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.

A father of two, including a daughter, Ashtekar was under tremendous pressure to arrange money for her wedding. A year before, the crop was not good. Ashtekar had to borrow from the moneylender. Unable to pay him back, he was being constantly harassed. “He couldn’t sleep. The moneylender’s men would come knocking every other day. He was subjected to constant humiliation,” says his wife. “My father had paid back a substantial amount of money. But he had no written proof. The sahukaar took advantage of this,” says Gajendra Ashtekar, his son. The sahukaar had moved court and Ashtekar was directed by the judge to pay back the money in a stipulated time-frame.  

Sahukaars are like slow poison. They ultimately kill you,” says Gajendra. Every household in almost all the villages in the region has similar stories of relentless harassment at the hands of moneylenders. They are like a necessary evil, a vicious cog in the wheels of protracted suffering. Years of low productivity and rising costs have ensured farmers dependence on them for survival.

Mostly, the banias (trading community) who have set up shops in the town also double as moneylenders. It’s a trap lucrative, unregulated business with no licenses, no permits. And it runs right under the nose of the district administration. The farmers borrow money and mortgage their land and belongings, thus making the cycle more vicious. “In the context of availability of credit, field data suggests that even after 55 years of independence, private moneylending remains the single largest source of credit to small and marginal farmers. This is so because the banking sector is fast moving out of the credit delivery mechanism,” explains a report by the Mumbai-based Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).

“Banks, if they do give loans, provide only Rs 12,000 per acre. The need is much higher,” says Gajendra. Even Finance Minister P Chidambaram recently asked the banks to lend money to small, “honest” farmers. “In fact, a big business house can easily raise a thousand crore rupees... They need not even pay their loans. The story is that if you are a small borrower you go after the bank and if you are a big borrower the banks go after you,” Chidambaram said at a conference of bankers in Delhi. 

‘The government sold out to Monsanto’

“GM seeds can never be a solution due to their inability to manage pests,” says Dr Pramod Yadgirwar, senior scientist and project co-ordinator of Yavatmal Krishi Vigyan Kendra. “Sucking pests have become a major problem. The parent gene is susceptible to sucking pests.”

Yadgirvar has been researching better technological and scientific prospects for farmers of this distressed region. “The government should have roped in scientific institutions and agriculture research centres which have been involved in the region. But this doesn’t happen,” he rues while suggesting that the government should link agriculture research institutions directly with policy making. 

“As per the Cotton Act, 1936 that was enacted by the British, only research centres would release the seeds. The use of other seeds was considered as violation of the law,” says Pratap Rathore, member of the Panchayat Samiti, Yavatmal.  “The research centres have large farms where they would be researching some 2,000-2,500 different varieties and the best 5-7 would be released every year. Post-1984, when the Act was changed, these centres continue to work but have virtually stopped releasing any new varieties.”

“When Bt came to India in 2002-03, there were already hybrid varieties that were giving good yield. But the government sold out to Monsanto. The indigenous varieties were stopped. Now, private seed companies are making the kill. They pay the scientists and take the new technology from these research centres.”

Even Yadgirwar feels that the technology should be made available and affordable to farmers. “The government has to look out for the farmers. They should at least get some profit. I can’t understand why farmers should get Rs 3,200 per quintal this year when last year there was a time when the price for a quintal had touched Rs 7,000,” he says, emphasising that the government should protect farmers’ interests. “There has been only 1 per cent increase in the irrigated area in the last decade. How do you explain that?” he asks. “This is despite the fact that the region receives ample rainfall which needs to be channelled properly. Yavatmal receives 900-1,000 mm of average annual rainfall, Akola gets 750 mm and Amravati receives 850 mms.” 

He blames low cropping intensity for the distress. “As per rainfall and soil condition, the maximum potential is 300 in terms of the cropping index; however, it is only 120 in Vidarbha. There should be diversification. Only 20 per cent of the land is under two crops that is both rabi and kharif. It has to be properly executed. Now, the farmers here are going for soyabean as an alternative to cotton. Little do they know that cotton can still survive several shocks like drought, and so on, but soyabean is very sensitive.”

In Pandharkawada, 17,216 farmers have landholdings of less than three acres; there are only 2,723 farmers who have more than five acres. 

