The Rat Poison Brides

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Rs 82,000 crore spent, yet Vidarbha is counting its 117th suicide this year.  Rohini Mohan nails what’s wrong with the Prime Minister’s giant relief fund. Photographs by Vijay Pandey

THE STORY AT A GLANCE – Rs 82,000 crore spent, 80 percent farmers left out • Only 11 percent farmers use irrigation, rest depend on rain. Yet, 3/4ths of PM package geared for former • Waivers only valid for farmers with bank loans. But 75 percent borrow from moneylenders • Scheme ignores farmers with over 5 hectares, dying or not • Lethal fine print: if a farmer with a partially waived loan doesn’t repay outstandings by July 9, 2009, the waiver will be annulled • Multi-crore scam in PM’s cow subsidy • PM package sells soyabean seeds at Rs 3,500 per quintal, while it costs Rs 2,700 in MP. Worse, the state buys the farmers’ harvest at Rs 2,160, a rate lower than its own selling price

ONLY COWARDS commit suicide, they say. Only those who don’t have a fight in them; those who want to run away just when life gets tough. So what is the highest denominator of grief a man must choke back before he’s allowed to give up?

The temple courtyard in Wagdha village is filled with farmers, standing and squatting, looking at their feet in mournful silence. This is the 117th time this year that one of them has been driven to suicide. For the 117th time this year, a farmer lay flat on his back in his parched cotton field, looked skyward at the blinding sun and decided it wasn’t worth living. For the 117th time, a familiarly desperate life ended too soon.

Vicious cycle A fresh round of borrowing begins every year around May-June, when seed sowing starts
Vicious cycle A fresh round of borrowing begins every year around May-June, when seed sowing starts

The mourners tell the story of this 117th cotton farmer: Mangalchand Pratap. In the bone-dry Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, Mangalchand had endured more than any average 35-year-old could. The only legacy from his father to his three sons was an endless spiral of debt. Since he was 20, Mangalchand had struggled as the sole farmer in the family, while his brothers did manual labour in nearby cities. In 2008, a pest infection called ‘laal’ killed the entire crop on his five hectare field. He was left with nothing except the rising interest on the bank loan he had taken to buy cotton seeds. His wife, Surekha, recalls it as the year when the usually affable Mangalchand turned sour. “Each meal we fed our three children last year felt like a miracle,” says Surekha.

This year, with renewed hope and a prayer to the rain clouds, Mangalchand took a crop loan of Rs 30,000 to buy cotton seeds. On the morning of June 24, however, when he walked into his field, he saw the freshly sown cotton seeds ruined by “chota paani”or a small drizzle that drenches the seeds just enough to destroy them. That very evening, Mangalchand drank a bottle of pesticide. His brother Dhyaneswar saw Mangalchand crash to the ground, his mouth frothing and his hands clasping the dry black soil. Today, holding his brother’s eight-year-old daughter, Dhyaneswar says, “How much can a man struggle when he sees that his children are going hungry? My brother is just one of the many farmers that will commit suicide this year.”

‘If you’ve come to promise me a package, don’t think I’m a fool,’ says Chandrakala

This ominous prophecy is, unfortunately, Vidarbha’s darkest truth. The cotton belt of Maharashtra has been infamous for farmer suicides since 2001 — activists and journalists have screamed themselves hoarse for the governments to respond. As more farmers committed suicide, the Congress-led UPA government announced a series of fire-fighting measures. The first of this came after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s two-day visit to Vidarbha in July 2006. In the face of a shocking 1,448 suicides that year, Singh announced a special relief package of Rs 3,750 crores for six drought-hit districts of Vidarbha. Later, in 2008, he offered a bigger bounty: Rs 71,860 crores by way of loan waiver for farmers across India. The waiver also served as a pre-poll sop that was critical in bringing the Congress back to power in 2009.

