Wardha: There’s no way Samadhan Parshuram Pawar would know Hamlet. But the 46-year-old marginal cotton peasant is staring at the same existential question: “To be or not to be.”

Standing in the middle of his forlorn cotton fields in Amgaon village in Maharashtra's suicide-torn Wardha district, the 3-acre farmer says: “'I’d better be dead.” His thoughts oscillating between existence and non-existence in a region that is notorious for continuing peasant-farmers’ suicides, he says: “I am not earning back my input costs.”

Pawar is naturally nervous. His cotton plants wilted early. The soil was devoid of moisture and nutrition. The yield is dismal: About five quintals. He spent Rs 60,000 on three acres, planting a Bt-cotton variety that promised to increase his productivity. It didn't. "My production cost however increased by several times," he says.

Leave aside income, Pawar says his losses this year hover around Rs 40-45,000. His immediate worry is how to repay the loans. There seems no way out. “It’s a high-anxiety period for us,” he says'. “I’m dead,” he frequently reiterates, his muse reflective of the region’s dark reality of the ongoing farmers’ suicides

Pawar – belonging to abackward nomadic tribe unlike the other politically strong Maratha community that union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar represents – is also seized of another thought: How to survive one full year? That is until the next harvest season.

Two things, Samadhan Parshuram Pawar says, go up: input prices and cost of living. The income, however, never does. “And I don’t need to tell you,” he says, “When you are in debt and you are not making profit, you can'’t sleep.”

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It’s a question nearly 70 per cent of Ind''a’s peasants ask themselves this time every year. Pawar typies rain-dependent farme. Half of India's total population are small and marginal farmers (with holding of less than 5 acres): poor; indebted; in distress for long; and as several studies point out, the newly hungry.

Among the farmers killing themselves in Vidarbha a majority are those without irrigation. You moved from Wardha to Vidharbha. Bringin in a connecting line.

Take for instance, the case of 38-year-old Umesh Bhoyar. Samadhan Pawar’s muse "– “I am d"ead” – was Bhoyar’s destiny in Aamla village in the same district in Vidarbha, the cotton growing eastern region of Maharashtra. In November last, Umesh’s body was found floating in a well of a nearby farm. Two years ago it was his elder brother who committed suicide. Eight months ago, his ailing father – who once employed 20 people on the farm – died for the want of medical aid.

The only one left in the family to till his 16-acre rain-dependent farm, Umesh was sleepless over the puny yields he had picked through the week before his death: All of five quintals of cotton; six quintals of soyabean. What should be an average yield from an acre of land was the output from his entire farm. Umesh knew it would be difficult for him to repay his mounting debts: Rs 2 lakh of formal and informal loans this year.

Bad debts and poor crops only not only accentuated Umesh'’s farming costs (rising seed, labour, fertilizer and fuel costs), but also aggravated his family woes: a failed marriage, inability to repair his once-palatial house, pay for his parents’ healthcare, and repay the money borrowed from his close relations.

Pawar'’s woes are no different, but he’s trying to carry on.

Like that of Umesh, his problems too, – from choice of the crop to sagging incomes – are rooted in a risky and under-invested one-crop rain-fed farming that makes up for 60 per cent of India'’s agriculture, data of the union agriculture ministry’s shows.

While the country is debating opening FDI in the retail sector, skeptics wonder how rain-fed areas would benefit from the move. Trends so far suggest local retail companies have tie-ups with farmers only in the regions with protective irrigation because it opens up choices of crops round the year.

In his case, Pawar'’s only solace is that his two sons work on a daily wages at a nearby industrial unit to bring home little money t keep the firewood in the kitchen burning. Like most youth in the countryside his sons too don'’t want to farm. With inflation and ever-rising foo prices, the going is getting tougher. Nearly 1.2 billion of the 1.6 billion hectares, or a staggering 80 per cent, of the total cultivated land the world over is rain-fed, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says in its latest report. The rain-fed farms, the report says, are crucial to fighting poverty, hunger, and increasing the food grain production.

Of India'’s net cultivated area of 141 million hectares, 85 million – or nearly 60 per cent – is dependent on rain. Farmers therefore are able to take only kharif crop. The remaining area is not entirely irrigated, but has potential to get it. In regions like central India, small rain-fed farms amount to 70-90 per cent of total cultivated land. By agriculture ministry'’s estimate, rain dependence affects 55 million land holdings. These are out-migration areas, from where people go out seasonally to work in urban areas.

So Samadhan Pawar’s farm is the country’s future.

