Tuesday, November 6, 2007

farmers in Gujarat state are going the Vidarbha way.

Farmer suicides on rise in western India
With successive crop failure, increasing debts and no aid from the government,
farmers in Gujarat state are going the Vidarbha way.

Ramesh Bhai Mangalpura, a 45-year-old farmer of Sarabgardad village in Rajkot district killed himself in August last year.

In 2004 floods destroyed his crops. In 2005 Ramesh lost his groundnuts due to lack of rain. And in 2006 fungal infection wiped out any hope of a good harvest.

After an investment of over Rs 55,000 in fertilisers, pesticides and irrigation, Ramesh yielded nothing.

"His heart sank when he saw black fungal infected flowers on Jeeru shrubs. He said: 'All my hard work has gone down the drain, what I will do now, who will give me a fresh loan?" says Prabha Bhen, 40-year-old widow of Ramesh.

"One night he refused to have his meal, the next morning he committed suicide."

Every year farmers have to repay bank debts in March, or they are denied new loans. Plus, rates of interest on previous loans go up.

Ramesh had taken loans from his relatives, the local self-help group and the government bank. He had defaulted on payments and felt he needed money for his daughter's marriage.

Ramesh owned a small plot of 2.5 acres and had rented another 4 acres for Rs 20,000 to try to meet the family's basic needs. But produce from all his land was almost zilch.

Seeing no way out Ramesh Bhai Mangalpura consumed pesticide.

Tough times

Farmer suicides are a growing crisis in Gujarat.

For three consecutive years farmers say they have been battling not only natural disasters but also state apathy to their plight.

"The authorities release waters from dams every year, and that leads to floods. Cost of seeds, fertilisers, irrigation and labour have gone up while subsidies are being cut. And we do not get due rates for our yield," says Partibhaben whose husband had also committed suicide in 2006.

Occupation of loss

Farmers are finding it difficult to survive on agriculture.

Their woes are captured well in the local idiom which says, "kheti etley khotno dhandho (farming is an occupation of loss)."

Farmers taking own lives

Reasons ranging from financial debts and failed crop to illness and jilted relationships have been cited by the state Director General of Police (DGP).

Local activist Bharatsinh Jhala has used the Right to Information (RTI) Act to get details from the state police on farmers' suicides and deaths and also compensation from the state agriculture department. Jhala is part of an ActionAid fellowship scheme for emerging community leaders tackling poverty.

"I am myself a farmer. Farmer suicides are an emotional issue for me. A suicide committed by a farmer in a neighbouring village touched me to the core," says Jhala.

It was then he decided to invoke the RTI. "I wanted to bring out the contrast between the state government's claims of a 'Vibrant Gujarat' and the actual situation of its farmers."

According to the agriculture department, compensation has been given to 1,909 families. That means 4,146 families have not been compensated for their loss, says Jhala.

Newspaper reports say that over half of the 6,055 claims for compensation have been rejected.

According to Jhala, only 20 per cent of the claims have been honoured. "The state government has been paying a premium for farmers' insurance, but one wonders why only a few claimants receive payouts,'' he adds.

Rightfully ours

Activists and widows of deceased farmers recently met with National Human Rights Commission chairman S Rajendra Babu, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, and officials at the Planning Commission and Prime Minister's Office to press for immediate assistance to debt-ridden families.

"We are asking the government to provide compensation for losses over the last three years, which have driven families to desperation," adds Pratibhaben.

Government also needs to support farmers in restoring land affected by floods.

Farmers are also calling for government to immediately waiver outstanding loans.

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