The Holes in our Chappals

Farmers are killing themselves in Gujarat. 

DIONNE BUNSHA

Amreli, Gujarat

“Gujarat’s farmers aren’t like those in other states. Our farmers drive Maruti cars,” chief minister Narendra Modi declares in his speeches at public meetings. If he met the widows of farmers in Gujarat who have committed suicide, he would probably choke on his words.

Prabhaben Pungalpara was at her sister’s house when her husband Ramesh hung himself from a noose and ended his misery. He probably sent her there to soften the blow. Ramesh’s relatives rushed him to Rajkot hospital but it was too late. Now, Prabhaben’s nightmare was about to begin. “I have two girls and a boy. We will have to manage somehow. I sold off our two buffaloes after he died. My son has gone to Surat to work in a diamond polishing workshop. Ramesh’s brothers have taken care of us,” says Prabhaben from Sarapdar village.

Ramesh and his four brothers have a 20–acre farm. “Our cotton and jeera crop failed for two years, so he was very tense,” said his brother Amarsibhai. But the police report says that he killed himself because of a family dispute. “The first police report said that he died because his crop failed, but later the police changed the story,” says Prabhaben. “They told me ‘you have such a big house, there must be some other reason for the suicide. If we give compensation in one case, people will start killing themselves and we will have to give them all’. The police just want to suppress the case.”

“If the government can help Maharashtra’s widows, then why can’t they help women in Gujarat?” asks Prabhaben. Maybe because it would shatter the chief minister’s delusions? Across Gujarat farmers’ suicides are either unreported or wrongly reported.

 

Pahubhai Dakhada, 35, preferred death to a life of debt. His suicide didn’t make it to the government’s records. Photo: Dionne Bunsha

Ironically, the people raising a voice against this is the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), the farmer’s wing of the ruling BJP.“The state is hiding the truth about the rising number of farmers’ suicides,” Praful Sanjelia, Gujarat president of the BKS said at a press conference recently. “While the government has declared there were 148 farmers suicides last year, we estimate that there are around 300,” he said. Sanjelia said the police are deliberately concealing the suicides. “The police are not registering an FIR, so many cases go unreported. If they do file a case, they attribute the reasons for the suicide to social tension and domestic disputes. Actually, it is a farmer’s financial crisis that could cause other problems like fights in the family.”

“There are several police reports that say the person was ill and by mistake swallowed pesticide instead of medicine. That’s the ridiculous things they do to disguise the true number of farmers suicides,” says Vinubhai Dudheet, a BKS leader in Amreli. “We are very angry with the BJP government and have launched several campaigns against their policies. They have done nothing for farmers. Instead, now they want to give off our land to industrialists for Special Economic Zones (SEZs).”

Pahubhai Dakhada’s wife Vajuben has to run the family from the confines of her house because widows in her community should not be seen in public. Photo: Dionne Bunsha

But why is the BKS going against their own government? They first rebelled against the Modi’s BJP government when their founder and RSS pracharak, Laljibhai Patel, camped on the banks of the Sabarmati in Ahmedabad on a hunger strike when the state doubled power tariffs. Since then, the BKS has been on the wrong side of the chief minister.

“Most BKS activists used to benefit from being aligned to the ruling party. They had clout with the local administration and used to get contracts etc. Now, it’s not so easy after they have fallen out of favour. So they too have an axe to grind with Modi,” said a local journalist, explaining the split in the Sangh Parivar’s ranks. The BKS cadre are from the core constituency of the Sangh, basically traders and big landlords. Most of them have businesses ranging from sand mining to stone crushing to hotels. But raising the issues of farmers is crucial to keeping their local political support and clout. That’s why they are doing their best to bring farmers’ concerns into focus and embarrass the government.

Whatever the political motives of the BKS, there is no doubt that small farmers in Gujarat are in distress. Besides the police, families too have not reported suicides of their loved ones. Many widows are scared of dealing with police. “Though his suicide was reported in the newspaper, I didn’t report it to the police. I didn’t want to be harassed. They demand money and I didn’t have any,” said Vajuben Dhakhada (30) from Vadli village, whose husband Pahubhai (35) died on 12 July 2006. “In the past two years, our crop was destroyed. We had a debt of Rs 50,000. He kept worrying about how we would look after three small kids with no money and no crop in the field.”

Now, Vajuben depends totally on her relatives for help. By killing herself, her husband confined her to a life of isolation from society. She is a darbar (Rajput) and as a widow, is not allowed to leave the confines of her home, not even to fill water from the well. Her three young children help her with errands outside their home.

