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INDIA: More Suicides Than Reforms

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India, Dec 13 2011 (IPS) - Five years ago, Pulparambil Varghese began cultivating ginger on 1.37 acres of land he owned in Thrikkeppatta village near Kalpetta town in Wayanad district of the southern Indian state of Kerala. Over the years, he borrowed 300,000 rupees (5,700 dollars) from banks and private financial institutions.

Unable to make the holding pay, or to repay the loans, 48-year-old Varghese committed suicide. His was one of six farmer suicides in the backward district Wayanad since the beginning of this year.

The return of acute agrarian distress has claimed the lives of 13 farmers in the state in the month of November alone due to financial problems, according to data collected by farmers’ organisations.

The high suicide rate is all the more worrying because it has occurred in a state that tops the national human development index for achieving the highest literacy rate, for having good quality health services, and for the consumption expenditure of people.

Agriculture was badly affected in Kerala in the period 2000–2007. Unofficial figures put the number of farmer suicides in the state at 11,516 between 1997 and 2005. Other figures quoted by some experts put the number of farmer suicides around 1,800 between 2000 and 2007. The agriculture sector overall in India is doing poorly, with several states reporting suicides by indebted farmers in the last 15 years or so.

K. Nagaraj of the Madras Institute of Development Studies in Chennai, in a study report titled ‘Farmers’ Suicide in India: Magnitudes, Trends and Spatial Patterns’, stated: “In the 10-year period between 1997 and 2006, as many as 166,304 farmers committed suicide in India. If we consider the 12-year period from 1995 to 2006, the figure is close to 200,000.”

Almost 90 percent of the farmer suicides in Kerala between 2000-2007 were reported from Wayanad district, which is particularly susceptible because a large number of people here depend on agriculture for a living. One major reason for the high farmer suicide rate is the crash in prices of locally grown crops such as coffee, pepper, ginger, and areca nut, and diseases that killed off the crop.

The state government has now partially admitted that the farming community in Wayanad is in distress. A high-level official team headed by additional chief secretary K. Jayakumar, which inquired into the rising number of farmer suicides, has said that the agrarian crisis is severe.

Analysing the return of agrarian distress in Kerala, Dr S. Mohanakumar, associate professor at the Institute of Development Studies in Jaipur, Rajasthan, and researcher in agrarian distress, told IPS that there was a huge gap between income earned from agriculture and the input costs incurred by farmers.

“Low income from products, rising price of fertilisers and high interest rates are suffocating farmers. There is no alternative and so they take the extreme step,” Dr Mohanakumar said.

Dubai-based accountant Ramesh Ramachandran, who recently abandoned ginger cultivation in Pulppaly in Wayanad district, said there had been a major shift in farm crops from coffee and pepper to ginger and banana in the past ten years following depreciation in the market price of the first two crops. However, today, ginger too is not profitable because of its decreasing market value.

On Nov. 16, chief minister of Kerala Oommen Chandy announced a one-year moratorium on repayment of loans taken by farmers from government agencies, in the wake of increased farmer suicides. He said the government would also examine the role and interest structure of credit agencies lending money to farmers.

The difficulty in getting credit is one the main reasons for agrarian distress. Banks are not willing to extend credit to farmers and methods of loan recovery by banking and non-banking institutions have come in for considerable criticism. Adding to the problem is the sharp fall in the price of agriculture produce. Government agencies that are unable to procure agriculture produce at a remunerative price for farmers.

Satyan Mokeri, state general secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha of the Communist Party of India, has demanded that three measures be put in place: monetary relief for the families of the farmers who had committed suicide, extension of debt-relief measures, and grant of low-interest loans to poor farmers.

He says the agrarian crisis had intensified in Wayanad and other districts owing to a drop in the prices of two main crops, ginger and banana.

C.K. Saseendran, Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader, said financial institutions, including cooperative banks and scheduled commercial banks, are unsympathetic to the needs of farmers and are not providing loans. As a result, “farmers are forced to take loans from private financial institutions at a higher rate of interest.”

When the central government announced the ‘Vidharbha package’ for the development of suicide prone districts across the country (named after the Vidharbha region in the western state of Maharashtra, which saw record farmers suicides), the Kerala government requested the central government to include Idukki, Palakkadu and Wayanad districts in the relief list. It also sought approval of a separate package for the Kuttanad region, which has been facing a severe agricultural crisis for the last five decades and which is unique among rice ecologies of the world.

Farmers’ forums have found fault with the Kerala package. They blame the re-emergence of agrarian distress in the state on the government’s laxity in implementing welfare measures.

V. T. Pradeep Kumar, chairman of Haritha Sena, an independent organisation of farmers in Wayanad, told media at Kalpetta that “if the project was properly carried out, the financial problems of farmers could have been solved to a certain extent.”

Bureaucratic inefficiency prevents most welfare programmes, including ‘packages’ announced from time to time by state and central governments for farmers, from having the desired effect. Former Kerala agricultural director Dr R. Heli told IPS that the delay in implementing the 1,840-crore rupee Kuttanad package prepared by the renowned agriculture scientist Dr M.S. Swaminathan, was due to unnecessary quarrels and a tug-of-war between departments.

“Chennai-based M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, entrusted to study the problems faced in Kuttanad, had submitted remedial measures to the central government in 2007, identifying 15 tasks covering about 50 different activities to mitigate agrarian distress in Kuttanad,” he said. “But lack of will power and inefficiency of administrators delayed the package in full scale.”

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