Why Maharashtra is reaping farmer distress with increased death by suicides

Why Maharashtra is reaping farmer distress with increased death by suicides

The families of Maharashtra farmers who die by suicide due to various reasons are extended some financial help by the state government, but it is far from adequate for their families

A day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi marked his 71st birthday, Dashrath Lakshman Kedari, a farmer in his mid-40s from Wadgaon Anand village in Pune, penned a birthday note for him. In a cruel irony, the birthday note for the PM also carried an announcement of Kedari’s death. The note with birthday wishes for the PM squarely blamed him and the Centre as well as the state government for...

A day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi marked his 71st birthday, Dashrath Lakshman Kedari, a farmer in his mid-40s from Wadgaon Anand village in Pune, penned a birthday note for him. In a cruel irony, the birthday note for the PM also carried an announcement of Kedari’s death.

The note with birthday wishes for the PM squarely blamed him and the Centre as well as the state government for the plight of the farmers in Maharashtra.

“We don’t have any money, but moneylenders are not willing to wait. What should we do? We can’t even afford to take onions to the market. Modi sahib, you must provide the guaranteed price for the produce. The finance guys threaten us while the cooperative society officers abuse us. Who should we approach for justice? I am forced to commit suicide because of your inaction today. Please give us the prices for crops, which is our right,” read the note written in Marathi.

Kedari is not alone. Thousands of small and marginal farmers in Maharashtra are trapped in a vicious cycle of debt and have no option but to continue farming despite it being rendered financially unviable over the years.

Also read: Economic Survey silent on challenges in agriculture and possible solutions

Farmers recognise debt, environmental problems, lack of remunerative prices for farm produce, government apathy, poor irrigation facilities, increased cost of cultivation, private money lenders, use of chemical fertilizers and crop failure as the most significant reasons for increase in number of suicides among their ilk.

Nearly 3,000 farmers end life in 2022

Maharashtra recorded 2,942 farmer suicides last year as compared to 2,743 in 2021and 2,547 in 2020. Almost 50 per cent of these suicides were reported from the state’s Vidarbha region.

Amaravati division, which covers western Vidarbha, recorded the highest number of farmer suicides in both years. In 2022, a total of 1,171 farmer suicides were registered while the number was 1,153 in 2021 and 1,128 in 2020, according to an RTI reply received by Jeetendra Ghadge. Aurangabad division, which covers the entire Marathwada area, witnessed an increase in the number of farmer suicides from 773 in 2020 to 887 in 2021, followed by 1,023 in 2022. Nagpur division, which covers eastern Vidarbha, registered a rise in the number of suicides from 269 in 2020 to 349 in 2021, though it came down marginally to 339 in 2022. In Nashik division, 351 suicides were recorded in 2020, 339 in 2021 and 388 in 2022. In Pune division, 26 suicides were reported in 2020, 15 in 2021 and 21 in 2022.

The trend has recorded a significant increase in Marathwada region last year, as 1,023 farmers died by suicide in 2022, up from 887 in the previous year. The figures are alarming in view of the fact that the region comprising Jalna, Aurangabad, Parbhani, Hingoli, Nanded, Latur, Osmanabad and Beed districts had recorded just one farmer suicide in 2001. As per figures from the divisional commissioner office, 10,431 growers have ended their lives so far in the region’s eight districts since 2001.

Suicide-affected families at sea

Baburao Judpe, a small farmer from Tanda village in Mauda Tehsil, died by suicide last year after his cotton crop spread over 3.5 acres of land was washed away in heavy rainfall. “He had availed ₹2 lakh loan from a bank and another ₹2 lakh from a local moneylender. He wanted to repay a part of his debt within a year, but all his hopes were dashed,” said his teenaged son Prakash with his eyes welling up. Now, it is left to Prakash and his mother to do the farming with whatever little experience they have.

The families of the farmers who die by suicide due to various reasons like crop failure, bad market rates, and increasing pressure of banks/moneylenders to repay loans are extended some financial help by the state government. However, it doesn’t make the life of the next of kin any easier. The government provides an aid of ₹1 lakh, of which ₹30,000 is given in the form of cash while the remaining ₹70,000 in fixed deposit that is released only after five years.

Also read: Budget 2023-24 must focus on climate-smart regenerative agriculture: Expert

However, the suicide-affected families continue to live under pressure of repaying institutional as well as non-institutional loans. The government doesn’t provide any loan waiver to the families that are at sea, as they carry the burden of not only repaying debt but also eking out a livelihood after losing their sole breadwinner.

Need to address core issues: Farmer leader

Talking to The Federal, farmer leader Kishor Tiwari, who is also the founder of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, said there is an urgent need to address the core issues of rural economic crisis and agrarian plight by controlling input cost, proper marketing intervention and sustainable minimum support price (MSP), easy credit from public banks for debt-ridden farmers, changing crop pattern and stopping the import of oilseed, pulses and food items.

Incidentally, Tiwari was sacked as the president of Vasantrao Naik Sheti Swavlamban Mission (VNSSM), a task force for crop loans, by Maharashtra government last year after he invited Prime Minister Modi to visit the family of Dashrath Lakshman Kedari, a Pune farmer who died by suicide after extending birthday greetings to the PM in his suicide note.

