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Death of a farmer and the economics of suicide


Monday 7 June 2004, by SINGH BAL*Hartosh

In May, the state saw new government, new package for farmers and 100 suicides

NADENDLA (GUNTUR), MAY 31: The statistics hide as much as they overwhelm. In the murderous month of May, with a new government promising to ease their pain, about 100 farmers in Andhra Pradesh have killed themselves.

K Purna Chandra Rao is now a statistic. FIR No 127/04 at the Nadendla police station lists his case as ??death due to poisoning’’. The government note on ?Details of the deaths (suicide cases) of farmers in Guntur district as on 29-05-2004’ tersely observes that ??the deceased has committed suicide on account of the burden on him due to debts incurred for agricultural purpose... Postmortem concluded’’.

Poison may have taken Purna Chandra’s life, but it was the peculiar economics of his occupation and a desperate gamble on the rains that killed him, and others like him.

He owned four acres of land and decided last year to lease another six. The two previous years had seen below-normal rainfall and he bet that things would get better. He lost.

At 341.3 mm, the rainfall last year was less than half the average rainfall in previous years. The crops he had sown-chilli and cotton-depend on the moods of the market and the weather. Both conspired against Purna Chandra.

His cotton crop bombed. The ?Kurnool’ seed that he had bought from a wandering agent gave him just four quintals from his 2.5 acres. The normal yield is 8 to 10 quintals and acre. The price of chilli, which had stood at Rs 4,000 a quintal last year, fell to Rs 1,850 this year. The farmer was sunk.

??When he left home on May 22, I thought he had gone to the fields,’’ says his wife Kodal Varlaxmi, now left alone to fend for her daughters Anjani, 8, and Jyotika, not yet two. ??A man found him dead around midnight.’’

The farmer had consumed Monocrotophos, a pesticide, with some 7-Up. His debts totalled Rs 5.12 lakh.

Of these, the loans he took from recognised institutions such as SBI and the Bank of Baroda amounted to just over Rs 1 lakh. These loans have in-built checks and require a person to provide ownership documents. When there is a prolonged drought, the state can waive the loans or reschedule them. But there is no such safeguard for the Rs 4 lakh that Purna Chandra had borrowed from the vast unorganised machinery that asks no questions but offers credit that can kill. ??If I start checking on a client’s financial status, there will be bloodshed in the village,’’ says N Koteshwara Rao, from whom Purna Chandra borrowed money this year. His credit is good for a year, after which he charges 2 per cent a month. That is reasonable. Other private moneylenders can charge up to 7 per cent a month. Purna Chandra turned to these sources because organised banks would not lend him more. Farmers here lease land without signing any papers as that could lead to ownership disputes.

That means they cannot turn to banks for loans. The panchayat secretary estimates that 30 per cent of the farmers fall in this category. There is, of course, a crop insurance scheme. A percentage of each agricultural loan is deducted towards insurance premiums, says K Madan Mohan Rao, the manager of the local Bank of Baroda branch. The catch: the insurance is disbursed only if the yield for the entire mandal is less than the average of the past three years.

??It is like telling a man who has lost his house in a fire that he cannot claim insurance because the entire neighbourhood has not been burnt down,’’ says Nellur Koeswara Rao, president of the local Primary Agriculture Cooperative Credit Society. On May 18, the new state government announced a package to help the families of dead farmers like Purna Chandra-up to Rs 50,000 to settle loans and Rs 1 lakh for rehabilitation. It is another matter that in most cases the amount owed is far greater than Rs 50,000.

??This will certainly create a problem and we will have to see how we implement it,’’ said Collector K Ramakrishna Rao.

Meanwhile, chillingly, the farming community has started speaking of suicide not as a desperate last resort but almost as a natural option. ??We live on hope, hope for rain, hope for a good crop,’’ says Purna Chandra’s cousin Dasrath Ramiah. ??And when we have no hope left we do what Purna Chandra did.’’


In The Indian Express, Monday, May 31, 2004.

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