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Debt trap: Between a rock and a dry place in Vidarbha

Money from the government could not save farmers’ lives in drought-prone western Vidarbha, Maharashtra. The Congress lost 10 of the 11 seats in this former stronghold in the last election. And fresh polls are just weeks away, reports Dharmendra Jore.

india Updated: Mar 28, 2009 21:16 IST
Dharmendra Jore
Dharmendra Jore
Hindustan Times

His wife was in the kitchen preparing sweets for Holi, his two sons waiting for the water guns he had promised them, to show them off to their friends.

But Pandurang Murkute (32) knew he wouldn’t be able to make it for Holi to play with the boys.

Two days before Holi, on March 6, he walked in from the fields and collapsed at the doorstep of the family’s two-room brick house.

The post-mortem said he had drunk a bottle of pesticide.

That, of course, is not an unusual story in Wardha, 700 kilometres northeast of the state capital of Mumbai.

Across western Vidarbha — a region made up of Wardha and five other drought-prone districts — an average of two farmers have committed suicide every day for the last five years, driven to take their own lives by a seemingly unbreakable cycle of poor monsoons, crop failure and debt.

The deaths have already hit the Congress hard, costing them 10 of the 11 Lok Sabha seats in the 2004 elections, in what was once a traditional Congress bastion.

“They come here and make promises, then disappear again,” says Chanda Lende (30). “They don’t care that we have been widowed, our children left fatherless. Are we fools that we should vote them to power?”

Lende’s husband set himself on fire three years ago in his parched fields in Amravati, another district in Vidarbha.

“What worries us most is the thought that our children will be sucked into the same cycle of misery and debt,” she says. “If they can’t help us in our time, we pray that they will begin to pay attention at least by the time our children are grown.”

The Central and state governments have pumped Rs 14,000 crore into a relief package for the farmers. But the riders have seen the good intentions evaporate in a tangle of red tape and meaningless statistics.

For instance, no farmer with 5 acres or more in land holdings can claim the total loan waivers on offer. It doesn’t matter if all 5 acres are scorched from years of drought.

Meanwhile, sugarcane farmers with small but prosperous holdings in western Maharashtra have been getting loans written off when they don’t need the financial assistance.

Many have said they would rather the funds were spent on schools, roads or long-pending irrigation projects.

About 5,000 cotton farmers have committed suicide over the last decade, as irregular rainfall has shrivelled once-prosperous Vidarbha.

Agriculturalists say relief packages will not stop the deaths. What the region needs, they insist, are better irrigation facilities — only 11 per cent of cultivated area is covered by irrigation projects in Maharashtra, compared to 99 per cent in Punjab.

Part of the Central funds have now been set aside for 523 irrigation projects across the state. All in various stages of completion, they will take years to finish, says Kishore Tiwari of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, a local people’s movement.

“What we need, first up, is a complete and total loan waiver, irrespective of land holdings,” says Vijay Jawandhia of farmers’ front Shetkari Sangathana.

“Our husbands would be alive today had they not chosen farming as a full-time profession,” says Archana Savarkar (32), a widow and mother of two.

Her 40-year-old husband was fished out of a well in their Wardha village last August.

“My six-year-old stands at the door sometimes, looking for him,” says Archana. “I don’t know how to explain to her why her father took his life.”

First Published: Mar 25, 2009 03:06 IST