Frog Weddings and Farmers’ Funerals

Bad rains, family problems, alcoholism, gambling – the government continues to find different reasons for the farmers’ suicides rather than address the crisis. Everyday, a few farmers kill themselves in Vidarbha, western Maharashtra. The globalisation of penury intensifies.

DIONNE BUNSHA
in Yavatmal, Maharashtra

Just before the monsoons, farmers in Vidarbha arrange frog weddings to welcome the rain Gods. Villagers make one male and one female frog pose in separate earthen pots for their baraat. The procession finds its way to the local temple where they are married. After the wedding, the married couple is given a send off a local water source and let loose. If they croak, it means that they have been told that the monsoon is near. (Locals believe that frogs are harbingers of rain)

This year, the frog weddings have been followed by several funerals. Not of frogs, but of farmers.

The Vidarbha region of north-eastern Maharashtra has seen a spate of suicides in the last month. It is close to the Andhra Pradesh border, another state where mass suicides have been reported. Many farmers disappointed by the poor rainfall and with many burdens to fulfill have cracked under pressure and killed themselves. Around 45 suicides have been reported since June but the chief minister’s office has awarded compensation to only 8 so far. Almost everyday, a few more farmers commit suicide.

Atmaram Shinde (55) from Pada village in Yavatmal hoped that this monsoon would help him wipe away his accumulated debts. He sowed his field on time. But the seeds dried up – there was no rain. He planted a second round of seeds. But the monsoon did not arrive. The Rs 22,000 he borrowed to spend on seeds and fertiliser went down the drain. On June 26th, Atmaram killed himself by swallowing the deadly pesticide, endosulphan.

“He was very disturbed. For the last two years, the crop had failed. Loans had piled up. We have to get our daughters married,” said his wife, Nirmala. She hasn’t lost hope. She recently borrowed another Rs 4,000 from a local moneylender to sow the field for the third time. But the rains haven’t yet arrived.
Jitru Kannake’s family at 13th day ceremony after his death. He committed suicide on July 4. Photo: Dionne Bunsha

Chief minister Sushilkumar Shinde visited Vidarbha. Damage control just before the Prime minister’s visit, which he later cancelled. Shinde said that farmers should have no problem getting loans since the government has ordered banks to convert short term loans to long term loans. The CM also instructed district administrations to prepare for the drought situation by starting employment works and providing for drinking water and food grains supply. However, there has been no mention of compensation for crop loss.

But compensation is not a permanent solution. Mass suicides associated with the agricultural crisis have been reported in Vidarbha since 1996. This cotton belt is close to the Andhra Pradesh border, another state where serial suicides have been reported. In 1987, more than 80 suicides occurred. There were 90 suicides reported in 2001. The underlying causes that have led to such distress need to be tackled.

Agriculture is no longer viable for most cotton farmers here. “Whatever we get at the end of the crop goes into re-paying the loans. Yet, every year, we continue to sow the fields, hoping that it will be better. What else can we do? This is the only work we know,” said Namdeo Maraskoche, a farmer from Pada village. Last year, after paying off some old debts, he was left with Rs. 7,000. Hardly enough to sustain his family. They work on other’s fields and earn a daily wage to survive. (The rates for agricultural wages are Rs.40 for men and Rs.25-30 for women, far below the government minimum wage of Rs.90 and Rs.70 respectively.)

After economic liberalisation policies were introduced, agriculture has become unprofitable. The cost of inputs – seeds, fertilizers, pesticides – have risen dramatically. Market prices for farmers’ produce have not kept pace. Even with a good crop, they barely break even. A bad crop could spell disaster.

This vulnerability is heightened due to the absence of sufficient rural credit. Bank interest rates for farmers are around 14%, much higher than urban consumers who pay 4% for car and home loans. Crop loans sanctioned by banks cover barely 70 % of the input costs, say district officials. Farmers claim that bank credit provide for only 15% of their needs. They rely on moneylenders-traders for the rest, who charge interest rates varying between 30% to 120% per year. That’s enough to kill any hope of a surplus.

