Farm suicides in Vidarbha since November 1 have crossed the 100 mark. There have been 200 since June 2. But the last 100 have occurred in less than two months. A little more than 65 farmers have taken their own lives in December alone. The total for the year is over 300. This month, the Maharashtra Government admitted to over 1,000 farmer's suicides in the State since 2001.
"The numbers are mounting," says Kishore Tiwari of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti. "Efforts to stop them are failing." The `Register of Deaths' the Andolan maintains in Yavatmal district is flowing over. Even this register is based mainly on newspaper reports. Which means deaths that have gone unreported do not make it to the tally.
"Note that the rise in suicides has followed the fall in cotton price," points out Vijay Jawandia, Vidarbha's leading farm activist. "This is no surprise. The government's so-called `relief package' of Rs.1,045 crore for the farmer has not had the slightest impact on the trend."
Minister's suicide bid
It is three weeks since the Maharashtra Government announced its package in the Assembly session at Nagpur. That came after the former Minister, Gulabrao Gawande's attempted suicide on the floor of the House in a bid to highlight the farm crisis. His action shocked the State and he was tossed out of the Assembly for the rest of the session. But the session was wound up weeks earlier than it should have been. So this didn't mean much.
However, little is now heard of the "Rs.1045 crore package." That, says Mr. Jawandia, is because "there is no package. It's mostly farmers' money. Plus, money from existing schemes. They have in fact taken away much more from the farmer than they have given to him."
The advance bonus of Rs.550 normally paid to cotton growers has been scrapped this year. This amount used to be added on to the minimum support price set by the Centre. Without it, the cotton price per quintal falls from Rs.2250 to Rs.1700 roughly - that is, to the level of the Centre's minimum support price (MSP).
"Scrapping the advance bonus means a loss of Rs.1,100 crore to the farmer," points out Mr. Jawandia. "And that isn't the only problem." Over a third of the package is simply the farmer's own money. That is, some Rs.370 crore have come from what is known as the `capital formation fund' of the Cotton Federation. That body normally deducts three per cent of the MSP given to farmers for that fund.
This money, anyway their own, is to now be returned to the farmers. Yet, that now makes things harder for both. Without that sum in its kitty, it becomes far tougher for the Federation to raise loans from the banks. That in turn affects the farmers from whom it will have to purchase less. Cotton growers are thus pushed into selling to private traders at prices as low as Rs.1500 a quintal. This now fuels farmer anger with a government that came to power promising them Rs.2700 a quintal.
Farm activists also protest what they see as a lot of `fake accounting.' An official from the agriculture department of one of the troubled districts told The Hindu : "A lot of the `package' money is from other schemes already in place. There's too much juggling. Soil conservation, watershed, other allied activities, all are now mixed up in this package." The much-touted waiver of interest on loans comes to just Rs.61 crore.
Perhaps the one new element of the package is the State's decision to arrange for the marriages of farmers' daughters in the six districts seeing the most suicides. It has set aside Rs.1 crore per district for this purpose. "This amounts to telling the farmer we'll look after you when you're dead," says Kishore Tiwari. "You go ahead with your suicide. We'll get your daughter married."
Some communities have proved more innovative than the government. Like in Dorli village in Wardha district. Farmers here simply put up signs announcing their whole village was for sale. As gram panchayat members told journalists: "We await a customer. Let's sell the village, pay our dues and move out. That's better than suicide."
For Dorli, that's worked a bit. The Member of Parliament for the region, Datta Meghe, quickly announced Rs.10 lakh for schemes in the village from his MPLADS fund. Elsewhere, despair overrides such drama. Debt-driven farm suicides are now on in rich Western Maharashtra, too. Even wealthy Baramati has not escaped them. The Government's response has been to crack down on private moneylenders. Over 500 sahucars have been booked in Vidarbha since the drive against them began a month ago.
In itself a welcome action, it has misfired for two reasons. The banks still do not give loans to farmers. And secondly, the new sahucars, that is, the input dealers and others, are left untouched. With the small village sahucars on the run, there is now no source of credit at all for many.
"None of the real issues have been touched," says Mr. Jawandia. "Not the burning problem of price. Not credit. Not the headache of mounting imports. Nor the damage that BT cotton is doing, pushing so many farmers over the edge. The package is not even about shifting money from one pocket to another. It's about stealing from both pockets. Now, with the changes in the marketing rules, private traders rule the roost. The middlemen have become the top men."
Meanwhile, the deaths continue. Maharashtra began by telling the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) that there had been 140 suicides Statewide since 2001. It ended 2005 conceding a figure of 1,041. That is the fourth figure the same State has put out within months.
For Vidarbha, it is decidedly not a happy new year.