Rameshwar Suroshe got his name into three registers after February 9. He clocked in as Entry No. 301 in the “Register of deaths” kept by the Vidharbha Jan Andolan Samiti. That is, he was the 301st farmer in the region to take his own life since June 2 last year. In the tally of a leading Marathi newspaper, Sakaal, he would figure as No. 278. In the most chilling list of all, he may not merit a number as yet. That is the post-mortems register of the medical centre closest to his village in Yavatmal district.
Suroshe’s death in Nageshwadi was a bit unusual. The small farmer hanged himself. Most farmers killing themselves have swallowed pesticide. So much so that the verdict of death by “poisoning” has become synonymous with farm suicides. And those numbers have been rising in Vidharbha. Not least in Yavatmal. Since September 2005, post-mortem centers in Maharashtra are open 24 hours by government order. Which means that smaller local centers can now take some of the load off the main district hospitals.
The post-mortem centre at the sub-district hospital in Panderkauda–the heart of the cotton country–is a busy one. Here, poison deaths between October and early February were nearly three times the number seen in the same period two years ago. Also, they make up fully 75 per cent of all post-mortems this season. That is, 36 of the 48 post-mortems done so far. Further, the centre here is just one of its kind. There are 16 in the district of Yavatmal. And dozens more across Vidharbha.
Farm suicides have been occurring in disturbing numbers for some years now in the region. But there has been an ugly spurt since last October. By the end of that month, the price for cotton that farmers were getting sank by Rs.500 a quintal.
This means Maharashtra’s cotton growers lost some Rs.850 crore [a crore is 10 million; $1 US is about 44 rupees] on that count alone. The fall came with the Government’s decision to withdraw the “advance bonus” of Rs.500 a quintal. By November, it was clear this would not be restored.
In Panderkauda, poison cases during October-February stood at almost double the number of all post-mortems done in the same period two years ago. The total number of post-mortems has also risen. From 206 in 2003-04, to 223 the next year. With a month and a half still left in the current year, it is past the 210 mark. And this is the worst period. “Of course almost all are small farmers,” says a doctor in this town of the deaths. “There may be some poison cases of a different nature. But then there are also farmers who have hanged or drowned themselves.” He also points out that these are the figures of just one centre in a single district. There are scores of post-mortem centers across Vidharbha.
Meanwhile, the total number of suicides is mounting. “It was clear this would happen once they cut the advance bonus,” says Kishore Tiwari of the Jan Andolan Samiti. It is in the Samiti’s register that Suroshe now resides as No. 301. There have been six more after him. Which brings the tally to 307. This figure only covers deaths reported in the newspapers. So it is not exhaustive. The Government’s own count is 315 since April 1, 2005.
The official figure begins on that date as it sticks to the financial year. The Andolan number starts from June 2 by when the farming season was in full swing. Sakaal goes by the count of its own reporters. The Andolan also keeps logs for two or three years past. The Government has changed its figure on the suicides four times in six months. And always upwards. From 140 to 1,041 State-wide. ( The Hindu , December 29, 2005.)
The Government admits to 309 farm suicides in Yavatmal alone from 2001 to September last year. That count would now stand at around 400 for the district. Much less than 10 per cent of the families hit by the suicides have got any compensation.
The numbers since October are appalling. That month saw 20 farmers take their lives in the region. There were 52 in November, 72 in December, and 68 in January. February is still on. With few signs of a slowdown. The cotton economy has collapsed and most fear there is worse to follow.
Meanwhile a new study adds fresh data to the subject. A team from the Indira Gandhi Institute for Development Research, Mumbai, looked at agrarian distress in Yavatmal, Washim, and Wardha districts. It also studied the larger trends of suicides in Maharashtra. One devastating finding is on the spiral in the State’s SMR or suicide mortality rate. (That is: suicides per 100,000 population.)
“The SMR for male farmers in Maharashtra trebled from 17 in 1995 to 53 in 2004.” In contrast, says the report, for all males in the State, it stabilised at a level of 20 or 21 after 2001. For women it even fell after 1999. Clearly, farmers have taken a huge hit. So much so that it pushes up the State’s overall SMR level. “In 2001, age-adjusted SMR for males was 20.6 in Maharashtra compared to India’s 14.0.”
The SMR for male farmers across Maharashtra is 53. That is nearly four times the national average for all males. In affected districts like Amravati, the figure for male farmers was 140 in 2004. That is, ten times the national average for all males. And seven times the State’s average for males. Vidharbha’s farmers are in deep trouble.
In over two-thirds of the 111 farm suicides the study looked at, those taking their lives were less than 50 years old. They were not novices. Close to 60 per cent had been farmers for over ten years. Two in five had seen matric-level schooling. And four of every five suicides were deaths by poisoning. That is, by drinking pesticide.
Meanwhile, the suicides have spread to the region’s paddy belt. Not as yet in huge numbers. But enough to cause alarm. There have been 24 in the paddy belt of Gondhia, Bhandara, and east Chandrapur since June 2 last year.
Not a paisa of the Government’s Rs.1,075 crore “relief package” has been disbursed so far. “How do those in Mumbai care,” asks Kishore Tiwari. “The suicides have crossed 300. But the SENSEX has crossed 10,000.”
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: email@example.com.