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WHAT FARMERS WANT

Loan waiver based on amount of outstanding loan, not acreage

Crop insurance in drought years to cushion harvest failure

Greater farm-related subsidies for non-irrigated farmers

Incentives to grow food crops, at least enough to feed family

Agricultural income tax to penalise those investing black money

Government must guarantee to buy produce at the right price

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Till date, more than Rs 82,000 crores have been allotted to farmers through state and Central relief packages. Political gains have been reaped, and most of the money has been spent. Yet, every year, Vidarbha reports almost the same number of suicides, if not more (In 2001, 52 farmers committed suicide. In 2008, the number had risen to 1,267) So why have the packages failed to quell the suicides? Why is Vidarbha in an unending worst case scenario?

In the blue Kishtabai's husband drank rat poison last year. Her son Gajanand (in pic) dropped out of engineering college to do farming
In the blue Kishtabai’s husband drank rat poison last year. Her son Gajanand (in pic) dropped out of engineering college to do farming

Chandrakala’s life today is proof of how crores may have been spent, but not much of that money has reached the neediest hands. She was rejected by the tehsildar for the Rs 1 lakh compensation given to widows of farm-related suicides. “Some government babus came and asked me if I wanted monetary compensation or education for my children,” says Chandrakala, “I asked for both. I got neither.”

An officer at Yavatmal’s district collectorate says Chandrakala’s husband must’ve killed himself “in a state of drunkenness” or because of a “domestic dispute” – the two most common official excuses for refusing compensation to bereaved families. As for the loan waiver, Chandrakala says, “That’s for people who were given bank loans in the first place. We were refused bank loans for at least 10 years and had to borrow from the sahukar (moneylender).” Today, Chandrakala is running the risk of losing her five hectare to the moneylender. “I now understand why my husband gave up,” she says.

Dispirited future Meera Kachru with her daughter in their village hut. Meera’s husband hung himself in 2005 due to harassment from a moneylender
Dispirited future Meera Kachru with her daughter in their village hut. Meera’s husband hung himself in 2005 due to harassment from a moneylender

People like Chandrakala are the reason relief packages were put together. But it is the Chandrakalas that they have ultimately looked right through. In 2008, Kedapur village’s Bhujanna Vittal was refused a full loan waiver because he had a landholding of five hectares (those with less than two hectares got a full waiver, and those with up to five hectares got a partial waiver). Of his Rs 50,000 bank loan, about Rs 20,000 was waived off in October last year. Two months later, Bhujanna went to the market to sell his much depleted cotton harvest. With the proceeds, he bought a kilo of rice, some tomatoes, and a bottle of rat poison. He was found on his cot the next morning, his face as blue as the walls of his house. “He had spent more money on growing the cotton than the harvest finally sold for,” says his widow Kishtabai, “I was not surprised when he committed suicide.” Her son, 20-year-old Gajanand, is less forgiving, “I was in engineering college on a full scholarship and have had to drop out to do farming. Without my father around, I’m expected to be the sole breadwinner.”

‘I was not surprised when he committed suicide,’ says Kishtabai of her husband

Worse, Gajanand and the close to six lakh farmers who received partial loan waivers in Vidarbha have now been informed by their banks of a lethal fine print: if they do not repay their outstanding loans by July 9, 2009, the waiver too would be annulled.

As the deadline looms, panic has spread through Vidarbha. Farmers in some villages have boldly declared that they will never repay their loans. Others quietly hope for another quick-fix package. This repayment clause was an unmentioned fine print in the much-touted loan waiver announced by then Finance Minister P Chidambaram. Since the average farm landholding in Vidarbha is five hectare, most farmers here got a partial waiver, unaware that they would have to repay the rest or forfeit the waiver. “We work on the fields from June to December, investing every borrowed paisa, and when it doesn’t rain and crops fail, we end up with no money to buy even food with,” says Hirasingh Chavan, a farmer in Washim district. “How am I supposed to repay my outstanding Rs 23,000? And if I can’t, why should I lose the waiver of Rs 20,000? What kind of package is this?”

