Saturday, November 17, 2007

VIDARBHA: FARMERS' SUICIDES-Zero Act Furrow -Pundits aver. Governments tarry. And hopeless death stalks Vidarbha-Smruti Koppikar-out look

Zero Act Furrow
Pundits aver. Governments tarry. And hopeless death stalks Vidarbha.
Smruti Koppikar

The children of a Vidarbha farmer who killed himself
Case Shelved
  • Seven committees have already investigated Vidarbha farmer suicides. Their similar suggestions have been ignored by the Maharashtra government
  • An eighth committee has been appointed. Farmer suicides have already crossed 900 this year
  • Insurance net for farmers, compensation and measures to fight the agrarian crisis were suggested
  • The state instead announced a relief package of Rs 1,000 crore; the PM's relief fund chipped in with Rs 3,750 crore. But these proved futile.


To the distraught family of Kisan Jadhav in Vidarbha's Yavatmal district, Dr Narendra Jadhav's name rings no bell. The former was the 998th farmer to commit suicide in the six crisis districts of Maharashtra, where the incidence of debt-burdened farmers taking their lives touched a macabre new high till October. Last year's figures were 1,520. For Dr Narendra Jadhav, former chief economist of the Reserve Bank of India, presently vice-chancellor of Pune university, the appointment to study the continued incidence of farmers' suicides is a delicate one. He has to explain to Mahrashtra CM Vilasrao Deshmukh and his government the reasons behind the suicides, despite the simultaneous 18-month implementation of a Rs 1,000-crore relief package of its own, as well as the Rs 3,750 crore prime minister's package. When the packages were at work through 2006, suicide cases surged by 490 to reach the 1,520 high.

If study panels and committees could stop the dance of death in Vidarbha, another one would be welcome. The Deshmukh government has as many as seven committee reports and recommendations going on the subject, including the comprehensive mega-study conducted last year by its own bureaucrat, divisional commissioner S.K. Goel, which was aided by 10,000 field workers. When Dr Jadhav's report is ready in a couple of months, it will be the eighth one in about four years. The phenomenon of farmer suicides as a stark symptom of the deeper agrarian crises in Vidarbha has only worsened in this time.

"This Congress-NCP government is only buying time with another study panel," remarks bjp's Nitin Gadkari, leader of opposition in the state legislature. Nagpur-based activist Kishor Tiwari of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS) asks, "What's the use of setting up more committees when the state government is not even half serious about implementing any of the earlier recommendations? What's the point if the government is blind to the agrarian crisis itself." The VJAS has collected detailed records of farmers' suicides in Vidarbha since 2001. The likes of Tiwari may be forgiven their cynicism, such informally maintained data may be scoffed at, but the trends are confirmed by scientific studies. "Doesn't the CM know enough and more about the subject? Why doesn't he do something?" Tiwari asks.

An impressive list of institutions have examined the issue in depth and submitted reports since 2004. The Bombay High Court first asked for a substantive and scientific report in response to a pil and selected the venerable Tata Institute of Social Sciences for the task. The tiss report of 2005 listed causes of suicides: repeated crop failure, inability to meet the rising cost of cultivation, continuing indebtedness resulting from flawed agrarian and credit policies and emphasised that suicide was an extreme step. The report recommended compensation to affected families, an insurance net for farmers, an information system because small and marginal farmers used hybrid and Bt cotton seeds without understanding the higher input costs, and a overhaul of the Centre's agrarian policy.

The other committees marginally differed on such points as the computation of ground-level data on numbers of suicides, but stayed the course on two important fronts.
Firstly, they arrived at largely identical causes for farmers' suicides and agreed on Vidarbha's dismal ground scenario. They also concluded that both the state and central governments must intervene with short-term and long-term measures to rehabilitate not only the affected families but the agrarian community. As many of them pointed out, suicides are invariably linked to cash crop―cotton and soyabean―price volatility in the international market, which put Indian farmers at a disadvantage, because nations like the US heavily subsidised its cotton growers.

The comprehensive Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (IGIDR) study report was submitted to the Deshmukh government in June 2006. In between, the National Commission on Farmers, chaired by India's foremost agriculture scientist MS Swaminathan, examined the issue in 2005 in the same six crisis-ridden Vidarbha districts and arrived at the same conclusions. Its recommendations should have been shown some respect. Instead, the state government set up four sub-committees to see how they could be implemented. That process is still underway. Also in 2006, a report from a Planning Commission study panel drew similar conclusions and made nearly the same suggestions.

Meanwhile, the CM and PM's relief packages were announced, but couldn't stem the flow of suicides. Perhaps to blunt the criticism, the government asked its Pune-based social and development studies and training institute yashada to present a report. Understandably, the report sought to soften the issue, but even so, the study team reached similar conclusions as the earlier ones. It's recommendations too went into the cold storage. Simultaneously, the Pune-based Gokhale Institute of Development Studies was pressed into service. It's findings did not differ from the tiss or the IGIDR reports.

The study by Goel is perhaps the most comprehensive. It examined over 17.5 lakh families in 8,500 villages of the six affected districts employing over 10,000 field workers. The conclusions: more than a fourth (nearly two million people) were "under maximum distress" and three-quarters of the rest were "under medium distress". The paper also confirms indebtedness as a factor in 93 per cent of farm suicides. Goel has since been transferred.

Into this minefield now walks Dr Jadhav. "I won't repeat any of the earlier work. My focus is to study why the suicides continue in spite of the two relief packages, evaluate them and make recommendations. It will be a historic study," he says. The six sets of people he wants to consult―bureaucrats, experts, planning commission officials, bankers, ngos and political organisations in Vidarbha―does not include the impoverished and indebted farmers. Even so, his recommendations may occupy yet another shelf in the CM's office.

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