“Agriculture growth in Maharashtra is almost in double digits now but the fact that the farmer’s income has dropped continuously is a cause of concern. This is primarily because of the increasing cost of agricultural inputs and lack of remunerative prices for the agricultural produce. The farmers’ debts are increasing and no one is coming to their rescue. There is a dire need for a plan to enhance the income of farmers,” said Tiwari.

‘Scrap anti-farmer laws, ensure open market’

Some also demand the scraping of anti-farmer laws to make their lives easier.

“The anti-farmer laws like Procurement Act, Land Acquisition Act, and Essential Commodities Act should be scrapped as they lead to unnecessary government interference in the agriculture sector. The government should also ensure an open market for the farmers to sell their agricultural produce, besides giving them freedom to adopt the latest technologies to boost production,” said farmers’ group Shetkari Sanghatana spokesman Shrikant Umrikar.

Also read: Agriculture Minister claims farmers’ income has doubled, then ties himself in knots

To substantiate his point, Umrikar said the government imports GM (genetically modified) corn from other countries, but it doesn’t allow the farmers to cultivate the same back home in India. “While Indian economy was liberalised way back in 1991, agriculture still remains in the clutches of the government, denying farmers the access to open markets,” he lamented.

‘Indebtedness root cause of farmer suicides’

Farm activist Vijay Jawandhiya said the root cause of the increasing number of farmer suicides is indebtedness which may be attributed to the lack of remunerative prices for the agricultural produce. “I have always maintained that farmer suicides are just the tip of the iceberg and the fact remains that the entire agriculture sector is in a deep crisis, which is not being addressed,” he added.

According to Jawandhiya, the country has gradually moved to a high-cost economy and everything from the cost of health, education to urban wages has gone up, but the rural income has not increased in the same proportion. He said most of the subsidies are meant for farmers dependent on irrigation facilities while those involved in rain-fed agriculture are left to fend for themselves. “Those farmers need to be protected against vagaries of weather through a well devised crop insurance plan,” he said. The issue, he contended, is not merely about the farmers who are dying by suicide but it is also time to introspect whether the farmers, who are alive, have a decent life.

Jawandhiya also underlined the fact that the farmers don’t need repeated waiver of loans but should rather be given strength to repay the loan. He said the Telangana model of crop insurance needs to be replicated across the country so that the farmers need not worry about the finances for sowing the crop in the next season, if they suffer crop loss.

Rain-fed agriculture to blame for crisis

Jawandhiya’s concern about the plight of farmers dependent on rain-fed agriculture finds echoes among the farming community. Deepak Sarwe, a farmer from Umri village in Saoner Tehsil said most of them are into cotton production which needs proper and timely water supply. “However, we’re largely dependent on rainwater and any shortfall in water supply damages our crop easily, turning it into a high-risk venture. Proper irrigation facilities are a must for the cotton farmers like us,” he said.

Experts said only 8 to 10 per cent Vidarbha region has proper irrigation facilities, leaving the cotton crop in the remaining area vulnerable to vagaries of weather throughout the year. They also claimed that the rate of suicide is more among the farmers who don’t have access to proper irrigation facilities.

Also read: Rs 20 lakh crore credit target in govt push for agriculture sector

Drug addiction, no brides for farmers also key issues

Suhas Ajgaonkar, working secretary of Savitri Bai Phule Mahila Ekatm Samaj Mandal in Aurangabad, said there is more to the distress than what meets the eye when it comes to farmer suicides in Marathwada region. “With the landholdings on the decline over the years, the number of small and marginal farmers has increased manifold, making agriculture a loss making venture. As a result, some farmers also fall prey to drug addiction. Besides, most of the youth who are into farming don’t get brides apparently due to low returns in agriculture. Many of them end up getting into extra-marital affairs, leading to further complications in their life,” he said.

Ajgaonkar also emphasised on the need for stress relief camps and counselling services for the farmers. According to him, there are policies in place to address the agrarian crisis, but the need of the hour is to implement them at the grass-root level. Same is the case with agricultural research. He said a lot of research work is being done to make agriculture financially viable, but that research is not reaching the farmers.

Debt waiver no solution to farmers’ woes

The successive state governments have announced debt waiver schemes for the farmers from time to time. In 2017, the then Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis announced ₹34,000 crore crop loan waiver for farmers in the state and said the government will waive loans up to ₹1.5 lakh completely. The loan waiver scheme called Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Krushi Sanman Yojana was aimed to benefit around 89 lakh farmers in the state and make around 40 lakh farmers debt-free.

The incumbent Maharashtra government too is running the Mahatma Jyotiba Phule scheme, under which a farmer’s loan up to ₹2 lakh is eligible for a waiver. The state has identified 32.82 lakh bank account holders eligible for the loan waiver scheme.

However, it’s a never ending cycle of debt, as suggested by a report of the State Level Bankers’ Committee in 2021. The report revealed that 63 per cent of the farmers who benefitted from the debt waiver scheme availed fresh crop loans.

(Suicides can be prevented. For help please call Suicide Prevention Helplines: Neha Suicide Prevention Centre – 044-24640050; Aasara helpline for suicide prevention, emotional support & trauma help — +91-9820466726; Kiran, Mental health rehabilitation — 1800-599-0019, Disha 0471- 2552056, Maithri 0484 2540530, TN health helpline 104 and Sneha’s suicide prevention helpline 044-24640050.)

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