expected results. It should not be forgotten that nearly 70 per cent of the MPs and MLAs get elected from rural areas. Their voice is often choked owing to the language barrier. Instead of making empty verbal appeals to farmers to step up crop production, the best way is to take into consideration the agonies and difficulties of farmers and meet them with determination and a missionary approach.

(Dr. Mohan Dharia is president of the Pune-based Vanarai Trust.)

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Friday, May 14, 2010

For farmers in Vidarbha, state’s golden jubliee brings only sorrow

For farmers in Vidarbha, state’s golden jubliee brings only sorrow

Jaideep Hardikar / DNA

Monday, May 3, 2010 3:32

Ratan Ramchandra Raut had the next year’s worries on his mind when he chose to leave this world.

“Please take a note, all of you,” he wrote on a Rs100 stamp paper addressing his village sarpanch, talathi, tehsildar, MLA, MP, district collector, guardian minister, the chief minister and his deputy, the prime minister Manmohan Singh, and president Pratibha Patil.

“I am killing myself because I have no money to repay my debts after two years of crop failure as it did not rain.” That in less than a month, Maharashtra would celebrate its golden jubilee might not have crossed his mind.

In the long list of farmers’ suicides in Vidarbha, his was one more addition. But he made it a point to tell the world why. “I have an SBI crop loan to be repaid.

My son and his wife, both farmers, also have outstanding loans,” 65-year-old Raut wrote in his suicide note that the police say it found on him in his four and a half acre rain-fed farm. “The bank employees came twice to recover the loan, and I wonder how we are all going to repay our outstanding loans,” reads his note. “It’s with this thought that I am leaving this world,” he wrote before consuming pesticide, a recourse many of the 200,000 farmers in the country — 40,000-plus in Maharashtra — have taken between 1997 and 2008.

A fourth-class literate, Raut wrote separately to the police, requesting it not to trouble his family, and to the talathi (keeper of village accounts). “Do conduct an inquiry and waive all the outstanding loans on me, my son and my daughter-in-law,” he pleaded. His note ended thus: “Kindly give a crop loan to my son and daughter-in-law for the 2010 season, so that they don’t meet a fate like mine.”

Collectively, the family owes the banks Rs1.5 lakh on their 14-acre land. To top the losses, Gajanan had to spend Rs80,000 on the treatment of his son, Abhijeet, 14, who was diagnosed with diabetes in March 2009. The Rauts have already sold their cattle to generate cash for the daily needs.

In Washim’s non-descript Dhotra village inhabited predominantly by the laborious Mali community, Raut’s suicide on April 7 was the first of the two in a month. In western Vidarbha, that figure is nearing 300 since the year began, despite the implementation of several special central and state packages.

A few houses away from Gajanan’s house, Gunwant Raut, 68, committed suicide a week later. He had seven-and-a-half acre land, Rs24,000 worth of bank loan and Rs1.5 lakh from private sources, according to his widow Rukmini. “To repay the bank loans, he kept borrowing from private lenders.”

As Maharashtra celebrated its golden jubilee, Raut’s suicide note raises poignant questions about the state of agriculture in rain-fed areas like Vidarbha, where this year’s drought is beginning to ring in despair.

“It’s an occasion to introspect,” Nagpur MP Vilas Muttemwar said, as an all-party platform on conferring statehood to Vidarbha boycotted the May Day function. “The farmers are killing themselves in hundreds, children are malnourished, there is drought. The question the government should be asking is — is this the time for celebration or contemplation?” he asked.

Two successive years of bad monsoon has negated the loan waiver sop even as bank and private loans on farmers are climbing once again, and this time the amounts are staggering. The Mali community, said a farmer in Dhotra, is particularly hard hit. “We usually grow vegetables,” said Nandkishor Raut, a relative of the Rauts. “With no rain or ground water, our farms have taken the worst hit.” Across the region, many of the recent farmers’ suicides are from this community.

Rattled by the two suicides, the villagers now huddle together in the temple every evening after dinner. “We make sure all of us come to the temple every evening,” said Nandkishor. “We try not to leave anyone alone.”

How to be an 'eligible suicide'

How to be an 'eligible suicide'

P. Sainath


Why do governments ignore the farm suicide numbers of the National Crime Records Bureau, when it is the only authentic source on the subject?

Kafka might have envied the script. In Delhi, Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar informed the Rajya Sabha on May 7 that there had been just six farmers' suicides in Vidarbha since January. The same day, same time in Maharashtra, Chief Minister Ashok Chavan said that figure was 343. That is, 57 times greater than Mr. Pawar's count. Mr. Chavan was speaking in Vidarbha. Mr. Pawar's numbers came in a written reply to a question in Parliament. Both stories were reported by the Press Trust of India (PTI). All in a day's work.

Confused? Try this: Five days earlier, Minister of State for Agriculture K.V. Thomas pitched his count at 23 suicides in Vidarbha since January. In the same week — in the same Rajya Sabha. And Mr. Thomas said his source was “the government of Maharashtra.” Whose chief minister says the number is 343. Meanwhile, before Mr. Pawar gave the figure of 'only six' in four months, the government's Vasantrao Naik Farmers' Self Reliance Mission in Vidarbha put the number at 62 for just January alone.

Can estimates of farm suicides — all of them official — vary by over 5,500 per cent? (Mr. Chavan's is that much higher than Mr. Pawar's). But it doesn't end there. Maharashtra Revenue Minister Narayan Rane informed the State Assembly in April that there have been 5,574 suicides in Vidarbha since 2006. But Parliament is told only six have occurred since January this year. Mr. Rane's count for the whole state since 2006 is 7,786 farm suicides. That is more than double Mr. Pawar's new count of 3,450 for the whole country in the last three years.

