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Missing the mark

4 farmers commit suicide in Chhattisgarh daily. But ahead of the polls, politicians are locked in a populist battle over cheap rice. Kumkum Dasgupta reports.

india Updated: Apr 07, 2009 00:04 IST
Kumkum Dasgupta

Ahead of the general election, the Congress and BJP are locked in a battle over who can offer grain at a lower rate: A BJP scheme has it down to Rs 2 per kg; the Congress is promising rice at Rs 3.

There is no word from either campaign on the men growing the rice — four of them commit suicide every day in the state. Chhattisgarh has the highest farmer suicide rate (deaths per lakh of population) in the country, one that has remained at the top of the charts since the state was carved out of Madhya Pradesh in 2001.

And rural anger is simmering ahead of the national election. “What my brother needed was help with his loan,” says an angry Pila Ram Patel (42). “It wasn’t the price of rice that drove him to suicide.”

Jamuna Lal (46), a rice farmer from Durg district, 80 kilometres south of capital Raipur, took his own life in March 2008, a week before his daughter’s wedding.

The last straw came when a corrupt official at his public bank allegedly told him he owed over a lakh more than he had taken. The official was subsequently suspended. But, in what has become an all-too-familiar cycle of desperation here, Jamuna Lal’s death plunged the family into more dire straits.

His daughter’s wedding was cancelled. Pila Ram had to sell his successful grocery shop to help take care of the family. Netram, the eldest son, dropped out of school.

In 2007 alone, 1,593 farmers committed suicide in the state, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). In Durg alone, the cycle of crop failure and indebtedness drove 206 farmers to take their lives in that year, the last for which figures are available.

So far, Raman Singh’s only response has been that the NCRB figures are “flawed”.

There are 28 lakh farmers in Chhattisgarh, most of them paddy cultivators.

About 6.40 farmers per lakh of the population committed suicide in 2006, according to a study by Yuvraj Gajpaly, a post-doctoral fellow at a Canadian research institute.

“With rising inputs costs, farming is not remunerative anymore,” says Sanket Thakur, a Raipur-based agricultural scientist. “They can’t diversify into other cash crops because only 21 per cent of the state has irrigation facilities.”

Yet, ahead of the elections, there is no talk from either the Congress or the BJP on irrigation, relief packages or aid for the families left behind.

The tunnel vision could cost the Congress the election.

“In the last Assembly polls, the difference in vote share between the two parties was just 1.4 per cent,” says S. Choudhary, founder of CGNet, an online civic forum for the state. “If the Congress had raised the farmer suicide issue they could have countered the BJP’s cheap rice propaganda with something meaningful.”

Lalit Chandranahu of the Kisan Mazdoor Sangh (Peasants-Workers Association) says he has lost hope. “There is no ruling party and Opposition in Raipur,” he says. “They are one and the same thing.”