The family of AN Ashwath is inconsolable. After the debt-ridden farmer of Mandya in Karnataka killed himself some 11 days ago, their future looks bleaker.
“We are doomed. We may have to sell the fields to repay the loans and become labourers,” Ashwath’s brother Chetan says. The farmer’s young widow, Abhilasha, is even unable to speak.
The sombre mood at Ashwath’s home is mirrored across the region, considered the state’s sugar belt. Inadequate rains resulting in successive droughts have farmers living on either side of a glittering highway connecting Bengaluru with Mysore worried. The swanky hotels and car showrooms barely hide their gloom.
Many are nervous that the situation could get worse following the Supreme Court decree to Karnataka to release 12,000 cusecs of precious Cauvery river water to neighbouring Tamil Nadu over the next few days. “Our lands are already parched. They will now go bone dry,” points out an agitating farmer.
The violence that Bengaluru witnessed earlier this week over the Cauvery water-sharing dispute has put ties between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu under renewed strain. But nowhere is the tension more pronounced than in Mandya, the region Karnataka farmers’ organisations say will be the worst hit following the arbitration.
More than 150 farmers are believed to have killed themselves in Mandya in the last one-and-a-half years. “Now as water is going to Tamil Nadu, more farmers may die,” says Yearaganhalli Ramasheshayya, state secretary of Karnataka Rajya Rytu Sangha. “Both the central and state governments are starving farmers to death,” alleges Konasala Narasaraju, another farmers’ leader.
Mandya hasn’t seen any violence yet, but the mood is unmistakably restive. Many are claiming the farmer deaths were not suicides, but plain murder. “Cauvery nammadu, nammadu (Cauvery is ours)” is also a refrain that is increasingly being heard.
“Do not test our patience and do not provoke us into doing something we do not want,” warns Ramasheshayya. “If water continues to flow after September 20, we will stop paying taxes, electricity bills and even jump into Cauvery river to stop the release of water,” he says.
Ninety-two-year old G Made Gowda, the president of Cauvery Hitarakshana Samithi, is highly regarded locally for his calm advice. But the nonagenarian has also been sitting on a dharna over the Cauvery issue, saying “the disobedience and non-cooperation threatened was justified”.
Farmers crowding around him readily agreed. “Ayyo, Ayyayyo, Anyayam, Anyayam (injustice, injustice),” they shouted. “Jayalalithaa ke dhikkara (Jayalalithaa down down” and “Beke, beke Nyayam beku (give us justice)” were the other full-throated slogans raised.
Back at Ashwath’s family home, the problems faced by his family are more pressing. As they huddled together to perform his 11th day rituals, they also pondered over how to fend off money lenders likely to show up soon for the Rs 8 lakh that Ashwath had borrowed. “We are drowning in our misery,” laments a relative.