That's odd — 3,450 for the whole country? In three years? The National Crime Records Bureau puts the number in the last three years at nearly 50,000. That is for 2006, 2007 and 2008 (the last year for which data are available). And the NCRB is the only source for farm suicide data at the national level. Its data also show us that nearly 200,000 farmers have killed themselves between 1997 and 2008. So whose numbers are being fed to Parliament? And how come we have so many wildly varying counts? That too when there is only one body with authentic data. And why does this happen mostly with Maharashtra?

Because Maharashtra's numbers are the worst in the country. This state has seen 41,404 farmers' suicides since 1997. Of these, 12,493 have occurred in 2006-08. So the pressure to cover up is greater here than anywhere else.

The concern was never about the farmer. Till the Prime Minister's 2006 Vidarbha visit, the state's top ministers had never been to a distress-hit village on this issue. Most have still not visited a single suicide-hit farm household. They cared little for what people thought of them. But they did fear the displeasure of their own high command in New Delhi — by then alarmed at the rising suicide numbers. So they began massaging the figures.

First, this meant attaching an impossible number of indicators to identify a farm suicide. As early as June 2005, people in Malwagad, Yavatmal were mocking the process when we arrived there after the suicide of Digambar Agose. “Now we can't even commit suicide in peace,” laughed one of Agose's neighbours with graveyard humour. “Not without reading those forms the officials have created to see we get it right.” Another pointed out: “There are some 40 clauses on their inquiry list. All these must apply.” In short, if you must kill yourself, get it right. Make sure you adhere to the pro forma. Then your family is ‘eligible' for compensation.

Hundreds of people were dropped from the farm suicide lists on the ground that they were not farmers. “There's no land in their names,” officials asserted. On the ground, this meant most women farmers taking their lives were excluded. As also, many eldest sons who actually ran the farm while the land remained in their aged fathers' names. The lists also shut out many dalit and adivasi peasants — whose title to land is seldom clear.

And yet the numbers kept mounting. The reporting of the issue was hurting where it mattered: in Delhi. So how to bring down the count? Ambitious bureaucrats stepped forward to create new categories. 'Eligible' and 'ineligible' suicides. Only the former would be counted as “farm suicides.” An official document set this trend in 2006.

It created a table with many new columns. With each of these, the numbers fell. How? After the total or farm suicides, came a new group: “Family members' suicides.” This means family members on the farm killing themselves are not counted as farmers. That helped skim down the figure still more. Next, an “Investigated Cases” column that saw numbers plummet further. The final column was truly novel — “Eligible Suicides.” That is, those the government deems worthy of compensation. And so, for 2005, the suicides column that begins at 2,425 ends with 273. (Less than 12 per cent of the total). This amputated figure becomes the official farm suicides count. And a ‘decline' is established.

And so the coming of ‘non-genuine suicides.' This did not mean the man was any less dead. Or that he had not killed himself. It meant the government could not accept his death had been driven by debt and distress. (Even though quite a few suicide notes cited precisely those reasons.) Committees were set up in the crisis districts to check if the suicides were ‘genuine.' These bodies soon ran berserk, often declaring every single suicide in a month to be ‘non-genuine.' Their hatchet job means that very few families suffering a breadwinner's suicide get any compensation from government.

And that's how it's still done. Mr. Rane's reply to a question in the state assembly lists thousands of ‘ineligible suicides' over four years.

The problem of the NCRB's data however, remains. These are not in their hands to fudge. Sure, over time, even the NCRB's data will be corrupted by the fiddles at the ground level. But it is the here and now of politics that matters. The only way to get around this is to simply ignore the NCRB. So the Minister's written reply in Parliament makes no mention of it. You can see the change from the past.

NCRB data was precisely what he cited in 2007 when confirming there had been nearly 1.5 lakh farm suicides between 1997 and 2005. Replying to Starred Question No. 238 in the Rajya Sabha (Nov. 30, 2007), Mr. Pawar's numbers tallied to the last digit with those reported in The Hindu (Nov.12-17) two weeks earlier. The Hindu's reports were based on the comprehensive study of official data on farm suicides by Professor K. Nagaraj, then with the Madras Institute of Development Studies. The data analysed by him were from the NCRB. It publishes these in its Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India (ADSI) report each year. A part of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, the NCRB is the only body that exists, which tracks suicides of all categories across the country.

Following Dr. Nagaraj's study, The Hindu updated the farm suicide figures each year, drawing from the latest NCRB reports. (All these reports are available on their website. For instance, the 2008 data in the category of “Self Employed (Farming / Agriculture)” counts farmers' suicides for that year as 16,196. (Check it yourselves on ). But in Mr. Pawar's Rajya Sabha reply this May, that figure is 1,237 (no source cited. At least not in the PTI report). To date, neither central nor state government has ever contradicted the NCRB-based figures of Dr. Nagaraj and The Hindu. They're too busy contradicting their own.

Pressure to fudge

Simply put, governments are doing the same things they do with poverty estimates. With BPL counts, APL numbers, ration cards and so on. With farm suicides — real human deaths are involved. The pressure to fudge gets more acute with public revulsion over the plight of farmers.

Yet, the 2011 Census could make things look a lot worse. It will tell us how many farmers there really are now in each state. In states like Maharashtra, they are likely to be far fewer than they were in 2001. (The 2001 Census showed that 8 million people had quit farming since 1991). Till today, all the Farm Suicide Rates (suicides per 100,000 farmers) worked out by Dr. Nagaraj are based on 2001 figures. The FSR for Maharashtra, for instance, is 29.9. That could look a lot worse — and the suicides far more intense — when the new Census figures on farmers are out. But the fiddles and fudging will go on.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Men of letters, unmoved readers

Men of letters, unmoved readers

P. Sainath

Suicide notes in Vidarbha are at times addressed to the Prime Minister, the desperate last cries of voices that went unheeded when alive.

