Vidarbha: Epicentre of suicides

Inside this abyss, Vidarbha is flooded with thousands of tales of tragedy. And the cold-blooded truth is, there is no end to this documentary of death and dying. Farmer suicides are only a symbolic pointer

Akash Bisht/Sadiq Naqvi Pandharkawada, Yavatmal (Maharashtra) 

Advertisements promising massive crop yield dot the entire landscape of Yavatmal district in Maharashtra. Surprisingly private companies are spending gigantic sums on these rosy campaigns. On walls, on huge billboards, on Maharashtra State Transport Corporation buses. The  happy face of a farmer proudly showcasing his cotton yield in these thousands of advertisements makes one wonder if this unhappy twilight zone is indeed the ‘Farmer’s Suicide Epicentre’ of the country. However, like most ad campaigns, they are designed to mislead as these reporters discovered in the small town of Pandharkawada and in the deep interiors of crisis-stricken Vidarbha.

Seed and fertiliser stores line the small market-place of this mofussil town. They also serve as a meeting place for farmers, a sort of  adda away from the village. “I own a good 16 acres of land. Things have gone so bad that I had to sell almost 10 acres in the last five years,” says Badruddin Jeewani, standing next to a fertiliser shop. A relatively big farmer, people call him ‘Badru Seth’. “There is no other way I could sustain my family,” he says. “Cotton doesn’t bring any profits now. If things don’t improve  soon, I will be landless.”

Badru Seth is not the only farmer in distress in this largely agrarian society. District officials explain that almost 80 per cent of people in the region are engaged in agriculture or allied activities. Some till their own land, while others work as labourers on the farms. The entire Vidarbha region has an estimated three million farmers. “I have a sizeable holding of 20 acres. Even then, I am struggling to make ends meet,” says Prem Chavan of Maregaon. “Many farmers are selling their land. An acre of land fetches Rs 1 lakh.”

Poisoned by Pesticide

“This is good work. It is relatively easy. You go to the fields, spray the pesticides and come back within three to four hours. And you get the whole day’s wages,” says Gajendra Ashtekar.

Like him, countless others engage in this extremely hazardous activity. Recently, there were reports in the local press that many villagers had suffered and died after being exposed to deadly toxins. Though the district administration in Yavatmal and the superintendent at the medical college refute this, the human rights commission has taken cognizance of the reports and has asked the authorities to file a reply.

Medical college authorities in Yavatmal concede that there are many people who come to the hospital complaining of various infirmities that are a direct result of such exposure in the fields. “I do not know of any death. People do come on a regular basis complaining of nausea and similar problems. There are serious cases too when patients become unconscious after prolonged exposure to toxins. It leads to several chronic illnesses, lung and skin diseases,” says Kishor Ingole, Medical Superintendent, Yavatmal Government Medical College. “They do it without any protection. Organo phosphorus, Endrine, as it is commonly called, is highly toxic.”

Farm workers in the region are not sensitised about the hazards of exposure to such toxins. They are all over, on the field, with no protection, spraying with their bare hands, without any gloves or a mask to cover their faces. “This is dangerous. They should get safety masks, gloves and so on, bundled with the pesticides itself. Buying them separately would seem like a waste of money to them. They are already suffering under debt,” says Pramod Yadgirwar, a senior scientist in Yavatmal.

Suffering comes in other forms too. Snake-bites are common. Ingole says that there are almost six to eight  cases of snake-bite, a third of which are cobra bites. Yavatmal has a high number of AIDS cases. Only Mumbai and Pune have more patients. “There are 8,000 HIV+ patients registered in the district, of which almost 3,000 have AIDS,” informs Ingole.  

This is a region with a vast tribal population which includes Gonds, Raj Gonds, Kolams and other tribes. Ingole says there is a high prevalence of sickle cell anaemia, a genetic disorder among tribals. “The Kolams are also reporting a high incidence of diabetes because of change in their food habits,” says Kishore Tiwari, leader of Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti.

“This is one place where pesticides are easily available but medicines are not. That is the irony,” adds Tiwari.

It is unnerving to see such big farmers in such dire straits. Balakrishna Ashtekar of  Sakra village  had a large farm of 18 acres. He swallowed  poison on January 24, 2010. His son rushed him to the Pandharkawada hospital where he was pronounced dead.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: NOVEMBER 2012