Debating India

ANDHRA PRADESH

Acres of despair

V. SRIDHAR

Friday 2 July 2004, by SRIDHAR*V.

Name: Sunka Mallesam

Age: 35

Village: Chilpur

Mandal: Station Ghanpur

District: Warangal

Date of death: May 27, 2004

A CROWD is assembled under a shamiana as the priest conducts the ceremony on the tenth day after the death of Sunka Mallesam, a marginal farmer. He tried raising cotton on the three acres that he owned. In order to provide a measure of insurance from the repeated failure of the cotton crop in this part of Warangal district, he also leased three acres and grew maize and paddy on it. His brother Raja Komariah (40) migrated to Khammam five years ago to work as a construction worker. He preferred to leave his three acres fallow and migrate rather than suffer repeated losses like his brother by cultivating the "treacherous crop", cotton.

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P.V. Sivakumar
Sunka Venkatiah, father of Sunka Mallesam, consoles his grandson.

Finding water for cultivation was always a problem, and it drove Mallesam to death. Komariah said that Mallesam spent about Rs.30,000 on digging a borewell, laying pipelines and installing a motor in May 2003. Although the bore ran 90 metres deep, there was no water. A desperate Mallesam dug another borewell in January 2004, which also turned dry. By then the total debts he had piled up in trying to procure water amounted to more than Rs.75,000. In what turned out to be a gamble, he invested Rs.35,000 on the cotton crop.

Rajamma (27), Mallesam’s wife, said that he was already burdened by debts incurred in 1998 when their daughter suffered from "brain fever". The couple had spent Rs.40,000, borrowed mainly from friends and relatives, to treat her. Komariah said that they managed to repay some of the earlier loans but their debts amounted to Rs.96,000 at the time Mallesam took his own life.

Damera Ramanathan (45), whose field was adjacent to Mallesam’s, said that they used to discuss their debts. He said he too had debts, amounting to over Rs.40,000. He too suffered losses because of failed borewells. Ramanathan said Mallesam had told him that he proposed to migrate to Bhadrachalam to work as a "coolie". "I persuaded him not to migrate, but I do not know whether I gave him the right advice," Ramanathan said. They met for the last time 15 days before Mallesam died. Mallesam said he had sold his two bullocks for about Rs.6,000. On the morning of May 27, Mallesam was found lying near his well. Barely conscious, he told a neighbour that he had consumed pesticide. He died soon after.

Ramanathan, who normally grows cotton or chillies on his two acres, said agriculture was laden with risk. "Water is not the only problem," he said. "A good harvest means poor prices, but a bad harvest is bad in every way." He sold his chilli crop at Rs.1,200 a quintal in March 2004, but the current price is Rs.4,000. He pointed out that although the official procurement price of chillies had increased to Rs 2,600 from Rs.2,000 last year, his failed crop would not get him anything anyway.

The ruling "market rate" for credit in Chilpur is between 2.5-3 per cent a month, which works out to 36 per cent interest on an annual basis. Mallesam’s loans were taken mostly from friends and relatives, but he had also borrowed from a farmer in a nearby village. Mallesam’s father Sunka Venkatiah said that the loan taken from the farmer bothered him more than anything else as the lender demanded early repayment. Mallesam had sought time in the past by signing a promissory note enabling him to rollover the debts. But this obviously could not go on indefinitely. Four days before he committed suicide, Mallesam signed a promissory note mortgaging his next crop and agreeing to pay compound interest on the accumulated debt. His father said: "He must have known that his crop would not fetch him anything. He just ran out of hope."

Asked if the lenders exerted any pressure in the days before his death, Mallesam’s family is reticent. His neighbours explain that violence was never really needed to recover loans from desperate borrowers. The existence of a cooperative bank at Venkatadripet, 2 km away, does not seem to have been an option for Mallesam. Venkatiah said that most people avoided the cooperative bank because of the threat of attachment if dues were not repaid. Mallesam’s neighbours said that windows of the houses would be broken and taken away and even television antennas would be seized if the loans were not cleared. Nationalised banks located in Ghanpur also do not issue fresh loans if earlier loans are not repaid. In short, public institutions do not offer a flexible repayment schedule when the borrower is in difficulty. In contrast, the private lender is willing to extend credit, but at a very steep price. Even that eventually drives the borrower to a corner. The family also said that it had not received any succour from the government. It fears that the lenders will descend on them if it got anything at all from the government.

Cotton farmers in Warangal district reaped a bitter harvest in recent times. More than 600 cotton farmers have committed suicide in the district in the past five years. Vasudeva Reddy, district secretary of the Andhra Pradesh Rythu Sangam, said 22 of the 51 mandals were hit by drought in the past 10 years. The failure to develop other sources of irrigation has meant that the burden of arranging water for cultivation fell heavily on individual farmers. The failure of the government, the credit cooperatives and the nationalised banks to provide crop loans or credit for borewells has forced the peasantry to seek loans from moneylenders on usurious terms. Peasants like Mallesam have taken enormous risks in their search for water, and have paid with their lives, said Vasudeva Reddy.

Komariah said the lenders did not approach them during the elections, but came soon after. Mallesam’s neighbours say that the lenders normally come after the ceremonies are over. The family is bracing itself for more trouble in the days ahead.

See online : Frontline

P.S.

in Frontline, volume 21, Issue 13, Jun. 19 - Jul. 02, 2004.

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