Villages for Sale in Vidarbh

To draw attention to their desperation, many villages in the suicide-ridden Vidharbh region have declared that their land and kidneys are up for sale.

in Amravati and Wardha, Maharashtra.

‘Kidney Sale Centre’: proclaims a banner sprawled across a ramshackle bamboo tent in Shingnapur village in Amravati district. Farmers here are threatening to sell their kidneys.

“We have invited the Prime Minister and the President to inaugurate this kidney shop. They should allow us to sell our kidneys. We are all ruined by debt. Many farmers are killing themselves. Our kidneys are all we have left to sell,” says Madhavgir Champat Giri, who sold all his land to pay his bank loan.

Not only Shingnapur, but other villages in Vidarbh – Dorli, Lehegaon and Shivni Rasulapur – have declared they are up for sale. They can no longer survive by living off the land. It’s the first time that people have protested against the suicides here. Everyday, local newspapers report at least two or three more suicides. Since June 2005, around 309 farmers have killed themselves, unable to bear the pressures of huge debts, grim poverty and lost self-esteem.

“Earlier, I even had money to dig a well on my field. Now, I have nothing,” says Madhavgir. “I sold my land. I can’t find work. No one can afford to pay farm labourers. There’s no food at home. We have become hungry and naked, roaming like dogs. We just drink water to fill our stomachs and go to sleep.”

This once-prosperous cotton belt in eastern Maharashtra has been ruined in the last 15 years of liberalisation. Production costs have multiplied three to five times, but the market price of cotton has fallen from Rs 2,500 per quintal in 1991 to Rs 1,785 today. Prices of other crops have also fallen. Most farmers are running up huge losses, and have to borrow heavily to keep afloat. Since many have defaulted on loan repayments, they can’t borrow from banks. Their only recourse is the trader-moneylenders, who lend at 60 to 120% interest. Farmers are trapped in debt.

“This year has been very bad,” says Suryapal Chavan, a Kisan Sabha activist from Shingnapur. “Both the soya and cotton crops were washed out by heavy rains. Worse, the government has lowered the price at which it procures cotton by Rs 500. People are worried about how they will run their homes and get money to sow in the next season.”

It’s the end of the harvest season, but the government hasn’t even opened procurement centres to buy cotton. Yards that were once crowded with bullocks carts loaded of cotton and where farmers would wait for days to sell their produce, are now deserted. Farmers are selling to traders since they are offering a rate only slightly lower than the government – Rs 1500-1700 per quintal. “There was once a time when cart loads of cotton would leave this village. This year, not a single cart has left,” says Giri. Government procurement is just 6.25 lakh quintals of cotton this season, compared to 185 lakh quintals last season, a drop of 96%. Last year, the government had opened 410 procurement centres. This year, there are only 160.

Once, cotton was considered ‘white gold’, and Vidarbha’s black soil was perfect for cotton cultivation. With liberalization, the ‘white gold’ is now worthless. The government has withdrawn market controls, tariffs and subsidies for agriculture, leaving Indian farmers to compete with farmers in the US and EU, who are protected by trade restrictions and given billions of dollars in subsidies. The US 2002 Farm bill alone gave $ 190 billion to large companies growing cotton, wheat, corn, soybean, rice, barley, oats and sorghum.

“Ten years back, the international price of cotton lint was $1.10 per pound, but now it is 52 cents. The retail price of cotton then was Rs 40 per metre, and it is now Rs 80. Retail prices have doubled but farmers are forced to sell their produce at half the price,” says Vijay Jawandhia, Shetkari Sanghatana activist. The government doesn’t even provide proper infrastructure like irrigation or marketing facilities.

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. Imports have flooded the market and prices have fallen,” says Jawandhia.

A banner that announces the “sale” of Dorli village.Photo: Dionne Bunsha
The US, EU, Japan and Canada restrict trade from developing countries by keeping tariffs at 350% to 900% on food products. But India provides incentives to agricultural imports. Even within India, the ‘free market’ doesn’t apply to all agricultural goods. Some are favoured more than others. Agriculture minister Sharad Pawar has ensured that Maharashtra’s politically powerful sugar co-operative lobby remains protected. “The central government regulates the flow of sugar into the market so that the price of sugar is steady. Why don’t they do the same to protect cotton farmers?” asks Jawandhia. Left to their own devices, farmers in are threatening to abandon agriculture and trade in their kidneys.

