A Farmer’s Wake-Up Call To India: Try To Understand Why We Die

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Old 19-Dec-2015
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A Farmer’s Wake-Up Call To India: Try To Understand Why We Die

The tragedy

Marathwada has seen 1,000 farmer suicides in 2015 alone
Successive droughts have rendered the farmers unable to pay off their debts

The personal account

Farmer Rajabhau Deshmukh, who hails from Beed district, explains the farmers’ plight
He says things are so bad that a farmer can’t even afford to fall sick for a few days anymore
Even suicide deaths are underreported by the govt
Farmers often have to pay 200-240% interest on loans from unregistered moneylenders

More in the story

How govt policies and their implementation are to blame
Why farmers keep falling into the moneylenders’ trap
How they can be brought out of this vicious cycle
In economic terms, half of India’s workforce practices agriculture, accounting for 13.7% of the country’s gross domestic product. It directly affects 800 million people.

But let’s leave the economics aside and concentrate on the human side of things. Two farmers commit suicide every hour in India. Earlier this month, in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra alone, there were 27 suicides in one week.

And yet, while people may sympathise with the farmers who end up taking this drastic step, how many of us actually understand the problems that lead to it? How many of us have actually tried to go behind the tragedies and see what a farmer’s life in Marathwada is like?

Rajabhau Deshmukh, a farmer from Beed district, gives Catch an insight into the tragedy of Marathwada’s farmers. And in doing so, he sounds a wake-up call to the country. The following is his account:

Kalidas’s story

Nearly a year has passed since Kalidas, the 23-year-old son of a farmer named Baban, committed suicide in my neighboring village of Tambarajuri in Maharashtra’s Beed district. The family had taken a loan from a bank, and was struggling to pay it off.

Last year’s drought had devoured their investment. Kalidas worked as a labourer as well, but all in vain. There was no hope left, and he eventually succumbed to the pressure.

The distraught family asked the authorities for the mandatory government compensation of Rs 1 lakh. Baban and his younger son met with the authorities, who kept avoiding them. The two spent almost a year trying to convince them. Finally, they examined the case, but the death was termed ‘ineligible’ for compensation.

The reason? Kalidas did not own the farmland; his father Baban did. Technically, Kalidas was not a farmer.

Think about it – a boy in his twenties almost never ‘owns’ the piece of land, even though he is the one in charge of the decisions. The ‘owner’ is always an elderly member of the family. But that’s a glaring loophole in the system that cost the family in this case.

The entire episode took a tragic toll on Baban’s younger son too. The treatment meted out to him and his father after Kalidas’s demise got to him. He became mentally unstable, and is currently in Pune’s Yerwada hospital.

We can’t even fall sick

This is just the story of just one household. I can assure you, there are innumerable Babans residing in Marathwada right now. The current situation here is dreadful. There is hardly any water left for our livestock and us.

The lucky ones have their wells filled to around 10-15 feet. The drought is so acute that the cattle are surviving on silt due to the paucity of water.

ALLAHABAD, INDIA – 2015/06/04: A farmer at cracked land looking to the sky hoping for monsoon rain on a hot summer in Allahabad. (Photo by Ravi Prakash/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

We have been reaping merely 20-30% of our average crop in the last few years. There have been years, like the current one, where the whole crop has dried up. Even as bank loans, moneylenders’ debts, relatives’ credits and the interest keep gnawing at us, we have to somehow run our homes.

Plus, there are medical expenses, marriages, educational fees and so on. To be honest, it seems we are not even allowed to fall sick. We cannot even afford a throat infection, let alone a long-term illness like cancer or diabetes.

The first drought transpired in 2004. Since then, it’s all been been downhill. Moreover, the weather department has predicted a dry spell until August next year. It means the Kharif crops, with which we start our season, are not likely to be promising.

In the meantime, lakes and rivers in Marathwada have dried up. A decade ago, they would be gushing with water, enough to sustain through the summer as well. During the last decade, though, the reservoirs have hardly topped 20-30% of the capacity; 40% in rare cases.

