Lord Krishna’s cradle in and around Mathura is angry, devastated and witness to the deadly face of agrarian distress on a daily basis. The situation in the Meerut countryside, once the proud showpiece of agricultural prosperity and Green Revolution, is equally if not more grim as weather gods, rising cost of inputs and a criminally negligent administration combine to spell all-round havoc.
Tarauli in Mathura district is home to some 30,000 residents whose survival is tied to agricultural fortunes. A deathly pall envelops the road leading to the village. Piles of chaff instead of wheat dot
the landscape. Colour has left the once flush fields. They are empty except for scattered heaps of dry wheat. Furrows lie barren and cracked; the once proud and confident Brajbhoomi is now bereft of
its earlier ballast, reminding one of TS Eliot’s verse in The Hollow Men:
This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.
As the narrow serpentine road winds up and one enters the village, loud wails assail the ears. It is a truly macabre scene. A group of women with covered heads mourn with deep-throated and long cries. A funeral procession is making its way through the village — a stark reminder of what transpired here and elsewhere in the region some days ago.
It was 8 April when Satpal Singh, 40, decided to have a look at his field. He had been away from it for a while, busy toiling as a manual labourer in the adjoining areas of Ballabgarh, Burari and Faridabad. Luckily enough, he had been able to get his hands on additional work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. But remuneration hardly ever matched the long hours and the tedium. He had returned to Tarauli on 6 April. And two days later, walking through the winding alleys, he was hopeful that the harvest would help repay the loans.
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Little did Satpal anticipate what lay ahead. Instead of golden wheat stalks swaying to the breeze, a field of shrivelled, black grain grimly stared back at him. The sight of the battered wheat kernels left him numb and heartbroken. He walked back home a different man.
“When he came back, his face was flushed and spoke of despair. The loss of the crop had broken him,” says Puran Singh, Satpal’s cousin. Elder brother Ganga Singh and relative Kishan Singh attempted to rouse him off the depression, but to no avail. “He kept saying nothing can be done now and repeatedly asked about what would happen to his children,” recalls Puran.
Around noon, Satpal locked the door of the house, went up the stairway to the roof, poured kerosene and set himself on fire. As flames swept over him, a neighbour who was on the adjoining roof watched helplessly, simply unable to help as the roof too was ablaze.
The farmer was taken to a hospital in Mathura, which refused to admit him saying he had suffered 100 percent burns. Desperate family members and villagers then bundled him off to a hospital in Agra where he was declared dead on arrival.
Satpal’s death has left his family in a quagmire. “I have left school,” says Singh’s eldest son Manvendra, struggling to contain the quiver in his voice. The tall 16-year-old lad suddenly finds upon himself the responsibility of looking after his mother and four siblings. “On the day his father died, he vowed he would leave school to work hard and provide for his family,” says Madhav, an onlooker. Manvendra’s eyes confirm his steely grit. Singh’s other son Sonu, 14, decides to come forward and explain. “Masterji asks us to submit our fees if we want to sit in the class. We cannot afford to study now,” he says with a tinge of sadness in his voice. It is quite simple for them now: education is easier to let go of than sheer existence.
Sitting motionless throughout the conversation is Satpal’s wife. Crouched in grief, she is reluctant to speak. Draped in the pallu, it is only her loud groans that betray her pain. Once during the conversation her face comes uncovered, revealing a mix of angst and helplessness. It is the face that has witnessed the harvest of death.
“We have never seen such unseasonal rains in our lifetime, nor have we heard of it,” says Dabbu Sisodia, a resident of Chaumuha. He is the Hindi daily scribe who first reported the tragedy that befell Satpal.
The unseasonal rains that hit the northern belt of India damaged the crops of farmers in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab. In Uttar Pradesh, Mathura and Meerut have been the most affected districts. The double trap laid by nature is the major reason why farmers are succumbing to shock deaths and suicides in this region. In 2014, when the farmers sowed dhaan (paddy), the rains didn’t turn up and the crop failed. So they decided to sow wheat next. But the gamble went horribly wrong when unseasonal rains this year interrupted the harvest of good-quality wheat. Fields that previously used to yield 50-60 kg of wheat are hardly producing 10 kg now. Moreover, the grain is of an inferior quality and so has to be sold at lower prices. Farmers are getting Rs 1,100 per quintal compared to Rs 1,550 earlier.
“The grains of wheat produced in our fields used to be compared with gold pellets. They used to shine just like the yellow metal. But look at them now! They are black and muddy kernels and sell for far less,” says Sisodia ruefully rubbing open the limp stalks.
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The cost of agricultural inputs is also steep. “The price of manure, which was Rs 400 for 50 kg is now pegged at Rs 1,100,” says Sisodia. Highly priced fertilisers are also burning holes in the pocket. Irregular supply at government stores force farmers to buy fertilisers at Rs 1,500 from private dealers. Moreover, the land itself is a financial liability. Farmers looking to lease land have to shell out more than Rs 12,000 per bigha for a year. The rising costs force farmers to take loans. “Banks always keep pitching credit to us as they want us to take more and more loans. Moneylenders in the village, on the other hand, charge exorbitant rates of interest. The current rate is 36 percent,” explains Kishan.
Satpal’s family is yet to receive a single penny as compensation despite his death being officially acknowledged as suicide. Be it Bollywood actor and Mathura MP Hema Malini or politicians of the ruling Samajwadi Party, none have paid the family a visit. “Hemaji knows of our condition, but hasn’t come forward,” says Satpal’s brother Ganga. “These netas only come when they need votes.”