Akola & Yavatmal (Maharashtra): When seven-year old Ravi woke up to find his father hanging from the roof, it was, for Sanglud, more than the death of a farmer. Santosh Baltilak's suicide meant the end of the Ganesh festival in this Akola village. Sanglud had up to seven Ganesh mandals each year till 2004. This year, there are none. In a state where the Ganesh Utsav is simply the most important occasion, this is astonishing. Yet, the trend is visible across Vidharbha region. Not only have the number of mandals decreased sharply, collections for the event have plummeted.

The farm crisis has hit the Ganesh Utsav badly this year. Here, the once massive festival is a very low key affair. For many, this is heart-breaking. The Utsav is not just a religious affair. It is Vidharbha's central social event. "But who has the money?" asks Ranjit Kale, a farmer in Sanglud.

As agrarian distress deepens, the number of farmers' suicides in Vidharbha is mounting. There have been over 60 since June 2 this year despite decent rains. Yavatmal district alone has seen as many as 22 suicides since June. Across the region, farm suicides moved past the 200 mark in less than nine months in 2005. That's more than one every 36 hours.

Less sound and light: The Ganesh Utsav has been badly hit by farm distress in the villages of Vidharbha. A no-frills pandal built with old materials in Dahihanda, Akola. (Photo by P Sainath)

Even these numbers do not capture the extent of such deaths. The counting process stands too corrupted. Yet, even a partial list for a single district is alarming. Officially, there have been 280 farm suicides in Yavatmal since 2001. Of which only 57 were found worthy of compensation. The other families got nothing. Yavatmal may not be the worst. If its numbers look bad, that is in part because the district has been somewhat more truthful. It has recorded the deaths a little more honestly.

Meanwhile, soaring input costs, a severe credit crunch, falling cotton prices and the adverse impact of policy measures take an ever mounting toll.

The collapse in purchasing power of farmers finds reflection in the subdued Ganesh Utsav. Villages like Sanglud are also mourning the loss of well-loved residents like Santosh. His father Sahebrao who owns four acres and had four sons would rotate his land. Each year, one son would gain control of the four acres. The others worked as labourers till their turn came.

This year it was Santosh's turn. The first sowing was destroyed by delayed rains. The second by inputs of suspect quality. "He sold everything," says Ranjit Kale. Even his wife's jewellery. "From that he raised Rs. 7,000 and went for a third sowing. This time, oilseeds." That too, failed. "Most farmers are in the same state," says Kale. "Hence you see such a dull Utsav."

"We've spent less than Rs. 2,000 for the whole event this year," says Sanjay Thakre in Dahihanda village of the same district. "In past years, the lighting alone would cost over Rs. 12,000. This year we're using old materials. Old cloth for the decorations. And no lighting. I was president of the Ganesh mandal here five years ago. I can see the difference."

This year, Sanjay is out of it. His brother Ganesh Thakre hanged himself in June. Ganesh, one of five brothers, had been running the family's farm and looking after their parents. He was the only one still in agriculture. Mounting expenses on inputs was one part of his problem. A household plagued by ill health was hit by the rising costs of medical care. Deep in debt, and with many of his gambles failing, Ganesh, named for the very deity that the Utsav is held for, killed himself in despair.

In Pisgaon village in Yavatmal, Maruti Rasse ran his eight-acre farm against the odds. "He had two sisters and had to get them married," says his uncle Chandrabhan Rasse. For two years in a row, Maruti leased out all eight acres. With a novel twist. To sweeten the deal for the lessee, he threw himself in as the main labourer on those eight acres. "This way, he got his sisters married," says his uncle. Each wedding cost Rs. 1 lakh.

But even with the land back in his control, things didn't work. He now took on five acres more on lease to raise his output. But Rasse was in trouble. The Cotton Federation, meant to help farmers, pays them a minimum support price. "But it pays late and in instalments over months," says Chandrabhan. And, as farmers here point out, "we can't eat in instalments." So Rasse, and lakhs like him, sold their cotton to private traders. At well below the support price of Rs. 2500. This meant a loss of thousands of rupees and further piled on the pressure. On June 26, Rasse ended his life by swallowing pesticide.

For many, even a better crop this season may not help. "Cotton is the lifeblood of 30 lakh mainly poor farmers in this state," says Vijay Jawandia, kisan leader and activist. "Yet it has an import duty of just ten per cent. Till three years ago, it was only five per cent. So the United States and other countries have dumped over 100 lakh bales of cotton on us between 1996 and 2002. The USA alone has subsidised its production by some four billion dollars. Our farmers produce cotton at far lower cost and have increased output. But they are smashed by these imports. Besides, unlike other products, cotton gets no export subsidy."

"Can you see much of Ganpati here?" asks Sanjay Thakre in Dahihanda. "In Mumbai and Nagpur, maybe. Not in this place. Among marginal farmers, many people are now eating once a day. No more."

In the temple town of Kalamb, famous as a centre of Ganesh worship, trade and tourism have taken a beating. "Business is terribly down," says Chattrabhuj Karia, a shop owner here. "The farmers are in deep trouble and that shows in our earnings too."

In Sanglud, they mark the memory of Santosh Baltilak. "He was devoted to Ganpati," says Ranjit Kale. "Had he been alive, he'd be running around for the Utsav now."