Sixteen months after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited the Vidarbha region in Maharashtra and a week before another scheduled visit, a new set of dark figures on farmers’ suicides confronts us. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, farm suicides rose significantly in 2006 with 17,060 agriculturists killing themselves. Maharashtra, which happens to be the home state of Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, tops the list with 4,453 farmer suicides in 2006. This is the worst figure recorded "in any year for any state" since the bureau first started keeping tabs on such suicides. The previous worst — 4,147 in 2004 — was also in Maharashtra. Other states that follow Maharashtra are Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
If these figures are shocking, it would be worthwhile to remember that these are just 'reported' figures of suicides that have been linked to agrarian distress. Many cases go unreported because of the flawed counting process — more deaths mean that the State has to dole out more compensation. Another report published this week states that 11 more farmers have killed themselves in Vidarbha, taking the toll to 74 in January 2008 itself. Other than these ‘hotspots’, incidents of farmers’ suicides and agrarian distress have come regularly from Punjab, the grain bowl of India, and the Bundelkhand region, which has been facing drought for the last four years. In Bundelkhand, the Janata Dal (United) alleges that as many as 203 farmers have committed suicide till November 2007.
The PM’s visit to Gondia, one of the affected districts in Vidarbha, next week is likely to be marked by a review of the economic package announced by him in 2006 to bail out debt-ridden farmers. But no review will be enough, no new package will be adequate, unless and until it meets the demands of the affected and relief reaches on time. Most of the money that the PM had announced went towards paying for irrigation dues and waiver of interests. No direct relief reached the farmers. The farmers’ main wish — total waiver of debts — remained unfulfilled. That our rural credit system has failed is an old story. And, no entrepreneur — and the Indian farmer must be considered one — can survive without an adequate cash flow. Along with credit, crop insurance needs to be extended from the block to the village level, so that in case of a crop failure, a village as a whole can absorb the shock. The collateral damage of agrarian distress is manifold. Each family sinking into the quagmire means later generations also facing a bleak future. Migrations and social tensions follow. Even if this is tackled by the State apparatus, the question of the country’s food security cannot be wished away.
Asked whether he would like to become a farmer, one of the children of a Punjab farmer protesting in Delhi said that he would not like to because it’s ‘risky’. Truer words were never spoken. A scary thought for a nation that has to feed over a billion mouths.