The thing about traveling in Vidarbha – the districts of eastern Maharashtra – to learn about farmer suicides is this: very soon, the issue comes to dominate your thinking. Everything is shaded by those suicides. Take for example what happened to us when we entered the village of Barshi-Takli.
As we drive in, I see off to my left a long, straggly procession of men. My first thought is ‘funeral’, my second is ‘farmer suicide’. So I leap out to inquire. Turns out it is a funeral, but not a farmer, not a suicide. It’s just – and what do I mean, just? – an old man of the village.
There are ways to rationalise what’s happening in Vidarbha. According to the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS) in Pandharkawda, who have been tracking the suicides, about 550 farmers have killed themselves since June 2005. But that’s ‘just’ 550, in a region that’s home to tens of millions. After all, farmers are not killing themselves in the thousands. So why the alarm? Besides, how can you sympathise with a man who chooses this cowardly way to escape his problems? What’s more, these guys got used to the old socialist ways, when the government bought cotton at a fixed price. That can’t continue! When market forces begin dictating the economy, as they must, they will have to adapt or suffer, period.
In any debate about farmer suicides, you will hear arguments like these. There may be truth in them, too. Yet we do know that at least 550 families across Vidarbha have gone into mourning over the last year. What’s to be done about that?
Here’s a broad-brush portrait of what’s going on, as I understand it. Many Vidarbha farmers grow cotton. (Cotton is, many people there say, the best-suited crop for Vidarbha’s soil and water situation.) For a generation, the government offered a fixed price every growing season, a price at which they would buy cotton. Now there are arguments about whether this was wise, but the reality is that it was done. Yes: a generation of cotton farmers grew up used to the fixed price.
Add debt to this. Though again, debt is no unusual thing in these parts. (Or any farming parts.) Farmers regularly take loans, whether from banks or moneylenders, to buy supplies. They rarely worried much about this, because they were confident that their crops would give them enough to repay the loans.
But some things have changed. For one, the government stopped buying cotton at a fixed price a couple of seasons ago. Farmers must now sell cotton at market rates.
For another, there is a general glut of cotton. People explain this in various ways, but we heard two things repeatedly in Vidarbha. First, cotton is left over from last year. Second, import duties on foreign cotton are lower than they should be, making foreign cotton actually cheaper than Indian varieties.
For a third, many Vidarbha cotton farmers had a poor crop this season. Again, earlier this would not have overly troubled them: the fixed price was insulation of sorts. Besides, even market-dependency means that a poor crop will at least fetch a good price. Supply and demand, after all
Not so simple. Other cotton areas had good crops, so prices actually fell. So when Vidarbha farmers went to market with their (generally) poor crops, they faced a double-whammy. Their cotton was (generally) worse than cotton from other parts of the country, yet the price had declined about 25 percent – about Rs 2200-2500 per quintal (a 100 kg bundle) last year, Rs 1500-1900 this year.
So the typical Vidarbha cotton farmer is a man who has paid higher prices than before for seed and fertiliser (those being subject to usual inflation), who carries loans, whose crop is worse than last year, who is faced with prices lower than last year. So some of these farmers cannot repay their loans.
And Raju Mahadev Pinjarkar of Barshi-Takli exemplified this conundrum. He had borrowed Rs 7000. But this year, his three acres yielded only three quintals of cotton. And his crop brought only Rs 1500 a quintal. This was the lowest price we heard in over a week wandering Vidarbha, an indication of both the quality of his crop and his desperation to sell.
You don’t need a calculator to understand Pinjarkar’s plight. So yes, he was one of those weak farmers whom we must look down our noses at, someone who chose the easy way out. One April morning, just days before we reached Barshi-Takli, he became #455 on the VJAS list.
It’s worth understanding that Pinjarkar’s was hardly the smallest debt we heard about. A young farmer in nearby Dadham village killed himself over a Rs 2000 loan. Seven thousand rupees, two thousand rupees. These are numbers that worry people in rural Vidarbha. This is what is happening in rural Vidarbha.
