Monday, November 21, 2005

Human Harvest: Farmer Suicides in Andhra

Sangam Narayana has left behind a memento for his wife which she would rather not look at but preserves with great care — the May 22 edition of the Telugu daily Vaartha.

The front-page photograph of the paper shows Narayana, 48, a farmer in Masanpalli village of Medak district, lying sprawled in the fields, with dried up froth staining his right cheek.

Narayana seemed to have been pondering over his electricity bill before he decided to kill himself consuming endosulphan, because the electricity card lay near his body. The electricity dues for his farm, according to villagers, was Rs 12,000 and for his home another Rs 9000. The electricity department was asking him to pay up — even though the new chief minister, Y S Rajasekhar Reddy, announced waiving off farmers’ power dues immediately after he assumed office.

Narayana also owed about Rs 1 lakh to private moneylenders, and a similar amount to the State Bank of India. And with the monsoons failing for the last three years, his 3-acre land had yielded practically nothing but had only sucked in investments, like sinking of four borewells — three of which failed to strike water. The fourth gave him just about enough water to irrigate the small crop of sugarcane he had grown in a corner of the field. So like the hundreds of other farmers in Andhra Pradesh, Narayana chose the easy way out of the financial mess — embracing death.

‘‘Sometime back the moneylenders came home and abused him. Since then he looked very upset but he never said anything. That morning also he quietly had dal and roti and then left home saying he had to water the fields. I had no idea he was going there to die,’’ says Ushamma, Narayana’s devastated wife, squatting all alone in front of her hut.

Up in the sky, the clouds kept gathering and dispersing, lighting up hopes of the other residents of Masanpalli. But for Ushamma, the clouds have showed up too late. And no one knows yet whether those clouds will actually bring rains. Ushamma lost her husband, but for the rest of the world, it was yet another case of ‘‘farmer suicide’’ — a phenomenon that has gripped Andhra Pradesh, forcing the new chief minister to announce a host of steps to curb the death toll.

On June 12, his government placed an advertisement in Telugu papers which, while recording 108 suicides since May 14 when Rajasekhar Reddy took over, promised Rs 1.5 lakh compensation to the family of every deceased farmer, waiving off farmers’ electricity dues amounting to Rs 1100 crore, free power supply to them that would cost the state Rs 400 crore, increasing Budgetary allocation to agriculture and related sectors by nearly 40 percent and setting aside Rs 23,479.20 crore towards easy loans to them. The ad also announced setting up of helplines in every district, while the chief minister himself, in his recent roadshows, urged farmers not to get intimidated by moneylenders and report them to the police if they sought to recover their money forcibly.

But curbing suicides — which are sparked off by emotional distress — is not as easy as curbing murders and theft. The number of suicides has been so steady in the last one month that Andhra Jyothi, a leading Telugu paper, has been recording them on a daily basis on its Page 3, in a column titled Darunalu, which literally means disaster but which actually plays on the word runalu, meaning debts. In fact, Reddy’s promise of the Rs 1.5 lakh compensation seems to have only inspired more suicides.

‘‘Ever since he promised the compensation the farmers seem to be going tup, tup, tup (a sound indicating people falling dead). They know they are ruined, so they want their family to benefit from the money,’’ says Krishna, a journalist in Medak. In Medak district alone, at least 18 farmers committed suicide between May 14 to June 12, though the official figures put the toll at nine — the reason being the government does not recognise all such deaths as ‘‘farmer suicide.’’

The case of Shambhu Reddy, for example, does not come under this category. The story of Shambhu, a farmer in Medak’s Korpol village, is that of riches to rags. Once upon a time, his family owned 68 acres, growing millet. But expenses were to be met, such as the wedding of the various girls in the family, so one patch of land was sold after the other. Finally Shambhu was left with three acres, which he sold off two years ago to marry off his only daughter. Rendered landless, he leased three acres for cultivation. But the clouds never gathered over that land and Shambhu was forced to become a labourer for construction companies — the ultimate humiliation for a self-respecting farmer. But he managed to hide his humiliation till the morning of June 6.

