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Bitter Harvest

As crop failure spreads to more states, farmers' suicides stir a political storm

Bitter Harvest

THE harvest of tears continues—and continues to spread. After more than 300 indebted cotton farmers took their lives after a failed crop, the tragic tale is now being repeated in the Marathwada and Vidarbha regions of Maharashtra and Karnataka's Bidar, Gulbarga and Raichur districts (where shortfall in the turdal crop has wreaked similar devastation).

Hit by unseasonal rainfall, hail and subsequently debt-inflicted poverty, 17 Maharashtra farmers—mostly cotton growers—have already ended their lives, leaving behind hectares of dead crop, a string of debts and grieving families. Setting the pace of the suicidal spree in Yavatmal district was 35-year-old Ramdas Ambarwar of Telang Tekdi, Pandharkawda taluka, whose debt had already crossed Rs 2 lakh. Less than two months later 36-year-old Bhaskerrao Sayankar of Gadachi Bori, Maregaon taluka, consumed poison leaving behind a wife, four young children and a debt of Rs 70,000. A few days after, the body of 50-year-old Mahadeorao Kinnekar of Veni Kotha, Kalamb taluka, was found in a well. His legacy: a financially devastated family comprising a wife and five children.

The deaths are also reflected in the downswing of the state's cotton procurement: from 140 lakh quintals of cotton in 1996-97 to 57 lakh quintals in 1997-98—a Rs 2,000 crore loss in the 10 cotton-producing districts of Maharashtra. The succession of suicides has thus brought into sharp focus the failure of the state's Monopoly Cotton Procurement Scheme (MCPS), a scheme unique to Maharashtra.

 "Since 1972, cotton farmers in Maharashtra have been legally bound to conduct trade only with the state. Presumably done to safeguard their interests, the slogan of this populist measure was 'cotton-to-cloth'. Unfortunately, neither has the scheme reached the yarn stage nor have farmers benefited by the MCPS," notes Vijay Jawand-hia, former president, Shetkari Sanghatana.

Farmers complain of having to transport their produce to a distant procurement centre, then of payments being made in instalments. "How can a farmer already burdened with loans wait for the money to come in?" asks Kishore Tiwari, convenor, Dushakal Parishad (Drought Council), an organisation recently formed to deal with the problems of cotton farmers in Vidarbha.

Consequently, farmers have been compelled to sell their crop to agents at rock-bottom prices, with the agents then offloading the same to the Maharashtra State Cotton Growers Market Federation at much higher government fixed rates. Thus, describes Jawandhia, it has become "a scheme that is a warehouse for traders". Again, as farmers have not been the direct beneficiaries of subsidies, they have had to pay the price of increased costs of farming. Electricity bills have climbed from Rs 500 for six months to Rs 2,000. The prices of pesticides and seeds fluctuates according to the fancies of private financiers.

The imbalance in loans for farmers is startling: while the cash input per acre per year is Rs 6,000 for dry farming and Rs 10,000 per acre per year for irrigated farming, the farmer is allowed Rs 1,000 and Rs 2,000 per acre per year, respectively, at 18 per cent interest by way of bank loans. Failure of repayment means that credit is unavailable for the following year, with the result that cotton farmers are pushed into the arms of private lenders and their accompanying interest rates varying from 25 per cent to 125 per cent.

As a tearful Indirabai Kinnekar says: "We are never able to pay back all the money even if the crop is good. But if there is a natural calamity and the crop along with fodder for cattle is destroyed, we can't recover from its after-effects for at least three years. It was this fear and the constant hounding by moneylenders that made my husband commit suicide."

Under the Drought Relief Scheme, the government is supposed to provide free schooling to children of affected families and free fodder to the cattle, among other things. But the definition of drought dates back to the British Raj. Says Jawandhia: "According to that definition, one quintal of cotton yield per acre amounts to 100 per cent production. With the green revolution, the yield has increased considerably, so that not one farmer qualifies for drought relief."

Meanwhile, in Karnataka, all parties are trying to reap political capital from the failure of the tur dal crop on account of a pest attack and unseasonal rains, driving about 20 farmers to suicide. While the BJP sees in it an avenue to consolidate on its recent inroads, the Congress too is trying to exploit the situation and has urged Sonia Gandhi to tour the affected areas. For the ruling Janata Dal, it has utility as a mere excuse to secure more financial assistance.

The state government constituted a committee of legislators from all political parties which toured the northern districts and is expected to submit its report soon. As expected, the reaction of each member has a political slant. Says a BJP member: "There's no coordination between the agriculture and revenue departments. The statistics provided by both vary, as does their information on the crop insurance scheme."

 Government officials admit a major lapse on the part of the agriculture department to tackle the pests, which have reportedly developed resistance to certain pesticides, and lacunae in pesticide control laws that prescribe a long-drawn legal procedure against companies that dump spurious pesticides in rural areas.

Sources in the agriculture ministry say 53 cases of substandard pesticides in Gulbarga district and three in Bidar have been detected since last January. Of these, 17 companies have been taken to the local court in Gulbarga while action is being initiated against three companies in Bidar.

But it is still held that many of the suicides reported are not due to crop failure. According to a report prepared by the state intelligence wing and the deputy commissioner of Bidar district, in 12 cases farmers were driven into taking to the extreme step due to harvesting losses. The report then lists 15 other cases of suicide traceable to factors besides crop failure.

HOWEVER, in order to secure maximum Central assistance, Karnataka's Janata Dal government has played down these details in the memorandum submitted to the prime minister. Nor is it willing to accept the figures on suicides provided by its intelligence wing.

In Andhra Pradesh too, the ruling TDP alleges that many of the suicides had nothing to do with the pest attack. Says a senior official in the state agricultural department: "Suicidal deaths caught on like wild fire ever since the government announced Rs 1 lakh exgratia payment to the next of kin of the deceased. A majority of those who committed 'suicide' were cases of 'accidental' or 'natural' deaths and registered under 'suicidal deaths' with an eye on the money.Interestingly, most victims were also not cotton farmers."

These charges are also being levelled in Karnataka, though observers say facts point otherwise. Says legislator Puttannaiah, who belongs to the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha: "We have come across 21 suicides, and all have ended their lives because they were in debt. The dalals in these districts lend more money than cooperatives societies or rural banks, so the farmers have been in distress. It's wrong to say that more farmers are giving up their lives because the government has announced a compensation of Rs 1 lakh for every victim."

 And as these statistical charges are traded and political postures adopted, the plight of the hapless farmers threatens to be overshadowed.

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