An Indian Farmer About to Commit Suicide Writes a Note of Clarification
Sahibrao Adhao paints a vivid picture of Vidharbha’s debt trap. [Vidharba is a cotton-growing region in the north-east part of the state of Maharashtra. Eds.] He profiles the character of the creditor, captures the pathos of the debtor. He describes the interest mechanism and how it is manipulated. Adhao brings in the local features of sahucari in the Amravati-Akola belt. Here, there is no mortgage. You just give the lender a straight deed of sale for your land. In theory, he returns the land when you pay up. In truth, he holds on to it even after you have paid up. In fact, he demands more money.
Adhao is neither an academic studying the problem nor a reporter digging into the issue. Just a small farmer who lost all his land this way and whose suicide note is meticulous in detail.
"We sent a fax to Home Minister R.R. Patil," says Udhav Adhao, a relative. "So far, nothing has happened. When he was alive and made a complaint, the police arrested him, not the sahucar." That’s because "he tried to prevent the latter from cutting down trees on the land grabbed from him," says Ashok, the dead man’s son. "Each time my father paid off some money, the sahucar raised his demand." Adhao’s widow Babytai is too distressed to say a word at their home in Khirala village, Amravati district.
"The more the banking system denies the farmer aid, the more he must go to the sahucar," says Vijay Jawandia, farm activist and leader. "People thought that after the Prime Minister’s visit, they could go to their bank and get a fresh crop loan. For many, this did not happen."
In Wardha district, the suicide note of Ramkrishna Lonkar of Susandara village has grabbed attention in the local press. In it, Lonkar writes "After the Prime Minister’s visit and announcements of a fresh crop loan, I thought I could live again." In fact, he was rebuffed at every stage when he began the process of seeking that loan. The talk at the top was not matched by credit at the bottom. "I was shown no respect," he says in his note. Lonkar took his life on August 1, a month after Dr. Manmohan Singh’s visit to the Vidharbha region.
"Bankers are not going to give out fresh loans even after the interest waiver," says Mr. Jawandia. "They know that farmers who could not pay back Rs.10,000 earlier cannot repay Rs.20,000 now. The more so when there is no change in the price of cotton. There is some logic in that. That’s why a loan waiver is vital. It lets the farmer start with a clean slate."
Officials admit the amounts involved in a possible waiver are quite small for a State like Maharashtra. "The total advances for all these six districts is a little over Rs.1,200 crore," says one. That figure does not include the interest. [A crore is 10 million; a lakh, 100,000. 1$US = c 44 rupees. Eds.] "Tamil Nadu has waived five times that amount for its farmers." There’s more. "If Rs.712 crore was the interest burden, when the advances are around Rs.1,200 crore, that’s shocking. It argues the original loans were very small. The burden has been too great for too long."
"If you look at the amount taken away from farmers thanks to bad pricing and low import duties on cotton," says Mr. Jawandia, "this is a trifling sum."
Input costs, however, have not been trifling. In some estimates, Bt cotton now accounts for 50-60 per cent of the total sown area. Even after the fall in its price, it costs much more than non-Bt seed. And despite all the claims made for it, input dealers here have seen no decline in pesticide sales as a result of its use. Some claim higher sales than before. If there is any fall now, it might be due to excess rain crippling farm operations. And many farms have reported failure with Bt anyway, long before the downpour.
In the end, Adhao goes down as No. 650 in the list of farmers taking their lives since June 1, 2005. Lonkar was No. 702. Meanwhile, the official figure for suicides since 2001 has changed and confused many. One reason the total figure has shot up suddenly is that the State Government "has changed the indicators. And it has changed them with retrospective effect," says a top official. So the number now is 1,864 suicides since 2001 in the six affected districts.
In mid-2005, the State was still speaking of a total of 141 distress suicides since 2001. When challenged in court, this number changed to 524–state-wide. Then when the National Commission on Farmers came visiting last October, the Government told the Commission there had been over 300 in that period in a single district–not state-wide. That was Yavatmal and the data showed that the deaths had doubled each year since 2001. Which undid the claim that the rate of suicides was "normal."
In the State Assembly in December, the Government admitted to a figure of 1,041 farmers’ suicides State-wide since 2001. Today, for the same period, it accepts a figure of 1,864–in just six districts (Maharashtra has 35 districts in all). Till late last year, it stuck to a definition of distress farm suicides that excluded very large numbers of people from its list. For instance, if a cultivator took his life but the family land was in his father’s name–this was not a "farmer’s suicide." The claim was that "since there was no land in the name of the deceased, he or she was not a farmer," points out the official.
The State’s list also required that each case be judged by over 40 indicators before being declared a farm suicide. It was reported at the time (The Hindu, June 25, 2005) that this kept out many deaths from the Government’s list. It also meant that the bereaved families would get no compensation.
In recent months, the state has revised its approach. Now, such a tragedy in a farm household is acknowledged as a farmer’s suicide even if that family member had no land in his or her name. The result: hundreds of names have been added to the list from the 2001-05 period. There have been other changes, too.
The rain lashing Vidharbha is making things much worse. A lot of those who borrowed money to buy their inputs have seen their efforts washed away. For many, it will be difficult to recover from the accumulated losses of successive seasons.
