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Along the famished road

By Jaideep Hardikar

Vidarbha has been ripped apart by an onslaught of devastating policies. Thousands of desperate farmers have committed suicide. Indebtedness, hunger and ill health are common. The government has announced empty packages but refuses to address the real issues such as declining support prices, an influx of imports, a shift to cash crops, rising input costs and cutbacks on credit. In this complex spiral, the food security of food producers themselves has been compromised

A man's photograph hangs on the wall of a cramped hut that you must bend down to enter. An old man gets up, battling the pain in his back. His wife, lying listlessly on the mud floor, does not make the effort. In an adjoining room, their daughter makes a futile bid to search for tea. The utensils are empty.

This tableau of a peasant family that has depended on land all its life for survival, is not uncommon in Vegaon village in the cotton-producing Yavatmal district of Vidarbha. This is ground zero of farmers' suicides. The family can no longer survive on the same piece of land. Things have gone terribly wrong.

"We have seen droughts, we have seen floods, we have seen natural crop losses, we have seen pest attacks, but this is something different," murmurs the old man, as I squat on the floor to check if his wife is alive. She is, barely. The frail couple in unable to visit a doctor. The photograph on the wall is their second son. The old man has not eaten enough since this son committed suicide a year ago, unable to bear the mounting debt and biting distress.

In another family in the same village, a father and son killed themselves within the span of one year, leaving behind two widows at the mercy of moneylenders, an unheeding government, and the world's new religion, the 'market'.

Vidarbha, the eastern region of Maharashtra, is an agrarian volcano. Cotton farmers here are committing suicide at an alarming frequency. The agrarian crisis of the region has transformed the green fields into killing fields. Over the last four years, at least 2,000 farmers have ended their lives in a region once rich in cotton, paddy, soybean and oranges. Those who are holding on have little hope of lifting themselves out of the crisis unless the state hikes investment in the agriculture sector and takes steps to correct its skewed policies.

After Prime Minister Manmohan Singh toured Vidarbha on July 1, 2006 and shared, as he put it, "the pain of the farmers of the region", there were at least 170 suicides within two months. The PM seems to have missed sharing the farmers' real concerns-of declining prices for their produce, growing imports, falling incomes and surging production costs. Had he really listened, the farmers might have felt hopeful about the revival of their sagging agrarian economy.

Committees and study groups by the dozens have studied the problem in detail and recommended dozens of corrective steps. So far, the government has shown no real willingness to address the situation. Meanwhile, the distress continues to devour the region. As Vijay Jawandhia, farmers' leader and an expert on agriculture, puts it: "The farmers who are living, are living just because they are not dying."

The malady in Vidarbha is not an outcome of successive drought or crop failure, but an onslaught of policies. The ruthless 'open market' policies of the past decade are pushing farmers to the brink. The shift from food crop to cash crop, for example, was not a coincidence but a direct outcome of policy. Vidarbha saw a dramatic decline in the number of acres of jowar cultivation-from 30% in 1995 to less than 3% in 2005. While jowar prices have remained the same for decades at Rs 550 a quintal, its consumption has declined.

Noted ecologist Dr Sultan Ismail says, "In Maharashtra, people grew millets. But agriculture departments working as extension workers for seed corporations advised them to stop growing millets and start growing soybean, because they would get more money. So they went in for cotton or soybean."

Differences in income and wealth between the great civilisations of the 18th century were relatively slight. "It is very likely," claims historian Paul Bairoch "that, in the middle of the 18th century, the average standard of living in Europe was a little bit lower than that of the rest of the world." When the sans culottes (French proletariat) stormed the Bastille in 1789, the largest manufacturing districts in the world were the Yangzi Delta in mid-China and Bengal in India, with Guangdong and Guangxi in southern China and coastal Madras in India not far behind. India alone produced one-quarter of world manufactures, and while its "pre-capitalist agrarian labour productivity was probably less than the Japanese-Chinese level, its commercial capital surpassed that of the Chinese."

