Shamrao Khatale died just a day before the National Commission on Farmers team arrived at his house in Ashti. A cavalcade of cars cruised into this Wardha village to meet his wife - but she has lost her sanity. Just like one of her sons did last year. Another son, Prabhakar, committed suicide in 2004. Shamrao's wife is yet to grasp that her husband is dead. She has withdrawn into a private world where none of this has happened. Those who can speak are her daughter Ganga, unmarried at 31 because of the family's bankruptcy during the farm crisis. And yet another son who has returned jobless from Amravati.

Shamrao and his wife, both quite ill, stopped taking medicines for a year. "Who can afford doctors?" Shamrao had asked me in June. "Not us. It's all too costly. And how do we buy medicines?" (See: Health as someone else's wealth, The Hindu, July 1, 2005.) Not different from 21 per cent of all Indians who have stopped seeking medical aid because they cannot afford it. And Prabhakar who took his own life was not much different from hundreds of farmers who have done the same in crisis-ridden Vidharbha.

HE WAITED IN VAIN: Shamrao Khatale died because he had not taken medicines for a year. He could not afford them. Also in the picture is his unmarried daughter Ganga, 31. The household captures many of the classic features of Vidharbha's agrarian crisis. (Picture by P Sainath).

But Shamrao's house was special. Quite a few political leaders of some fame had visited in the past year. Among them, Narayan Rane, Pramod Mahajan, Uddhav Thackeray, Gopinath Munde, and Nitin Gadkari. As one of the neighbours asked: "If all these netas could not save this one man, imagine the fate of the thousands of Vidharbha farmers visited by nobody." Oddly, Shamrao's family could be said to have received better treatment than the others.

No compensation paid

Under the fraudulent rules by which a suicide is deemed to be a "farmer's suicide," no compensation was due to him for Prabhakar's death in 2004. The family's six acres were in Shamrao's name. Which lets the Government say Prabhakar was not a farmer - where's the land in his name? However, Sonia Gandhi's trip to Vidharbha at that time ensured the family got Rs.1 lakh. Of this, Rs.30,000 came in cash and vanished in debt payments. The rest went into a fixed deposit that gave them less than Rs.450 a month in interest. On this, four persons lived till Shamrao's death last week. Every paisa went for food. Medicines were out of the question.

The news of his death did not put the NCF team members off their visit. They went anyway. For this was a household capturing many facets of the farmers' crisis under one roof. Soaring debt. Farming wrecked by high input costs and low output prices. No access to bank loans. Dependence on money-lenders. An unmarried daughter. Hit by rising prices on all fronts, including health. In short, destroyed by the predatory commercialisation of the countryside.

Even as the team drove into Ashti, locals pointed out that there had been three farmers' deaths in the same lane. The Sakaal correspondent here says the total for the block is eight. The surviving son of one of these, Amol Digambar, met NCF chairman M.S. Swaminathan, who led the team to Vidharbha for a three-day fact-finding visit.

The only visit to a suicide-hit household that the Government set up for the team came the next day. The dead farmer had seven acres. And his widow is back in her father's place. Which is where the team met her. Between them, members of her father's family own hundreds of acres. So, of countless affected families in Vidharbha, this was probably chosen because the house seemed in such fine shape. (Yet, as her uncle, a large landowner, told me, "even for us this is a period of big risk.")

Bandargaon in Yavatmal gave the team a taste of how poor Adivasi farmers in Vidharbha live. That the first few houses at the village's entrance had been hastily painted that morning for the team's visit made the contrasts starker. The painted houses seemed alien in a miserable village cloaked in near total darkness. Few here have used electricity in a long time. The main source of illumination for the meeting was the bracket light of a video camera with the journalists present. Being the only glow in a large area, it drew swarms of moths and insects that the visitors sat picking out of their faces and shirts.

"I can't let my daughters go to school," said Yashoda, whose husband Ratilal Rathor committed suicide in August. There is no school going beyond the 4th standard within access. And her very young girls are both working for Rs.20 a day - when they get work. Together with the Rs.30 Yashoda gets for the same labour, that is the money which keeps the household going. Rathor had killed himself, distraught over crop failure, falling income and rising debt.

The excitement over Bt cotton is pretty much punctured. But the deed is done. For months it was vigorously promoted by Ministers, (hired) film stars, officials, and even sections of the media.

Also, brands banned in Andhra Pradesh are freely available here. So lots of farmers have invested in it at huge cost. The very farmers held up as its success stories are in deep trouble now. For many banking on it, a disaster seems in the offing.

The collapse of rural credit, soaring input costs and falling output prices were themes greeting the NCF team everywhere. "Don't measure progress in terms of production in tonnes," urged Dr. Swaminathan. "Measure it in the rate of growth of farmers' incomes." By which yardstick, much of Vidharbha is a disaster zone.

In Nagpur, the NCF team, of Y.C. Nanda, Atul Sinha, and Dr. Swaminathan called for control to be exercised "over racketeering in trade and distress." They also urged the Government to intervene "far more strongly in this sector." They termed the crisis as one calling for urgent measures to ensure the farmers a better price, easier credit and higher income.

Farm community exhausted

Vidharbha's farm community stands exhausted. There has been a suicide by a farmer every 12 hours while the team was in the region. There have been many more since they left. The toll has been mounting since June. There were 29 reported since just September 26 and the pace has quickened this month. Diwali is going much the way the Ganesh Utsav did. It has brought little or no celebration to the villages. None at all to the house of Shamrao Khatale.