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Vidharbha: packaging an anniversary

P. Sainath

On the ‘relief’ front today, cheques issued to struggling farmers from the Prime Minister’s package have bounced. The State’s response is to scapegoat lower-level local officers who do not control these accounts.

It’s just over a year since Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made his vital visit to Vidharbha. With him he brought the assurance of a new deal for ruined cotton growers in six districts of Maharashtra. The promise of an easier flow of credit to indebted farmers. The chance that an indolent government in Mumbai would work better. The pledge of decisive action, both in terms of relief to devastated cultivators and a change in policy track. And the hope of halting farm su icides in the nation’s top distress hot spot.

The beginnings were hopeful. The United Progressive Alliance Government formed on the ruins of a National Democratic Alliance burnt by farmers’ anger, promised to double credit to the agriculture sector in three years. It was logical to assume that crisis regions like Vidharbha would receive the attention they deserved. And, with the Prime Minister’s relief package, crop credit almost trebled to Rs.2,033 crore for 2006-07. At least, on paper.

Since then, lending targets for the affected districts have actually been revised downwards. And heavily so. Take Yavatmal, perhaps the worst-hit district in many ways. Its credit target is now roughly Rs.435 crore. A fall of almost 30 per cent from 2006-07. For Washim, the fall is 41 per cent, for Akola 36 per cent, and for Buldhana 38 per cent. The total is down to Rs.1,683 crore.

This, despite slightly better recovery from the farmers than in previous years. As the Vidharbha Jan Andolan Samiti points out, banks are punishing farmers for being better customers. Whatever the constraints, they have not stopped better-off regions in western Maharashtra from seeing hikes in their targets.

Meanwhile, the number of suicides in the six districts has crossed 600 in the first eight months of this year. Yet, when Dr. Singh arrives in Mumbai today, he will be greeted with success stories. Of farm suicides now being in decline. Of the success of his “package” and that of Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh. Of the ‘White Revolution’ in Vidharbha as a result of the “huge rise” in milk production. Of the far better credit situation (even as farmers there blockade banks for the opposite reason).

On the whole, it’s better for Dr. Singh and his colleagues to conduct their “review” from the safety of Mumbai. The picture on the ground in Vidharbha is most depressing. We are into the spraying season — when the spurt in suicides is worst. Is there a “decline” in the number of farm suicides? On the contrary, they keep going on and up. What has “declined” is the number of such deaths that the government “accepts” as “eligible for compensation.”

This is what has “declined” — and with it the government’s credibility and ability to speak the truth to itself. The levels of distress are appalling and we now see multiple suicides in the same households. In one instance in Akola, three under the same roof within two years. Elsewhere, two in the same family is no longer as rare as it was. You would think that any State would move in emergency mode. All the government of Maharashtra has told its officials is that the “numbers” must come down. (Election year is not that far off.) And so they do. This creates a curious disconnect. On account of having been pulled up by the courts, the government is obliged to maintain a public record of the total numbers.

On the other hand, the political imperative to show that these deaths are in decline. The government resolves this by doing both. Leading to a Kafka-esque drama Kafka would have been proud of. Police station records show that the total number of suicides in 2006 (in the six districts) was a stunning 2,832. Higher than the already awful figure of 2,425 the previous year. Much of that increase came after the “relief packages” had been launched.

So how did suicides “decline”? By taking that figure of 2,832 and breaking it up into absurd sub-groups. For instance, “farmers suicides” is a wholly different category from farmers’ “family member suicides.” All these “family members” were also farmers, and had done no work other than farming all their lives. Often, the “family member” was the eldest son who really ran the farm (his father being over 70 years of age). But the land is still in the father’s name. So, with no land in his own name, the government does not count the victim as a farmer. Nor will it accept women as farmers, no matter what it says in public.

So, in fully rural districts, the number of “farmers” taking their lives becomes small. Just 836 out of 2,832 in 2006. But in the very next column you can see that “family member suicides” is 684. Which means that, even by official count, more than 1,500 farmers killed themselves last year. And finally, the “eligible” suicides out of these is just 578.

In short you “bring down” the suicide rate by raising the “rejection rate.” That is, the number of suicides dismissed as “non-genuine” — each month. That is how a “decline” is achieved. In one district in the month of July, not a single one of more than 30 suicides was accepted as “genuine.” Kafka would have been envious or just stolen the plot.

Actually, even if he avoids Vidharbha, the Prime Minister might be embarrassed in Mumbai itself. His own party has produced reports blasting its government on the farm crisis. Most embarrassing is the question: never mind the relief package. What about the “poll package”? Whoever stopped the State government from keeping its election manifesto promise of Rs.2,700 per quintal of cotton? It fought and won the polls on that promise, blasting the then price of Rs.2,250 as cruel. Soon after coming to power, the Deshmukh regime did the opposite. It withdrew the “advance bonus” that made up Rs.500 of that price. The farmer’s price plunged to Rs.1,750. This newspaper at the time warned of a huge rise in the suicides. (“Awaiting a deadly harvest” The Hindu, October 28, 2005). “We have hundreds taking their lives at the price of Rs.2,250,” said farmers’ leader Vijay Jawandia at that time. “How many suicides will there be at Rs.1,700?” A deadly prophecy come true now.

On the ‘relief’ front today, cheques issued to struggling farmers from the Prime Minister’s package have bounced. The State’s response is to scapegoat lower-level local officers who do not control these accounts. Earlier, the sorry sight of a State government accusing the PMO of slowing down the release of funds — that too, in the Supreme Court — also caused major embarrassment.

On the ‘White Revolution’ front, the cows distributed at a cost of crores under both “relief packages” are producing, on average, just over one litre of milk per cow. And those are official figures. Mind you, this is touted as the “success story” of the packages. On the credit front, a moratorium and a waiver on interest have not helped. It now means that those who actually got fresh loans will be crushed in 2008 when they have to pay up all pending amounts at the same time. Since the price of cotton has not increased, their income has not, either. Since input costs have shot up since the launch of the “packages,” the capacity of the farmer to repay loans has fallen further.

Meanwhile, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee has stymied the country’s “first-ever publicly bred” Bt varieties of the Central Institute for Cotton Research. It had earlier cleared numerous varieties of private corporations making huge profits. Whatever the merits of that decision, it means farmers who would have saved crores of rupees with these home-grown cotton transgenics cannot buy them for much longer, if at all. Even those who oppose Bt in toto see this. Where the MNCs sell a new Bt cotton seeds packet of 450 grams for Rs.925, these could have been 35 times cheaper. Besides, the farmer could retain the CICR’s locally adapted varieties. He or she would not then have to buy each year on the scale they now do.

Why were these public sector efforts blocked? Perhaps the Prime Minister should include that too, in his review. The GEAC says the CICR, which has some good work to its credit, did not fulfil some basic norms. In short, a few technical and mostly bureaucratic procedures. Which raises the question of why the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, the custodian of national good in agriculture, did not prepare the CICR’s work for proper presentation. Whatever the reason, it means cotton growers continue to get ripped off to the tune of crores.

We said in these columns last year (July 14, 2006) that you cannot have packages go in one direction and policies in another. Not for long, anyway. And that the peasants would find themselves left with no package, only packaging. Now, even the packaging has unravelled.

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