Washim Raut

Lost voices: Ramachandra Raut's widow with his portrait in Washim.

Seeking authenticity for his letter to the Prime Minister and the President, Ramachandra Raut composed it with care on Rs.100 non-judicial stamp paper. Then he added a few more addressees, including his village sarpanch and the police, in the hope that it got home someplace. Then he killed himself. A mere digit in the nearly 250 farm suicides that hit Vidarbha in four months; but a villager desperate to be heard on the reasons for his action: “The two successive years of crop failure is the reason.” Yet, “bank employees came twice to my home to recover my loans”. (Despite a government order to go slow on recovery in a region hit by crisis, crop failure and more recently, drought).


Raut's suicide note, addressed to the President and the Prime Minister, composed on a Rs.100 non-judicial stamp paper.

Raut's suicide being the third in a month in Dhotragoan in Washim district, the village wants to see it spreads no further. “We try and meet every evening for an hour, all of us, anyone who will come,” says Nandkishore Shankar Raut from Dhotragaon. “The idea is to keep people's morale up.” So Dhotragaon counsels itself. Ramachandra Raut's letter was also an appeal not to be misunderstood. “Don't trouble anyone in my home,” it tells the police. “I am fully responsible for my action.” The stamp paper suicide note carries the seal of the deputy treasury officer of Mangrulpir tehsil dated March 29, and that of the stamp vendor who issued it to Raut on April 7. Raut filled it in and took his life the same day.

The family owes the banks Rs.1.5 lakh. His village pooled money to observe his 13th day ritual, sparing Raut's indebted family further expense.


Vidarbha's farm suicides have been unique in one respect. Some of those taking their lives have addressed suicide notes to the Prime Minister, the Chief Minister or the Finance Minister. In August 2006 Rameshwar Lonkar of Wardha complained, in his note, to Dr. Manmohan Singh, just a month after the Prime Minister went to his region. “After the Prime Minister's visit and reports of a fresh crop loan, I thought I could live again,” Lonkar wrote. But he found himself rebuffed at every stage while seeking that loan. Sahebrao Adhao's last testament in Amravati the same year painted a picture of usury, debt and land grab.

In November 2006, cotton grower Rameshwar Kuchankar addressed the then Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh in his note. He scribbled it down moments before taking his life in Yavatmal. “We are fed up with the delay in procurement and crashing prices ... Mr. Chief Minister, give us the price.” He also warned State Home Minister R.R. Patil that if the price did not improve at once, suicides would soar. They did.

“These notes are the last cry of despair of people trying to tell their government the reasons for agrarian distress,” says Kishor Tiwari. Mr. Tiwari heads the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, a body fighting for farmers' rights. “We set up expert committees to tell us why farmers commit suicide when they are themselves telling us the reasons with such clarity in their suicide notes.” The notes often speak of debt, soaring cultivation costs, high cost of living and volatile prices. Some of them trash regressive policies and a credit crunch that have destroyed thousands of farmers here in the past decade. Crop failure and drought coming atop these, ruin fragile lives.

Two years of crop failure in a single crop district can mean 34 months with no income. Vidarbha gained little from the 2008 Farm Loan Waiver which addressed only bank debt. The waiver excluded those farmers holding more than five acres, and made no distinction between dry and irrigated holdings. In Western Vidarbha, farmers take more loans from moneylenders than from banks. And, the average land holding is around seven acres in this mostly unirrigated region.

Of the five states that account for two-thirds of all of India's farm suicides, Maharashtra is by far the worst. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) the State logged 41,404 farm suicides between 1997 and 2008. That is, more than a fifth of the national total of nearly 200,000 in that same period. Of those 12 years, NCRB data show, the years 2006-08 have been the very worst. Within the State, Vidarbha has been the focal point of the tragedy.

Back to square one

However, the situation here seems like a throwback to that of 2005-06, before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit. Hit by a spate of suicides at the time, the State government spoke in many voices. In mid-2005, it gave out a figure of just 141 distress suicides across the whole State since 2001. Challenged in court, it revised this to 524. When the National Commission of Farmers team led by Dr. M.S. Swaminathan visited later the same year, it conceded there had been over 300 in the single district of Yavatmal. The final figure for the whole State that year, put out by the NCRB, was actually 3,926 suicides.

“For a while,” says Mr. Tiwari of the VJAS, “the State revealed real numbers on the website of the Vasantrao Naik Farmers' Self-Reliance Mission. That was because of Dr. Singh's visit and a lashing from the courts.” In fact, those figures were far higher than anything even the VJAS had recorded. This year, however, the website's columns for 2010 are so far blank. The Agriculture Ministry's reply to a question in the Rajya Sabha, based on State claims, says just 23 farm suicides occurred between January and April 8. This, even as other arms of government (and the Leader of the Opposition) put out figures ten times as high. The Vasantrao Naik Mission has itself given out signed data confirming there were 62 such deaths in January alone. (Though it has not put this up on its website.)

The numbers are routinely lowered by tagging hundreds of suicides as “non-genuine”. That is, “ineligible for compensation”. Aimed at curbing the amounts the State has to fork out to bereaved families, this move has caused much damage. “We are deluding ourselves,” says a senior official. “No wonder Ramachandra Raut felt the need to address his letter on stamp paper to the Prime Minister and President as well. He knew nothing would be taken seriously here in Maharashtra.”

Wednesday, May 05, 2010


The Departed

The sowing season in Vidarbha has just begun, but already there is a sense that more farmers could end their lives this year than in the past. What makes them do it? VIJAY SIMHA and photographer PRASHANT PANJIAR investigate, death by death, and find a whole new meaning to the story


FARMING WORKS best with innocence. When a farmer retains his talent for a life without clutter, when the skies open up exactly when needed, and when the state keeps its heart sensitive. Thus secure, it was believed that a farmer could die of only three things: old age, lightning, or rolling over in a tractor. In Vidarbha today, it would seem that anything can kill a farmer.

