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SOPAN JOSHI travels through Andhra Pradesh, only to find that beyond the immediate crisis of state-wide farmers' suicide lies one decade of neglect. Of agriculture, which sustains 70 per cent of its people, actually rendered unproductive and life-denying. By the government.
Newspaper reports show that from January 1, 2004 to May 16, 2004, about 29 farmers in Andhra Pradesh (AP) committed suicide. From May 17, the suicides suddenly increased: the AP Rytu Sangham, the farmers' wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has compiled reports of 279 suicides by farmers in the state in one month.
The results of the state legislative assembly election were announced on May 13. People first thought the suicides had suddenly increased as a result of the relief package for farmers the Congress-led coalition -- which defeated the Telugu Desam Party-Bharatiya Janata Party (TDP-BJP) combine -- announced. But more complex reasons soon began to emerge. The media, preoccupied by the general elections it had failed to read, also failed to understand the farmers.
For March and May are the months when farmers settle old loans and get new ones for the kharif crop. This is also the time when moneylenders start recovering their money. With repeated crop failures and high costs of cultivation, the farmers had no money to repay debts. Rains were setting in, offering hope to those who could buy new seeds and other inputs, and misery to those who couldn't. The elections also played a role -- moneylenders were quiet (informal farm loans --the bulk of farmers in AP rely on it-- and election contributions tend to come from the same financial quarters).
Sudarshan Reddy, a professor of economics at Warangal's Kakatiya University who has studied the problems that led to farmers' suicides in 1997-1998, says cooperative banks had stopped recovering loans during elections. Immediately after, pressure began to pile up. Heavily indebted farmers, the system itself, cracked up.
Loan recovery apart, moneylenders also had to make up for the contributions they had made to politicians' kitties. A rich businessman says: "It was obvious the Congress government was not going to be as friendly to the traders/moneylenders as the TDP. There was talk of a moratorium on debt recovery; they were in a hurry to get back loans. Relief for farmers was one of the main issues that the Congress campaigned for."
This may explain the present crisis, but the question is: was it really that sudden? AP had witnessed a spate of farmers' suicides in 1997-98. The immediate reasons were the same then as now (see 'Abetment to suicide', Down To Earth, February 28, 1998). But suicides then were limited to northern districts like Warangal, where pest attacks destroyed cotton crops. This year, there have been suicides in all the districts. Farmers growing all the major crops in the state are killing themselves, including paddy-growers in Coastal Andhra.
Reports compiled by the Human Rights Front from Telugu newspapers show that suicides have occurred regularly in the state since 1997-1998. "There are no official figures on farmers' suicides as the previous government didn't recognise them. Naidu didn't want to help the farmers," says Kodandram Reddy, professor of political science at Hyderabad's Nizam College, who is with the Human Rights Front and has travelled throughout the state to find why farmers commit suicides. The TDP government in fact believed that providing relief to the families of farmers who had killed themselves would be an incentive for others to commit suicide. District collectors knew very well they were not supposed to recognise a farmer's suicide. That the TDP government didn't provide relief is one thing. That most of its policies and programmes actively hurt the farmer is quite another.
The media -- this magazine included -- has largely failed to report the scale of this tragedy in the past six years. Farmers' debts accumulated as the cost of farm inputs -- water, land, seeds, pesticides and fertilisers, in that order -- increased dramatically since the 1980s, while prices of agricultural produce stagnated or fell in the past decade. To finance inputs, the farmer came to rely primarily on private moneylenders who charge interest rates ranging from 24 per cent to 60-75 per cent. The formal agriculture credit system meets only an estimated 20-30 per cent of the total credit requirements of the state's farmers; farmers obviously struggled to cope.
On December 2, 2001, Jayalaxmi took a sari and hung herself in her house. She was 12. The repeated reminders from her school that she hadn't paid her fees embarrassed her terribly. Jayalaxmi's father, P Laxminarayan, says she had read an anxious letter from his married sister, in which she voiced her fears, writing her in-laws might kill her if they weren't given jewellery as dowry: "Jayalaxmi probably wondered how I will pay for her education and dowry if I was struggling to save my sister," says the farmer of Mamillakuntla village in Obuladevara Chervu mandal, Anantapur district.
