Farmers sow. Reaper reaps

As many as eight farmers have committed suicide in Idukki since the devastating deluge in August last year.

Published: 03rd March 2019 05:20 AM  |   Last Updated: 03rd March 2019 05:20 AM   |  A+A-

Anu, wife of Santosh, a farmer who committed suicide, in front of her house at Marygiri, which is under maintenance, with her five-year-old son Romio

Express News Service

IDUKKI: As many as eight farmers have committed suicide in Idukki since the devastating deluge in August last year. Of which, the reason for the suicide of seven farmers is attributed to mounting debts and crop failure. This sudden spurt in suicides has raised concerns as to whether this hilly region is heading for an agrarian crisis similar to that of Vidarbha in Maharashtra.

In the most recent incident, James of Varikkanikkal House, Chinnar, in Konnathady grama panchayat, committed suicide on Tuesday due to debt and crop loss. James had taken loans from various banks for farming and educating his children. However, the unexpected rain destroyed his standing crops and the spread of disease decreased the yield, making James unable to repay the loan. He was found hanging from a tree on Tuesday evening in the teak plantation at Perinchamkutty.

soumyadip sinha

In a similar incident, Kunnath Surendran, 67, who owned 1 acre, had availed a loan of `6 lakh from Devikulam Taluk Agriculture and Rural Development Bank. However, it was said he was unable to repay the loan due to crop failure. Surendran consumed poison on February 19 and then was undergoing treatment at Kottayam Medical College Hospital where he breathed his last on Monday (February 25) evening.

A whopping seven suicides have been reported in the district within the past two months, close on the heels of the unprecedented rain, flood and landslides, which battered the region from the beginning of July to the end of August, destroying crops and vulnerable orchard crops like banana and tapioca. 
Idukki was not generally in the limelight for farmer suicides, but for the past few months, a steady trickle of suicides has been happening. In January and February this year, three and four suicides were reported respectively from the region, taking the toll since November to eight. 

A farmer named Tomy, 49, of Niravathu house, Maniyarankudy, in Vazhathope, who attempted suicide on January 4 due to debt and crop loss, was fortunate to escape from death and is under treatment at the Kottayam Medical College Hospital. 

Cost-intensive farming 
“First, there are the basic shortcomings in farming. Agriculture is a very labour- and cost-intensive enterprise. This means, to get your output at the end of an agricultural season, you need to invest a lot of money right in the beginning,” said Roy K Paulose, former District Congress Committee president and social activist.

A majority of the farmers here cultivates pepper, cardamom, banana, tapioca and rubber, on leased plots and on individual properties as well, which requires a huge initial investment. “However, these marginal farmers do not have ready cash for investment and hence take loans from banks to start farming every year,” he said.

Once they harvest crops by the end of the season, the profit they earn is enough to repay the loan and start preparing for the next seasonal crop. However, last year, the deluge was so unexpected that it wiped outstanding crops, and those crops that survived are facing the threat of disease and fungal infection, which ultimately resulted in reduced yield. 

Fall in crop prices to blame?
Crop loss coupled with fall in price came as a double whammy to farmers, and a majority being rendered helpless to repay the loan. Along with it, when the banks started sending them repayment notice, finding no other way, they finally resorted to taking the extreme step.
The price of pepper per kilo is `338, however, during the same time last year, it was `600 to `700 per kilogram. 

 But the farmers say although the present price is enough to meet the expenses involved, no profit could be fetched from the present market price to pay off the debts. While for rubber, the price per kilogram is R100 to R110 compared to the R200 to `250 per kg last year. When it comes to milk, it is sold at `30 to `32 per litre, which the farmers say is low for a marginal dairy farmer to survive. While in the case of cocoa, the price has declined below R50 as compared to `70 and above last year. Even as the farmers have been demanding a minimum support price (MSP) for cash crops for the past several years, nothing has happened till date. The agricultural produce is still sold at a low price fixed by the market agents on the spot. 

“Hence, a majority of the rubber farmers in the high ranges have either left the rubber trees untapped or are forced to sell rubber at a low cost of `110 per sheet,” Roy said.
“If the government takes action to fix at least `200 as MSP, the rubber farmers can survive without facing much loss from the cultivation,” he said.

Meagre flood compensation and crop insurance
Despite several announcements and promises from the part of the government to ensure better compensation for the crops, many farmers in Idukki have not applied for it as the compensation is so meagre to cover the loss. “There have not been any changes to the crop insurance policy of the government, and the government still continues to pay R50 for an uprooted banana tree. The deluge of August was so intense it destroyed 11,530 hectares of agricultural land across the district,” said Ibrahim Kutty Kallar, Idukki District Congress Committee president.

The solution
Farmers demand the government to directly intervene in the issue to solve the present agrarian crisis in the district. Instead of local MLAs or MPs giving instruction to the bank officials not to send repayment notice for one year, the Chief Minister should directly intervene in the issue and an order should be passed to the banks to issue a moratorium for not only agriculture loans but for various other loans the farmers have taken for agriculture purpose. 

Besides, they also demand the government to fix a minimum support price for crops, particularly for highly volatile crops like pepper. “Action should be taken to provide compensation to farmers at the earliest. And a policy change should be made in the existing crop insurance policy to cover the crop damage during the flood,” the farmers demand.

The bank trap 
To avail an agriculture loan, there are some criteria. “He should have at least two to three acres for the loan to be sanctioned and the maximum amount will be D1 to 2 lakh. Hence, these poor farmers resort to other high-interest loans like housing and business loans,” said Shibu, of Perinchamkutty, whose 71-year-old father Sahadevan committed suicide unable to repay the D16 lakh loan. “The moratorium has been declared only for agriculture loans, but most farmers have availed ordinary loans. They are caught in the trap of repaying the huge loan, putting them in a crisis,” he said.