Vidarbha is in eastern Maharashtra, an area almost as big as South Korea and 65 times the size of Delhi. The terrain can be brutal and benign. Here, until 1997-98, the farmer was relatively comfortable. The crop, principally soybean and cotton, brought the cash home. Things were so good that cotton from Vidarbha used to have a monopoly, and soybean from the area propped up an entire industry in India.

The cotton market crashed globally 10 years ago. In addition, the Indian market was flooded by imports. Cotton became a liability. Soybean was hit by unfortunate events. The railways did not give rakes to lift soy from Vidarbha. They gave priority to fertiliser and cement. The soy wasted away in the mandis. Then, drought hit. So, soy stopped generating money as well. Farmers’ suicides increased.









Farmers in India normally have two seasons, rabi and kharif. Vidarbha has a third, the suicide season, in April, May and June. It is the sowing season and the farmers need to buy seed. Those unable to do so tend to give it up, most suicides happen in June. TEHELKA investigated 10 suicides that occurred over 48 hours or so beginning March 22. Two cases had more to do with alcoholism than farming and were taken off the list. Over the next few pages, you will read about the other eight farmers who killed themselves, and their circumstances.

It is normally understood that the Vidarbha farmer chooses to die because he can’t meet the costs of running his farm profitably. But, the deaths of these eight farmers tell a different tale. It appears that suicides in Vidarbha are not merely from problems in the fields. A host of reasons, primarily social, are driving the farmers into a lifestyle and a thought process they can’t sustain. The desire to move up socially is driving up the costs of living as the farmer spends to gain status. When the farm can’t pay for this, the farmer has a choice: lose face or lose life. He prefers to lose life.

The first recorded suicide of a Vidarbha farmer was sometime in 1997, when Ramdas Ambawar gave up his life because he couldn’t pay back a loan. The Shiv Sena was heading the government and Narayan Rane, the chief minister, gave Ambawar’s widow Saraswati a cheque for Rs 1 lakh. It was the first widow compensation and triggered a belief that money would come after they ended their lives.

Since then, around 7,300 farmers, 7,000 men and 300 women, have committed suicide in Vidarbha because they couldn’t find solutions to a vortex of problems. In 2006, the Maharashtra government listed 1,886 suicides by farmers in Vidarbha, the highest in a year. This year, till the end of March, about 204 farmers have already committed suicide. There is a sense that if the rains stay away, more farmers could end their lives this year than in the past. Also, it may not be enough to limit corrective measures to the farms. The attitude change among farmers is causing a bigger mess. Some of the reasons for the spate of suicides in Vidarbha, therefore, are these:

Astonishingly, many farmers are falling sick in Vidarbha. Most of these farmers avoid the government’s primary health centres because the doctors are rarely there. Even if the doctors are available, the farmers don’t trust government healthcare. So they rush to private clinics and pay higher costs. “Like emperors, they go to the costliest clinics and hospitals in Nagpur and get themselves treated,” says Kishor Tiwari, who runs the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, an NGO that works for farmers. Tiwari is dismayed at how the issue is getting more complex. Most families where a suicide has taken place, for instance, have a member who requires medical attention.

This is probably the cruellest factor. The communities of Vidarbha seem to have created a system of social rituals that includes a generous wedding. A family that does a simple wedding loses respect and that creates serious everyday stress. Several suicides are largely because of the loans taken for dowry. The men would give up their lives rather than get their daughters married in a low-cost ceremony. In many houses, the elders of family keep repeating that the man of the house killed himself because of his daughter’s wedding costs. Daughters are mostly in the room when this is said.

Curiously, there is virtually no industry in the area. Though the area is in the centre of India, it is not a hub. So, if the crop fails, a farmer is done for. Jobs are rare. The private sector is absent and the state has no money to employ people. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) offers lowend work, but the farmers think it would erode their standing.

For two years, Vidarbha has had poor monsoon and now, miles of Vidarbha are barren. The life of a farmer ebbs when his farm fades. This is a critical factor because if the crop were to be good, a farmer would happily organise good healthcare for his family, have grand weddings for his daughters and buy pesticide and other farm requirements. If the crop is poor, a farmer needs money because he doesn’t scale down other things. Loans thus become killers.

The state is the only entity that can handle all the other reasons for farmers’ suicides. For instance, the state can offer good and cheap healthcare and education, it can motivate businessmen to set up industry in the area, and it can provide for irrigation. But, TEHELKA did not find a single government representative in the villages of Vidarbha. There is no one to go to, and no one to trust. On paper, the state government has a compensation policy in cases of suicides, but that is tax payers’ money and comes with many clauses. So, barely a tenth of the suicide cases qualify for compensation. It’s the same with the waiver for crop loans.

Civil society has a few demands that they think may help. They are asking for a Rs 30,000 grant to a farmer for a daughter’s wedding, food grain at Rs 2 a kg, free healthcare, more work under NREGA, barring moneylenders from dealing with farmers, and improved irrigation. Maharashtra has no money for this.

All these reasons are coming together in the complex world of the Vidarbha farmer. Political parties are nowhere to be found in the villages. Counselling seems to be an urgent need, but there’s no one to do it. Left alone, the farmer is open to anything his mind tells him. At the moment, it is telling him to leave.

Two Weddings, a Funeral and a Feast


EVERYBODY KNOWS them, the farm widows of Pimpri Kalga in Yavatmal. There are 14, which makes the village the suicide capital of Vidarbha. In the house of Arun Tupatkar, the latest farmer to have killed himself here, they gather with the air of a family remembering a man who did the right thing.