Laxminarayan was a mason working on daily wages in Hyderabad when Jayalaxmi killed herself. He had borrowed Rs 40,000 from three farmers at an interest of 2 per cent per month, and Rs 45,000 from a bank, to repair his house and set up a grocery shop at home. Till the day Jayalaxmi died, creditors used to visit and ask Laxminarayan to return their loans. His two hectares (ha) of unirrigated land doesn't yield anything. "It has hardly rained in four years, and my groundnut crop has failed year after year," he says.
CAUGHT IN A BOREWELL TRAP: Anantapur, AP's largest district, falls in a rain-shadow zone of the Rayalseema region. The dryland agriculture here depends on an annual average rainfall of 553 mm (the lowest in the state, which gets an average annual rainfall of 940 mm). Rayalseema has the fewest irrigation tanks in the three regions of the state, and relies most on groundwater. Mamillakuntla village's drinking water comes from a 150-metre-deep borewell.
"I dug four borewells in five years for Rs 50,000-Rs 80,000 each. Three have gone dry; the last one plumbs 140 metre and gives little water," says G Venkatramanna, a farmer with eight ha. His owes more than Rs 1,50,000 in debts, half from private moneylenders. Three years ago, he sold his flock of 200 sheep for about Rs 1,00,000 to dig a borewell and recover losses. It went dry. Why did he sell livestock, which is good at surviving drought and helps farmers in bad years? "Land price is low. Everybody's in debt and there are no buyers for land," he says.
Y Ramakrishna Reddy has about five ha, three dry borewells, and a Rs 1,30,000 debt -- Rs 60,000 to private moneylenders. "When N T Rama Rao was the chief minister, we paid an annual electricity charge of Rs 26 for a bore. I voted TDP in 1999. But they raised the power tariff to Rs 250 per month, with a deposit of Rs 14,000. This time I voted Congress," says the 65-year-old.
Surya Narayan Reddy has 2.5 ha and a debt of more than Rs 2,50,000, half of which he took from private moneylenders for his daughter's wedding in February this year. He borrowed Rs 12,000 in his wife's name to start a small business, but spent it on a borewell, which is dry, along with two others in his field. Creditors are harassing him, and Surya Narayan says he is on the brink. He called the farmers' helpline the Congress government opened on May 22 in all district headquarters, but only got assurances. At the Anantapur district headquarters, employees of the agriculture and revenue departments take turns at handling distress calls. They logged 1,072 calls in 17 days. Syed Mehboob Basha, an agriculture department employee and a member of the Human Rights Front, has recorded 336 cases of farmers' suicides in Anantapur district since August 1, 2000.
SEEDY SNARE: But farmers' desperation also has to do with seeds, too expensive despite a government subsidy and too inadequately regulated. In Bomlatapalli village of Bokkaraya Samudram mandal of Anantapur, Nagalaxmi explains the lure of groundnut, a rainfed crop and a major reason for rising expenses: "My husband hung himself from the tree behind our house 11 years ago when he couldn't repay the Rs 80,000 he had borrowed. Five years ago, we had a good groundnut crop, and my son settled the old loans."
But then the family borrowed Rs 50,000 for their daughter's wedding. They also took loans for groundnut seeds, fertilisers, bullocks and a buffalo. The bullocks died and they had to borrow again to buy a new pair. By May 5, 2004, the debts piled up to Rs 1,30,000, all of it from private moneylenders, and the new pair of bullocks had been sold. That day, Nagalaxmi's 25-year-old son hung himself, not far from the tree where his father had died. AP's agriculture minister personally gave Nagalaxmi a cheque of Rs 1,00,000 to start farming afresh. She wants to spend the money on her younger daughter's wedding. She hasn't sown the seed in this season. Siva, her younger son, is 12, and too young to handle bullocks.