‘‘He seemed normal, laughing and joking as usual and then we all went to sleep here (pointing to an open courtyard). At 4 in the morning he went to the toilet. When he came out he was staggering and he fell down. We rushed him to the hospital but he was dead,’’ says Upendra, 22, Shambhu’s son.

Honour: that’s something a farmer guards more zealously than even his crops. Hunger he can hide, but a moneylender’s knock at the door is heard loud and clear across the village. And that’s when he begins contemplating suicide. But the question is: Why are farmers being pushed to the wall in Andhra Pradesh?

Well, the sequence of events leading up to every suicide is simple and almost similar in every case: The farmer plants the seeds and waits for the rains. The rains fail. The next year he repeats the process, taking a loan from the bank and if that’s not sufficient, from the private moneylenders. In any case he can’t go to the bank if he has already availed of a loan from there. A majority of this loan money goes into providing for irrigation of the land, such as digging of borewells, while the rest of it goes for buying of seeds, fertilisers, etc. But borewells either fail to strike water or break down. And at times there is no electricity at all to pump water. The seeds, on the other hand, turn out to be of bad quality and the fertiliser adulterated. And the rains fail too. For whatever little crop he has managed to produce, he gets next to nothing, thanks to the middlemen. Somewhere in between, his daughter reaches marriageable age or his wife falls ill or his son wants to study further.

In the middle of this, he has only one hope — a good monsoon the next season. So he starts all over again, plunged in even greater debt. But the rains fail yet again. The government, all these years, has hardly been of help. There is no crop insurance to speak of, no guarantee of regular power or water supply, and no assurance of alternative income in case of a natural calamity or crop failure.

In Medak, for example, crops worth Rs 3 crore were damaged, but the compensation the farmers got was only Rs 3 lakh. ‘‘The government promises a lot of things but it never reaches the ground level,’’ says P Chengal Reddy, chairman of Farmers’ Federation (Andhra Pradesh). ‘‘What’s happening today is the cumulative effect of red tapism, faulty pricing mechanism, corruption and the institutionalised exploitation of farmers by middlemen. There comes a time when a farmer is at his wit’s end. He desperately wants to get out of the system but what he gets is a notice from the bank,’’ says Reddy.

A lot of farmers’ problems can be solved if they shift to cultivating crops that require far less water than paddy or sugarcane. The state governments have been encouraging them to do so but the farmers seem to be reluctant. ‘‘Even if we grow paddy in a small area we at least get rice to eat and fodder for our animals. The excess we can sell to buy seeds and fertiliser. That way we can survive,’’ says Bantu Shiva Chander, the sarpanch of Masanpalli village. And he does not approve of the idea of reporting bullying moneylenders to the police. ‘‘Banks don’t give us another loan till we pay back. Moneylenders are our only hope. If we take them to the police, who will give us loan again?’’ he asks.

Banks, post-liberalisation, are no longer what they used to be. During their recent meeting with chief minister Reddy, the state’s bankers remained quite indifferent to his appeal to cut interest rates for farmers. They said their money was also public money and they cannot give special concession to Andhra farmers. The new government, clearly, will have to play a bigger and aggressive role now. Promises and schemes aren’t enough: it has to make sure what is planned in Hyderabad reaches the villages. Farmers, after all, have placed all their hopes on Reddy, who is seen as farmer-friendly unlike his predecessor Chandrababu Naidu who was considered IT-friendly.

The agriculture department, it is learnt, is contemplating a comprehensive insurance scheme which would take care of the family’s health and the children’s education — two areas where increasing costs have added to a farmer’s burden. It is also planning a law which would make it mandatory for a farmer to get a certificate from the groundwater department before sinking borewells. If the department certifies there is groundwater, yet the farmer fails to strike water, then he can ask the pump manufacturer for refund.

Another area of thrust is to encourage farmers to plant pongamia, which produces oil-bearing seeds that can be processed into bio-fuel. Pongamia can grow in desert conditions and it requires only a one-time investment of Rs 12,000. But there’s a problem: the first crop grows only after five years and it will be 15 years before a farmer reaps its benefits. At the moment, though, the farmers’ sole hope is a good rainfall.

But clouds, like the sun, have this habit of playing hide and seek. And they love to hide when you seek them the most.

June 2004


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