Many of the  big farmers manage to get money from the banks, which they divert for moneylending. Even the farmers’ co-operatives cater mainly to big farmers. Things are worse for the landless who get land on lease for farming. With no land in their name, they are ineligible for any credit scheme or ‘official relief’ which might arrive after a calamity. “All of it goes to the land-owner,” says Kishore Tewari, leader of the Vidharbha Jan Andolan Samiti in Nagpur. “The banks will easily give you money for buying motorbikes, but they won’t give it to farmers.” Indeed, some ‘poor’ farmers are also seen riding motorcycles in this arid landscape.

With stringent rules in place, most families don’t even get the Rs 1 lakh compensation done after the ‘head of the family’ commits suicide. It’s a dark, tragic  irony: in Yavatmal alone, out of a total of 2,494 suicide cases, only 773 were found ‘eligible’. Land registered in one’s name is a primary criterion, besides other ‘strict’ rules. 

“People are committing suicide because of love affairs. There are people who die because of drinking habits,” Ganesh Raut, Tehsildar, Pandharkawada, told Hardnews, in a bizarre explanation. “The number of suicides is actually going down.”  

The reality on the ground is starkly different. There have been 174 suicides reported till October 1, 2012, in Yavatmal alone. The figure for Vidarbha stands at more than 500. The lure of compensation does make some families report cases of murder and natural death as suicide. For instance, pesticide was forced inside the mouth of a man who died died of a heart attack, says a district official. But such instances are rare.

Predictably, caste dynamics play a role. In Dharna village, where a landless peasant committed suicide, upper caste villagers claimed he had been terminally ill. They did not hide their caste prejudice. The version was rubbished by his neighbours.

Sometimes, the pressure of marriage can become tragic, as in Ashtekar’s case. His daughter finally found a groom in 2011, in neighbouring Chandrapur. “We had to give 60 gm of gold as dowry, besides other things,” says Gajendra. However, the groom had a psychological problem and the girl finally sought a divorce. “He was virtually mad. He would lock me up in the bathroom and beat me,” says the girl. The family is yet to get back the valuables they given as dowry.

Devastated by his father’s suicide, Gajendra’s problems did not end with his sister’s unhappy marriage. This year has been equally hard for him.  “It never used to rain too much earlier. Suddenly, there were heavy rains. The crop stands destroyed,” he says, worry writ large on his face. “I am already under a debt of Rs 2 lakh, plus this failed crop.” He had taken a bank loan for sowing. It failed, prompting him to borrow from the moneylender to re-sow cotton. “The heavy downpour washed away the costly Bt seeds and with them all hope for this year,” says Gajendra.  

When genetically modified varieties were pushed down the throats of farmers, it was said that the yield would jump manifold. Most farmers Hardnews spoke to complained that, with rising inflation, input costs have spiralled. “The situation was not so bad when we were using hybrid seeds. With the advent of Bt, the costs are literally killing us,” says Anju Bai Ghosari, a widow from village Pada, who took to farming after her husband committed suicide. She is a small farmer with a five-acre plot. “On one acre we have to spend Rs 2,000 on fertiliser,” she says. “A 50 kg bag of potash used to cost Rs 280 two years back. Now, it costs Rs 880.”

Even the cost of seeds has risen from Rs 750 per bag to almost Rs 1,000,” says Badri Seth Jeevani. Productivity too has stagnated (see box). “Ballworm was a problem, but this Bt variety has made things worse. There are other pests which are attacking the crop,” explains Tewari.

The government’s policies are no better. It gives a subsidy on fertilisers. but only to manufacturers. “These companies are giving subsidised fertilisers to chemical industries,” says a top agriculture officer of the district. “Even the wholesaler-retailer nexus is so parasitic that farmers are forced to give Rs 100-200 extra for every bag of fertiliser that they purchase.” This is in addition to the high 20-25 per cent interest they charge when farmers take the material on credit, which most farmers do across the region. 

The cost per acre for these largely dry land farmers, who depend entirely on the rain gods, has risen to Rs 15,000 per acre and this doesn’t include the labour put in by the household. This increase defies even the break-even logic; there is no way a farmer can look for profits. “We don’t sow for profits,” says Satish of Pada village. After his father, Aatmaram, committed suicide due to debt, Satish had to leave and take to farming. “I had two sisters who had to be married off,” he says. Satish explains that the second cotton crop usually earns profit. But this year, it has been washed away by heavy rains, leading to the same distress cycle of debt. “This year alone, I have taken Rs 70,000 as loan,” he says.  