Rayalseema went in a big way for groundnut in 1980; the Union government had subsidised seeds to cut down on edible oil imports. But restrictions on importing palm oil were removed in the 1990s, and groundnut prices crashed. Palm oil sells for Rs 16 per litre, groundnut oil Rs 52 per litre.
But right now the greatest woe is procuring seed. Angry farmers last month beat up agriculture officials in the Rayalseema region because of poor groundnut seed supply. For this year's kharif crop, the state government will distribute 563,000 quintals of groundnut seeds, most to go to Anantapur district. But each farmer will get a maximum of 120 kg of seed, while a hectare of land requires more than 140 kg. The government only subsidises 38 per cent of the cost, which means farmers pay Rs 16 per kg. Seeds are only given against passbooks issued to those who own the land. So tenant farmers, and those who want to grow groundnut on more than one hectare, have to buy from the market at more than Rs 24 per kg. "I can't even afford the subsidised seed, so I will buy it from large farmers and traders on credit. That would be about Rs 7,000, with interest," says Laxminarayan of Mamillakuntla. But tenant farmers can't avail of the government seed subsidies (see box: Like a vice). Except groundnut, soybean and maize, government doesn't subsidise seeds for other crops. Cotton and chilli farmers in AP's Telengana and Coastal regions are therefore entirely at the mercy of the seed sector.
ENTER PRIVATE SUPPLY: Cotton cultivation picked up in Telengana when cotton farmers of Coastal Andhra, particularly Guntur, migrated to districts like Warangal and Karimnagar. "It is these farmers that control the trade of inputs like pesticides and seeds," says Sudarshan Reddy. In fact, in Warangal town, it is difficult to get a hotel room in the sowing season -- seed companies occupy all rooms and organise a marketing and sales blitzkrieg.
State newspapers, too, are full of seed advertisements. Telugu TV channels such as Eenadu and Teja have farmers' programmes that provide free advice on seeds, pesticides and fertilisers. The front page of AnnaData, a farmers' magazine with about 200,000 subscribers, often advertises companies making pumps and motors for borewells. Does this influence farmers in Karimnagar district, which had the highest number of farmers' suicides this year? M Mahendra Reddy, a resident of Karimnagar's Kondapur village, who killed himself on May 24, was a regular reader of farmers' magazines. "He was heavily influenced in his farming practices by ads on television and in magazines and newspapers," says his father-in-law. What about advice from the government's extension staff? "They are a rare sight. The extension staff of private companies is far more regular and frequent in our region," he says.
FOR PESTICIDES, TOO: He should know. He was one of the hundreds of farmers who took to the street a year ago, demanding government provide DuPont's pesticide Avaunt through the extension system. Its cost, per litre, is Rs 10,000, though it is used in small quantities. A former extension official says pesticide companies get licences to import a small amount of a new chemical for marketing trials. This chemical is then advertised and sold in shops in excess of the quota, violating all norms. That the government fails as a regulator to protect the farmer is an open secret. If you ask Warangal farmers whether government hauls up violators, they will relate the case of Tirupati Reddy of Saral Seeds who was arrested in June 2003, ostensibly for manufacturing spurious chilli seeds. On closer enquiry, all that transpired was that he didn't have a licence to package seeds in Warangal but only in Hyderabad. Reddy was released after a minor fine, and officials as well as seed traders say the real matter was a business rivalry.
The only regulatory system that seems to work in the seed and pesticide sector is through dealers and shopkeepers. "If the seed fails to germinate, the farmer usually goes to the dealer who sold it," says Tatikonda Kedari, proprietor of Vasavi Fertilisers Depot, Warangal, and an influential trader. "When they come to me, I arrange a meeting between the seed company and the farmer. The matter is usually settled by giving the farmer compensation. But if the problem is noticed at the stage of flowering, then it is very difficult for the farmers to get any kind of compensation. The only other option for the farmer is to approach the consumer court," says Kedari. There are 90 seed companies with 140 varieties of cotton in Warangal, and Kedari stocks 40 varieties. Farmers line up outside his shop to buy the latest hybrid seeds. Their eyes gleam with the hope of a good harvest this season.