It sufficed during the monsoons, but we could not sustain in the summers when the rivers dried up. Consequently, the traditional horticulture that depended on reserved water has steadily become extinct.

Farming economically unviable

The question we confront every day is very fundamental. How do we manage to stay alive? Erratic weather and government policies have come together to dig our grave.

How can the government simply ignore the profession that is still pursued by half the Indian workforce? The biggest concern in front of us right now is there is no ray of hope. We do not get fair return on our investment and hard work. Rising production costs and an unforgiving market price has made farming economically unviable.

The middleman adds to our miseries. He knows we have no other option but to sell our yield to him. The union in the market is dominated by traders and middlemen. They have the might, and the circumstances are ripe for them to exploit us. We cannot even refuse to sell our product, because the expenses and loans keep hovering over our heads. We end up falling in the trap, and the circle of losses goes on.
What alternatives do we have? Most of the farmers are uneducated. Many end up working as migrant labourers for half the year at sugarcane factories, or travel out to cities and work on daily wage basis.

Eager to import, penalty for export

When we analyse the reasons behind the abysmal market cost for our crop, the buck stops with the government’s policies. To give an example, November-end is the time when we sow the gram crop. On 25 November last year, the Indian government procured gram from Russia at Rs 53 per kilo.

The process of procurement went on till April, by when we were ready with our yield. But it had to be sold at a throwaway price because the government had already bought it from Russia. “Who told you to cultivate it? Who asked you to depend on farming?” is the message the government seems to be giving us. The chilling part is that imports are only increasing by the day.

Indian opposition party activist weighs a tomato with a 500 Indian Rupee note during a demonstration outside government offices in Hyderabad on October 25, 2008. The demonstration was held in protest at rising prices of essential commodities. AFP PHOTO/Noah SEELAM / AFP / NOAH SEELAM

The same thing has happened with pigeon peas, which produce ‘tur’ or ‘arhar’ dal. Instead of buying it from Indian farmers, the government imported it from Australia and Indonesia at Rs 73 per kilo. We would cultivate pigeon peas 12 months a year if we got that much. But because of India’s eagerness to import, not many farmers in India are keen on cultivating it. The result is in front of us: the consumer had to buy it at Rs 200 per kilo.

The Market Support Price offered by the government is piddling, and there are many hitches – like storage limits, government holidays, unending paperwork, wretched bureaucracy and so on. Therefore, the government support scheme hardly makes a tangible impact on the ground. And when the government fails to procure the material from us, the traders know we are helpless. They latch on to the opportunity.

India imported tur dal at Rs 73/kg. We would cultivate it all year round if we got that much

There are so-called experts who opine that farming has become difficult to sustain. It is no longer as viable as it used to be. But in my opinion, farming has been made unviable by government policies and an indifferent civil society.

The government has imposed a tax of $700 per ton on the export of onions. It means if one of our farmers wants to sell one ton of onions to a trader from Japan, he would first have to pay $700 to the government. Obviously, the farmer would want to cover that cost.

But then, why would a trader from Japan purchase onions from us at an increased rate? And once the exports are stalled, the local trader jumps in and makes merry at our cost. It leaves us wondering how to set up capital for the next season.

Left to fight our own battles

It is not just the present government that deserves to be blamed. The fact is that no government has done anything to protect us during the times of globalisation. We had to compete with foreign entrants enjoying great subsidies in their respective countries. The Indian farmer was never going to win that battle after economic liberalisation. We were exposed to international market trends, rupee devaluation etc.

Developed countries also opened up their economies, but did not leave farmers to fight their own battles.

The Swaminathan Commission report has still not been enforced. It is sitting with the government since 2007. The BJP government promised to implement it; it was in their pre-election agenda. The vulnerable farmer quickly fell for it. Narendra Modi’s speeches and rallies in Marathwada struck a chord, and everyone voted BJP in 2014.

