Half an hour after Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram wound up his Budget speech, Durgadas Desapawar of Boriijara village in Vidharba’s Yavatmal district swallowed a large dose of pesticide.
<b1>The Finance Minister’s guilt-laced sop of Rs 60,000 crore for India’s farmers meant nothing to Desapawar, overcome by debt and despair. The cotton farmer had borrowed Rs 25,000 from the local cooperative bank. But he had also borrowed Rs 30,000 from private moneylenders because what he got from the bank was not enough to work his nine acres of land. Eventually, he could not repay both amounts because the price he got for his cotton was simply not remunerative enough. When Desapawar learnt that the loan waivers announced by the Finance Minister applied only to farmers with two hectares of land or less, and that he would not be eligible, he took the ultimate step. His family rushed him to the Civil Hospital at Pusad, 45 miles away. The doctors declared him dead on arrival.
Desapawar was the 67th farmer in Vidarbha to commit suicide last month. January’s toll was 80. The killing fields of Vidarbha continue to reap their deadly harvest.
A lethal combination of crippling debts and non-remunerative prices for agricultural produce continues to wreak havoc in the heart of Maharashtra’s cotton-growing area, once considered the land of white gold. For close to a decade now, global prices of cotton have remained depressed, largely because of generous federal subsidies to American cotton farmers (last year, the Bush administration handed out subsidies worth over Rs 18,000 crore. American farmers, who are guaranteed about 72 cents a pound, though the true market price of cotton is believed to average around 57 cents, keep increasing their cotton output, leading to overproduction, which lowers global prices. In Vidarbha, farmers have seen prices for their cotton remain more or less at 1996 levels, though the cost of their agricultural inputs has gone up considerably.
Vidarbha has received two economic packages worth Rs 4,825 crore collectively from the Centre and the state government. Yet, it has recorded 1,248 suicides in 2007 alone. Yavatmal is the region’s worst-hit district, with over 500 farmers committing suicide since January 2007. Though Chidambaram’s waiver has brought some cheer to a small section of beleagured farmers, the majority is still strangled by the vice-like grip of money-lenders.
<b2>Kamalabai Gosavi Pawar, 46, whose husband, Gosavi, committed suicide on May 8 last year, just 22 days before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was scheduled to visit their village of Kelzhari in Yavatmal district, faces a grim future. Gosavi was neck-deep in debt and no money for the new farming season. He needed Rs 65,000 to work his seven acres. But he owed the bank Rs 50,000, which he had to clear first. So he borrowed Rs 50,000 from the village moneylender at a charge of Rs 2500 — for just one day. He cleared his bank debt with that money, got the crop loan and repaid the lender, leaving him with just Rs 12,500 in hand. And a new debt of Rs 65,000. There seemed no way out of the debt-trap. He swallowed a large dose of poison. Now Kamalabai has to pay the bank Rs 50,000 and private moneylenders Rs 80,000. She is not eligible for the loan waiver because of her 11-acre land holding. It is a dead end for her.
Waiver too late?
On an average, three farmers in Vidarbha kill themselves every day. There are around 35 lakh farmers in the region. The banking sector hardly covers 12 lakh farmers. With most going to private moneylenders, farmers are subjected to exorbitant rates of interest and harassment that includes muscle power and threats to women and children.
However, there are those who see a glimmer of hope. Like Gangaram Meshram of Gopalpur in Yavatmal, who owns two hectares. “I borrowed Rs 15,000 from the cooperative bank which will now be waived,” he says, though he adds hastily that he has borrowed double that amount from a moneylender at an exorbitant rate of interest. “Even if it is only Rs 15,000, it’s a big relief for me,” he says.
Similarly, Vandana Anil Shende, 25, a widow from Bharumri village, had taken a loan of Rs 16,000 from the local cooperative bank after she lost her husband. “I’m happy that I don’t have to pay back that loan and can get a fresh loan,” she says. But, her eyes brimming over, she whispers, “If the government had done this a couple of years ago, I would not have lost my husband.” Has the government woken up too late? That’s a question P Chidambaram — and all of us — have to live with.