Tupatkar lived with his wife, three daughters and a son. He was 50, the wife 45, the daughters 23, 20 and 14. The son was 18. He had nine acres, where he grew soybean and arhar (yellow pigeon pea), a favoured lentil. The family watched colour television at home and used cell phones.

The soy and pigeon pea should have paid for a couple of sons-in-law, but the crop was low for two years. In Pimpri Kalga, a failed crop is no big deal. But a daughter’s wedding has to be only one way: early and in style. They start to talk about it from a daughter’s teenage, about the dowry and the wedding.

A driver and a shopkeeper were interested in marrying Tupatkar’s daughters. They would cost Rs 25,000 each, but at least they were not farmers. Tupatkar had an uncle, Manik Rao, who killed himself 10 years ago. The government’s compensation policy had just been cleared and Manik Rao’s family got the money. It worked for the uncle. It might work for Tupatkar too.

So, he borrowed Rs 50,000, partly from family and friends and partly from a moneylender. The dowry was secure. He also borrowed Rs 20,000 from a cooperative society as crop loan. He got his daughters married. Villagers still remember how hearty the spread was.

A failed crop is no big deal. But a daughter’s wedding has to be only one way: early and in style. They start planning from a daughter’s teenage

The harvest was more stubborn. Crops are not like sons-in-law, they don’t prop up at the sight of money. Tupatkar’s loan got him a little seed and pesticide, but it didn’t buy him rain. The crop failed for two years. Now, Tupatkar had a problem. He had to return money to friends, family, moneylender and a bank. He still had a daughter and a son in school. He began to drink. He would start during the day and end the night drunk.

On March 23, Tupatkar left early and began to drink. He returned at lunch time, breezed past the family and went into an inner room. He came into the drawing room soon after and told his wife and daughter: “I’ve taken poison.” They rushed him to hospital but he died en route.

Tupatkar’s widow Rajubai barely eats now and has periodic convulsions as she mourns. The village, meanwhile, is preparing for the 13th day feast. They have sent along bags of wheat, rice and sugar for the ceremony. It will be another grand farewell.

A Bank and a Man, Both Needed Money

A tractor waits outside the courtyard of Pritilal Thakre’s house. There are cots and benches in the courtyard. There’s a satellite dish. Inside, a mobile phone is being charged. There is a landline phone, covered by dust. A fan is whirring and about 20 people are in the room. Thakre’s widow, Pramila, is crying. His son, Pramod (24), is staring into the distance, and two daughters, Malti and Manju, are attending to their infant children. Pramod and other male relatives take the questions.


What happened?
On Ramnavami (March 24), he (Pritilal) went to the farm as usual in the morning. He returned at 11 am, had lunch and lay down inside. After a while, he said he wasn’t feeling well. We thought his blood pressure had shot up. He went quiet and began to foam at the mouth. We took him in a tractor to the government hospital at 2.30 pm. At 4 pm, they declared him dead. They said too much time had passed before he was taken to hospital.

Why did Pritilal kill himself?
He had taken a loan of Rs 2.01 lakh in 1994 from the Bhoomivikas Bank here to buy a tractor. Some days ago, employees of the bank came and said they would take possession of the land against which he had taken the loan. Word spread through the village that the land was being seized.

It’s a 16-year-old loan. Was it not paid back all this while?
We had already paid Rs 4 lakh for a Rs 2 lakh loan. We used to pay between Rs 40,000 and Rs 80,000 a year as instalment. But they said it was going towards the interest of Rs 36,000 a year. The bank employees claimed we still owed them money. We stopped paying three years ago. We wanted a settlement. The bank was not interested in one.

What type of bank was this?
It was a cooperative society bank, which was later dissolved. The government then nominated a few people to try and revive the bank. The bank is bankrupt and the employees want people to pay instalments, which would go towards their salaries.

We paid Rs 4 lakh for a Rs 2 lakh loan. The bank said we still owed them money. We wanted a settlement. The bank was not interested

Evidently, the family has been doing well. So, why did Pritilal end his life?
Pritilal was a supplier of building material. He also used to work on the farm. He bought a tractor on loan because he thought he could supply building material faster and better with the tractor. But his business started to fail because of the recession.

Was suicide the only option?
No. We told Pritilal that we would help with the bank settlement. But he didn’t listen. He should not have killed himself.

The Poor Little Rich Adivasi




Laxman Tekam, father of two boys Nilesh (5), Dinesh (3), and a girl Neelam (six months). Husband of Ratnamala, 25, who was away giving birth to Neelam when Laxman began to show signs of dysfunction. An active farmer who would begin work in the fields at 5 am, earlier than everyone else, he would also stop passers-by on the road and shout incoherently. Apparently believed he was too poor to pay back the loans his father, Champat Tekam, had taken.

Champat Tekam, 50, who takes loans to handle farm costs. Now has to raise his grandchildren. Also has to care for his wife, Yamuna, and Laxman’s widow, Ratnamala. Changes his story according to the listener. Tells the police that his son was mentally ill and therefore hanged himself. Tells journalists that his son couldn’t handle the pressure of the loan. Lives in a two-room shack where his son hanged himself.

Two loans from the Sahkari Bank, both taken by the father. Rs 15,000 in 2006 and another Rs 6,560 added to the same loan in 2008. The passbook shows an interest of Rs 440 on this loan. In 2008, the loan was fully paid and the passbook entry shows ‘nil’ as the pending amount. In April 2009, a fresh loan of Rs 30,800 was taken as crop loan, and an amount of Rs 9,200 added to it as another loan component. Total loan outstanding is Rs 40,000.