But the new government is proving to be as dishonest as the earlier one.

‘Experts’ come to inspect

Last month, a committee of a few expert members came to Marathwada from Delhi, to inspect the drought. We escorted them to a farm of pigeon peas. The man who was supposed to be an expert could not even identify the raw pigeon pea.

“Where are the pulses?” he asked me with bewilderment. He did not even know the difference between the raw material and the pulses that we see in the market. I was hoping to explain how the crop had dried up, but after his question, I decided against it. Later on, he could not recognise a raw pomegranate. He wondered why the thing was green and not red.

Around 10-12 members of this “expert panel” had landed in Marathwada, and they traveled in groups of two to various districts. I assume the others were also as ignorant as the one I encountered in Beed, because I heard instances of infuriated farmers heckling them.

In Beed’s Georai taluka, farmers did not allow this ‘expert’ to get out of his car. They lay down around the car, leaving him deadlocked. The drama went on for four hours, until the police force came in.

On the one hand, farmers’ opinions are virtually disregarded. In this context, when someone visits us and asks about our plight, it is like gushing water in the desert for us.

Similarly, when these ‘experts’ landed here, we could not wait to explain our miseries in the hope of some turnaround. But when you send a man who does not know the difference between the finished product and the raw material to comprehend our problems, are you not playing a cruel joke on us?

After news of unrest among farmers regarding this expert committee spread across, the commissioner facilitated a meeting a day later. At the commissioner’s office, we put forth our arguments in front of the committee members, who in return started explaining to us how to tend to our livestock and how to nurture milk products and so on.

Initially, I did not know whether to laugh or cry. The committee members, who apparently have nothing to do with farming, were telling us techniques for looking after our own livestock, something that we have been doing for generations.

Schoolboy errors in schemes

Make no mistake, there are some well-meaning government schemes as well. But they either lack proper enforcement, or have schoolboy errors in them.

Crop insurance is a good example – it’s nothing but a gamble.

Indian labourers dig through rotting wheat at Khamano village 40 kilometres from Ludhiana on May 19, 2012. The Indian government may export 4-5 million tonnes of wheat lying in Food Corporation of India (FCI) warehouses in a bid to cope with the storage crisis, the food ministry has said. AFP PHOTO/ STR / AFP / STRDEL

There is a circle of 40 villages, of which seven are randomly selected. In those seven villages, the assessment area to decide crop loss is just above 1,000 square metres for each crop. However, if the yield at the demarcated area measures up to the average crop yield over the past five years, and the crop in the remaining 33 villages dries up, we are not eligible for crop insurance.

On the contrary, if the marked area throws up a bad crop, we are entitled to insurance money irrespective of the quality of the crop in the other villages.

Is this not a gamble? How can one determine the crop insurance of 40 villages based on the assessment of a thousand square metres? It is too minuscule a sample size. Even an acre of farmland sometimes has three different types of soil. It is so idiotic.

Every year, the government releases two Government Resolutions – one for the Kharif crop and one for Rabi. The June 2015 GR says that under the insurance scheme, the compensation does not account for crop loss caused due to drought, scarcity or flooding.

Are we, the farmers, responsible for natural disasters?

Moreover, we still persist with the medieval method of judging crop loss. A man from the administration visits the farmland and estimates the loss and compensation based on a mere glance. How can it possibly be accurate?
Another government scheme, which would go a long way if implemented well, enables the small farmer to borrow interest-free loans from the bank. The interest is paid by the government on behalf of the farmer.

But in reality, the bank never issues a loan under this scheme. The manager mandates the farmer to pay the interest and assures the interest would be returned once the government deposits it. Needless to say, it never happens. Now whether the government does not release the interest money or the bank devours the interest of both farmers and government is anybody’s guess.

Unregistered moneylenders

However, the discrepancy paves the way for one of the most despicable rackets to flourish – unregistered moneylenders.

