Vidarbha in Flames

A local legislator attempted suicide in the legislative assembly, frustrated by all other methods to alert the state to the farmers suicides


In Vidarbha, Maharashtrax
It was time for a reality check. In the safe confines of the legislative assembly, Maharashtra’s politicians witnessed a dose of the real world last week. Gulabrao Gavande, a Shiv Sena legislator, wanted them to wake up to the daily tragedy of the Vidarbha countryside. So, he rushed to the floor of the assembly and poured a bottle of kerosene on himself. Then, he opened a bottle of pesticide and was about to swallow it when other legislators rushed to stop him. Gavande was banned from attending the rest of the session.

His recklessness could have set the entire house on fire – literally. But his shocking suicide attempt ignited a fiery debate about the government’s neglect of the agricultural crisis in the underdeveloped Vidarbha region of eastern Maharashtra. Farmers’ suicides are on the rise. Everyday, a few more deaths are reported in local newspapers. But so far the state has not addressed this alarming tragedy. A defensive chief minister promised to announce a ‘package’ for Vidarbha’s farmers, but was not willing to say anything more. The opposition too has no creative solutions to offer. Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray rushed to Vidarbha and assured farmers his party’s muscle power to bash up moneylenders and bank officials who harass them.

Meanwhile, in his hospital bed, a visibly shaken Gavande told Frontline, “I don’t know what I was thinking when I did this. I’m very troubled seeing so many people kill themselves. Morchas and protests have had no effect on the government. I wanted to awaken the administration to this crisis.”

Gavande, a local MLA from Akola (and also a wrestler), has been brawling with powerful moneylenders who have been snatching land from farmers. “Moneylenders are taking advantage of people’s desperation. They won’t lend until the farmer signs a document handing over land ownership to them. Then, when the farmer can’t repay they take possession of the land. So farmers land worth Rs two lakh for a Rs 20,000 loan. Moneylenders have captured around 5000 acres of land in this way,” explains Gavande.

A son of the soil, Gavande uses the methods he knows best. “Only I have the strength to fight these thugs because I am a wrestler and have an akhada with me,” he smiles. “I told the villagers not to spare anyone who harasses them. Recently, when a moneylender told one farmer to sell his daughter but pay back the loan, the villagers of Dadham got together and flogged him to death.” In the last few months, the government has cracked down on moneylenders, arresting several of them. But that has also led to more distress since they are the only source of funds available to farmers. Since most of them have defaulted on bank loans, that option is not open to them anymore.

Mounting debts are just a symptom of the crisis in agriculture. The crux of the problem is profitability, not only for the cotton crop, but also for others like oranges, soya, wheat, jowar, chillies or paddy. “The prices of all products have risen dramatically over the years. Our input costs have also shot up. But for the last 10 years, the price we get for our crop has remained the same,” says Jitendra Tatte, a large cotton and orange farmer from Lehegaon in Amravati. Input costs for his 60-acre farm have drowned him in debt. The more he cultivates the more his losses. “Everyone is in the same distress. Some have committed suicide. The rest of us live in agony.”
At a cotton farmPhoto: Dionne Bunsha
Tatte rattles off several statistics to prove his point. “In the last ten years, the price of soya oil has increased from Rs 25 per litre to Rs 45. But have been selling soyabean at the same price of Rs 900 per quintal since then. How do you expect us to survive?” he asks. “Why doesn’t inflation apply to our produce? Why do farmers have to starve so that the rest of the country gets cheap food?”

This season, the Maharashtra government has accentuated their dilemma further by reducing the price at which it will procure cotton from approx. Rs 2,200 per quintal to Rs 1,700. The cost of cotton cultivation is Rs 2,200 per quintal, not including the farmer’s own labour and other expenses like bank interest. If the price falls, farmers will suffer major losses of Rs 500 per quintal, no matter how much they produce. This will lead to more distress and more suicides.

At a public meeting in Nagpur recently, deputy chief minister R.R. Patil justified this price fall by arguing, “Last year, the state suffered Rs 1,800 crore losses due to the procurement scheme. Yet, suicides were the highest. This means the money is not going to farmers, but to agents. We will find other ways to make sure the funds reach those who need it.”