Vidarbha’s farmers mainly grow cotton, soybean and jowar during the kharif (monsoon) season. Most agriculture here is totally dependent on the monsoon. Only 15% of Maharashtra’s gross cropped area is irrigated, as against the national average of 32.9% in 1989-90. Amravati division’s share of gross cropped area under irrigation was a meagre 9%, says the divisional commissioner N. Arumugam. Government expenditure on rural infrastructure has also shrunk. Vidarbha has several irrigation projects, which haven’t yet got off the ground. Funds allocated for development of the region haven’t been utilized, says opposition leader Nitin Gadkari.

Yields in Maharashtra, especially for cotton, are low. Farmers keep experimenting with costly new varieties of hybrid seeds in the hope of getting a better crop. Pests have become resistant to pesticide, so farmers keep increasing the doses of deadly pesticides like DDT and endosulphan, which are banned in other countries. The unregulated commercialization of agriculture has resulted in further losses for small farmers.

Maharashtra’s agriculture minister Govindrao Adik denies that the suicides have any connection with government policy. “What can the government do if the rains fail?” he asked. “The suicides occur because of different reasons- some victims were very poor, others had drinking problems, some may have been gambling. What can we do? Are we responsible? In the past also there have been suicides. Why is the media highlighting them now?”

Considered one of Maharashtra’s underdeveloped regions, Vidarbha has seen not only farmer’s suicides but also malnutrition deaths in its tribal areas. It has been a political battleground because the BJP-Shiv Sena has made inroads in this traditional Congress stronghold. In the recent Lok Sabha election, the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance won only one of 11 seats.

A few local politicians have also demanded separate statehood for the region. They complain that it is neglected by a state government, which doles out more to western Maharashtra, the domain of politically connected sugar barons. With the state elections in the next few months, the Congress-NDA alliance government has woken up to the suicides.

But how much will that help Jitru Kannake’s family? A farmer from Vadavna Bazar village, Jitru killed himself on 4th July. He sowed his nine-acre farm three times hoping for rain. His debts kept mounting. The recent sowing cost him Rs 29,000. He had other outstanding loans, including one of Rs 50,000 to get his children married in May.

“He had given last year’s entire crop to the moneylender. Still, there was Rs 20,000 more to pay him. Then, there were bank loans pending. And, he borrowed Rs 50,000 for the wedding. There seemed no hope of ever paying back,” said his son Ganesh. “Farmers never have their own money. We have to keep borrowing from somewhere.”

Here, weddings seem to be closely followed by funerals.

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Living with the Legacy of Loans

The minister came and went. But the bank loans remain.

Saraswati Ambarwar’s husband, Ramdas committed suicide in January 1997. After local activists highlighted the plight of indebted farmers in Vidarbha, the then revenue minister Narayan Rane visited the area. He met Saraswati and made several promises – the government would give her Rs one lakh compensation, a waiver of all Ramdas’ bank loans, it would pay for her daughters’ education for three years and for her farm expenses for three years.

The cheque was all she got. The bank loan has doubled from Rs. 25,000 to Rs 50,000 because interest has accumulated. Saraswati keeps getting default notices from the bank. They have also threatened to auction her house. But paying off the loan seems impossible. Saraswati barely has enough to survive..

“After getting so many default notices, I managed to collect Rs 9,000 and partly paid back the debt. That was three years back,” said Saraswati. But the rest of the loan has accrued interest over the years. “My husband owed Rs 40,000 to a moneylender in Adilabad, Andhra Pradesh, just 50 km away. When he came to collect his money, he realised I could not pay and cancelled the loan.”

Saraswati used the government cheque to pay for her eldest daughter’s wedding. One of her daughters slumped into a major depression after her father’s death. The other has been constantly ill. “Last year, I had to take Rs 40,000 from my brother-in-law Arun just to pay for her treatment,” she said.

When her husband died, he left a suicide note asking Arun to look after his family. Since then, Arun helps her to cultivate the 12 acres of land that Ramdas left behind. “Whatever we get from farming is not enough. Arun helps us out when we run short. It may be better if I sell the land,” said Saraswati.

Seven years after Ramdas’ death, the situation in Vidarbha’s countryside has not changed much. Even today, a couple of suicides are being reported everyday. There are several widows like Saraswati who are struggling with the legacy of loans that their husbands have left behind.

Frontline, July 31 to August 13, 2004 Also available here


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