Bidyadhar Bag was just 40 when he died. He had rented two acres in Khapsadera village of Orissa’s Sambalpur district to grow food for the family. The payment to the landlord was seven bags of paddy per acre. But the monsoon failed, so Bidyadhar, a father of three, sold household articles to keep the home fires burning. He also owed Rs 5,000 to an SHG (self-help group) and another Rs 10,000 to friends and relatives. Unable to meet any of these commitments, he killed himself in despair.
Bidyadhar’s story is not unique. In fact, farmer suicides have become common in Orissa over the last decade. Over 50 farmers have committed suicide in the last six months. According to a study by the Mumbai-based Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, the rate of suicides by farmers went up from 5.2 per 100,000 males in 2000 to 9.8 in 2004 and rising. While this is still low compared to Maharashtra (52) and Andhra Pradesh (44), the trend is disturbing, to say the least.
So, what are the reasons? Is it spiralling debt burdens, or is Orissa again finding itself caught in a trap of tragedy and shame of impoverishment? The government speaks in two voices. One digs up conspiracy theories and the other somewhat reluctantly admits to the unfolding tragedy.
“Agricultural traditions in Orissa,” reasons agriculture minister Damodar Rout, “are primitive. The farmers’ tolerance to harsh conditions is quite high, which is why normally they don’t take such steps. It’s an insensitive Opposition and a section of motivated media which have made it out to be so without caring to understand the underlying causes.”
On the other hand, “the reasons for suicide apparently are loss of crop and apprehensions over loan repayment, mainly from private sources,” concludes the fact-finding team of the ruling Biju Janata Dal in its report to party supremo and chief minister Naveen Patnaik.
Stories of heart-rending distress are not new to a state that shook the heart of the country in the 1980s. The tribal hinterland of Kalahandi shot into the national headlines with shocking reports of starvation deaths. In the KBK region, abject poverty became a disease that continues to haunt it in the decades that have followed. The shame of hunger deaths was taken to another level in the early 2000s. Tribal deaths rocked Raygada district and this time due to consumption of mango kernels.
For a state tagged as India’s hottest industrial and investment destination, it is time to wake up, let go of the fantasies and tackle the realities. And realise that things have not changed much. Hunger, deprivation and poverty still stalk the land.
The figures cannot be ignored. Most of the deaths have been reported from the state’s western pockets, which is the rain-shadow zone. Erratic rainfall last year pushed many farmers over the edge, driving them to the ultimate step.
It is true, of course, that only a few go to the extreme. If one looks at the farmer sub-group and their suicide rate, one has to look at social as well as economic factors to understand the trend. High indebtedness could be one cause.
A glance at the rate of poverty reduction answers a few questions. In Orissa, the rate has been low — from 48.6 per cent in 1993-94, it dropped to 46.4 per cent in 2004-05. The recent report of the Suresh Tendulkar Committee, which singled out Orissa as one of the poorest states, corroborates this. Small and marginal farmers make up a large segment of the population and they have got no benefit from development programmes.
“Agricultural and other labourers in rural Orissa,” says Srijit Mishra, a senior researcher, “have a high incidence of poverty. What’s worrying is 46 per cent are poor among those who are self-employed in agriculture.”
Their plight has only worsened as holdings have declined in size over the years while their number has risen. Further, on account of declining returns from agriculture, the incremental value of output has become negative. Over the last decade and a half, the cost of farming has risen multi-fold while returns have crashed, which explains the agrarian distress.
With irrigation capacity more or less constant, the erratic monsoon has compounded the misery of the farmers. The Naveen Patnaik government focused on industrial growth and ignored the farm sector. The government’s excessive leniency towards industrial houses in water distribution has triggered serious unrest among farmers.
Irrigation potential remains seriously unutilised, exposing farmers to floods and drought, which have recurred with alarming frequency in the last 10 years. The last monsoon saw at least 15 districts reeling under drought and sustained crop loss of 50 percent and more. It is from these districts the suicides reports have poured in.
The daughter of Gourahari Patra (50), who ended his life in Sargapalli village of Jharsuguda district, has reason to agree. Her father owned five acres and grew paddy on three. But water stress and pest attacks devastated his crop. The Rs 20,000 Patra had borrowed from a co-operative society and another Rs 20,000 from a private lender became mountainous burdens. “Things became extremely difficult in the family. The pressure of crop loss, loan repayment and inability to provide for us, destroyed his fortitude. But still, he shouldn’t have left us,” she says.
Minister Rout dismisses high indebtedness as a cause. “In the period between 1997 and 2008, 48,531 persons committed suicide in Orissa and only 3,509 of them were farmers.”
He does, however, agree that small and marginal farmers need support. “We need to give them additional sources of livelihood from dairy, fisheries and other sectors. I have submitted a Rs 5,000-crore plan for the Animal Resources sector with the objective of boosting their income in the long run,” he says. The question is, how much if any of this will they ever see? For Bag and Patra it already too late.
With inputs from Ratan K Pani
Horror seems set to return
The spectre of farmers committing suicide, unable to make ends meet, appears to be slowly coming back to haunt Andhra, notes R Prithvi Raj.
The situation was grim in 2004, the time when N Chandrababu Naidu lost to Congress’ Y S Rajasekhara Reddy. The nine-year rule (1996-2004) of Naidu happened to be a prolonged period of drought and there seemed no end to the farmers’ problems.
According to government statistics, during this period, as many as 3,690 people of various vocations committed suicide. This included 2,800 farmers. Most of the farmers had raised cotton and groundnut crops. They lost most of their investment they had leveraged from moneylenders. Unable to bear the debt burden and family life shattered, the farmers turned to the final solution, ending their lives.
The nightmare continued till 2004 when YSR, with his pro-farmer avatar, secured a massive mandate from the people of the state. After he took over, as if by miracle, there were good monsoons year after year. Though farmers still depended on moneylenders for investment, they could manage the debt with the income they generated from their farming activity. As ample rains became a common occurrence year after year till 2008-09, farmer suicides became a rarity.
But the problem has resurfaced now, with the monsoon playing truant last year. Though YSR was re-elected to power, he could do not do much. After his untimely death in September, the state experienced the worst ever floods with the swollen Krishna River ravaging large parts of the state. Though there was rain, it was too heavy, very late and proved to be of not much use to farmers as kharif season was already coming to an end. This combination of factors sparked a spike in farmer suicides though nothing on so alarming a scale as seen during Naidu’s rule. The Telugu Desam Party this time around championed the cause of farmers in dire straits and alleged that as many as 20 farmers had committed suicide, including 11 in Anantapur.
Experts say that another important reason for the state’s farmers ending their lives was the extremely low price offered for their produce. Coupled with low yields as a result of the prolonged dry spells between 1995-2004, it created an impossible situation for them. This cyclical phenomenon of fluctuation of agriculture prices began showing an upward trend in 2004.
Says Prof N Chandrasekhara Rao of Centre for Economic and Social Studies (CESS): “Farmers could manage their debt problem for three years after 2004 because of good monsoon and upward trend in prices for agriculture produce. But this year they are facing problems again. The structural factors still persist, defying a permanent solution. Even today, only 30 per cent of farmers get institutional credit. The rest are woefully dependent on moneylenders. This apart, the productivity of the farm sector has not at all improved,” he says.