The family had 20 acres next to the highway. But, the son believed he was too poor to pay back the two loans his father took for seed

Twenty acres of prime land adjacent to the national highway. The police station is located on this land, which must be worth a lot. The land is in Champat’s name, and he gave 10 acres to his sister. Of the 10 acres left with him, he grows soybean, cotton, pigeon pea, and jowar (sorghum). The farm is big enough to provide handsomely for the Tekams, but it hasn’t given much over the past two years because of scanty rain in the area: just one quintal cotton, and 50 kg each of soy and jowar.

On March 24, almost everyone in the village was attending a marriage. Laxman’s family was there as well. Laxman returned home without telling the others at the marriage. He picked up a nylon cord, tied it around a wooden beam in the house and hanged himself. He must have been short because the distance between the beam and the floor is barely over six feet. When the family returned, they found Laxman’s body hanging. The entire village turned up for his funeral. He was buried in his farm, according to Adivasi tradition.

The Man in the Well

Dear Father,



I am at home talking to journalists who have come all the way from Delhi to know our story. It is some days since you departed and I have still not gone to the 1.25 acre farm. Nor have I taken our Tata Sumo out on work. I used to see you take a train to work every day as a sweeper in the Forest Department. I also used to see you drink every day and behave badly with my mother and, later, with my wife as well.

I was sad when we learned two months ago that you had tuberculosis. You used to cough the entire time, father. I was horrified when you abused the doctor who came to see you 15 days before you died.

The journalist wanted to know if we have a crop loan. I told him the truth, father. That we do not. I told him we gave the farm out to sharecroppers. I remember, father, that you did not go to work the day you died. You said you wanted to go to the hospital and you asked me for Rs 20. You took the money and my mother saw you returning in the distance, walking across the fields.

When you didn’t reach home even an hour later, we looked for you. We found you where you jumped, in the well. We had to fish your body out with a net. That is all I want to say, father.

Your son,

In the Still of the Night

Baba Rathod was found at dawn, hanging from a beam near the entrance to his house. There may have been a few arguments between him and his son over the crop loan Rathod took, though the son now chooses his words with care because he expects compensation. This is Rathod’s story in the words of his family.


Rupesh (grandson): Around 6 am, a woman shouted that the old man had hanged himself. I woke up with a start and saw him there. We were sleeping in the courtyard, but didn’t hear a thing. He did it after we were fast asleep. I was not shocked by the scene because I have seen two hangings in the past in the village.

Raja (son): He (Baba) took a Rs 36,000 crop loan, mainly for fertiliser. He had five acres, where he grew jowar (sorghum), cotton and soybean. Initially, he paid the instalments but later he didn’t pay up for some time. He never told me very much, but I gather that the Madhyavarti Society, which gave the loan, was asking for money.

Mukta (daughter): He felt dizzy one day, fell and hurt his legs badly. He couldn’t walk normally after that. He was mostly in pain and used to say that we should get his legs cut because he couldn’t bear the pain. He was suffering.

Sagar (daughter): He had leprosy. There was nothing we could do. It must have been a great effort for him to reach the beam past the people who were sleeping and hang himself. It would have been very painful in his condition.

No Orchards for the Child of Buddha


EVEN IN death, Vijay Thamke had to wait. He lay on the post-mortem table for long because he was taken there on a Sunday. And then, just as they got ready to cut him up, seven more bodies landed — victims of a horrific accident the previous night. Thamke probably didn’t mind. He had waited long in life as well.

Until a year ago, Thamke did enough to keep going. He grew fruit on his three acres, mostly mangoes and oranges. He managed. Then, his crop began to fail over two years of drought and the money flow got thinner. Most farmers were struggling in Vidarbha, and Thamke tried a way out. He began to sell fruit grown by others. He would fill a basket and get to the crossroads. There, he would sit until dusk and return with the earnings, about Rs 100.

Slowly, the sale dropped. Not many people wanted to buy fruit in tough times. Thamke’s basket used to return almost as it left in the morning — full. Thamke lived in a tightly packed Dalit colony where everyone knew what the others were doing. Neighbours saw Thamke leave and return with a full basket. When a man begins to fall, the tone in people’s voices changes. There is pity in their eyes. They pay less attention to what you say. It’s not the same. Thamke sensed this.

A year ago, he hit the bottle. “He used to worry about the expenses. He often said he didn’t know how to get Pooja, our daughter, married (Pooja is 15). I’d tell him what will be, will be. But he didn’t heed,” Rama, his widow, wailed. Six years ago Thamke had borrowed Rs 30,000 as crop loan. He stopped paying the instalments after three years. After a few tense months, Thamke sent his son away to his grandfather (Rama’s father) because he couldn’t feed four mouths a day.

On Saturday, after a day of binge drinking, Thamke came home. He curled up, and died. His was the 200th suicide this year

Then, on a Saturday, after a day of binge drinking, Thamke came home. He curled up, and died. They found him at 7.30 pm. When he came home for the last time, from the post-mortem, he was wrapped up in plastic. The colony turned up to mourn. In Dalit tradition, Buddhist chants were played over a public address system. They prayed to two gods: the Buddha and Ambedkar. With them, Thamke wouldn’t cry.

And so they carried victim No 200 for this year on his last journey. It was blazing hot. They walked a mile. In a small clearing among the barren fields, Thamke’s son Ravikant lit the pyre. He was gone in a hurry. The post-mortem will probably find pesticide in his last drink. Rama, the widow, doesn’t drink. With her rests the future of Pooja. Two women, one life, one room. The story of Vidarbha.

The Way to a Dusty Death

The office of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti in Yavatmal is a busy place. The Samiti is an NGO that documents the suicides of farmers in the area. Often, people trust it more than the government. This is a conversation on a hot afternoon.



Caller: “Sir, I am calling to report a farmer’s suicide. We are very upset.”

Santosh (a Samiti activist): “Where did it happen? Let me take the details.” (He scribbles the basic details in a register the Samiti has been filling for the past 10 years).