In village after village, similar narratives of abject despair cloud the lives of farmers in Vidarbha. “My husband had a three- acre farm. There were no rains and hence no crop. He was already under a debt of Rs 1 lakh,” says Bimla Hatgaonkar of Kongara village. In July 2012, she was washing utensils, when her husband, Ambadad Hatgaonkar, was found frothing at the mouth. She found a packet of rat poison next to his bed. “We rushed him to the hospital, where he was declared dead,” she says. Inside the room where her husband committed suicide, an empty charpoy still stands. Her two sons work as daily wagers.   

‘There have been 7,992 farmer suicides during 2006-2011’

The committee during its study visit in February-March 2012, extensively travelled in rural areas of Vidarbha to have a first-hand assessment of the worst agrarian crisis affecting the region. From what they saw during the study visit, they are in concurrence with the findings of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report. They are also in agreement with the questions raised in the IAASTD report as to whether detected benefits of GMOs will extend to most agro ecosystems or be sustained in the long run as resistance developed to herbicides and insecticides.

…The IAASTD report has also found that neither costs nor benefits are currently perceived to be equally shared, with the poor tending to receive more of the costs than the benefits. Extensive interactions of the committee during their above mentioned visit to Vidarbha proved that this observation of experts in IAASTD report has a sound basis. Due to initial increase in production as a consequence of reduction in yield loss, the simple farmers of the area went in a big way for the cultivation of Bt cotton. However, because of very high input costs, yield loss due to development of resistance in the targeted pests, the local agrarian economy has been shattered within a few years with great losses, mostly to the small and marginal farmers. There have been 7,992 farmer suicides in the region during 2006-2011. In several of them, caused due to agrarian reasons, the indebtedness and a multitude of other problems caused by the sowing of Bt cotton have been a contributory factor. Furthermore, due to the craze for cultivating Bt cotton because of its perceived advantages, the traditional local varieties have been almost wiped out… The committee during their study visit to Vidarbha have seen with their own eyes that while the seed companies have benefited from the transgenic Bt cotton, the poor and hapless farmers have received more of the costs than the benefits…

…The committee acceded to their (villagers) request and visited Bhambraja village in Yavatmal district on March 2, 2012. This village has witnessed 14 cases of suicide by farmers post Bt cotton, i.e. from 2002. They also rubbished the claims of their village being a model village for Bt Cotton as reported (on) August 28, 2011 in the edition of a national daily under the caption ‘Reaping Gold through Bt cotton’ and other articles. Rather than driving the farmers towards prosperity, it was driving them away from agriculture as was evident from lots of land lying fallow…

The committee asked P Sainath, Rural Editor, The Hindu, about the reasons for these suicides… He stated:

“…Suicides are overwhelmingly committed by the cash crop farmers because the risks of cash crops are higher, the expenditure is higher and the prices are more volatile on the global market because cash crop prices are controlled by half-a-dozen multinational corporations in the world. Lastly, the highest number of suicides committed by the cash crop farmers is that of cotton farmers… I think the Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR) has already given a new data… The 2010-2011 data on cotton production in India is same as 2004, which is pre-Bt technology. Seventy-eight per cent of Maharashtra cotton was hybrid. Today, the level of productivity of Bt is back to 2004 levels. It means the decline has begun very steeply… …in Vidarbha more than 95 per cent of the cotton area is under Bt. cotton. Very little of any other variety of cotton is being grown… On 90 lakh acres of land the Maharashtra government expects just 253 quintals of cotton…which comes to 2.83 quintals per acre. So, where is the productivity? They gave an estimate of 410 lakh quintal and brought it down to 350 lakh quintal. Now, last week, they brought it down to 253 lakh quintals… In fact, yield per acre will be much less than 2.81 quintals…”

It is not the productivity that has increased in the last two years but it is the acreage… …Secondly, India’s imports of cotton went up dramatically in the last few years through end-users’ certificates. The Americans are dumping cotton on us because they are subsidising their cotton with billions of dollars… If Bt cotton is so profitable, if Bt cotton is very good, then why must the US give it four billion dollars of subsidy? It is because they cannot beat our farmers and our prices. Our industrialists are using subsidised American cotton for several years (since) the last decade… Why did the government ban export of cotton from India in the last year? It is because there was not enough American cotton and our textile mills wanted to keep the cotton cheap, so they would not give our farmers remunerative price…” 

Excerpts from ‘Cultivation of genetically modified food crops — prospects and effects’, Report by the Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture.

