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Malady of Yavatmal — Cotton turns a killer

Sharad Joshi

Why are cotton farmers of Maharashtra's Vidarbha region, where the annual farm turnover is often in six digits, driven to committing suicide? More than the incidence of spurious pesticides or defective seeds, as in Andhra Pradesh, it is the State monopoly procurement scheme that has pushed them deep into debt and, now, the harsh process of loan recovery, says Sharad Joshi.

YAVATMAL is one of the better-endowed districts of the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. Thanks to bountiful rains, it has large tracts covered with lush green forests. It is a major cotton-producing district. So much so that in the days of the Raj, the British companies considered it worthwhile to construct a whole railroad for the transport of cotton. The meter-gauge track meanders throughout the district crisscrossing roads and thick forests.

At the dawn of Independence, Ijardars dominated the social, cultural, economic and political life of Yavatmal.

The term Ijardars literally means those who wear trousers. In real terms, it means petty landlords with holdings of around three to five hundred acres. Thanks to the bountiful nature they lived an opulent life; drought and starvation were unheard of.

Fifty-odd years after Independence, the Yavatmal scene has changed completely. According to official statistics, in this district, 154 farmers committed suicidesince 2001 — 17 in 2001; 38 in 2002; 52 in 2003, and 47 in 2004 till end July.

All but nine of those who committed suicide were in debt taken from credit institutions or private moneylenders. The amounts outstanding were mostly in five digits — certainly not a burden that can be considered unbearable in a community where the annual farm turnover is often in six-digit.

In the neighbouring cotton-producing districts of Marathwada, there have been several cases of farmers committing suicide; but not quite as many. In the Satara, Pune Solapur and Jalgaon districts the first suicides happened towards the end of July 2004.

What explains the relatively high incidence of farm suicides in Vidarbha? First, it is the cotton farmer who is affected.

In Andhra Pradesh, where there have been farmer suicides on a large scale, it is again the cotton farmers who are the principal victims. But, unlike in Andhra Pradesh where the victims have been primarily from the landless section, in Vidarbha they are land-owning cotton farmers.

Further, the incidence of spurious pesticides and defective seeds is, unlike in Andhra Pradesh, negligible in Maharashtra. There is, obviously, something about cotton that takes the toll of those who produce it.

The Aggregate Measurement of Support (AMS) — that is, the difference between the prices actually obtained by the farmers and the price they would have obtained in a hypothetical free market — is the worst in the case of cotton (-258.51 per cent in 1996-97). Clearly, the negative AMS or the negative subsidy is the prime cause of farmer suicides in India.

The cotton farmers in Vidarbha, unlike the tribals in the adjoining Amaravati district, are unused to starvation and famine. This year some 9,000 cases of child malnutrition and starvation came to light in the tribal Chikhaldara tract of Amaravati district.

The cotton farmers of Vidarbha have not been driven, in living memory, to break stones or do earth-work in famine relief camps.

The drought this year came as a severe shock. Truant monsoons destroyed two successive sowings — a phenomenon the farmers had never encountered.

And even before the onset of monsoons, the loan recovery officials had launched their operations. These included gentle persuasion, threats, humiliation, seizure of household goods, bicycles, tin-roofs and auctioning of land.

This year, the recovery officials were particularly severe and brutal. The year 2003-04 was particularly good for Vidarbha farmers. The cotton crop was bountiful and the sale price high, thanks to the suspension of the Maharashtra Cotton Monopoly Procurement Scheme operations (so also with soybean.)

The farmers had earned more money than they ever did in a long, long time. The recovery officials of the lending banks, cooperative societies and commercial banks, and the moneylenders saw an opportunity. This was a good time to clear loans and settle accounts.

The recovery method became particularly severe and coercive, bordering on the extortionate this year. It is alleged that houses of farmers were entered and belongings of farmers taken away. Activists of a farmers' organisation have even filed police cases of unlawful entry and robbery. All to no avail.

The farmers were driven to suicide, first in trickles and then in waves, as suicide became a thinkable proposition. The accounts of the Yavatmal District Central Cooperative Bank showed that the amount of loans recovered this year was the highest in the last five years.

The situation of the cotton producers in Vidarbha was even worse because of the monopoly procurement by the Government of Maharashtra since 1971.

The prices obtained by the farmers under this scheme were much lower than those prevailing in Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat.

Over 30 years, cotton farmers have sunk deeper and deeper into debt. If there is one single villain of the cotton farmers' suicides in Maharashtra, it is State Cotton Monopoly Procurement Scheme.

(The author, a Rajya Sabha MP, is Founder, Shetkari Sanghatana. He can be contacted sharad@mah.nic.in)

More Stories on : Agricultural Policy | Cotton | Maharashtra | Down to Earth

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