"Give us a price, not a package"
"DUMP THE packages, give us a price. It’s the price of cotton we’re worried about," says `Kaka’ Manohar Motiramji Tadas. "With a fair deal on that, we can manage for now." Tadas knows something about farming. He has been at it for close to 45 years. He does have other demands, like a debt waiver and access to credit. But the price of cotton tops his list just now. That is, a month after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh concluded his visit to Vidharbha.
`Kaka’ Tadas speaks to us in Kavita village, Amravati district, in the house of Srikrishna Rahate. We could not speak to Rahate. He had killed himself less than a hundred hours before we arrived.
The streets are deserted–because Kavita and many villages like it are also badly hit by chikungunya, a debilitating non-fatal viral illness like dengue, transmitted by the`Aedes Aegypti’ mosquito, which is also the vector of dengue. "Large numbers have it," says Dilip Choudhary, who leads us to Rahate’s house. And not many can afford medical help. With floods and excess rainfall ravaging farmland in parts of Vidharbha, things are getting worse.
`Kaka’ Tadas and Mr. Choudhary see no connection between the "relief package" the Prime Minister announced here and the huge spurt in suicides since then. Nor do any of the other farmers who gather to meet us. They are clear that larger issues are driving the farm deaths than those addressed by short-term "packages." They are also clear that hundreds of thousands of households that have seen no suicides are almost as badly off as the thousands that have in the past few years. If anything, they see the sharp rise in the number of farmers killing themselves as proof of how irrelevant the immediate measures have been.
The number of suicides since the Prime Minister left Vidharbha on July 1 is now well past the 100 mark. Before his visit, 101 farmers took their lives in 49 days. The same number killed themselves in 33 days after the visit ended. That is, the rate of suicides rose from around two a day to over three each day. Or one every eight hours.
This means July saw an eight-fold increase in such deaths as compared to the same period last year. July 2005 saw 11 suicides, according to the Vidharbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS). This July, there were 92. (One official count, accessed by The Hindu, puts the numbers for the same periods at 15 and 80. So though different, both confirm a disastrous trend for that month. However, these official figures have only recently come into existence and are shaky. The VJAS has been more diligent.)
What explains the July surge? "Since not a single major demand has been met in years, things could only get worse," says Kishore Tiwari of the VJAS. "Even those who sowed felt trapped, having no funds to follow up with the next steps."
He is hopeful the trend will decline in August but knows the excess rains could make things worse. And, like everyone else, he fears the coming of the spraying season after that. That is usually when the worst numbers come in. It is during the spraying period that the farmer holds pesticide in his hands. For the very desperate, that is a time when a deadly decision is most easily taken. Swallowing pesticide has been the chosen route out in four-fifths of all farm suicides here.
The process of rising debt and falling hope also continues. "What new credit?" asks Mr. Choudhary. "I own three acres and needed Rs.18,000 as a crop loan. The bank gave me Rs.5,000. How am I supposed to do anything with that?" There are cases of farmers with 25 acres getting just Rs.12,000. All this in a month after the announcement of fresh crop loans.
Off the record, bank managers admit not much has happened on the credit front: "We have no money to pay staff salaries," claim some. Also, the sowing season was almost over by the time any little money began flowing. Some did benefit from fresh crop loans. But mostly in the way that Mr. Choudhary did–pushing them once again to moneylenders for the remaining sums they need.
`Kaka’ Tadas insists: "There has to be a fair price for what the farmer grows." Last year, the cotton prices fell sharply when the State Government withdrew its "advance bonus" of Rs.500 a quintal. The price now is Rs.1,700, but some have sold their cotton in distress for less.
Big firms are among the gainers in the distress sales. Farmers point out that neither State nor Central packages touch the issue of price. Cotton prices have been devastated both by State policy and worldwide by American and European Union subsidies to their producers running to billions of dollars each year.
"Many have switched to soybean," says Mohan Rahate, son of the farmer who took his life, "but soybean too, has fallen from Rs.1,100 to Rs.1,000 a quintal. It could fall to Rs.800." Meanwhile, since neither Central nor State packages promote foodcrops, particularly jowar, progress on that front is nil.
Just two moves appear to have clicked to some extent. The Rs.50 lakh each directly given by the Prime Minister to six District Collectors is being utilised. Close to a third of this Rs.300 lakh has been used within a week of the money coming in. Since this is not just for the suicide-hit, immediate relief has reached some thousands of people. This includes a few of those unable to pay crushing health expenses–now the second fastest growing component of rural family debt. District Collectors hope this fund will be replenished when it runs out.
Thousands of couples have also used the Rs.6 crore set aside for mass marriages under the State’s package. And Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh has announced he will back this with more money. This has seen over 6,000 households lower their expenses in a time of dire need. It has also, importantly, lent social legitimacy to the notion of cheap weddings.
Both moves have been positive. Yet the numbers are quite marginal to the lakhs of households in crisis. On almost all other fronts, things are lagging badly. The credibility of the Government machinery at the village level seems at its lowest ever. And farmers assert that their central issues have in no way been addressed by either the State or the Centre.
The rest of the season could get bleaker. Unless, says `Kaka’ Tadas, "you give us a price. A fair price."