In the same village (Vadli), Prassanben, the wife of Anakbhai Dhakada (32) who killed himself on 7 April 2007, has a similar story to tell. She too is in purdah and cannot leave the house. But luckily, she lives in a joint family. And like Vajuben, she was too afraid to have anything to do with the police.

When contacted by Frontline, agriculture minister Bhupendra Singh Chudasama said, “Not a single farmer in Gujarat has committed suicide.” This contradicts his government’s statistic of 148. “The reason for those suicides are family problems. People have many marriages in their families. It is not the government’s responsibility,” he said.

Often, farmers who are heavily in debt worry about how the expenses of getting their children married. Most of them are in a crippling financial crisis because agriculture is no longer profitable. Production costs are increasing, while the prices at which farmers have to sell their harvest are not as lucrative. Their loans and interest burden increase every year, until they finally drown in debt.

The elders of the Kakane family decided to drown themselves in the sea. Vallabh (80), his son Mansukh (40) and their respective wives went to the beach near Somnath and drowned themselves on 3 November 2006. Now their house in Pania Dev village is locked and abandoned. Mansukh’s three sons went off to Surat in search of work. “This tragedy happened because they had run up a huge debt with the moneylender,” said their nephew Nilesh. They borrowed Rs 1.5 lakh at an interest rate of 60% to pay off their power bills. The moneylender was demanding Rs 12 lakh including interest. They offered him their land but he was not willing to take it.”

Grieving relatives of the Kakane family, whose four elder members committed suicide by drowning in the sea off Somnath as a way out of the clutches of the moneylender. Photo: Dionne Bunsha

“They were under so much pressure that they couldn’t even eat properly. They would sit here in my parents’ house and ask them what to do,” said Nilesh. “Almost half the village is in the grip of the moneylender. They give a loan and then they take everything. Farming is not profitable anymore. The price we get for cotton is not as much as the rise in input costs or the price of living, so we are forced to borrow.”

The most industrialised state, ‘Vibrant Gujarat’, seems more feudal than modern. “The moneylender inflicts terror in the village,” said Nilesh. “They have taken away a Harijan’s home after he borrowed Rs 5,000. But no one will dare to speak. They will even pretend this mass suicide in my family never happened. The moneylenders are thugs and they have the police on their side.”

“Not a single small farmer is doing well. We are all starving. If farmers start doing accounts, we will all leave the farms,” said Kanubhai Ganniya, a farmer with five acres in Malak Nes village. “Many people are leaving the village or getting into other businesses. The cost of inputs like seeds, pesticides etc are rising every year. But the price of cotton does not increase as much.” Farmers estimate that they spend between Rs 7000 to 16000 per acre, but get around Rs 13,000-16,000 for their one-acre harvest.

Until now, Gujarat was considered the rare cotton-growing state that was immune to farmers suicides. Now inflation and the unsustainable commercial mode of cultivation has affected them too. “Earlier, farmers only had to pay for seeds. Now they pay for everything – tractor, power, water, labour. Farming has become more cost-intensive and less viable,” said Dr Sudarshan Iyengar, Vice Chancellor, Gujarat Vidyapeeth. Compared to states, Gujarat has a high yield (three times that of Maharashtra, where suicide rates are highest). It also has 44% of cotton farms under irrigation, compared to 4% in Maharashtra, or 18% in Andhra Pradesh, where suicides are the highest. This improves yields and reduces risks.

Here, like in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, almost all cotton farmers use genetically-modified Bt seeds. These seeds are inserted with a bacteria that kills the bollworm, a common pest on cotton plants. You can’t find a non-Bt seed variety in any farm input shop here. However, many farmers use illegal home-bred versions of Bt seeds like Navbharat, which are cheaper than the Monsanto-MAHYCO Bollgard brand. While the environmental dangers of this illegal trade of seeds have not been studied, this home industry has reduced seed costs for Gujarat’s farmers in the short term.

Yet, other costs like those of either buying water from borewells or paying for power etc have gone up, and prices haven’t kept pace. “One pair of jeans that weighs around 500 grams sells for Rs 1500-1700 in the designer stores, but we get only Rs 13 for 500 grams of cotton. Those who are processing get all the profit, not those who produce,” said Vinubhai.

When I visited Malak Nes village, a group of farmers were eager to show me their chappals. They threw their chappals on the floor and told me, “Our chappals have gaping holes and are broken. Can you please send them to Narendra Modi? And ask him which farmer in Gujarat has a Maruti? We can’t even afford a new pair of chappals.”

Frontline, June 2-15, 2007 Also available here

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