In Tamil Nadu, debt more than drought is driving farmers to commit suicide
The bizarre protests were bound to grab media attention and the protesting Tamil Nadu farmers did precisely that for much of the past month when they descended on Delhi’s Jantar Mantar to underline their plight back home.
They staged sit-ins with human skulls, ate grass, held mice in their mouth and even threatened to drink their own urine as they sought to highlight what they described as dire distress in times of an unprecedented drought ravaging the state.
Having shocked and shaken the country’s conscience, the farmers’ have taken a break in their agitation — warning of returning to the Capital later in the month if demand for loan waivers was not immediately met.
But there has been no such luck for the family of Palaniswami, an ageing farmer from Tiruchirapalli who hanged himself from a tree in his field of withered crops in January, unable to cope with his mounting debts and growing threats from the local money lender. For his bereaved family, the drought — said to be the worst in the last 140 years — has been more of an extended nightmare that refuse to end. Apart from its principal bread earner, the family is also without any dependable source of income. To compound their troubles, the family also has to pay back Rs 1.5 lakh and interests on the loan that Palaniswami had taken from the money lender.
P Prabhakaran, his 30-year-old son, finds the burden of unpaid loan and the task of looking after two of his mentally-challenged siblings almost unbearable. “Whatever I earn as an employee of a private firm, Rs 10,000 goes for repayment of the interest component of the loan. The loan amount is still there and I may have to work till my death and I would still be paying the interest,” he complained between shedding tears.
Thousands of farming families across Tamil Nadu — particularly in the Cauvery Delta — are facing a similar bleak future. Not all are strong enough to shoulder the burden and scores of farmers are capitulating under pressure, ending their lives.
“As crops wither and hopes of repaying loans recede, more farmers are taking the extreme step,” points out farmers’ leader P Ayyakannu. The state government in an RTI reply admitted to 82 farmer deaths since October last year. But farmers’ organisations say hundreds have actually died, saying 500 would be a more accurate toll.
The drive from Chennai to Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam, winding through parched fields of wilting sugar cane and withering coconut plantations, is bumpy and distressing. At almost every road, hump and sharp turns, some family or the other has a heart-rending story to narrate.
Raju Tirumala narrates the depressing circumstances under which his wife Lakshmi killed herself, becoming the first woman farmer in the state to commit suicide. T Alagesan’s family recounts that he died a broken man, unable to withstand either the drought or debt.
As against the normal rainfall of 440mm during the north-east monsoon which brings the bulk of the rain, the state received a mere 168mm of rainfall this year. The south-west monsoons failed too, leaving TN drier.
A beleaguered state government has declared all 32 districts as drought affected and sought Rs 39,565 crore relief package from the Centre. It has been sanctioned only Rs 2,014 crore though, based on recommendations of the inter-ministerial central team.
Help isn’t forthcoming from the authorities and the farming community is agitated. “Farmers are dying everywhere and there is no one willing to stop it,” laments Arokya Mary, the grieving widow of Alagesan.
Even Palaniswami’s son Prabhakaran is livid. The police FIR lodged after Palaniswami’s death mentioned suicide as the cause but the state government has so far not bothered to pay any compensation. “It seems no one cares for the dying farmers,” he said, in between working hard to repay his father’s debt.