Two Million in "Maximum Distress"
Ramesshwar Kuchankar decided that the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee was where he would take his own life. He did, on November 28 in Panderkauda, Yavatmal. Ten days later, Dinesh Ghughul was shot dead by the police at the Wani cotton market in the same district. And Pundalik Girsawle walked into the premises of the agricultural officer, Wani, and killed himself there 12 days after Ghughul’s death.
Kuchankar was 27, Ghughul was 38, and Girsawle 45. Different people in several ways. Yet they represent the same new – and growing – trend in Vidharbha’s farm deaths [in the state of Maharashtra, east of Mumbai]. More and more such farmers are directly blaming state policy – not drought or floods – for their misery. Some confront the Government in tragic ways. Where Girsawle and Kuchankar chose to commit suicide was in itself a statement. And for some months now, the suicide notes of farmers are talking directly to Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh and even to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
"Don’t blame my family for my action," says the suicide note of young Kuchankar. "I will never forgive anybody who does." He perhaps foresaw a standard government explanation of farm suicides: "family dispute." And in one poignant sentence, addresses the 19-year-old girl he had wed just six months ago: "Pratibha, I am sorry. Please get remarried." He blames the procurement price for cotton as the source of farmers’ distress. "We are fed up with the delay in procurement and crashing prices. This will further aggravate the situation."
His message to Mr. Deshmukh: "Mr. Chief Minister give us the price." And to Home Minister R.R. Patil "if you do not give us a price of Rs.3,000 per quintal, suicides will surge." Kuchankar wrote: "The cotton price has fallen to Rs.1,990 a quintal. We cannot manage with that. Which is why I am giving up my life." The suicide note is a bunch of anguished scribbles across a sheet of paper.
Pundalik Girsawle chose the Agricultural Office in Wani to make his point. He was seeking Rs.4,800 to buy a bullock cart under the Prime Minister’s relief package. He had seen four years of crop failure. His home being close to the Tejapur forest, wild animals devastated his fields. Household health expenses were rising. He sought the agricultural officer’s aid.
"He went to that office 15 times," his mother Parvatabai told us in Tejapur. "Look, he even sold one of the doors he had bought for this house. Why? To pay for his frequent bus tickets to Wani. But someone there demanded a bribe. When he threatened to commit suicide, they told him `you do what you like.’ He was shattered." He chose that very office as the site of his suicide.
Neighbours allege that the cheque for some Rs.4,400 [approx 45 rupees to US$1] found on his body "was planted there to cover up the racket his suicide exposed." His five-member family now depends on the Rs.30 his widow Sunita brings in on those days she can find work. "What happens to Pundalik’s three daughters," asks Parvatabai. They are aged 14, 12, and 10. Meanwhile, officials declared it a "non-distress" suicide. A view echoed in sections of the media that had never been to the village or met his family.
"There is no way the government can record these two as farm suicides," says Kishore Tiwari of the Vidharbha Jan Andolan Samiti. "Acceptance would highlight their words and actions – which directly implicate and expose the government and its policies. Hence they have to be called fake and the families denied compensation."
In August the suicide note of cotton grower Ramakrishna Lonkar in Wardha district had made news. "After the Prime Minister’s visit and announcements of a fresh crop loan, I thought I could live again," Lonkar wrote. But, he concluded, he found nothing had changed on the credit front. Or on other policies. The same month saw Sahebrao Adhao of Amravati district paint a picture of usury, debt, and land-grab in his suicide note. Yet again, a victim had captured the failure of both system and policy in writing.
"This trend now causes huge trouble for the government," says Mr. Tiwari. "All the cover-ups and paid-for bogus `studies’ finding other causes for the deaths are destroyed when the farmer explains in detail why he is killing himself. And points a finger at the government’s wrong policies."
Dinesh Ghughul’s case is more complex. "He was not part of the protests that burst out in Wani that day," says his widow Savita at their home in Mendoli village. Huge delays in cotton procurement angered farmers. Just 56 procurement centres were at work where there had been 300 three years ago. In the chaos that followed, Ghughul fell to police bullets. "He went to Wani to sell his cotton. Why kill him for that," she asked Mr. R.R. Patil. "He told me, `what has happened has happened. But now let us help you and your family.’" The huge public anger meant this family got some compensation for the loss of its bread-winner. But it is in bad shape. And it has only an APL card. The family feels the protest that led to his death was a statement. That it captured his own plight even if he was not part of it.
Farmers’ suicides in Vidharbha go on relentlessly. The first three weeks of January saw over 50. The State Government’s own website has conceded over 1,400 suicides in just six districts of the region during 2006. However, the figures are kept down by increasing, each month, the "rate of rejection" of suicides. That is, the government argues that most of these suicides are not due to agrarian distress but "other causes." Such as family disputes, drunkenness, and the like.
Rejecting most of the deaths as "not eligible" for compensation helps "slow down" the number of suicides. On paper at least. The VJAS points out that the "rejection rate" has risen every month since the Prime Minister’s visit last June. "And yet," says Mr. Tiwari, "the suicides go up. Just look at their own total figure." The government’s website concedes — on the basis of the biggest ever survey done in Vidharbha which covered close to ten million farmers — that over three qarters of these are in distress in these six districts. And that nearly two million are in "maximum distress." That distress is showing. And the farmers taking their own lives are making no secret of who they blame for it.
P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu (where this piece initially ran) and the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.