“Reducing the price is not going to solve the glitches in the procurement system,” says Vijay Javandhia, farmers activist. “If the government is really interested in making the scheme work for farmers, they should pay the amount up front to farmers, not in installments, that too over a period of one year. And, they should stop deducting loan collections from the payments. Leave it to the banks to recover their loans.”

The procurement scheme is in the red because the international prices of cotton have fallen. Cultivators in western countries receive huge subsidies from their government. They can afford to sell their produce at much lower prices. The Indian government could protect its producers from imports and crashing international prices by hiking the import duty on cotton. At present, it is only 10 per cent, import duty on other products like sugar (60%), rice (80%) and second hand cars (180%) are much higher. “The government is willing to protect sugar farmers and foreign car manufacturers here but not cotton farmers,” says Javandhia.

Maharashtra’s 30 lakh cotton farmers are being told to innovate and diversify. But innovations only increase the burden of debt. And interest is high. Banks charge 12%. But interest for consumer loans are only 7% and a mere 4% to start a sugar factory. Moneylenders, now the main source of credit, charge between 60% to 120%. And, you risk losing your land.

Farm improvements cost Sudhir Tatte his life. He spent more than two lakhs rupees sinking tube wells and installing sprinklers and drip irrigation on his orange orchards and cotton fields in Lehegaon. But nothing seemed to work. The water table had fallen. Finally, he swallowed poison and killed himself in 1998. Seven years later, his family is still burdened by debt. They have given up on agriculture and leased out the fields to others.

Bt cotton is also being promoted as the solution. It costs around 12 times more than other seeds, and has failed to deliver results. “The dealer assured me that I would get 19 quintals per acre from Bt cotton. Not only were the seeds expensive but I also had to spray pesticide. Yet, I got the usual two or three quintals, but I spent so much more. I’m totally ruined,” said Surendra Zane, a farmer in Lehegaon.

“What other crops can we grow?” asks Jitendra Tatte. “The prices of all crops have remained stagnant. We have even experimented with growing herbs, but there is no market to sell them. Moreover, our choice is restricted to only a few crops since we don’t have irrigation.” Only 10 per cent of Vidarbha’s farmland has irrigation. It is difficult to even promote dairy farming as an alternative since it is too dry to grow fodder for livestock.

The chief minister is expected to announce the usual stop gap measures – loan or interest waivers, free power, compensation for families of suicide victims. But these are just band aids. The real issue of pricing and profitability has to be tackled to stop peasants from sliding down further. “Mine will be the last generation of farmers. I don’t want my son to be a farmer and suffer the way I have,” says Jitendra Tatte.

As Vijay Javandhia puts it, “In my next life, I would rather be a cow in Europe than a farmer in India. There, they get two dollars subsidy per day to feed their cattle. Here, our farmers slog in the fields and don’t even get one dollar.”


A Fate Worse Than Death

It seemed like a normal meagre meal for Dharmi Rathod when suddenly her husband Ramesh started vomiting. He had barely eaten anything. He was choking on the pesticide he swallowed. His friends rushed him to hospital, but he died there on 10th November 2005. Dharmi was left stunned… and without a single paisa with her.

Her village Bongavan in Yavatmal collected money for his funeral. They helped her with food and money. One month later, Dharmi is still reeling from the shock. “I have no idea how much he owed and how many loans he had taken. All I know is that the day before he died, bank officials had come to our hut.” For the last month, the trauma has taken its toll on Dharmi. She is constantly ill and has visited the hospital thrice.Dharmi Rathod with her childrenPhoto: Dionne Bunsha
How does Dharmi manage to look after herself and her two children? “My son works as a farm hand every weekend. From that money, we go to the market,” she says. Even when Ramesh was alive, Dharmi and Ramesh both worked as farm labour earning Rs 20 and Rs 40 per day respectively. They could not survive only by tilling their four acre farm. This season, it will yield less than a quintal of cotton. And, Dharmi doesn’t know the first thing about managing a farm. Unable to cope, she has called her relatives to help her sort out her life.

Ramesh seems to have left Dharmi with a fate worse than death.

Frontline, Dec. 17 – 30, 2005 Also available here

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