Zari Jamni, Yavatmal: Venkanna Ramayya Rayee was escaping distress in Andhra Pradesh, his native state. He couldn't escape it in Vidarbha, a distant land.

So, when the 21-year-old chilly farmer, originally from Guntur, suffered staggering losses last year and stared at a certain disaster this year too, he swallowed pesticide in his cramped hut at his farm on February 2.

Red and Hot: Venkanna Ramayya Rayee, a chilly farmer from Guntur, in Andhra Pradesh was farming leased land in Yavatmal's Mucchi village in Zari Jamni block, Maharashtra. In the red and under huge debts, he committed suicide to end unending penury.

Venkanna's became an unusual suicide in the cotton belt of Vidarbha, a land where over a thousand farmers have taken their own lives in last the four years out of debt, losses and unabated distress.

In Maharashtra, Venkanna's name won't figure as an entry in the suicide ledger, and neither will it in Andhra. His suicide would go down unnoticed as a death in the alien land. As the agrarian distress threatens to engulf crops other than cotton in not just this region but other states too, the young farmer could not escape the fury. It was just a matter of time.

"He suffered staggering losses," says Yellamanda Kotaiyya Bellam, an old farmer and distant relative of Venkanna. As did the tens of other chilly growers who farm the land taken on lease from local cotton farmers.

But Venkanna could not have recovered the production cost from the yield even this year, which was the cause of his tension, says Narayana, a relative, who farms the plot next to that of the Venkanna's in Mucchi village, 40 km south of Pandharkawda in Yavatmal. Chilly prices have dipped to an all time low today, even as the inputs prices skyrocketed.

Venkanna's risks were manifold – the crop was his but the farm was not. And with no insurance cover, there was nothing to fall back upon once the crop suffered irreparable damage.

Series by Jaideep Hardikar

Tens of Andhra farmers lease agriculture land from cultivators in Vidarbha every year, a trend that picked up in the mid-nineties when Telangana was devastated by successive droughts and policies belting the peasants. Venkanna cultivated about nine acres of land at a lease rate of Rs.4500 per acre. Which means, he paid Rs.40,500 on lease alone. Add to that the per-acre production cost of Rs.35,000, plus the transportation costs post-harvest. The largest component of the production cost is seeds, chemicals, and electricity, constituting nearly 40-50%.

"This year chilly prices stand at Rs.2500 a quintal down from Rs.5000 at least in 2002-03," mumbles Narayana, worry writ large on his face. The price drop has been caused by a bumper crop and price rigging by market players at Nagpur, the main hub for chilly. There is no minimum support price (MSP) for chilly currently, and volatility in international markets has also impacted prices. With chilly economics turning the other way in a span of two years, Andhra farmers here were plunged in huge losses. Their debts obviously piled up.

Explains Suresh Bolenwar, a farmer from Hiwra Barsa village in Kelapur tehsil: "If a chilly farmer fails to get an average 20 quintals of yield, he is set to be doomed. The economics would not work out in his favour then."

Indeed, when they made profits, they made it big time. But in the volatile markets as the prices slid down, these farmers too ran into trouble, says Kishore Tiwari, convenor of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS) at Pandharkawda. "They do intensive farming, involving greater risks."

Adds Venkatrao, another chilly farmer: "Every crop failed last year, but chilly failed totally." Also take this: Venkanna's risks were manifold – the crop was his but the farm was not, and there was nothing to fall back upon once the crop suffered irreparable damage without any insurance cover.

"Every farmer is in trouble, and chilly grower is no different," Tiwari says sarcastically. The issue of pricing is central, he adds. And until that is addressed, the government won't be able to bail them out of debt-trap.

Venkanna's name does not figure in the list of 367 suicides of Vidarbha in the current agriculture season till March 10. He does figure in the post-mortem logbook though at Pandharkawda sub-district hospital. And that's the only proof of distress that the Telugu farmer was in, in a land away from his homeland.