On empty stomachs Surekha, whose husband committed suicide in 2009, says each meal the couple fed their children last year felt like a miracle
On empty stomachs Surekha, whose husband committed suicide in 2009, says each meal the couple fed their children last year felt like a miracle

A fresh round of borrowing begins every year around May-June, when seed sowing starts. At this point, Vidarbha’s farmer needs bulk cash — to buy cotton or soyabean seeds (around Rs 1,000 per acre), to plough the land (around Rs 1,000 per acre), and to purchase fertiliser and pesticide (around Rs 3,000 per acre). Years of below-average rain and crop has ensured that few farmers have any savings. Banks too refuse them loans because of their mounting previous debts. In 2006, the PM package had magnanimously directed banks to give crop loans even to defaulting farmers. Over 10 lakh farmers took loans that year, more than double the previous year’s numbers. But poor harvests for three straight years have meant that farmers are back to square zero. They’re unable to repay their loan and unable to borrow anymore.

An RTI revealed that politicians and MLAs benefited most from the cow subsidy scheme

MOST FARMERS haven’t repaid their loans for the past four years,” says RG Mahajan, manager of Bank of Maharashtra in Pahapal, Yavatmal district, “We’ve declared that 75 percent of farmers are not credit worthy.” A State Bank of India official in Amravati district says Vidarbha has always had the highest number of loan defaulters. “This year, we’re expecting the number of defaulters to rise further. Most of them are just hoping for another package to save the day.”

Spirit to struggle Chandrakala, a widow, works 12 hours every day as farm labour for big landlords and as a housemaid in three houses
Spirit to struggle Chandrakala, a widow, works 12 hours every day as farm labour for big landlords and as a housemaid in three houses

False promises, corruption and shameful indifference abound in the implementation of the PM relief package. An RTI petition filed by Yavatmal-based activist Vilas Wankhade in 2008 has revealed that the biggest beneficiaries of the PM package’s cow subsidy scheme (cows sold at a subsidy to bereaved families) were former politicians and sitting MLAs (see box). In 2007, a committee was formed to review the implementation of relief schemes in Vidarbha. Seven months later, economist Dr Narendra Jadhav, the head of the committee, spoke in a 102-page report of unmanageable corruption and supply of relief material at inflated costs. Soyabean seeds are sold under the PM package at Rs 3,500 per quintal while the seeds only cost Rs 2,700 per quintal in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh. “On top of that, the state government buys the soya from us at Rs 2,160 — so much lower than what they sell the seeds for,” says Narayan Vibhutey, a young farmer in Washim.

STUNG BY allegations of corruption and poor performance, the Maharashtra government appointed a committee to investigate the multi-crore scam, which submitted its report and recommendations in early 2009. The report is not public yet. When contacted, a committee member, Dr Prafulla Kale, hinted at massive corruption involving influential persons. He also admitted that the investigation itself was fraught with “pressures from various sources”. “We have, however, remained fair and objective. Now, we’re seeing that the money spent is reallocated to the right people,” Kale said.

Dr Prafulla Kale hints at massive corruption in the scheme involving influential people

Officials within the government too admit that the loan waiver and PM package have been largely cosmetic. Sudhir Goyal, Amravati’s divisional commissioner in charge of implementing the relief packages, himself says, “What is the need for a package like this in Vidarbha? Suicides are a symptom of a deeper agrarian crisis. For rain-fed farmers like those in Vidarbha, the main worries are the monsoon and prices. After spending so much on cash crops, farmers find that their costs are higher than their returns. This factor is worse than ever, so how will suicides stop? What’s the point of putting money into schemes that do not address the core issues?” Maharashtra’s Agriculture Minister, Balasaheb Thorat too admits that the packages only provided a brief hiatus, “This year, too, rains have been delayed and I expect that the situation will worsen. We’re ready to tackle this.”