Caller: “Sir, Arun Satpute worked in the morning in his fields. He came home around 11 am, had his lunch, had a bath and left again. There is barely work in the fields now sir. There is no crop. He didn’t return till the evening. Satpute’s father took the cow for grazing in the farm at 5.30 pm. He heard gurgling sounds and he looked to find his son lying in the farm sir. There were two packets of insecticide nearby.”

Santosh: “What happened then?”

Caller: “The father ran home to inform the family. He then rushed to his nephew and they went back to the farm on a motorcycle. They called the sarpanch from there. The sarpanch came in a van. But, by that time, the sounds from Arun had stopped. He was foaming at the mouth. He went still.”

Santosh: “Did he have a loan?”

Caller: “He took Rs 60,000 last year from the Sahkar Seva Society for a borewell because he thought it would improve irrigation. He also took Rs 20,000 from relatives.”

Santosh: “Did the borewell work?”

Caller: “No sir. There is no water from the borewell now. There was a little water in the beginning and he celebrated. Then, there was nothing. It broke Arun’s spirit. He began to roam around aimlessly. He often wondered what he would do this year.”

Santosh: “How was his mood in the days before he died?”

Caller: “A couple of days before his death, he gave his daughter Pallavi, who is 10, Rs 100. Pallavi is fond of school sir, and Arun loved his daughter. Then, a day before his death, he and his family went to the wedding of his niece. He gave his niece Rs 600 as gift. Pallavi hasn’t stopped crying after her father’s death.”

Arun, who had taken loans worth Rs 80,000, didn’t know what he would do this year. He slowly cut his wife off

Santosh: “Did anyone know he would do something like this?”

Caller: “He never told his wife much. He has a brother, but he never told him anything either. Arun and his brother had eight acres each.”

Santosh: “We’ll see what we can do. Who are you?”

Caller: “I am Arun’s brother, Namdeo.”

The Sarpanch Who Was Ready

My Dear Trilok,


There must be many questions in your mind by now, as you hear of what happened. Perhaps I should have told you, but I am writing this so you may understand. I lost my elder brother about 12 years ago, when you were only nine. I couldn’t abandon his family. So I called them to live with us. You know how they have been a part of our family.

We have six acres. It was divided among us brothers, but it came to me after he died. The farm is our main possession, but it was not enough to take you all on the path I wanted to. Five years ago, after discussing with your mother, I took a loan of Rs 50,000 from the Khadi Gramodyog. We set up a flour mill with that money. You have seen how your mother runs it every day.

When this worked, I decided to take another loan in 2006 for your education. You remember we put you in a private engineering college for your BE in IT. That day, we felt such pride that our son would be a software engineer. But, we needed to pay for your fees, room rent, etc. I took Rs 1.69 lakh as educational loan. I paid Rs 36,000 interest a year on the education loan, and I paid Rs 1,100 a month on the flour mill loan.

You will remember how many people used to come to our house every day when I was sarpanch. In my 10 years as sarpanch, I tried to do as much as possible for the people of the village. Which is probably why they kept me in the post for a decade. They say I was a popular sarpanch. I simply tried to do my duty.

Anyway, we decided to give your sister Kanchan a good education too. So we put her in the Polytechnic, in a Civil Engineering course. All this meant that our expenses had gone up. I had to do something to get more out of our farm. I took a third loan, of Rs 50,000 in 2007 as crop loan. To my horror, the monsoon failed for the next two years and the crop was poor.

Two loans got the wife a flour mill and the son an IT degree. The third loan, for crop, didn’t deliver for the sarpanch

A month ago, I was sent an electricity bill of Rs 10,000 for our farm. I have paid Rs 2,000. You know your cousin is to be married on June 6. She has known me as a father all her life. It is unbearable for me to think that I cannot give her a grand wedding. I have thought about this. You are about to complete your course. Soon, you will earn. I think it is time for me to go. The government will probably give your mother compensation. It should help.

I am so proud that you got a Dell laptop with your scholarship. Do take care of your sister and mother. I hope you understand.

Your loving father

Tehelka - India's Independent Weekly News Magazine

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The dull days of White Gold

The dull days of White Gold

Across India, cotton growers make up the largest group of the over 180,000 farmers who committed suicide between 1997 and 2007. There's nothing like an election to spur policy change, though, notes P Sainath.

08 April 2009 - They called it White Gold. In 1972, you could buy 15 grams of gold with what you earned from producing one quintal of cotton. In Vidarbha, for instance, you made Rs.340 for that quintal (long staple). And gold went at Rs.220 for 10 grams (Rs.330 for 15). True, the cotton growers were even then subsidising rich textile barons in Mumbai. They still do - a lot more, in fact. But 'back then' seems a lot better right now, relatively speaking.

By the 1990s, that trend had been reversed. From the 1970s to mid-1985, cotton was, as Vijay Jawandia calls it, "the poor man's cloth." Man-made fabric was all the rage. By the end of the 1980s, however, a growing bias towards natural fibre saw cotton emerge as the rich man's cloth. All the big brand names were cashing in on cotton. Yet, cotton farmers in the poorer nations were doing worse. Corporations and traders were doing better. By the mid to late 1990s, obscene subsidies to cotton growers from the United States and the European Union were already pulling the prices downwards.

By 2005, you needed to sell five quintals of cotton to buy 15 grams of gold. By early 2008, gold was at Rs.12,125 for 10 grams, cotton at Rs. 2000 a quintal. You now needed to sell nine quintals of cotton to buy 15 grams of gold. The living standards of farmers in cotton-growing regions like Vidarbha had fallen sharply. Cotton prices and incomes were crashing, debt and cultivation costs soaring. The 2004 Lok Sabha polls saw a wave of farmer anger - and the BSP's rise - bludgeon the Congress. The BJP-Shiv Sena alliance won 10 of the then 11 seats in Vidarbha.

