Vasant Pimpre’s cotton is likely to end up as a premium shirt coming out of one of a Raymonds or Arvind mill in South India. Or be exported to meet the increasing appetite of China’s garment factories. Or even travel to Australia and South Africa, to produce a pair of jeans.
But Pimpre, a farmer in his 30s, in Yavatmal’s Sonurli village, 750 km northeast of Mumbai, did not wait to harvest the produce of the three-acre field he sowed this June. On October 18, he killed himself, drinking pesticide, further in debt and envisaging no returns on the money and labour he had ploughed into his farm.
His father Sitaram, in his 70s, said his son — denied a loan by the Madhyavarti Co-operative Bank, since Sitaram defaulted on a Rs 8,000 loan — probably borrowed money privately for the sowing. On a sunny November morning, the wizened farmer wiped his tears in embarrassment. “My only son is dead,” he said. “What is the future of this ancestral farm?”
Cotton is at the heart of one of India’s biggest globalisation opportunities, especially since the Multi-Fibre Agreement with its barriers on global textile trade ended in January 2005. India is slated to upstage the US as the world’s second-largest cotton producer this year, and exports have jumped four-fold in the past year, heading mainly to factories in China.
But as HT travelled down to the start of the production chain, to its farms in the traditional cotton-growing belt of northeast Maharashtra, it is obvious an economy that sustains 1.7 million farmers and spurs India’s trade is on the verge of collapse.
A state that contributes a fifth of India’s cotton is embroiled in a suicide situation so dire that even a Prime Ministerial visit in June-July 2006 and a central government grant of Rs 3,750 crore hasn’t slowed the unrelenting tide of hangings and pesticide swallowing.
Since the first string of 49 suicides registered on the national conscience in 2001, the annual numbers have increased almost 20 times in Vidarbha’s six cotton-growing districts, an area the size of Punjab.
More than 1,038 farmers have killed themselves between January and October 2006, according to the state government. That is about four farmers dying every day. Over the last 24 hours, four more committed suicide.
On Wednesday in Delhi, Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar attributed the crisis to a vague “long-term neglect of agriculture”, but his department and the Maharashtra government have ignored specific suggestions by renowned agrarian scientist and National Commission for Farmers Chairman MS Swaminathan (see confidential letter in box).
So, on the ground, the cotton economy continues its slow collapse, with farmers now earning the same per quintal of cotton as in 1995.
In Yavatmal, Kishore Tiwari has, since June 2005 started each day by updating his morbid but meticulously maintained Suicides Register. The head of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (people’s protest committee) describes the 2,000-plus numbers as “Vidarbha’s silent suicides”.
These men and women, cutting across ages, castes and classes, killed themselves as the only way out of a deadly cycle of compounding debt, rising cultivation costs, near-absent state extension and unremunerative prices for a crop that now no longer makes economic sense.
Former Planning Commission member and agrarian economist Yoginder Alagh, who has been looking at the crisis on Vidarbha’s farms, emphasizes: “It is not as if only the small and marginal farmer is caught in this crisis of prices and seeds.”
Consider Sanjay Jirapure who drank pesticide on October 10. He was declared dead in an Amravati hospital two days later, leaving behind a wife and a year-old son.
Unlike Pimpre, Sanjay, a farmer in Washim’s Kherdi village, wasn’t a marginal farmer. With elder brother Raju, he sowed cotton and soya this year on their sprawling 28-acre farm (that’s more than twice the size of Ballard Estate), the two of them getting loans of Rs 11,000 and Rs 25,000 from the local bank.
“But the crop was affected by the heavy rains and he didn’t see a return coming for the Rs 36,000 loans we had taken this season,” said Raju in the flickering light of a kerosene lamp that filled the large house’s courtyard with shadows. “We are further in debt.”
In the vast, open spaces of Vidarbha, cotton was once called ‘white gold’. Towns like Chandur Bazaar and Dhamangaon came up around a network of railway tracks laid in the closing decades of the 19th century by the British, to feed the region’s cotton into Mumbai’s mills.
Today, a majority of farm households must borrow money to meet basic expenses, as many did this season when hit by of the resurgent mosquito-borne disease chikungunya.
This October, in a report to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation, the Maharashtra government admitted as much: “Farmers households have been living with a negative return for a number of years, which has really precipitated the situation."