"DUMP THE packages, give us a price. It's the price of cotton we're worried about," says 'Kaka' Manohar Motiramji Tadas. "With a fair deal on that, we can manage for now." Tadas knows something about farming. He has been at it for close to 45 years. He does have other demands, like a debt waiver and access to credit. But the price of cotton tops his list just now. That is, a month after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh concluded his visit to Vidarbha.

'Kaka' Tadas speaks to us in Kavita village, Amravati district, in the house of Srikrishna Rahate. We could not speak to Rahate. He had killed himself less than a hundred hours before we arrived. Which makes him No. 700 on the list of farmers who have taken their lives in Vidarbha since June 1, 2005.

'Kaka' Tadas, in Srikrishna Rahate's house, says the first priority is a fair price for cotton growers. Rahate is No. 700 in the list of Vidarbha farmers who have committed suicide since June 1, 2005. (Picture by P Sainath)

The streets are deserted - because Kavita and many villages like it are also badly hit by chikungunya. "Large numbers have it," says Dilip Choudhary, who leads us to Rahate's house. And not many can afford medical help. With floods and excess rainfall ravaging farmland in parts of Vidarbha, things are getting worse.

'Kaka' Tadas and Mr. Choudhary see no connection between the "relief package" the Prime Minister announced here and the huge spurt in suicides since then. Nor do any of the other farmers who gather to meet us. They are clear that larger issues are driving the farm deaths than those addressed by short-term "packages." They are also clear that lakhs of households that have seen no suicides are almost as badly off as the thousands that have in the past few years. If anything, they see the sharp rise in the number of farmers killing themselves as proof of how irrelevant the immediate measures have been.

The number of suicides since the Prime Minister left Vidarbha on July 1 is now well past the 100 mark. Before his visit, 101 farmers took their lives in 49 days. The same number killed themselves in 33 days after the visit ended. That is, the rate of suicides rose from around two a day to over three each day. Or one every eight hours.

This means July saw an eight-fold increase in such deaths as compared to the same period last year. July 2005 saw 11 suicides, according to the Vidharbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS). This July, there were 92. (One official count, accessed by The Hindu, puts the numbers for the same periods at 15 and 80. So though different, both confirm a disastrous trend for that month. However, these official figures have only recently come into existence and are shaky. The VJAS has been more diligent.)

What explains the July surge? "Since not a single major demand has been met in years, things could only get worse," says Kishore Tiwari of the VJAS. "Even those who sowed felt trapped, having no funds to follow up with the next steps."

He is hopeful the trend will decline in August but knows the excess rains could make things worse. And, like everyone else, he fears the coming of the spraying season after that. That is usually when the worst numbers come in. It is during the spraying period that the farmer holds pesticide in his hands. For the very desperate, that is a time when a deadly decision is most easily taken. Swallowing pesticide has been the chosen route out in four-fifths of all farm suicides here.

The process of rising debt and falling hope also continues. "What new credit?" asks Mr. Choudhary. "I own three acres and needed Rs.18,000 as a crop loan. The bank gave me Rs.5,000. How am I supposed to do anything with that?" There are cases of farmers with 25 acres getting just Rs.12,000. All this in a month after the announcement of fresh crop loans.

Off the record, bank managers admit not much has happened on the credit front: "We have no money to pay staff salaries," claim some. Also, the sowing season was almost over by the time any little money began flowing. Some did benefit from fresh crop loans. But mostly in the way that Mr. Choudhary did - pushing them once again to moneylenders for the remaining sums they need.

'Kaka' Tadas insists: "There has to be a fair price for what the farmer grows." Last year, the cotton prices fell sharply when the State Government withdrew its "advance bonus" of Rs.500 a quintal. The price now is Rs.1,700, but some have sold their cotton in distress for less.

Big firms are among the gainers in the distress sales. Farmers point out that neither State nor Central packages touch the issue of price. Cotton prices have been devastated both by State policy and worldwide by American and European Union subsidies to their producers running to billions of dollars each year.

"Many have switched to soybean," says Mohan Rahate, son of the farmer who took his life, "but soybean too, has fallen from Rs.1,100 to Rs.1,000 a quintal. It could fall to Rs.800." Meanwhile, since neither Central nor State packages promote foodcrops, particularly jowar, progress on that front is nil.

Two positives

Just two moves appear to have clicked to some extent. The Rs.50 lakh each directly given by the Prime Minister to six District Collectors is being utilised. Close to a third of this Rs.300 lakh has been used within a week of the money coming in. Since this is not just for the suicide-hit, immediate relief has reached some thousands of people. This includes a few of those unable to pay crushing health expenses - now the second fastest growing component of rural family debt. District Collectors hope this fund will be replenished when it runs out.

Thousands of couples have also used the Rs.6 crore set aside for mass marriages under the State's package. And Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh has announced he will back this with more money. This has seen over 6,000 households lower their expenses in a time of dire need. It has also, importantly, lent social legitimacy to the notion of cheap weddings.

Both moves have been positive. Yet the numbers are quite marginal to the lakhs of households in crisis. On almost all other fronts, things are lagging badly. The credibility of the Government machinery at the village level seems at its lowest ever. And farmers assert that their central issues have in no way been addressed by either the State or the Centre.

The rest of the season could get bleaker. Unless, says 'Kaka' Tadas, "you give us a price. A fair price."