And they had no other option...

Santhosh T R (35) 
Died: Jan 2 
Debt: L25 lakh

Putting a brave face, Omana, 65, of Thannikkattukalayil house, Marygiri, a village located in Kamakshi panchayat of Idukki, is consoling her daughter-in-law Asha, 35, and five-year-old grandson Romio after her son Santhosh T R, 37, committed suicide two months ago. “I can’t afford to cry. If I become weak, it will be a problem. My daughter-in-law needs me as she lost her husband at a young age, and so does my grandson,” said Omana. Santhosh committed suicide on January 2 unable to repay the I10 lakh loan he borrowed from the nearest Thopramkudy branch of KSFE for farming. Besides, he had also borrowed R15 lakh from other sources as well.  “He was under tremendous pressure, after seeing the recovery notice sent from the bank” said Asha. “The harvest was his only hope. But the flood of August took away everything from us,” she said.

Sreekumar (59) 
Died: January 16 
Debt: L14 lakh

Further up the road in Chembakappara village of Vathikkudy grama panchayat, another family is in mourning. The last time Anoop, 37, of Nakkara house, saw his father, Sreekumar, 59, was at a private hospital in Nedumkandam where he was struggling to breathe before he died on January 16. Crushed under the debt of R7 lakh he had taken as loan from the Thopramkudy branch of Federal Bank and I7 lakh from the Murickassery branch of Cooperative Bank and a series of bank repayment notices, Sreekumar finally lost hope when the unprecedented rain in August destroyed his 2.3-acre farm where he cultivated vegetables, pepper and nutmeg. He was forced to commit suicide by taking poison at his farmland on January 15. “Although father tried to sell off the land to repay the loan, he got no buyer as the land was declared mudslide-prone after the flood,” Anoop said.

Sahadevan (68), Died: January 29, Debt: L16 lakh
A few houses away from Sreekumar lived Sahadevan, a widower, who too took the extreme step. The 68-year-old farmer had invested I11.80 lakh he borrowed from the Idukki District Cooperative Bank in the farm, but the rain ruined his entire crop. “The bananas were completely destroyed during the flood. The cattle sheds we built using a loan amount were destroyed in the rain in July. The compensation of the Agriculture Department is so meagre that we did not apply for it,” said Shibu, Sahadevan’s elder son. Sahadevan had to repay I13.80 lakh of which I2 lakh was the amount overdue. Besides, repayment notice was also sent to Shibu, who is also a farmer, to repay the I2 lakh he had taken from the District Cooperative Bank for farming. Sahadevan hanged himself on Jan. 29.

N M Johny (57) 
Died: February 7 
Debt: L6 lakh

 After days of hushed chanting ‘the sky betrayed’ him, N M Johny, 57, of Nellippuzhayil house, attempted suicide by consuming poison at his home at Vazhathope near Cheruthony on February 3. He went to his field early in the morning after consuming poison. He was taken to the Medical College Hospital but he died on Thursday (Feb. 7) while undergoing treatment. Mary Johny, his wife, said he had borrowed I95,000 and I1 lakh from the Union and Cooperative banks. Apart from this, he had also borrowed around I3.5 lakh from other sources. However, the unexpected deluge damaged all standing crops, making Johny unable to repay the loan. “Johny seemed totally shattered for a couple of weeks, as the bank had sent loan nonpayment notice the week before his death,” she said. Now the burden has fallen upon Mary, a Class VIII pass out. Mary has three daughters and a son.

Raju (61) 
Died: February 9 
Debt: L10 lakh 

Raju of Kottakkalil house, Anaviratty, hanged himself on February 9 at his farm. Raju’s family members said his son had taken a loan of I10 lakh from the Adimaly branch of Canara Bank for business purpose. However, the business did not flourish and recently he received a notice to repay the loan. Pained by the plight of his son, Raju committed suicide.

James, Died: Feb 26 Debt: L7 lakh
In the most recent incident, James of Varikkanikkal house, Chinnar, in Konnathady grama panchayat, was found hanging from a tree on February 26. The deluge and crop wilt dealt a double whammy forcing him to take his life.

Surendran (67) 
Died: February 25 
Debt: L6 lakh

In a similar incident, Kunnath Surendran, 67, who owned a one-acre plot, had availed of a loan of I6 lakh from Devikulam Taluk Agriculture and Rural Development Bank. However,  he was unable to repay the loan due to crop failure. Surendran consumed poison on February 19, but he survived and was undergoing treatment at Kottayam Medical College Hospital. But he breathed his last on February 25 evening.

Jijo Paul’s DEATH cannot be labelled as farmer suicide:  AGRICULTURE Minister
Agriculture Minister V S Sunilkumar said the death of Jijo Paul from Mala could not be labelled as farmer suicide, as he took the loan for business purposes. “The loan he took from the society bank at Kuzhur was not for agricultural purpose. But, the issue will be studied and discussed in the Cabinet,” said Sunilkumar. He also added the state government would look into the possible interventions in the loans taken by people for business purposes other than farming requirements.  Jijo had taken the loan from Kuzhur Cooperative Society Bank and used it for banana business. “Only after a thorough inquiry can we come to a conclusion.

Hence, a proper report on the suicide will be made before arriving at an inference,” he added. Though the relatives and the panchayat authorities claim it to be a farmer suicide, as per the primary data there was not enough evidence for leased land for farming. Jijo had been a middleman for the banana business in the region and was closely associated with the KHDP market. 

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