Most farmers, big and small, blame Bt seeds for wreaking havoc in their lives. “There was a time when we would be able to do with two pesticide sprays. The Bt variety needs four. It even requires more fertiliser and a constant supply of water,” says Chavan. And Gajendra points out, “It is impossible to get non Bt varieties in the market now. Such is the monopoly.” 

“There was a time when a quintal of cotton was equivalent to 10 gm of gold,” comments Wamanrao Kasavar, Congress MLA from Wani constituency. Kasavar, perturbed by the unhappy state of farmers in this once golden belt, remembers how cotton from here would feed the mills in Manchester during the British times and how businessman and traders would flock to this place. “Many big industrial houses, including the Tatas and Raymonds, began their operations from this place,” he says. 

Now, tragedy runs deep, in every inner lane and hidden corner. A quintal of cotton fetches only Rs 3,200, compelling many to grow soyabean. Earlier, there used to be some semblance of multi-cropping with people growing multiple food crops alongside cotton. In this Bt era, that is history. In 2000, almost 30 per cent of land had food crops. In 2010, it is a dismal five per cent.

Even in the district headquarters, Yevatmal, the disparity is stark. “The divide is sharply increasing. The rich are getting richer, like these irrigation contractors; the poor don’t even know how they will manage the next day,” says Kasavar, while as his attendant polishes his black leather shoes.

Kasavar seems to be one of those who have made it big after he started his political career as a village sarpanch. He is not the only one. The Dardas, a politically connected family now embroiled in the coalgate scam, and Sandeep Bajoria, an infamous irrigation contractor with a typical rags to riches story, are among these with palatial mansions.

Even after 55 years of Independence, private moneylanding remains the single largest source of credit to small and marginal farmers

Yavatmal district also has a high count of Below Poverty Line (BPL) households. “There is always a drought- like situation in the area. Irrigation schemes have not
taken off despite crores being spent,” says Kasavar.

Ghosari took Hardnews to her small cotton farm to show how she was totally dependent on water which a diesel engine pumps from the well. “This well was constructed due to a government scheme under which they gave Rs 1 lakh for every well,” she says. The total cost, however, came to double that amount and she had to borrow from a moneylender. Unable to buy a diesel pump, she pays a high rent for it and also bears the cost of the expensive diesel. “Only 18 per cent of the water is channelled through irrigation schemes out of which just about 6 per cent reaches farmers,” says Kasavar.

When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited the region on July 1, 2006, after a hue and cry over the plight of cotton farmers, he announced a package of Rs 3,000 crore, followed by another grant of  Rs 70,000 crore. The money was meant to provide better irrigation facilities. However, owing to the power centres and political lobbies in western Maharashtra, most irrigation projects exist only on paper. The money, locals say, was usurped and squandered by vested interests with powerful links.

“A part of the package was intended to provide milch cattle to the farmers. They asked for indigenous breeds but were handed expensive Holstein and Jersey cows which can’t survive in such conditions,” says Tewari.

According to a top district official, “In many villages, local politicians made their relatives and associates beneficiaries in the BPL list. In 2007, when the PM came, every village was sanctioned a certain number of wells. In one village, out of a total of 24, there were 23 allotment requests under one surname while the remaining one was for the servant of that particular family.” 

The district administration claims it is doing its job. “We are speeding up the process of loans. Compensation is being given when there are floods. We are also trying to keep a check on moneylenders,” says RB Deshmukh, Deputy Collector, Yavatmal. “The leaks in the subsidies will be checked. Now, there is a plan to give subsidies directly through Aadhaar cards,” says Taskare, District Agriculture Officer.

Do their promises sound shallow? Do politicians here, in Mumbai or in Delhi, across the political spectrum, even feel an iota of pain for the trapped farmers of Vidarbha? Inside this abyss and this heart of darkness, the epicentre is flooded with thousands of tales of despair and tragedy. And the cold-blooded truth is, there seems no end to this documentary of death and dying. Suicides are only a symbolic pointer

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