Tuesday, March 11, 2008

vidarbha farmers suicide till continue

Vol:25 Iss:06 URL: http://www.flonnet.com/fl2506/stories/20080328250601800.htm


Outside the relief net


In Vidarbha, many farmers will not benefit from the waiver because they possess over two hectares of land. Above, Durpata Bhalerao Ataram, whose husband committed suicide in 2007.

DURPATA BHALERAO ATARAM’S land is no longer an asset. It seems like a burden. She has 10 acres of it, but no money to grow a crop.

“I’m fed up. After investing so much money and effort on the land, we barely get enough to eat. Next year, I am going to lease it out and work as a farm labourer,” says Durpata, a widow from Burgavan village in Yavatmal district in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. Durpata’s husband killed himself last year. Now, her two young sons help her with the farm.

“There was no rain when he sowed the crop the first time, so he had to sow twice. The expenses were high. The tension was too much for him. He had borrowed Rs.40,000 from the moneylender to get our daughter married, and Rs.50,000 from the bank for the farm,” says Durpata. She is not going to benefit from the farm-loan waiver announced as part of the Union Budget. Finance Minister P. Chidambaram announced that four crore farmers would have their loans worth Rs.60,000 crore waived.

The waiver is only for farmers who own less than two hectares of land. Many widows and poor farmers such as Durpata have been excluded from the waiver in Vidarbha, which has the highest rate of farmers’ suicides in the country. On the day Chidambaram made the announcement, 10 farmers in Vidarbha committed suicide. In this largely cotton-growing region, 1,242 cases of suicide were reported last year – that is, three every day.

“Only around 35 per cent of the farmers here have land below two hectares. Of them, we don’t yet know the number that will be eligible for loan waiver. Very few farmers in Vidarbha will actually benefit,” says P.B. Ghatode, Assistant Manager at Central Bank of India, Mohada, in Yavatmal, which has given loans to 1,500 farmers in 26 villages.

Undivided landholdings

“Mostly, the big landholders will benefit. They have already divided their landholdings amongst the brothers. The poorer farmers have not. Our seven or 10 acres may seem bigger on paper. But actually it is divided between many sons,” said Mangalabai Prabhakar Mokhadkar, whose husband committed suicide in 1998.

“You cannot treat the farmers with irrigated land in Punjab or western Maharashtra on a par with the dryland peasants of Andhra Pradesh and Vidarbha. In western Maharashtra, the landholdings are much smaller, but they get more than two crops because they have irrigation, and they also get bigger loans,” says Kishor Tiwari, leader of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, which has been campaigning for farmers in the region. The crop loan for sugarcane is Rs.15,000 an acre and for grapes it is Rs.80,000 an acre as compared to Rs.4,000-5,000 for cotton. “[Union] Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar’s stronghold in prosperous western Maharashtra will benefit, not the farmers in Vidarbha who are in a crisis,” says Tiwari.

Vidarbha and Marathwada are the poorest regions of Maharashtra. Since the black soil of Vidarbha is perfect for cotton cultivation, the region prospered during British rule and until the 1970s because of the textile mills. The orange orchards of Nagpur also helped. But Vidarbha’s fortunes declined when the textile industry collapsed. The government did not invest in rural infrastructure such as irrigation to fill in this gap.

The Maratha lobby that rules the State gave priority to its constituencies in western Maharashtra (considered “drought-prone”), and used State money to build their fiefdoms as sugar barons. Ironically, the water-intensive sugarcane crop is now grown in a drought-prone area. Profits for the sugar barons, rather than sustainable agriculture were the driving force. Over decades, the regional disparities have only grown wider, and Vidarbha is now India’s suicide zone while western Maharashtra is kept alive with huge doses of subsidies.

Dorli village in Wardha district was one of the first to announce that the village was up for sale, as a form of protest against the farm crisis that has reduced most farmers to penury. “Here, only 13 out of 40 farmers have less than two hectares, and of these, we don’t know how many have defaulted on loans before the cut-off date of March 31, 2007. The number will be even lower,” says Vijay Jawandhia, president of the Kisan Coordination Committee, a coalition of farmers’ organisations across the country.

In Adivasi villages of Yavatmal, several farmers have more than two hectares of land but live in dire poverty, paying interest to moneylenders from Andhra Pradesh at 50 per cent per annum.

‘Modify waiver conditions’

“Instead of using land area as a cut-off point, we recommend that the government waive loans up to Rs.50,000 for all farmers, so that those who are really in need will get some relief,” says Jawandhia. Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh agreed with this suggestion at a public meeting in his constituency of Latur in Marathwada. Union Minister for Panchayat Raj, Youth Welfare and Sports, Mani Shankar Aiyar, also visited Vidarbha. Farmers hope that he will convince the government to modify the loan waiver conditions after seeing the ground realities.

There are 18 lakh farm households in the six crisis-affected districts of Vidarbha. The average landholding here is 7.5 acres. The State government has been publishing huge advertisements in the newspapers claiming that 33 lakh farmers will receive loan waivers worth Rs.9,310 crore. However, it is uncertain how much of that pie will come to Vidarbha.

Seventy-two-year-old Ramdas Udhav Kera, a small Adivasi farmer from Vadki village in Yavatmal, has three acres of land. He will not get a loan waiver. Ramdas borrowed Rs.10,000 from big landowners to pay off his bank loan in time, so that he would not be listed as a defaulter. Then, he took a fresh bank loan of Rs.30,000 during the sowing season in June 2007. That loan will not be written off, as it was taken after the cut-off date.

“I made a loss of Rs.5,000. There’s no money to eat. Who will give work to an old man? Now even the sahukars (moneylenders) have stopped lending,” says Ramdas. “Those who are regular and honest are being punished and those who didn’t pay in time are being rewarded.”

Soon after announcing the loan waiver, Pawar and State Home Minister R.R. Patil urged people not to pay back moneylenders. Patil went as far as to say that moneylenders should be “skinned alive”. A few years ago, Patil had launched a campaign against moneylenders during which several of them were arrested and some were attacked in villages. Since then moneylenders have become cagey. “The bank loan is not enough to cover all farm costs. So people have no choice but to go to the moneylender,” says Ramdas. The loan waiver is a political stunt aimed at the upcoming elections. Unless the real problems with the agricultural policy are tackled, farmers will be unable to pay back their new loans.

Unsustainable farming

With prices remaining low and the costs mounting, farming is no longer sustainable. “Just give us a fair price for our harvest and we won’t need any relief or loan waivers from the government,” says Mansoor Khorasi, a small farmer from Mohada. “Since 1990, the input cost has risen by 300 per cent but the price of cotton has remained the same. What else can you expect but bankruptcy? A loan waiver is just a dose of oxygen. To make us stand, they should give us a proper price, irrigation and other facilities such as health and education.”

“Every year it’s the same story. After we have sold our harvest, the price rises. There should be some price stability, so that farmers are assured a fair price,” says Jawandhia. “The government keeps the prices of farm products artificially low. The international market price of wheat is Rs.3,000 a tonne, but in India the farmers get only Rs.1,100. Why can’t farmers benefit from the free market? To keep food cheap, why are they making the food producers poor?”

Ramdas laments: “The Prime Minister’s promise is like that of a magician at a fair who keeps telling us a snake is going to appear from the basket, and we keep waiting and waiting, but it never appears.” The Prime Minister and several other Ministers have come and gone but Vidarbha is still waiting for the magic trick.

Dionne Bunsha in Yavatmal

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