The figures are chilling. There have been 988 suicides by farmers in the Vidarbha region since January, 10 of them in the last three days. It is this agrarian crisis that is also fuelling support for the Maoists — Gadchiroli, a district in Vidarbha, is one of their strongholds.
It is regrettable that though the problem is at least 15 years old, suicides continue. The year 2006, when nearly 1,450 farmers committed suicide, has been the worst so far. And the same year the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced a Rs 3,750 crore debt relief package for six crisis-ridden districts of Vidarbha.
This was in addition to the Maharashtra government’s Rs 1,075 crore for the region. But as indebtedness to banks was a criterion for being eligible for compensation, many farmers were left out. Even before this the Bombay high court had observed in 2004: “The suicides that have occurred are as much due to the failure of social and economic development to reach the poor as it is due to natural calamities.”
Vidarbha falls in a rain-shadow area. Following the drought in the region in 1992, 15 irrigation projects were cleared. The Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation had once about 100 irrigation projects in the pipeline — sadly, most of them still remain on paper. It is also a fact that just 15% of the farmers are covered by the crop insurance scheme. However, for a farmer to be eligible for insurance, a district to which she/he belongs must be declared drought-affected, a factor that adds to the problems. In 2005, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences did a study of farm suicides. It found that the phenomenon was not restricted to any category of landowners. But the concentration of suicides was greater among small farmers (who owned up to five acres) and middle farmers (who owned more than five acres but less than 15 acres). And the Centre’s 2008 loan waiver applied to farmers who owned up to five acres.
Narendra Modi as the BJP’s PM candidate had regretted that though the UPA’s agriculture minister was from Maharashtra, farmer suicides were taking place in the state. Now that the BJP is in power both in Maharashtra and the Centre, Mr Modi’s time to act is now. His first problem would be to find out the extent of indebtedness in rural areas. It was failure on this front that was largely responsible for the ineffectiveness of the 2006 package.