Agrarian distress: Why India is turning into a graveyard for farmers?

Agrarian distress: Why India is turning into a graveyard for farmers?
The fear of a life-time loss once again looms large over the lives of cotton growers across the region.

The rising number of farmer suicides is indicative of the degree of distress in the Indian agriculture sector. The sector largely remains devoid of profitability due to various issues such as price slump, frequent crop failure, absence of assured water resources, and attacks of pests and diseases. The peasants are clueless on sustaining themselves in these uncertain times. This five-part series will explore the multi-dimensional crisis plaguing the country’s farm sector. 

Caught in a fatal debt trap

A narrow, congested path from the remote village of Kurzadi in Wardha district leads to a dilapidated hut where the Petkar family lives. An elderly couple - Vachala and Anand Rao - is squatting near the smoky country hearth in their cramped kitchen, shivering in the biting cold. The look of despondency on their faces is hard to ignore. The visually-impaired woman is trying to pick dried twigs and sticks strewn all over the floor to start a fire in the hearth in order to warm themselves up.

As they started talking, a flood of bitter memories came out. Their son Kawdu Petkar ended his life seven years ago after getting himself trapped in a debt cycle. He had sown cotton using the loan taken from the local cooperative bank, but the crop did not survive because of lack of rain. The drastic fall in yield and a slump in prices added to his misery. He was forced to avail more loans and borrow from his neighbours in order to meet the medical expenses of his ailing parents. Banks started issuing reminders and finally notices for recovery after he defaulted repayment. With debts mounting, he committed suicide, leaving his parents, wife and son Surendar heartbroken and reeling.

Following Kawdu’s death, Surendar shouldered the family’s responsibility, and took up cotton farming following his father’s steps. Seven years after Kawdu’s death, the sequence of events that drove him to suicide repeated. Deficit rainfall triggered crop loss and Surendar, unable to repay the loans availed from local banks and private lenders for purchasing cotton seeds, ended his life two years ago. Kawdu was 50 while Surendar was 30 when they took the extreme step.

Agrarian distress: Why India is turning into a graveyard for farmers?
An elderly couple - Vachala and Anand Rao - at their house at Kurzadi in Maharashtra's Wardha district.

Now Surendar’s son Maroyi is looking after the family comprising his grandparents and mother Usiya.

The situation is grim this season as well. The proposal put forth by the Maharashtra government to end the water crisis is yet to take off. Price of raw cotton keeps sliding down. The fear of a life-time loss once again looms large over the lives of cotton growers across the region.

Fighting for survival

There is an old fort, known as qila in local language, which encircles the Kurzadi village. It is a redolent remnant of the locality’s glorious past. The early purpose of the fort, it seems, was to defend expansive fields and settlements against marauding enemy forces. Ironically, the villagers living inside the imposing structure now are fighting a battle day-in, day-out, just to stay afloat.

While walking around the village, Vasanth Rao Vakhade, a local resident, showed this reporter the houses of farmers who committed suicide owing to crop failure and debt. Among them were Anand Rao’s nephew Ujjwala and his neighbour Subhash Ghakde.

The phenomenon of 'farmer suicide' is not confined to the regions of Wardha or Vidharba. In fact, the agrarian crisis is fairly widespread in the country. Poor peasants are forced to borrow from different sources to buy new seeds for every planting season. High costs, water scarcity and unreliable output make for a debt trap, and the poor continue to fight a losing battle.

Chained to debt in life and death

There has been an alarming rise in the number of farmer suicides in India of late. On average, 12,000 farmers commit suicide each year in the country, which is approximately 10 per cent of all suicides. Eighty-seven per cent of farmer suicides have occurred in seven states: Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra, Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh.

The problem is assuming alarming proportions in Punjab as well. The state which once sowed the seeds of the Green Revolution witnessed as many as 4,687 farmers killing themselves in the period between 1995 and 2005. In Mansa district alone, 1,134 farmers committed suicide during the 10-year period. The suicides were the result of a combination of factors including social circumstances, increase in the cost of raw materials, crop failure and poor market prices for their produce. They are born in debt, lives in debt, dies in debt and bequeaths debt.

Soaring production costs

There has been a three-fold increase in the production cost of wheat since 2005. Prices of seeds, fertilisers and pesticides have been on the rise forcing farmers to look at ways of cutting costs. They are also unable to rent or purchase tractors, sprinklers and other farm implements due to high costs. Using bullocks for ploughing and related activities has also become unaffordable for small and marginal farmers. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act scheme, which led to an increase in labour charges, has also compounded miseries of the country's beleaguered farmers.

Agrarian distress: Why India is turning into a graveyard for farmers?
According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), out of the 3,000 farmers who committed suicide in 2015, as many 2,474 had defaulted on loan payments.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), out of the 3,000 farmers who committed suicide in 2015, as many 2,474 had defaulted on loan payments. Bank loans accounted 90 per cent of their total borrowings while the remaining 10 per cent was from local moneylenders. In Maharashtra and Karnataka, two states with the highest number of farmer suicides, the number of peasants who took the extreme step after falling into a debt trap is 1,293 and 946 respectively.

It is a fact that the Indian agriculture sector is fragile and vulnerable. It is extremely dependent on the weather. The failure of the policymakers to make a coordinated approach is undeniable. Several irrigation projects proposed in critically drought-prone areas in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka years ago have not seen the light of the day.

Over the years, erratic rainfall pattern has been spelling doom for farmers. At the same time, they are reluctant to switch over to short-term drought-resistant crops. For example, not many farmers in water-scarce areas are ready to part ways with sugarcane, one of the most water-guzzling crops.

Government intervention

There is an overwhelming feeling that a loan waiver can solve farm distress. The massive Rs 72,000-crore Agriculture Debt Waiver and Debt Relief Scheme of the UPA government in May, 2008, is the largest relief package implemented to bail out the country’s debt-ridden farmers.

In 2013, the Centre offered a special livestock sector and fisheries package for suicide-prone districts of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Kerala. In 2018, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra governments announced relief and booster packages to tackle distress in the farm sector. After the recent Assembly elections, the new governments in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh announced farm loan waivers.

Realistically, loan waivers cannot be considered as a panacea for the agrarian distress. Farm distress is increasingly being triggered by falling prices and absence of basic infrastructure for storage and marketing, but policymakers are yet to proactively address this.

(To be continued…)

References: Research paper on farmer suicides in India by N S Naik, data published by the National Crime Records Bureau, and media reports.

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