For, as Indian farms rapidly fragment, trends suggest that his tribe would soon be 80 per cent of the peasantry, grappling with credit crunch, declining yields, limited choices of crops, lack of market access, and abysmal income. Yet it is these small rain-fed farms, according to the agriculture ministry data, that contribute 44 per cent of agriculture production today, produces 85-95 per cent of cereals, 85 per cent of pulses, 80 per cent of oilseeds, and nearly 45 per cent rice against the financial and natural odds.

“The ascending GDP of the country ca'n’t be sustained till we realize the full potential of the agriculture sector, boost the incomes of farmers, especially those dependent on rain-fed-area farming,” President Pratibha Patil said recently. It’s time for another green revolution, she said, but, “unlike the 1970s, this one can’t be confined to the irrigated areas only.” The rain-fed areas have to become 'the cradle for a second green revolution'. She suggested an industry-farmer pertnership. A committee of governors in partnership with the National Rain-fed Area Authority is looking into the possible solutions.

“We earn once a year and that money too is not fixed,” says Sudam Pawar, Pawar’s young nephew. “In an era when non-farming populations make money periodically, it is absurd that we earn once a year.”

Adds Pawar: Over the last 40 years, he has successively lost all his assets: from livestock to jewelry. It had to be either sold or mortgaged; sometime he would reclaim it to re-mortgage again.

Sudam, who heads a farmers’ rights movement in Wardha, wonders how the rain-fed peasants like him could earn good returns and increase the periodicity of income. Vidarbha’s average cotton yields are 2-3 quintals per acre – something that Pawar reaps, because 97 per cent of its cotton acreage is rain-fed. Productivity in Gujarat or Punjab is multiple times, given the irrigation facilities. The difference of yield between a rain-fed one acre and an irrigated one could be anything between 6 and 12 quintals. In money terms: Rs 24000-48000 an acre on current prices.

“If you map India economically, you might paint the entire rain-fed area black and some shining stars that resemble our cities,” says Vijay Jawandhia, a farmers’ leader in Wardha. “It’s time our policy makers address rain-fed farming.” He says ideas like ‘FDI in retail'’ aren’t the solution to structural problems in the sector, including the issue of pricing. “If the government wants to bring FDI in retail, let it take that decision, but please don'’t use farmers as the pretext,” he says. “Multi-brand retail is the need of Super India, it won’t ease or address the agrarian crisis – particularly of the rain-fed agriculture,” he believes.

For, even if we harness our water resources and achieve full irrigation potential, more than half the country’s fields would still go un-irrigated. The government acknowledges the problem, but hasn’t been forthcoming in addressing it. Last December, Maharashtra government acknowledged rain-fed farming as a major hurdle in the progress and constituted a committee to look into the issue and suggest short and long term measures. This new study comes after over a dozen studies in the last ten years.

Meanwhile, Pawar is slowly falling off the basket. He has little or no access to subsidies – that go to the irrigated farmer with access to canal irrigation. The banks’ scale of crop finance to a rain-fed farmer like him stands dwarfed even before the scale of finance to a class IV government employee. Pawar has little shield against an uncertain climate and fluctuating market. His liquidity crunch is unprecedented. “If someone from my family falls sick,” Pawar says, “I won’t be able to spend a dime.”

It’s like a déjà vu, Pawar says. Year after every year, the same cycle repeats itself to confront him. In a good year, he barely clocks in Rs 10,000. In a bad year, like this one, the losses could be staggering. The allied income from dairy or horticulture is non-existent. Which makes his dependence on farm absolute. As he sums it up: “I can’t remember one good year in the last two decades when I’ve been able to smile.” Safe to say, his experience speaks up more or less for the rest of his tribe as well.

First, comes, the dilemma: “What should I sow?” This year, like most of his villagers, he opted for cotton, thinking that the prices of the natural fibre last year were better than of soybean’s.

Then begins the game to secure the credit: For two years he’s been unable to repay his bank loans – the unpaid debt stands around Rs 50,000. With banks refusing to lend him a crop loan, he had to turn to his relations and acquaintances (call them private moneylenders) to raise the necessary hand loan. Anxiety over rains is the next: This year rains delayed their arrival. Later the showers came in bursts and damaged much of his crop. A long dry spell continued to hurt the plants’ growth.

Finally comes, the price volatility. Cotton prices shattering his predictions fell this season. The gamble, Pawar says, hasn’t paid off. It never does, because of “poor rains, or bad yields, or fluctuating prices.”

Tattering finances have turned Pawar so vulnerable that a small natural vagary or a pest attack on farm or volatile markets leaves him steep in debt and distress. “If monsoon is good in a year markets play a truant; if markets look steady there’s no guarantee of good rains – there’s no end to this cycle.”

Two things, Pawar says, go up: input prices and cost of living. The income, however, never does. “And I don’t need to tell you,” he says, “When you are in debt and you are not making profit, you can’t sleep.”