Pulses, which were also a significant crop, are now used for intercropping with cotton, the region's mainstay crop. The decline in food production has a direct link to the government's crossover to export-oriented policies, which push for cash crops at the peril of food crops. This deliberately pursued policy took ten years to roll out the crisis. Once the crises started to steadily unfurl in Vidarbha, farmers began committing suicide in increasing numbers.

As cash crops ate into the acreage of food crop, particularly jowar, families lost out on several fronts. After losing vital fodder for cattle, they eventually lost the cattle. The number of slaughterhouses in Vidarbha has increased in the last two years. Vidarbha now exports meat to the Middle East even as India promotes the import of cotton. The loss of cattle has meant a loss of subsidiary income. This, in turn, means a drop in the family's income.

Indebtedness has grown alarmingly in the same phase. The rural credit systems collapsed when the government neglected the agriculture sector throughout the 1990s. The per capita debt of farmers has grown phenomenally. In rural India you might have to pay up to 300% interest to your lender in a season. In such a scenario, the smallest natural trigger poses great risks for families.

In this complex spiral, food security has been compromised. "Many farmers and families are able to eat only once a day," Sanjay Thakre, 27, told us last year during our visit to Akola's Dahihanda village during the Ganesh festival. Sanjay's uncle Ganesh Thakre, 45, took his life by consuming pesticide on the eve of the installation of the Ganesh idol. Deep in debt, Thakre had got trapped in a usurious system of bhisi, a sort of chit-fund that is largely rigged in these parts by moneylenders.

Ganesh's widow Rekha spoke of the family's decreasing food intake. "We can't afford to eat well," she said. Ironically, the Thakres were not eligible for the BPL (below poverty line) card that would have enabled them to buy foodgrains from the public ration shops. As Jawandhia remarks: "It's an irony that food producers are starving while purchasers have stocks beyond consumption limit."

After they stopped growing cereals, the farmers' dependence on the market for cereals and pulses, even for household consumption, has grown. This has triggered inflation due to mounting demand. At the same time, the centre's policy of abandoning the universal Public Distribution System (PDS) and pushing for a targeted PDS has meant certain disaster for the poorest of poor farming families. Hundreds of cotton growers have found themselves out of the PDS network. They have had to fall back on the market for domestic consumption and this comes with an unusually high price.

Those who don't commit suicide, starve to death, Kishor Tiwari, convenor of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, a farmers' movement in Pandharkawda, Yavatmal, says. Two years ago, Kolam adivasis in three districts of western Vidarbha starved to death. That prompted the Bombay High Court to direct the government to supply food free of cost to the starving families. In 2006 the problem of starvation has been checked in that community, but in other communities, especially of dalits and backward classes, people are rotating hunger by fasting.

"We integrated a low-cost rural economy with the high-cost global economy, but lifted whatever little protection our farmers enjoyed. When the developed world pays huge subsidies to its farmers, this is bound to be disastrous for our farmers," explains Jawandhia. "You belted his food economy and lured him into growing capital-intensive cash crops, but refused him institutional credit to match the growing production costs. Usury would obviously spread."

A well-known medical practitioner in Nagpur, Dr Milind Mane, says, "Food intake in many villages has gone down, and that's the reason why nutritional deficiencies have left many villagers vulnerable to even a routine viral fever." Since June, an unprecedented outbreak of a fever called chikungunya has affected tens of thousands of farming households in the cotton belt of Vidarbha. Many have died due to lack of medical attention. "If attended to, this fever subsides in four-five days like a routine viral fever," Dr Mane says.

But many farmers could not afford to see a doctor and paid with their lives. Others had to sell their land to pay for medical bills, even as a fragile public health system failed to provide healthcare to rural Vidarbha. Health expenditure is now a major component of monthly spending for a farm household, according to Tiwari.

The agrarian crisis in Vidarbha is linked to all these interlocking strands. Another such strand is the rising input prices and declining output prices. "The farmers are at a loss on the day they start sowing," Tiwari points out. "The more they do intensive farming, the more they end up with losses. Today, everyone is in the same boat - small, marginal and big farmers."