The flash point in Shingnapur came when suicide struck closer to home, in their village. Now, it wasn’t something ‘out there’ in someone else’s backyard. On the night of 16th December 2005, Jagdish Deshmukh (40) killed himself by swallowing pesticide. “We held a meeting and decided that we have to unite people. So we started this kidney sale agitation. What other solution? People are so desperate that some would really sell their kidneys, if given a chance,” said Chavan,

Jagdish’s wife, Sangeeta is left to look after their three children…and the debt. He owed the bank Rs 11,000, but she doesn’t know how much more he had borrowed from moneylenders. “This season, we got nothing – just 20 kg of cotton and no soyabean. Bank officials came to demand the loan five days before he killed himself. They also came three days after,” said Sangeeta.

Now, she grows vegetables on their farm and sells them to earn Rs 10 to 20 everyday. “We have an electricity bill of Rs 7000. Yesterday, they came and threatened to cut our connection if we don’t pay. If they do that, then I won’t be able to grow vegetables without the water pump. We’ll be left with nothing.” Her son, Sandeep (12) stopped going to the secondary school in Shivni village, four km away, because they can’t afford the Rs 4 bus ticket. Now, he goes around the village selling vegetables. The recession has affected all aspects of village life – children’s education, health, there’s no money to marry daughters, and people are selling off their cattle.

The “Farmers’ Kidney Sale Centre” in Shingnapur village.Photo: Dionne Bunsha
For the first time, landless labourers from Shingnapur have migrated to cities. Meet the ‘Mumbai Return’ gang – eight who ventured out to try their luck finding work in the big city. Their first adventure outside their village didn’t last long. “We went to a construction site at Nerul, where we worked for two days. Then, there was no work and two of our friends got malaria, so we spent all our money to put them in hospital. As soon as they got out of hospital, we hopped on a train ticketless and came back home,” said Maruti Ade, a landless worker.

Maruti and his wife Reena’s find it more difficult to get work even once a week. Landowners can’t afford to pay wages. “Many are shifting to soyabean, and cultivating less cotton and jowar because their prices are so low. That means less work for us, because there’s no need for much labour in soyabean harvesting. Cotton harvesting gives women a lot of work, and men are needed for the jowar crop,” said Reena. “Those who used to grow tur and jowar and distribute it to us don’t have grain in their own homes now.”

The crisis has affected all – rich and poor. Meet Anil Tatte, a prize-winning farmer from Lehegaon in Amravati district. He won a Krishi Bhushan award from the state government. His innovative farm techniques made his yield double that of other farmers. Today, Anil is sinking along with the rest of this village. They too have declared that their village is up for sale. “This year, I even tried Bt cotton. It’s expensive. I spent Rs 80,000 on my 10 acres, and got only Rs 50,000. This award-winning farm is now in losses.”

Lehegaon was once prosperous, situated in what was once called India’s Orange County. “In the last five years, there has been very little water. I have had to cut all the 2000 orange trees in my orchard. They all dried up,” says Anil. Like most places in Vidarbh, the problem here is irrigation. Only 10% of land in the region is irrigated. In Lehegaon, even private wells have run dry, as the water table has fallen. “The Upper Wardha dam is near our village, but we don’t get water from it. Pipelines from there go to the adjoining Wardha district.”

The ginning factory in the village, which used to employ 400 people, hasn’t opened this season. Dairy has collapsed. “Ten years back, we had 600 cattle. Now we have 60. The price we get for milk is too low. There’s a bank here. But now only a few traders go there. Recently, the government arrested many moneylenders. Even they have stopped lending. They were the only source of funds for farmers,” says Nilesh Tatte, a young farmer.

Shivni Rasulapur, next to Shingnapur, has also said that they will mortgage the entire village to pay off their debts. “The only time officials visit us is when the bank officers come to collect our loans. Or when the electric board threatens to cut our lines. Otherwise, no one has bothered,” said Purshottom Bansod, a farmer leading the agitation.

“I want to sell my land. But no one has the money to buy it,” says Arun Chambhare, a small farmer from Dorli, the first village to declare it was for sale. “We are living in darkness. They cut my electricity line. My daughter studies for her 12th standard exam with a lantern.” Dorli, a predominantly Dalit village, has 47 families, of which 32 are registered as below the poverty line. Many more are sliding further downhill.

How much longer before the threats and protests to sell land and kidneys become a grim reality?

Frontline, March 11 – 24, 2006 Also available here

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