“The suicides (in Maharashtra) 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.”
Bombay High Court, in response to a public interest petition, 2004 “The plight of the farmers (in Vidarbha) made a deep impact on me.” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, August 15 address, 2006
Sitting in her 11-acre farm here and gazing at the sky is now part of the daily routine for Varsha Netam. The pregnant widow of a farmer has no clue about her future. The 21-year-old has to face the consequences of the suicide of her husband, Maruti Netam, on November 25 last year due to heavy debt and his inability to get a remunerative price for the cotton he grew.
THE DEBT-DROUGHT COMBO
Most experts feel that the suicides are primarily because of crop failure, mounting debts and most farmers not getting crop loans.
Maharashtra saw a decline in farm suicides in 2005. But the year 2006 turned out to be the worst so far in this respect. And that was the year Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced a Rs 3,750-crore debt relief package for six crisis-ridden districts of Vidarbha, eastern Maharashtra. This was in addition to the Maharashtra government’s Rs 1,075 crore for the region. But as indebtedness to banks was a criterion in being eligible for compensation, many were left out.
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 major, medium and minor irrigation projects in the pipeline. Most of them still remain on paper.
The central government in 2008 announced a Rs 71,000-crore loan waiver package (in which Maharashtra’s share was about Rs 9,000 crore), to which the state government added Rs 6,200 crore. But those could not prevent farmer suicides in the region.
It is also a fact that just 15 per cent 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.
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 5 acres) and middle farmers (who owned more than 5 acres but less than 15 acres). And the 2008 loan waiver applied to those farmers who owned up to 5 acres (one acre = 43,560 square feet).
An important finding was that 81 per cent of these households were literate, pointing to the fact that the families felt the need for younger people to continue education. Education meant loans, implying more indebtedness.
A LOSING PROPOSITION
Rekha Chahere (27) of Hiwra village in Yavatmal lost her husband, Dilip, last year when he swallowed pesticide following crop failure.
“I was thrown out by my in-laws after the death of my husband and it is very difficult for me to feed my two daughters, Shubhangi (9) and Vaishali (7), forget providing them schooling,” she said.
Rekha works as a farm labourer and earns hardly Rs 50 a day. “I get work around 15 days a month during the peak period,” she pointed out.
She, however, could not get the relief compensation of Rs 1 lakh from the government because of bureaucratic hassles — the reason given was that Dilip was not a landholder. Her mother-in-law is the landholder, even though her husband was managing everything, being the eldest in the family.
Families want money for the weddings of girls and giving dowry, pushing them further into debt.
“Most of them borrow loans from private moneylenders, who often use muscle power to recover the loans. There were several instances where moneylenders tried to molest wives of farmers who had failed to repay,” said Srinivas Khandewale, former head of the department of economics, Nagpur University.
“The cotton price, which was Rs 2,500 a quintal in the early 1990s, rose to just Rs 2,800 this year and that won’t cover a farmer’s production cost, which has trebled in the past decade. While the repayment of his debt is impossible, he still requires money to feed his family and prepare for the next sowing season,” Khandewale said.
According to Kishore Tiwari of the Vidarbha Janandolan Samiti, while around Rs 1,800 crore was provided to farmers as crop loans in 2006, the figure was just Rs 1,240 crore in 2009 and it forced the farmers to borrow loans from moneylenders at an exorbitant rate (the rate is 50-60 per cent while the bank rate is only 6 per cent).
“Their debts soared when crops failed due to poor rain or when prices tumbled,” Tiwari said, adding that this year farmers were affected by both — crop failure due to scanty rain and the farmers’ inability to get fair prices for raw cotton from the market. He said that the lack of a food security for farmers had only worsened the situation.
Yavatmal District Collector Sanjay Deshmukh admitted that the government packages had not been able to stop the suicides. “There is a need for a long-term strategy on this,” he said.