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The Grim Reaper Strikes

Reeling under a pest attack, crop failure and heavy debts, 44 cotton farmers commit suicide

The Grim Reaper Strikes
It was a black Sankranti for many a cotton farmer in Andhra Pradesh. "Ladde purgu" or Spodoptera litura, the pest that wreaked havoc on the fertile coastal Prakasham district a decade ago, returned to haunt cotton cultivators in the backward Telengana and Rayalaseema regions. As the pest destroyed crops spread over 3.7 lakh hectares, it triggered a panic reaction. Driven up the wall with the crop failure and mounting debts, 44 farmers committed suicide—24 in drought-prone Warangal district alone.

 "The situation is alarming," admits agriculture minister K. Vidyadhar Rao. But he has assured the farming community that "the government is behind you." Waking up to the crisis, the Centre released Rs 12 crore of the Rs 50 crore promised from the Calamities Relief Fund as compensation to the affected cotton farmers.

That the Telugu Desam government has failed again to protect the farmers' interests is evident from ex-MP and agriculture expert, Yelamanchali Shivaji's blistering attack. Squarely blaming the government for failing to educate the farmers, he says the agriculture department did nothing to teach them about crop rotation, pest control, proper use of fertilisers and pesticides.

Most farmers had spent over Rs 12,000 an acre on fertilisers when Rs 7,000 worth of pest control would have been enough. According to Shivaji, the problem aggravated in Warangal district because all the three major crops—cotton, chilly and red gram—were attacked by pests and the yields fell by 50 per cent. Farmers who owned three acres had taken more land on lease to raise the crop and once it failed, they were badly hit. Many small farmers, who realised the only way out was more debts, resorted to the extreme step of suicide.

Take the case of I. Balanjaneyulu who killed himself by consuming pesticides in the collectorate's office grounds itself after filing a complaint. The 35-year-old farmer had borrowed Rs 35,000 from a private financier in 1995 to buy a secondhand tractor. He claimed he had repaid Rs 82,000 but didn't insist on the bills. The financier, probably in debt himself, took away the tractor, and began harassing Balanjaneyulu, saying that he hadn't cleared his dues. The collector accepted his complaint letter, but before he could take action, Balanjaneyulu committed suicide. The financier has been arrested and a probe is on, but that doesn't help his debt-ridden family.

District collector Shalini Misra attributes the suicidal trend to extraneous factors like family and social problems. "I don't think all the deaths are due to crop loss or debts or penury." To strengthen her argument, she cites the example of a farmer, Nellutla Ravi of Venkatapur, whose maize crop had done fine, figuring among the list of the dead.

In 1988, the state witnessed a row of suicides during N.T. Rama Rao's rule. Twenty-three cotton farmers in rice and tobacco-rich Prakasham and Guntur districts, reeling under a pest attack on their crop, killed themselves.

This time, Telengana's farmers are in a bad way. And bureaucratic wranglings have made matters worse. On December 28, 27-year-old Badavat Mangia of Nandanayak, Warangal district, ate a handful of pesticides when he realised that he couldn't pay back the money he had taken from private moneylenders. A police inquest confirmed that he had committed suicide.

But to the utter surprise of his family, the district administrators refused to part with the Rs 1 lakh compensation they had promised. Then, trying to paint Mangia's death as an accident, the Geeskonda mandal revenue officer (MRO) changed the report and claimed that Mangia inhaled poisonous pesticide gas and collapsed in the farm and hadn't committed suicide as reported. How the report was changed overnight is a mystery. Mang-ia's widow, in debt herself, is running from pillar to post to prove that her husband had indeed committed suicide.

The Geeskonda mandal sarpanch Hema Nayak is at a loss to understand how the MRO dared to challenge the inquest report. "The government's promise appears to have turned out to be an empty one." He suspects that the government doesn't have enough money to honour the chief minister's promise. "Successive governments have cheated us and Naidu's Telugu Desam is no exception." Alleges the Geeskonda mandal secretary of the CPI(M), T. Venkateswarlu: "The MRO changed his version overnight, denying the family the much-needed aid to tide over their crisis." In this tribal mandal alone, about 1,460 acres of crop is being destroyed by the dreaded pest.

 Farmers have sprayed such an overdose of pesticides on the crops that it may have reduced its effectivity and made pests quite immune. In fact, pesticides are expensive in this state. And each farmer ends up spending thousands of rupees on fertilisers and pest control; most of the amount borrowed from money-lenders at high interest rates. The pesticide dealers also play their game. Profit being their sole motive, the dealers palm off spurious pesticides manufactured by flyby-night companies in Guntur, jack up the minimum retail prices and act as self-styled "pest management advisors" to farmers. Some dealers are said to have given Rs 3 crore as credit to farmers.

This time, for the farmers, the excess use of pesticides has landed them in deeper waters because the extra yield was not commensurate with the huge investment. The normal yield ranges from 10-12 quintals an acre. But Hema Nayak claims that the farmers had an 18-20 quintal haul to an acre last year. If the market price is Rs 2,000 a quintal a farmer's produce should fetch Rs 15,000-Rs 25,000 an acre in the market, depending on the yield. But with the crop failure, his net returns has dwindled to as low as Rs 7,000, which doesn't even cover the farmer's input cost.

Realising the gravity of the situation and facing the wrath of the Opposition, including the Left partners, Naidu not only announced Rs 1 lakh as ex-gratia, but also other hastily-compiled economic packages. Later, the government also announced Rs 1,200 as compensation per acre. The farmers have got little succour, but the Opposition wants the government to be more magnanimous by paying Rs 6,000 per acre. In a bid to cash in on the issue, several Congress leaders are demanding that the government pay Rs 1 crore as compensation to the family of each suicide victim.

Interestingly, agricultural scientists of the state are laying the blame on overenthusiastic farmers for their ills, especially the excessive use of pesticides. Says A. Prabhakara Rao, a photojournalist-turned agriculturist: "Unfortunately, the farmers are over-ambitious and in a bid to ensure a better yield, they wet the crop with pesticides rather than water." Farmers of other Telengana districts like Khammam, Karimnagar, Adilabad, Mahbubnagar and Nalgonda, besides Anantapur (Rayalaseema) and parts of West Godavari are also reeling under drought conditions or heavy rains; debts and crop failure. The media-savvy and hi-tech chief minister just can't afford to smile.

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