Mandya: In November 2013, barely six months after the Congress formed its government in Karnataka, a sugarcane farmer committed suicide in front of Suvarna Vidhana Soudha, Belagavi during the Assembly’s winter session. He was demanding a remunerative price and regular payment for his produce. That was an ominous portent.
In its election manifesto, Congress had promised to make agriculture the backbone of the state’s economy. It proposed a comprehensive plan including timely supply of fertilizers, pesticides, seeds and other inputs; remunerative and competitive prices for sugarcane, coffee, cotton and sericulture; provision of storage facilities, electricity, irrigation, subsidies for buying modern equipment and, lastly, compensation during drought situations.
Despite all these promises, as many as 3,515 farmers in Karnataka committed suicide between April 2013 and November 2017. Seventy percent of them were on account of drought and farm failure, according to State Agriculture Department. By comparison, 1,077 farmers took their lives in the previous five-year period.
Mandya lost most farmers in 3 years
According to a report by Bengaluru-based Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC), crop failure caused by poor monsoon rains, lack of irrigation facilities and pests was the principal reason why farmers couldn’t repay crop loans. “The percent of indebted farm households to total farm households was highest at 89% in Telangana followed by 77% in Karnataka,” says the report.
“The suicides went up due to the terrible drought,” says Karnataka’s agriculture minister Krishna Byre Gowda. “That’s why we have done loan waiver and many other relief measures.” While the government increased suicide compensation from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 5 lakh, farmers say what they want is better irrigation and a fair price for their produce.
Mandya, a district in the Cauvery basin, has witnessed highest rate of farmer suicides in the past 3 years owing to crop loss and indebtedness. Puttaswamy, a sericulturist from Dhangur village in Mandya district, had taken a loan by mortgaging his wife’s jewelry. He couldn’t repay the loan, so he drank poison, says his brother Doddaswamy.
Nagaraju committed suicide in November 2017 after multiple crop failures that burdened his family with unsustainable levels of debt. “We have not received any help from the government,” complains his mother Devamma. “At this age, I go to work as a daily wage labourer and support myself.”
Devanand Gaikwad, a farmer-union leader from Bidar, complains that sugarcane farming is becoming non-viable as growers often don’t get paid. Poor prices for farm produce has also been a major cause of indebtedness.
'Want water, not compensation'
In March this year, Karnataka Agricultural Prices Commission (KAPC) chairman TN Prakash Kammardi recommended making the minimum support price (MSP) of crops fixed by the government legally binding. Even though the state government has fixed MSP for most crops, they are traded at significantly lower prices in markets, including those run by the Agricultural Produce Marketing Cooperatives across Karnataka, he said.
The KAPC is inefficient, says Shankar Ambali, state general secretary of Raita Sene, a farmer’s association. “Onion growing farmers are struggling to sell their goods,” he says. “During the last five years, many crops like maize, tur dal, tomatoes and onions have seen steep falls in their prices, impacting farmers’ income.”
“The government neither fixed a proper market price for the produce nor gave us any compensation; it has thus failed to stop farmer suicides,” says Appasaheb Desai, a farmer from Belagavi district in North Karnataka, which recorded one of the highest suicide rates.
AL Sivakumar, a farmer from Ankanahalli, says he does not want compensation but water for cultivating ragi and rice. "Five years ago, we used to get water from Iglur dam. People used to grow ragi and rice. But after the canal broke, there is no water in this area and it’s become dry land,” he says.
Looming threat of drought
About 72 percent of the cropped area in Karnataka depends on the monsoons, leaving most parts of state exposed to the threat of drought. Despite government’s promises to expand irrigation networks, the irrigated area in the state is actually declining. According to the Karnataka Economic Survey report published this February, while 34.40 lakh hectares were under irrigation in 2011-12, the figure dropped to 32.20 lakh hectares in 2015-16.
Says AV Manjunatha, assistant professor at ISEC, “The farmers, especially in Chikkaballapur, have to dig bore wells up to 1,300 feet to get water, which vastly increases the cost of fetching water.”
In its 2013 Economic Survey, the Congress government listed the problems afflicting agriculture in Karnataka. They included over dependency on the monsoon, fragmentation of land, deteriorating soil health, lack of market information and low penetration of technology. Four years later, in its February survey, the government has just added to the list: Low level of public investment, inefficient use of water resources, environmental degradation and rising cost of production.
Agriculture minister Byre Gowda admits there is much more to be done but defends his government saying, “We have given a stable and scandal-free government for five years. Karnataka’s growth rate is 8.5 percent compared to the national average of 6.6 percent.” But that is little consolation to the state’s farmers, who have been waiting for a long time to share in that growth.
As Mallikarjun Satyampet, state secretary of Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha in Yadgir, says, “There has been no improvement in the economic condition of farmers in the past 10 years. We hope the new government will do something for us.”
(With inputs from Gangadhar S Patil)
(Prince Singhal and Elizabeth Mani are freelance writers. All contributors are members of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)
Updated Date: May 08, 2018 16:26 PM