Kerala farmer suicides show 2018 flood relief measures haven't reached a large section of the populace

The August flood in Kerala that washed away hazardous pesticides from rivers and water bodies and brought fertile silt to the farmlands was viewed by agricultural experts as a blessing in disguise to the famers who have been hit hard by steady fall in farm productivity as well as prices over the years.

However, suicide by eight farmers and one agricultural worker in the last two months shows that the curse of the flood continues to haunt a large section of the peasantry in the state even after six months. Analysis of the suicide cases reported since January first week reveals that the measures initiated by the government to provide succour to the flood-hit have not reached a major chunk of the farmers.

A major relief measure taken by the government was a moratorium on farmers’ loans for one year. However, all the eight farmers who have committed suicide in the state had allegedly resorted to the extreme step following pressure from banks to repay the outstanding loans. Curiously, almost all the lenders who have defied the government order are financial institutions that are under the control of the state government.

Kerala farmer suicides show 2018 flood relief measures havent reached a large section of the populace

Representational image. Reuters.

The current wave of suicides started on 2 January, when a young farmer was found hanging from a tree near his house in Idukki district. T Santhosh, 37, committed suicide after he received a notice from the state-owned Kerala State Financial Enterprises (KSFE) Ltd to repay Rs 10 lakh he borrowed from the institution, according to his family members.

Later in the month, two more farmers took their lives under similar circumstances. While Kunnath Surendran, 67, consumed poison after he received a notice from Agricultural and Rural Bank to repay Rs 6 lakh, Kunnumpurath Sahadevan, 68, ended his life after recovery proceedings were initiated against him by a cooperative bank following his failure to pay back Rs 12 lakh he took from the bank.

The other farmers who have committed suicide are Johny Mathai, 58, Kottakallil Raju, 62, Sreekumar, 59, James Mathew, 54 and Jijo Paul, 49. Barring the last, all others belonged to Idukki district, where flood and a spate of landslides claimed 57 lives and inflicted extensive damage to crops and properties. All of them took their lives after they received notice from financial institutions to repay the loans.

The banks’ move came as a shock to the farmers as they were expecting six more months to resume the repayment of the loans. Even though the recovery proceeding is a violation of its decision, the state government has not taken any steps to restrain the financial institutions from proceeding against the debtors.

On the contrary, the LDF government has even refused to acknowledge the crisis. While Minister for the Welfare of Scheduled Castes and Tribes said he was not aware of the farmer’s suicides, Agriculture Minister VS Sunil Kumar has sought to downplay them, saying they were not related to issues pertaining to farming and indebtedness.

In one sense, the agriculture minister is right since most of the farmers had taken the loan not solely for agricultural purpose but also for the education and marriage of their children and other needs of the family. Moreover, agricultural production has also considerably gone up in the flood-hit areas in the wake of the deluge.

The farmers who have benefited from the increased soil fertility brought by the flood are those who cultivate short duration crop varieties such as paddy and vegetables. Kuttanad, which suffered two bouts of flood last year, is the biggest beneficiary of the calamity. The region, known as the rice bowl of Kerala, has reported a bumper crop from the post-flood cultivation.

The situation is different in the hilly Idukki district since cash crops that takes three to five years to provide yield dominate the agriculture scene in the district. Therefore, people’s representatives and farmers in the district have been demanding special consideration for Idukki.

“The flood and the landslides have not only destroyed crops but also changed the structure of the farmlands in many parts of the district. They need a long time to recover from the losses and repay the loans. The farmers will clear the liability if they are allowed more time,” said Roshy Augustine, who represents Idukki Assembly constituency, from where maximum suicides have been reported.

He said that the situation in the district was grave and more farmers would resort to the extreme step if the government does not come out with urgent relief measures. The Congress has gone a step further and demanded complete waiver of the loans as the party has done in Rajasthan, Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.

The party has announced a series of protests to press the demand. While Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala will lead a fast at Kattappana in the district on 6 March, the UDF has given notice for a district hartal (shut down strike) next week. The Opposition is trying to put the Communist Party of India (Marxist), that heads the government, in the dock in the run up to the Lok Sabha election since a major demand of the farmers’ long march led by the party in Maharashtra was loan waiver.

“The CPI(M) is demanding farm loan waiver in Maharashtra, but I want to know whether the party government in Kerala will write off farm loans in the state. Its silence on the demand shows that the party’s love for farmers is only in paper and not in action," says Ramesh.

It is not easy for the government to concede the demand since it is struggling hard to mobilise funds for rebuilding the damaged assets. The shortfall in the collection of GST has further eroded its coffers forcing the government to impose severe restrictions on treasury payments.

However, the government will not be able to ignore the issue since a drought like situation is looming large over the state with all major rivers in the state drying up and ground water level going down after the flood.  This may confound the miseries of the farmers and make the demand for farm loan waiver louder and louder in the coming months.

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Updated Date: Mar 02, 2019 20:03:37 IST

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