So the devastation caused by the crisis in poor farm families continues, unabated. When a 19-year-old student committed suicide in Amravati, she wrote a suicide note in her neat handwriting. She said if it weren't her, it would, most certainly, have to be her father. The girl knew her parents were worried about her marriage. She has left behind two sisters.

In a village in Yavatmal, the villagers collected money to cremate a farmer. He had consumed pesticide to put an end to an endless streak of indebtedness. It was a funeral for the entire village, the sarpanch said.

At the beginning of this season, two young farmers committed suicide within months of their fathers doing the same. Two widows were left behind in each house. In many other homes, widows too have ended their lives, unable to bear the burden of raising the hungry kids. Cotton has never burnt with such vehemence in Vidarbha. And its flames are threatening to engulf the paddy cultivating districts in the eastern parts as well as the orange orchards.

Amidst all this despair, a section of private moneylenders, government officials, contractors, food merchants and banks have had a grand feast. Their earnings have burgeoned. Land grabs have soared. Cuts in compensation, bounties in contracts, and exploitation of hapless women - the ubiquitous market and its zealous promoters at ground zero have fully exploited the situation.

Meanwhile, the government has chosen to announce special packages instead of correcting the devastating policies that are causing the crisis. It has punished small-time moneylenders instead of caning the giant loan sharks, who sit sometimes on its own treasury benches. It has refused to pay a farmer a small and legitimate price but waived hundreds of crores of rupees on excise and taxes for the corporate rich. It has paid for the metropolis's wasteful extravagance while being in a tearing hurry to withdraw whatever little the villagers enjoyed.

On December 10, 2005, Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh announced a Rs. 1,075 crore package. The PM visited the region on July 1, 2006. Between these two events, nearly 500 farmers committed suicide. Each package has fuelled more suicides. Each time, the farmers expected steps to mitigate the crisis. Each time, that did not happen.

The packages announced by the state and central governments skirted fundamental policies such as increasing the Minimum Support Prices, taking into consideration the huge subsidies being given by the developed world to its farmers and the resultant volatility in the international markets, or the policies that promote the imports that crush local markets and thousands of cultivators.

The CM's so-called package is empty. The withdrawal of the advance bonus in 2005 by the government from the Monopoly Cotton Procurement Scheme, accounted for a loss of Rs 1,000 crore to cotton farmers in 2005-06. "The government first withdrew this money from the pockets of peasants, and later announced a package of Rs 1,075 crore," Jawandhia says. A major chunk of the Rs 1,075 crore package was the farmers' own money, deducted by the government for capital formation and a price fluctuation fund till 1995. This money lay unused with the government.

The restoration of an advance bonus would have meant at least an addition of Rs 500 per quintal for the farmers, which in a year of increased production costs could have made some difference to each farming family. Even the PM's much-trumpeted package for Vidarbha was expected to offer the farmers some incentive to grow food crops. This didn't even find a mention. The package includes Rs 180 crore for a seed-replacement programme, not for food crops.

"There's no relation between prices and suicides," Maharashtra's Deputy Chief Minister R R Patil argued in December 2005. "Last year (2004), when we gave good prices, farm suicides were even more. This year, when we reduced the prices, the rate of suicides has dropped," he had told a rally in Nagpur.

The government knows that prices, among other factors, are the key to addressing the problem. But they have not budged. It may be that the economic wizard, Dr Manmohan Singh, has a better idea of dealing with such a gigantic problem without any real changes in policy. With the farmer's messiah, Sharad Pawar, in tow, we should all rest in peace. By the end of the year, band aid-like packages could outnumber the total number of states in India.

Meanwhile in Vidarbha's dusty countryside, the bonds continue to crumble. The farmers' confidence is shattered, their resilience has worn thin. There's no ray of hope, no light. The ebullient media industry could hardly be bothered to consistently focus on this tragedy. And Vidarbha is not an exception. The agrarian crisis is occurring all over our agrarian country. It's not the beginning and it won't be the end.

(Jaideep Hardikar is a Nagpur-based journalist who has been covering the agrarian crisis in Vidarbha for a number of years.)

InfoChange News & Features, October 2006