Farmer suicides in Marathwada: Chronic drought, patchy implementation of govt schemes still plague cultivators

The first three months of 2019 have seen 29 farmers committing suicide, or one farmer killing himself every two days, in Beed district of Marathwada.

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Beed: The first three months of 2019 have seen 29 farmers committing suicide, or one farmer killing himself every two days, in Beed district of Marathwada region, one of the most drought-hit districts of Maharashtra.

The number of farmers committing suicide in this district has fluctuated in the last five years. As per revenue department records, there were 152 farmer suicides in 2014, 301 the next year, 222 in 2016, 207 in 2017 and 197 last year. And the reason is the same, year after year: increasing debt due to failure or insufficient price for their crops — mainly cotton, soya and sugarcane — all water-intensive crops in a region that has no water. Even when they have a good harvest, farmers have at times been unable to sell their produce due to a glut in the market. The loans, from banks or money lenders, then pile up and push them to suicide.

There is no shortage of grandly announced schemes to help these distressed farmers — farm ponds, subsidies for drip irrigation, fodder shelters for livestock, subsidies for moving to other occupations like sericulture, floriculture, horticulture, animal farming, availability of cold storage facilities, insurance schemes like Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, and of course, loan waivers, under which the government claims loans worth Rs 36,000 crore were written off in September 2017.

Farmers from Gevrai village. Image courtesy:  Varsha Torgalkar

Farmers from Gevrai village. Image courtesy: Varsha Torgalkar

But talk to the farmers and the families of those who committed suicide and what emerges is a picture of the failure of these schemes to reach those who really need them, and the indifference of the people they elected to Assembly and Parliament towards them. Farmers say they see these schemes on TV and in advertisements but most have not benefited from them. They are sorely frustrated with their current plight.

And they had made that known to the BJP government in Mumbai in no uncertain terms last March. At least 35,000 farmers set out to walk the 180 km between Nashik and the state capital before ‘gherao’ing the Legislative Assembly to force the government to acknowledge the crisis. It took them six days and on the last day, they camped at the Thane-Mumbai border and waited till nightfall to enter the city, taking care to not disturb the daily lives of the city folk. The pictures of farmers walking silently against the bright lights, some on blistered and bandaged feet, was compelling optics and a huge embarrassment for the Devendra Fadnavis government.

The march, led by CPM-affiliated All India Kisan Sabha, was supported by almost all the Opposition parties, including Shiv Sena, NCP, Congress and MNS. It was an opportune moment; Assembly elections in the agri-intensive states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan were around the corner. With Opposition turning the heat of farmers’ issues, the BJP governments in all three states fell.

But cut to one year later, ahead of the biggest election, farmers' issues were merely an afterthought in the campaign. Ajit Navle, a farmer leader from Nashik who led the march last year, says, "The central government knows that if the election was focused on agrarian crisis and farmer distress, it will be doomed. Therefore, it tried to shift people's attention to other issues; mainly nationalism, post-Pulwama. We have been determined to pull down the anti-farmer and anti-poor government that has failed to address the concerns of farmers and youth.”

Mismanaged water resources

As per the 2011 census, Beed district’s rural population numbers 2,070,751, most of whom are dependent on agriculture for their livelihood. As per agriculture department’s data, the district has 4.33 lakh marginal farmers (having less than one hectare of land), 1.96 lakh small farmers (less than two hectares), 99,000 semi-medium farmers (owning 2 to 4 hectares), 27,295 medium farmers owning 4-10 hectares and 1,555 large farmers who own more than 10 hectares. Though there are no official record on number of farm labourers, it is estimated they number more than five lakh.

The district used to get an average rainfall of 666.36 mm. But rainfall this year was just 334 mm, and has been below average for the past five years. The district has two major irrigation projects, 16 medium projects and 126 small projects. Totally, 144 irrigation projects were completed, but 84 of them have dried up while the remaining have less than 25 percent of their storage capacity. At present, water available in these projects is 11.144 tmc, just 1.25 percent of their total capacity.

Cultivators sit idle due to the lack of work. Image courtesy: Varsha Torgalkar

Cultivators sit idle due to the lack of work. Image courtesy: Varsha Torgalkar

HM Desrada, economist and social activist, said that though the area is drought prone, successive governments have promoted sugarcane, which consumes excessive water rather than drought resilient crops like pulses, oilseed and jowar. “The state should ban sugarcane cultivation,” said Desrada. “Also, the state has been saying that groundwater levels have increased due to its water harvesting project called Jalyukta Shivar, but as per state’s groundwater department, levels have gone down.”

The state isn’t effectively incentivising people to move away from traditional crops. The subsidies for farmers to try other kinds of agriculture is not dependable, as many farmers have found out. “I started a sericulture project under the government scheme two years ago but have yet to get the subsidy,” said Balasaheb Aher of Sushi village. “I started the project only because of the subsidy and am not making any profit from it.”

For whom the scheme rolls

So why aren’t the welfare schemes reaching farmers, as most of them say? “I have four acres on which I sowed cotton this Kharif season,” said Laxmanrao Shemade of Khalegao village. “I spent Rs 12,000 per acre but earned only Rs 2,000 per acre. Due to drought for the last four years, I am unable to repay my loan of Rs 1.5 lakh. I applied for loan waiver three times but my loan is not waived. About 2,500 farmers in the village have applied for loan waiver. But only four got their loans waived.”

Haridash Rambhau of Shirapur village, sitting in the Gram Panchayat office, ridicules the government’s schemes. “Less than 10 percent of farmers in this village of 1,300 farmers have got loan waiver,” said Haridash. “Not a single farmer has got farm ponds, though state advertised the scheme. The benefits of the subsidy scheme for farmers to buy sheep or goats has also not benefited farmers. Also, many farmers opted for drip irrigation after the state announced 60-75 percent subsidy,” he added. “It costs Rs 1 lakh per acre and farmers who invested in this are still waiting for the subsidy. No scheme has reached us and many farmers don’t even come to know about them.”

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The plight of the families whom the dead farmers leave behind is even worse. They struggle to get the land in their husband’s or in-laws' names transferred in their names to get benefits. Like Dwaraka Anwar, 35, for instance. Pale and emaciated, her husband, unable to repay a loan of Rs 2.5 lakh, committed suicide two years back, but the land remains in her father-in-law’s name.

“I received Rs 1 lakh from the state,” said Dwaraka. “But I have not got any other benefit like widow pension, loan for farming or business or house under Gharkul scheme. My relative has built this house for me and my children left college to work as labourers. I used to work as a labourer on a farm but no work is available now.”

Even though the government declared severe drought in all 11 talukas last October, few drought relief measures are visible on the ground. For example, less than 50 fodder camps are functional across the district vis-a-vis cattle population of over eight lakhs.

But the administration insists the schemes are reaching those eligible for them. "Farmers who were eligible for loan waiver have been paid back,” said Astik Kumar Pande, collector, Beed. “All schemes like farm ponds or subsidy for floriculture or horticulture have been given to those who were eligible for the scheme." Yet farmers keep saying that only a few applicants, those close to the powers that be, get the benefits. Allegations abound of funds disappearing before they reach the farmers.

Landless labour, who are 30 to 40 percent of the rural population, too have been left to fend for themselves. In good times, they would get work in sugarcane farms and factories and migrate to other states during October-April. The state had set up a Sugarcane Labourers Welfare Board, but later scrapped it, without coming up with any welfare scheme targeted specifically at them.

With inputs from Ashwin Aghor

(The author is a Pune-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters)

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