Under the cloud Badly designed, badly executed, the relief package is not reaching the people it is meant for
Under the cloud Badly designed, badly executed, the relief package is not reaching the people it is meant for

When the PM package was announced, voices from the Planning Commission, the Left parties and agricultural experts warned that it was blind to Vidarbha’s unique issues that have plagued it since the 1970s. The premonition was not off the mark. Wardha-based agriculturist Vijay Jawandia says, “Eighty percent of the farmers were left out of the various packages. Those eligible were short-changed. The schemes showed little understanding of rural India and conventional agricultural practises.” For instance, the loan waiver and several other packages were open only to farmers who own less than five hectares. But in most villages, agricultural land is owned by a whole family, with the title deed in the name of the eldest male member. So though land revenue records show that a farmer owns 15-20 hectares, his actual holding is 4-5 hectares. Yet, he was technically not eligible for any benefits. Similarly, Vidarbha has always practised rain-fed farming and only 11 percent of its farmers have irrigation. Nevertheless, three-quarters of the PM package was earmarked for farmers with existing irrigation projects. “With the three rivers in the area running dry, the rapidly depleting ground water, and scanty rainfall, irrigation is but wishful thinking,” says Kishor Tiwari, president of the Vidarbha Kisan Andolan Samiti.

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1. ASHA
LOST: Husband drank rat poison in 2005 
RELIEF:
 Disqualified for widow compensation

2. SUMAN
LOST: Husband drank pesticide in December 2005 
RELIEF:
 Received Rs 1 lakh widow compensation

3. SUNITA
LOST: Husband hung himself in June 2007 
RELIEF: 
Partial loan waiver and soyabean seed subsidy

4. ANUSUYA 
LOST: 
Husband drank pesticide in June 2005
RELIEF: Received Rs 1 lakh widow compensation

5. BADU ONKAR
LOST: Mother jumped in a well in May 2008 
RELIEF:
 Nil. Death wasn’t regarded farm-related

6. RUKMA 
LOST:
 Husband drank pesticide in November 2008
RELIEF: Nil. Application for PM package rejected

7. GAJANAND
LOST: Father hung himself in September 2006
RELIEF: Nil. No benefit from package

8. MEENA 
LOST: 
Husband hung himself in December 2006
RELIEF: Soyabean seed subsidy. Cow subsidy rejected

9. MANDABAI
LOST:
 Husband and son drank pesticide in 2002 and 2006
RELIEF: Nil. Full loan waiver of Rs 15,000

10. CHITRA 
LOST: 
Husband drank pesticide in November 2008 
RELIEF: 
Nil. Government took land for dam, has not paid yet

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Meera Kachru Chatale, a widow in Pahapal, narrates how government officials had brought a team to dig a well in her field. “They congratulated me saying my life would change, that my field will glisten with flowing water, that I will be a successful farmer.” Meera’s husband had hung himself in 2005 due to harassment from a moneylender. A local NGO submitted an application on her behalf when the PM package was announced in 2006 and she was found eligible. “They dug fast for two days, then got slower and slower,” says Meera, “In a week, they left, saying water has come.” Meera ran to the field and looked down the newlydug well. It was bone-dry. “There was not a drop of groundwater,” she says, “They were a bunch of liars.”

A state survey finds that three in every four cotton growing families is in ‘acute crisis’

Over and over, the ill-conceived schemes ended up ignoring the genuinely deprived. A senior secretary in the Maharashtra agricultural department says, “Of the Rs 71,680 crore waiver, Maharashtra’s share was Rs 14,000 crores. The maximum benefit went to the more prosperous and wellirrigated western Maharashtra (Rs 7,000 crores). Vidarbha had to make do with just Rs 2,000 crores.” The very region whose farmer deaths had provoked the government into announcing the enormous packages was given leftovers.

2009 is just beginning for Vidarbha’s farmers and already, they’re grappling with loan ultimatums and delayed rainfall. The state government’s own door-to-door survey finds that three in every four cotton farm families is in “acute crisis”. In the five days that TEHELKA travelled in the region, two suicides took place. It is but a gloomy news item for many, but every farmer who takes his own life leaves behind a lurking fear in Vidarbha. Packages may come and go, but as long as the suicides persist, so does the debilitating fear. While straightening the garland on his father’s picture, 20-year-old Gajanand morbidly challenges this reporter to return to Vidarbha a month later to check if he’s still alive. It’s not a threat, he says, but a cry for freedom from the fear.

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