Vidarbha farmers have been exposed to a lot of advertising for the famous Bt (or Bollguard) Cotton, the genetically modified variety sold by the US corporate giant Monsanto. This is worth noting because of the price difference between ordinary and Bt Cotton. A 450 gm bag of ordinary cotton seed costs about Rs 600. The same sized bag of Bt costs about Rs 1700. (An acre of farmland needs two of these bags.)
What you get for that higher price is Bt’s resistance to bollworm, a destructive cotton pest. Most farmers I spoke to believe it is also supposed to resist other pests and disease. Whether this is true, or whether the advertising gives this impression inadvertently or otherwise, I do not know. But farmers seem to believe it.
Well, they actually believe something slightly different: that planting Bt Cotton in their fields means spending less – in fact, nothing – on pesticides. The farmer who chooses Bt expects that he won’t have to spray his crop. That justifies the greater seed expense. Yet the Marathi leaflet that comes with Bt seed packets has these two statements:
“Athavdhyatun donda sakali bollguard kapaasachya shetat vodalyaanchi mojni kelyanantar phavarni karnyachya nirnay dhyava.” (Twice in a week, after counting pests [worms] in the bollguard-planted field, you must spray [pesticide]).
“Sarva jhaadavarchi milun jivanta vodalyaanchi ekun sankhya 20 kinva 20 pakshi jaasta bharli tare phavarnichi garje aahe ase samjha.” (If you find 20 or more than 20 live pests on the plants, then you need to spray [pesticide]).
You expect your seed will resist pests. What must you make of these injunctions to spray? What of your hope that you won’t have to spend on pesticides?
This season, there was an additional complication. Cotton in Vidarbha was blighted by what the farmers call lalya, a disease that dries up the plants and turns them red. (Thus the name.) Again, farmers who invested in Bt expected their crops, rightly or wrongly, to resist lalya. No luck. That is, the blight hit all the cotton, Bt or not. That is one reason they went to market with greatly reduced yields.
The days pass
Finally, some notes from hot and dusty Pandharkawda, three hours south of Nagpur. At one end of Pandharkawda, there’s a massive gathering of bullock carts, tractors, tempos and other small trucks. What is this? Each vehicle, cart or truck or tractor, is heavy with a bulging load.
Cotton, of course. Cotton fresh from the picking, stuffed into canvas sacks and carted here from as far away as 50 km by bullock cart and truck. Cotton, brought to market here by small- and medium-scale farmers.
A few things about these loads of cotton. First, they weigh a lot, but they lose weight. As it sits in the sun for days, the cotton dries and becomes lighter. So with each passing day, the value of the load decreases.
Second, the men who bring the loads have to pay rent for their transport. Bullock carts come for a rental of Rs 100 per quintal of cotton, plus Rs 50 per night. Fodder for the bullocks is separate. Trucks and tractors have a hire charge of Rs 1500 (one-time) and Rs 500 every night. Fuel is separate. So is food.
With each passing day, these expenses eat into what these men will earn from their loads.
Third, why do the days pass? Because of the glut, there are few buyers for the cotton. So a seller must wait his turn, sometimes for days. When we meet him, 38-year-old Mohammed Rahimuddin and his cart have waited eight days. Others, at least four.
Fourth, the occasional long weekend. For three days when I visited, the office here was closed. The state holiday for Mahashivratri explained the first two. On the third day, no ‘labour’ turned up to unload the carts and weigh the loads. Just like that, these farmers had to wait three days in the searing Vidarbha heat, totting up three days of hire charges.
When we visit, there are hundreds of farmers like this in Pandharkawda, waiting to sell their loads. Some of those farmers – forgive me, I cannot help the thought – will kill themselves.
Yes, Vidarbha puts these ideas in your mind.