Dear Prime Minister, Chief Minister of Maharashtra & fellow countrymen,
Read this, don’t turn the page. I am a cotton widow from Vidarbha – yes, I know you’ve been hearing about farmer suicides in this region for years, but I really do need urgent help. Just yesterday, four farmers committed suicide while Ajit Pawar, the deputy chief minister was here for a janata darbar. We need you to pay attention. I live in village Huira, near Panderkawda, 150 kms from Nagpur. My husband and I were eking out a living, somehow managing two meals a day. I could only feed my son and two daughters dal and rice every day, adding a vegetable to the meal as a bonus, may be once a week, but we were happy with that. I’d say we were even content.
We are poor; a BPL family in government records but we had a pucca roof over our heads. My husband, Chattar Singh Bass, owned four acres of land. He was happy selling the eight to ten quintals of cotton that he grew. But slowly, the costs started escalating. Seeds which were available for Rs. 300 per 500 grams shot up to Rs. 1000. The cost of fertilizers and pesticides also increased and the cultivation costs were higher than the returns. A bank loan was the only option.One day in 2007, my neighbours barged into my house and told me that Chattar Bass was lying listless in the field. He had gone there, like he did every day, but the pest attack had killed our crop. My husband’s loans had spiralled to 70,000 in a two year period and the dal and rice that we had become so accustomed to – minus the weekly vegetable – appeared an impossibility. Dying had become easier than living.
I had told my husband, we could survive on roti and salt; I’d comforted him by telling him I’d work as a farm labour and bring in Rs. 100 a day but he had become a loan defaulter and the moneylenders squatted at our door. Consuming the pesticide was his way out of the drudgery.
Nothing new, you must be thinking, but put yourself in my shoes, or in those of most households in Yavatmal, Amravati or Wardha. I was perhaps lucky to get the compensation of Rone lakh from the government. After clearing the debt of Rs. 70,000, I was left with only Rs. 30,000, not enough to buy seeds, fertilizers and pesticides and pay the moneylender. Not enough to get back to eating dal and rice. I had to revisit a moneylender and now my son Ganesh is in debt. The pesticide bottle often tempts me, but Ganesh is only 18.
Mr Prime Minister Sir, you had visited us in 2006 and announced a package of Rs. 3750 crore.
Two years later, you had generously offered Rs. 71,860 crore worth of loan waivers for farmers across the country, but the suicides have not stopped. I hope your officials have reported the truth to you: large sums of money have been siphoned off.
Sir, I hope you know that the waiver was meant only for farmers who had taken bank loans but 75% borrow from money lenders. Relief packages were also restricted to farmers who own not more than four hectares but so many of us don’t have farms in our own names. Lata Rathod, who, as widowed this year on August 25. Her husband Hitesh Rathod killed himself but she won’t even get Rs. 1 lakh in compensation because the land is in his brother’s name. Hitesh has left behind a sorry legacy for Lata – debt worth Rs. 96,000. Where is she going to get any money from? Her family now says she might have to become a commercial sex worker.So many crores have been spent but the number of suicides are only spiraling. More than cotton, we are harvesting death. I also need to let you know that the administration sometimes say that the death are due to excessive alcohol or domestic tiffs but can you afford to make us part of a statistical game. Does it not bother you’ll that our shrouds are woven from the same cotton that we grow; that we are the aam aadmi your government likes to showcase. Hitesh Rathod did not drink himself to death, but which official will believe that? They have developed immunity to a story that is more than a decade old.
Sir, do you know that 2012 has aggravated the crisis? We sowed cotton in May and June but the crop died due to lack of rain. We borrowed money to buy more seeds and the unseasonal rain has killed the second crop. This double blow has led to a spate of suicides. Vidarbha has already recorded 530 deaths.
Sirs, can I plead with you to repackage our future? Make water conservation a mass movement. Do not earmark more money for irrigation projects, for despite the crores you might spend, irrigation will not benefit a majority of us. Please give us a decent minimum support price. Increase it from the current Rs. 3900 per quintal. Just before the election in 2009, the loan waivers were announced. If you are planning another one, do remember that most of us are bank defaulters. Lastly, we are willing to diversify but don’t have the means. Help us raise greenhouses. We can grow flowers and send them to the cities. Sir, if nothing else, they will make your houses look prettier.’’
On behalf of the dead and the living,
Yours till I can hold on,
Baby Bassi, resident of Yavatmal, Maharashtra, India.