But in the Maharashtra Assembly polls just months later, the Congress did better. It took 30 of the 66 seats from the region. True, Sonia Gandhi's visit had a huge impact in this traditionally pro-Congress cotton belt. Turning down prime ministership further enhanced the respect she enjoyed there. But the Congress campaign captured voters with a single promise. It would raise the cotton prices - then Rs.2200 a quintal - to Rs.2700. That promise was to be betrayed just months after the polls - with terrible consequences.

In Maharashtra, cotton never received the support that sugarcane did. It was grown in poor regions by dryland farmers with far less political clout than the Pawars of western Maharashtra. As India embraced neo-liberal globalism, that clout waned further. On the one hand, cotton-growers were locked into the volatility of global prices. On the other, input costs were exploding. Local seed cost around Rs.9 a kilogram in 1991. By 2004, commercial seed had taken over and could cost as much as Rs.1,650 to Rs.1,800 for just 450 grams, thanks to Monsanto's Bt cotton. State intervention later brought the price down to half that. But the damage had been done. And even today's price of Rs.650-850 for less than half a kg is still many times higher than Rs.9 a kg. In Maharashtra, the State actively promoted the costly Bt seed, its own agency being a distributor. Huge sums also went to promoting it by using film stars as "brand ambassadors."

Other inputs, fertilizer, pesticide, utilities like water and electricity, all saw a big rise in costs from the mid to late 1990s. Cotton covers about 5 per cent of cultivable area in India, but accounts for 55 per cent of all pesticides used. (That is in itself a huge problem with alarming long-term consequences for agriculture, environment and health as a whole.) With the massive spread of these, it is no surprise that most farmers taking their lives swallowed chemical pesticides to do so. They are so easy to access, perhaps far more so in this sector.

In Maharashtra, cotton has never received the support sugarcane has. It is grown in poor regions by dryland farmers with far less political clout than the Pawars of western Maharashtra.

•  Turning farmers into brokers
•  Against the grain

Successive Indian governments did nothing to stop the dumping of subsidised U.S. cotton in this country. There are no duties on import of cotton today. India is the second biggest producer of what is one of the world's most widely traded commodities. Yet between 1997-98 and 2004-05, we imported 115 lakh bales. That is, over three times the number we did in the preceding 25 years. This cheap imported cotton further devastated growers here. At the same time, like millions of other small farmers, they found bank loans harder and harder to access as rural credit shrank - by policy. Credit was increasingly diverted towards urban-metro consumption. Many farmers turned to moneylenders, ending up mired in debt.

While poor cotton farmers never developed much political and electoral clout, traders and textile barons did. Even if the barons were to pay a slightly better price - say an additional Rs.2 per metre of raw material went to the farmer - it would make a difference. It never happened.

By 2005, cotton prices collapsed. That's when the Maharashtra government withdrew the Rs.500 per quintal "advance bonus" normally tagged on to the minimum support price (MSP) in the State. This saw the price plunging to Rs.1,700 a quintal. (Gold was at Rs.6,180 for ten grams.) Suicides in Vidarbha, already rising, shot up massively.

By September 2006, farmers in that region were killing themselves at the rate of one every six hours on average. The Vilasrao Deshmukh government had withdrawn the advance bonus in 2005 despite appeals from cotton growers, the National Commission for Farmers and many others. The next year, Vidarbha, indeed all of Maharashtra, recorded its worst rise in farm suicides ever. If the Deshmukh government could get away with that, it was because cotton had no strong lobby. Its electoral clout was feeble.

Across India, cotton growers make up the largest group of the over 180,000 farmers who committed suicide between 1997 and 2007. The cumulative impact of all these processes was crushing farmers locked into this model of production and into neo-liberal economics. In Vidarbha, for the first time ever, farmers grew more soybean than cotton as losses on the latter were killing them, literally.

There's nothing like an election to spur policy change, though. In the run-up year to the polls, the Union government came through with its Rs.71,000 crore loan waiver for indebted farmers. In Maharashtra, the lion's share of that waiver's benefits went to just seven of the State's 35 districts, none of them in the poor cotton-growing regions of Vidarbha and Marathwada. Most of them within the power base of Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar. And all this was about bank debt. Moneylender debt was not touched. Still, there was some relief.

The main loan waiver excluded those owning more than five acres. This penalised some of the poorest farmers. In unirrigated regions, even poor farmers tend to own more acres as productivity is so low. The government did respond to demands that dryland cultivators not be penalised for having more than five acres. After all, polls were now months away. The write-off that followed of Rs.20,000 for such farmers did help a significant group of growers in Vidarbha. And there was also some money that trickled down from even the awfully flawed packages.

Then came a healthy rise in cotton prices. The shifting of huge swathes of land in the U.S. to bio-fuel production pushed up prices last year. And a nearly 50 per cent rise in the MSP for cotton took the price to Rs.3,000 per quintal. In Vidarbha, it meant that about seven months of 2008 were the best period the region had seen in years. No basic problem had been resolved, but it brought some relief and reduced the stifling pressure. A pity it took so many deaths - and election year - for that to happen.

The rise in MSP to Rs.3,000 was also an admission of how disastrous the Deshmukh government's torpedoing the price to Rs.1700 a quintal had been. And the removal of that Chief Minister also won the region's approval.

To what extent this helps the Congress in these Lok Sabha polls is hard to gauge. There is the BSP factor that is very real and could mess up all bets. (It played a big role in 2004, too. In four seats, the BSP polled far more votes than the margin of defeat of Congress-NCP candidates.) But the Congress faces less hostility than it did three years ago. Whether it can play that to its advantage is another question. And the long-term future of White Gold here is an even bigger one.

P Sainath
08 Apr 2009

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Friday, April 23, 2010