Grim reaping

His son Babu found him dead in the cowshed behind their home. Kusara Mallagaud had drunk pesticide the night earlier, and quietly lay down for the last time in the shed where no one could hear him as he writhed in pain, alone in his last hours.

india Updated: Mar 20, 2006 01:05 IST

His son Babu found him dead in the cowshed behind their home. Kusara Mallagaud had drunk pesticide the night earlier, and quietly lay down for the last time in the shed where no one could hear him as he writhed in pain, alone in his last hours. He clearly wanted to die the way he had tried to live his life, enduring his suffering himself, trying always to shield his family. But in the end he abandoned them, succumbing to the deadly epidemic that has stalked rural India during recent years, of terminal despair, that has already taken 22,000 farmers’ lives, and shows no signs of ending.

Babu, barely 19, suddenly finds himself the oldest male member of the family. He bravely tries to hold back his tears, as his grandmother and aunt weep inconsolably around him. His mother has gone to her parents’ home in the ritual of mourning, and his younger siblings are still numbed and stunned. “If only he had spoken to us, we would have sold everything to pay off his debts,” Kusara’s sister keeps wailing. The gathered villagers add, “It was he who would give strength when others would lose heart. We never dreamed that one day he would go this way.”

It was only to his son Babu that he had occasionally confided. Observing his father’s progressive retreat into his silences, Babu himself opted to drop out of school to share his burdens. A month before he died, Kusara spoke to his son about the hopeless enormity of his debts. Three lakh rupees. He furtively hid from the moneylender, and in so doing felt deep shame. But for how long could he avoid him? Babu suggested that they sell their home and their holdings of two and a half acres of land. His father did not agree, “What will become of you, your brother and sisters, your mother? We would be thrown to the streets, destitute. I cannot do this to you. I just cannot.”

In six consecutive years of drought in their village, Pallepahad in Medak district of Andhra Pradesh, they could extract virtually nothing from their small plot of land. Kusara took a loan from the village moneylender to dig a borewell three years earlier. It was dry. Desperately he took more loans. Four more borewells failed, as the water table in the village fell dangerously low.

Every year, the farmer had to beg for loans for other purposes as well, to buy seed, fertiliser, pesticide and other inputs. Earlier nationalised or cooperative banks would give them credit, today they are rudely turned away from their doors. The private moneylender charges three to five per cent rates of interest per month compound, but at least he is there when they need him. Much of his credit is in kind, in seeds and other inputs. Often these are spurious or overpriced, but they have no option of buying these from the open market or from certified sellers.

Earlier, farmers would store their own seeds, but today the technology of hybrid seeds and commercial farming no longer enables them to do this. The new technology also impetuously demands chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Earlier the main fertiliser was the dung of bullocks. Today few can afford to feed bullocks the full year; it is cheaper to hire tractors for ploughing, but that too costs money. Fertiliser, electricity and water subsidies for farmers have shrunk in compliance with the prescriptions of World Bank and IMF and therefore input costs for farmers soar even higher.

In a good year, the farmer makes profit. But what happens in a bad year? It is not just the monsoons that can fail them. Farmers have been thrust into the harsh winds of global markets. Even a good harvest can be calamitous for them, if global prices (of which they have no advance knowledge let alone any kind of control) unpredictably crash.

In theory, the government still guarantees procurement of their produce at a minimum assured price, but in practice mandis only purchase from large farmers in prosperous regions. The small farmer, desperate for cash, is forced to sell his harvest to the moneylender who purchases at whatever price he chooses, often reselling this later at much higher prices in the mandi or open market.

The moneylender does not need to use brute force to reclaim his loans. It is enough to stand in the village square and shame his debtors by talking of their unpaid loans. This humiliation drives peasants — proud, stoic, immersed in traditional values of trust and honesty — to desperately sell all they own, from land, jewellery, cattle to their homes to repay their debts. Or else escape the shame, by taking their own lives.

In a recent national opinion poll, many observers were surprised when an overwhelming majority of respondents, both rural and urban, said that nothing shamed and pained them, not corruption, not violence, not crime, as much as the suicide of farmers. It was unsuspected depths of public anger at the suicide of farmers that drove away the former government of Andhra Pradesh, which was considered a shining model of good governance by supporters of globalisation.

One of the first engagements of the prime minister of the newly installed UPA government after he assumed office in 2004 was fittingly to commiserate personally with the survivors of farmers who had committed suicide in Andhra Pradesh, and to promise a ‘new deal’ to the Indian farmer. And yet all that they have got in the state is a ‘relief package’ of soft loans to which they qualify only after the farmer has committed suicide; and a ‘moratorium’ on past loans that is unenforceable because the farmers remain dependent, for credit in the future, on the same usurious private sources.

Not surprisingly then, the spate of farmers’ suicides continue unabated even after the change in government. The only way to stem the epidemic of farmers’ despair is to massively expand rural credit for small and marginal farmers, give them protection from the vagaries of global markets and expand subsidies for agricultural inputs. Promotion of watershed development for rainfed farmers, appropriate low-cost low-risk technologies and assured procurement from small farmers at support prices are the need of the hour. But there no signs on the horizon of any of this, nor of the statesmanship, compassion and courage that the leadership must display to pull back rural India from the brink.

In Kusara’s home, fragments of a life extinguished glitter poignantly around us, through photographs and memories. We learn of his devotion to Hanuman. His joy in his friends. His caring for his family. His enormous pride in his daughter’s school achievements, and his resolve, now lost like so much else, to send her to college.

Marginal and small farmers are increasingly abandoning their holdings and migrating in desperate search for wage work. But not young Babu. With interest mounting inexorably with each passing day, and pressures from the importunate and restless moneylender, he has no idea how he will repay the loan of three lakh rupees. But whatever has happened, he is clear that he will remain a farmer. ‘This alone is what gave meaning to my father’s life. It is what gives meaning to mine.’

First Published: Mar 20, 2006 01:05 IST