Sunday, August 16, 2009

Villain of Vidarbha Farmers' Suicides

Villain of Vidarbha Farmers' Suicides

Dr. Ashwani Mahajan
Menace of farmers’ suicides has turned into a calamity in the last two decades. For obvious reasons government tries to underestimate the number. But according to a rough estimate more than one lakh farmers have committed suicide so far. News of farmers’ suicides comes from all over the country but situation in Vidarbha has taken the form of an epidemic and on an average 3 farmers commit suicide per day. According to government records between January 2001 and November 2005, 3715 farmers had committed suicide. So far government has constituted 7 committees and panels to study about the problems and recommend remedial measures. Apart from the committees and panels constituted by the government, 46 universities and other institutes have also submitted their reports about the causes and remedies of the menace.

Counts of Vidarbha suicides

It is understandable that the government tries to save itself from bad name by underestimating crimes like theft, burglary, murders etc. They do the same for underestimating farmers’ suicides too. Although between 2001 and 2006, suicide toll was 15980 in 6 districts of Vidarbha but the government recognised only 1290 suicides as farmers’ suicides. Government is authorised to recognise or otherwise, a suicide as farmers suicide. This act of government underestimating the farmers’ suicides deprives the affected families from the relief amount distributed by the government machinery.
Studies made under pressure

It seems from the events that but for court intervention government had no interest in instituting enquiries or studies to look into the issue of farmers’ suicides. At first, Bombay High Court pulled the government of Maharashtra and as a result it asked Tata Institute of Social studies to submit a report on the issue. Institute did submit the report but nothing was heard from the government after that. Later Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Studies was entrusted with the similar job but perhaps its report again was left to eat dust on the shelves. In October 2005, Prime Minister asked Chairman of National Farmers Commission Dr. M.S. Swaminathan to visit Vidarbha and submit a report .But this exercise also met the fate of earlier reports. In March 2006, Planning Committee constituted a team under the chairmanship of Adarsh Mishra which submitted its report with no action taken again.

In view of this hush-bush exercise, Bombay High Court directed Government of Maharashtra to undertake a comprehensive survey. Survey was undertaken covering 8560 villages and 20 lakh farmer families. The report revealed that 2 million farmers are under strain and another 4 million are under deep distress.

After these revelations Prime Minister visited Vidarbha during June-July 2006 and released Rupees 3750 crores of relief amount but the farmers’ suicides continued unabated. Government of Maharashtra constituted yet another committee to put salt on the wounds. Government sources claim that waiving off of farmers’ loan by the government, as announced in the Union Budget 2008-09, would help check the problem. But experts opine that this is not going to serve the purpose as farmers committing suicides are mostly those who have borrowed from unorganised sources.

Farmer’s indebtedness

It is obvious that one commits suicide under deep distress. This distress stems from crop failure and inability to repay the loan already taken and also the inability to get their family members treated in wake of serious illness. This point is clear from the reports of various committees and panels constituted for this purpose. According to 59th Round of National Sample Survey Organisations (NSSO) data, major cause of farmers’ indebtedness is loan taken for farm related expenditure (60%) and loan taken for the treatment of their family members (20%). Aftermath of extensive Survey due to court’s intervention when S.K. Goel , Commissioner of Amravati , revealed that 20 lakh farmers are under stain and 40 lakh under deep distress, he was very obviously transferred.
Root cause of the problem

This is amply clear that a farmer commits suicide due to his inability to repay his loans. Crop failure accentuates this problem. But the question is why Vidarbha farmers were not committing suicide earlier. If we go deep into this we find that Vidarbha land is most suitable for cotton farming. Earlier farmers used to earn heavily from cotton farming. Data shows that one quintal of cotton was equivalent to 12 grams of gold 20 years back. A Farmer used to grow food grains just for self consumption and by selling cotton; he used to add to his riches. Cotton used to be called white gold. Today he gets merely rupees 1750 per quintal of cotton and in the last 10 years, prices of fertilizers, pesticides and other agricultural inputs have multiplied by 4 to 6 times.

Why cotton prices didn’t increase along with the cost of production? Reason is simple, international price of cotton has declined from $ 1.10 in 1994 to nearly 50 cents now. Government of India reduced import duty on cotton to just 10% under pressure from WTO. How come cotton has become so cheap in international market? Whereas cost of cotton growing is around US$ 1.70 per kilogram in America and a farmer gets subsidy from the government to the extent of US$1.5 to 2.0 per kilogram. Due to this heavy subsidy U.S. farmers are able to export cotton at a much lower price; this is the root cause of Vidarbha farmers’ devastation.

This problem is not limited to Vidarbha only. Farmers from all over the country especially Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh are also committing suicides. Constantly rising input cost and non-remunerative prices compel them to end their lives. Again farmers’ devastation is not limited to India, farmers of most of the developing countries are getting ruined due to heavy subsidies being given by U.S. and some other developed countries. This is one of the basic reasons why Agreement on Agriculture (AOA) could not be finalised in WTO. Some cotton growing African countries are opposing any new WTO agreements tooth and nail.

Government has to understand that foreign trade can not to be more important than farmers’ lives. In fact security of the farmer can only ensure prosperity.

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