Debating India


Till Debt Do Us Apart


Monday 7 June 2004, by CHOUDHARY *Savitri

Fifty farmers have committed suicide in the last two weeks. Is new CM YSR up to handling the situation?

On the face of it, it seems to defy all logic. Despite a host of pro-agriculture incentives from a Congress government elected explicitly for its socialistic policy line, farmer suicides continue to mount by the day in Andhra Pradesh.

In a macabre dance of death, fifty debt-ridden farmers have committed suicide across the state in the two weeks since chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy took office.

Keen to project himself as a CM with a heart rather than as a CEO of AP Inc, as was the wont of his predecessor Chandrababu Naidu, Reddy’s first official act was to sign free power to farmers and write off all their old arrears. He also announced various sops for farmers in addition to a generous relief package for the 3,000-odd families of farmers who committed suicide since July 1998. However, preventing fresh suicides is becoming a key challenge for Reddy now.

Strangely enough, the suicides are being reported from virtually all districts of the state. There have been deaths even in the Krishna Delta, which saw water shortage for the first time this year.

Earlier, farmer suicides were limited to the traditionally drought-prone districts. Is the new chief minister’s recent offer to pay up to Rs 50,000 as a one-time settlement to clear the debts of the farmers who committed suicide in addition

to a Rs 1 lakh to help rehabilitate the families of these victims leading to the recent spate of suicides? The tdp has been quick to point out the morbid link. And though the government has dismissed this as absurd, some of the suicides may have been caused by farmers desperate to earn some money for their families. It is also possible that natural deaths could have been passed off as suicides. When the tdp was in power, it refused to hand out relief packages for families of farmers who committed suicide on the ground that it may encourage further suicides.

Medical opinion is divided on this with some psychiatrists warning that relief packages inadvertently could push desperate people to suicide. Points out Dr Ashok K. Allimchandani at Hyderabad’s Apollo Hospital: "When a person is depressed or feeling a deep sense of hopelessness, suicidal thoughts do cross his mind. A disincentive though is the concern for what will happen to the family. However, such packages tend to remove that disincentive for killing oneself."

But other experts are of the view that one should not generalise. The momentary incentive may have been the reason in some cases but there are other factors like drought and debt which are likely to have driven the farmers to suicide. Says Dr Krishna Murthy, superintendent of the AP Mental Health Authority: "We need to examine each case and delve into the the case history of each patient before drawing any conclusions."

Several helplines have been opened. Government agencies and NGOs have been distributing posters and leaflets to try and dissuade desperate farmers from taking their own lives. "We need to throw them a rope, anything to just hang on to. The next few weeks are critical. After that the rain will arrive and hopefully things will automatically improve," says Pedireddy Chengala Reddy, chairman of the Federation of Farmers Association of AP.

Past trends show farmer suicides tend to go up in April and May. With the end of the harvest season, banks start sending out recovery notices while private moneylenders also step up the pressure for repayments. This is also the time when the farmers need additional funds to prepare for the new sowing season but find it increasingly difficult to get fresh inputs if they are already bogged down by old debts. Most suicide victims are in the 35-45 age group suggesting it is the weight of accumulated losses over the years that tend to push them towards taking the extreme step. There is no doubt that farming is increasingly becoming unviable in the state.

A decade ago agriculture accounted for about 30 per cent of Andhra Pradesh’s gdp and 67 per cent of the population depends on it. Today the same number of people are still relying on farming but its share in the state’s gdp has been steadily declining. Rural debt is estimated to have climbed to around Rs 10,000 crore.

Farmer suicides are directly linked to the high cost of external inputs that are going into agriculture, such as drip irrigation, expensive hybrid seeds, fertilisers etc. "Our farmers are paying the price for the so-called Green Revolution," says P.V. Satheesh of the Deccan Development Society, a Hyderabad-based NGO. He claims the recent spurt in suicides is a direct result of the successive hardships, including droughts and crop losses, that farmers in the state have been facing over the last five years.

The new government claims it is committed to the farmers’ cause and is determined to bring down input costs so that farming can become more viable again. Besides waving off electricity fees, the new administration is also promising to provide better quality seeds to the farmers and to crack down on suppliers of spurious fertilisers and pesticides. "We are trying to do all we can to sensitise the district administration and get them to reach out to the farmers and tell them about all the new incentives we have planned for them," N. Rahuveera Reddy, minister for agriculture, told Outlook.

He claims the government is also extending an additional Rs 11,000 crore to the co-operative banks to provide more low interest loans to farmers. Also, banks and other lending agencies are being instructed to slow down their loan recovery process. However, the government has little control over the unregulated moneylenders on whom a majority of the smaller farmers are dependent on. "They storm into the villages and abuse the farmers and humiliate them in very foul language before their family and neighbours. They even harass them by setting their goons on them," says Satheesh.

But how to save the farmers? The state’s cumulative revenue deficit for the last nine years is a staggering Rs 20,000 crore. Now an additional Rs 2,000 crore will have to be found to fund free electricity to the farming sector over the next five years. There will also be a new burden of about Rs 1,100 crore on the exchequer because of the waiver of dues. "In the end all the Chandrababu Naidus and Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddys can say whatever they want but in reality there is precious little they can deliver because the state is bankrupt," say Chengala Reddy.

Meanwhile a committee is being set up which will determine which were real cases of suicide since this government came to power. Whatever its findings in rural Andhra Pradesh, among the desperate and the impoverished, money is more precious than life.


Suicide Notes

- Fifty debt-ridden farmers have committed suicide in the two weeks since CM Y.S.R took office.

- The government’s offer to pay up to Rs 50,000 to a suicide victim’s family may have triggered off some of these.

-  Some natural deaths could have been reported as suicides, to get the money.

-  Rural debt is estimated at Rs 11,000 crore. Now, banks have been directed to slow down their loan recovery process.

in Outlook India, Monday, June 7, 2004.

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