Unregistered moneylenders exploit farmers to the hilt. A financially-sound person in Mumbai pays around 12% interest per annum on a loan. We farmers pay 15-20% per month, which amounts to 200-240% per annum.

It is understandable for a reader to wonder why the farmer approaches such a moneylender. It is a fact that we need loans to set up capital at the start of the season, or for a marriage and so on. But the banks treat us with contempt. The manager hounds us with questions. To end the rampaging exploitation by unregistered moneylenders, banks ought to be more accommodative.

The government must ensure the schemes it has formulated through its banks are enforced. The government should also waive off farm loans after a natural calamity. If the loans are waived off, we can walk into a bank with a clean slate. As long as the banks treat us with contempt, the moneylenders would continue to be in the game.

Doctored suicide data

The statistical data of suicides in Marathwada is always a little underestimated. By the time a newspaper publishes “27 suicides in a week”, 15 more farmers have hung themselves.

In my own Patoda taluka, the official number of farmers who have committed suicide is 153 since 2005. In reality, the number is around 250. Of those 153, 86 have been termed eligible for compensation. And only 33 of them have received 30% of the entitled amount. The authorities doctor the data to portray a less devastating image than what it is.

The ominous development in recent years is the youngsters in their twenties and thirties have started taking the extreme step. When a man is in his mid-twenties, his wife is often pregnant. The suicide affects the wife and, consequently, the foetus. There are medical studies proving the psychological stress caused by the suicide affects the foetus, and the child is born with deficiencies.

These corollary issues are hardly addressed by the government or the media. Who visits the distraught farmer? Who consoles the ruptured household?

Some farmers have found a new technique of committing suicide – by electrocuting themselves. They wrap an unprotected wire around their hand and turn on the switch. I am told the method is more reliable than consuming pesticide or hanging oneself by a rope.

Suggested remedy

Community farming is one of the remedies suggested to turn the tables. It is a good idea if enforced well.

We have seen how the relatively-easier government diktats are poorly enforced. Things become all the more challenging when you are dealing with a community that is predominantly uneducated.

It is true the size of the farmland is decreasing by the day because of nuclear families, and it is not economically viable as the input cost increases with smaller farmlands. But community farming needs to be promoted with incentives. It would require the administration to educate farmers; it would require a sincere effort.

The suicide tally in Marathwada has officially crossed 1,000 in 2015. The initial epidemic of suicides transpired after a 45-day dry streak burnt the whole crop at the start of the season. It waned a little in between, but the scarcity of water and fodder pinched us more intensely after the monsoon, and the suicides increased again. Some of the areas in Marathwada do not have a drop of water in a 50-kilometre radius. How are we supposed to escort our livestock back and forth that far?

When we complained to the collector, he said his mandate is to ensure human beings get water, not animals. He further said the government has not arranged for him to provide water for animals.

What is a farmer without his livestock? It is quite clear we are not on the priority list of the authorities. While it might be too much to expect them to eradicate our concerns, is it so difficult to not pile up our miseries?

The beef ban

The beef ban merely adds insult to injury. Even a productive bull does not get a second glance at various markets. Slaughterhouses sit idle and farmers are reluctant to buy cattle, as they know it would be difficult to get rid of them later on. Earlier, a cow or a bull would be sold at around Rs 50,000.

Plus, the livestock needs more attention than a newborn. The maintenance cost of one animal is around Rs 8,000 per month, including fodder and water. The government, instead of addressing our problems, is deepening the pit. The authorities should comprehend the consequences before passing a law.

Do you wonder, then, why the farmer eventually loses his mind and takes an extreme step? I am quite sure you, the reader, would not understand the feeling of not being able provide for an ailing mother or not having the money for the education of a young son.

While we assess suicides, it is important to consider the accumulation of troubles over the years, caused by the erratic weather, the exploitative sharks, an indifferent civil society and the apathetic government.

It starts with drinking and ends with a rope. And out of those who are still alive, many have given up. They are alive only because they are not dead.

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