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Poverty Kills

First the cotton farmers, now the groundnut farmers

In just one fortnight, 20 people in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh
consumed pesticides and died. Crop failure and the worsening economic condition of the farmers appear to be the primary causes of the suicide syndrome

by Lionel Messias

Nineteen-year-old Tulsamma was on the threshold of marriage. Her brothers had planned a grand wedding for her if they got a good yield of groundnut from their five-acre plot in Marur village. They had taken an additional eight acres on lease. That was when the bud-necrosis disease attacked their crop and devastated it.

Tulsamma overheard her brothers articulating their concerns to their mother -- stuff like, how would they now find the money to get her married? Their debts already exceeded Rs one lakh and the private money-lenders, whom many farmers are forced to turn to because of the red tape and corruption involved in getting institutional loans, were pursuing them for payment.

Tulsamma did not want to be a burden on her family. She knew her brothers had collected the monocrotophos that the government liberally dumped on the district in a classic case of locking the stable door after the horse had bolted. On September 15, when her brothers were away, the sensitive girl swallowed some of the pesticide and died.

"Successive crop losses have left us in a financial crisis. This year we were hoping for a bumper crop. But the pest dashed all our hopes and now our sister is dead," said a heartbroken Venkataram to Humanscape.

Padmamma owns three acres of land but, due to adverse seasonal conditions, as well as pests, she lost her groundnut crop four years consecutively. "We have incurred a total debt of Rs 30,000 to raise crops for the past three seasons. We could manage only two meals a day and the latest crop failure devastated my mother. She could not face the money-lenders anymore," says Padmamma's son Chidambara Reddy.

"We owned six acres of land and my husband had accrued debts to the tune of Rs one lakh, including loans taken from the local Syndicate Bank as well as the Co-operative Credit Society. He had high hopes of a good crop, as weather conditions were conducive, and was hoping to pay at least the interest on the loans he had taken," says Lakshammam, wife of Bandi Narasimhulu. Bandi Narasimhulu was the first person in Anantapur district to resort to suicide as a way out of his indebtedness caused by crop failure. Ramanajaneyulu, 40, of Yerraguntlapalli village in Tadipatri mandal consumed pesticide and died a few hours later. According to his father, Ramakrishna, Ramanajaneyulu had run up debts of nearly Rs one lakh over the past four years.

With the village economy in a shambles due to four years' consecutive crop failure in Anantapur district -- one of the most backward districts in Andhra Pradesh's Rayalseema region -- this so-called `suicide syndrome' amongst the debt-ridden groundnut farmers is becoming commonplace. As was the case three years ago, among the cotton cultivators of Warangal district. Between September 15 and October 1, as many as 20 people, including seven women and three children, committed suicide after consuming monocrotophos, a pesticide liberally supplied by the government when bud-necrosis had all but ravaged the substantial groundnut crop in the district.

Unlike in the Warangal case, where Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu visited the victims' families and announced an ex-gratia of Rs one lakh to each of the victims of the `cotton suicide syndrome' (official estimate: 162; unofficial: 350), in this case the state government has taken a tough and insensitive stand. Minister for agriculture Vadde Shobanadreeswara Rao said that the government would not pay ex-gratia to the victims' families, as it would encourage others to take their own lives. In all fairness, it must be stated here that during the `cotton suicide syndrome' at least one so-called `victim' was found with pesticide stuffed down his throat. Impoverished family members had resorted to this desperate measure in order to get compensation from a government that had done nothing to help when pests ravaged their crop.

Though the latest spate of suicides was a result of several factors, crop failure seems to be the main one. The economic conditions of the farming community of this drought-prone district have been worsening year after year due to successive crop failure. This has led to unrest and frustration among the farmers.

Anantapur, which receives only 52 cm of rainfall per year, ranks second from the bottom after Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. This summer, Anantapur was in the grip of a drought, like that other backward district in the state, Mahbubnagar. The economy of this region is based on rain-fed agriculture; just seven per cent of cultivated land is under assured irrigation. About 90 per cent of the dry land (roughly 20 lakh acres) is cultivated with groundnut mono-crop between the months of July and November. Frequent droughts, resulting in crop failure, have increased the debt burden of the farmers to such an extent that even big farmers have been driven below the poverty line.

The impoverished farmers have long realised that the diversion of water from surplus areas is the only solution to their problem. They are demanding water for their lands instead of government handouts during crises, such as input subsidies and, as happened this time, gallons of pesticide. Ninety per cent of the district's population subsists on agriculture. There are no other alternative employment-generating programmes. Agriculture itself cannot support such a high population on a full-time basis, while non-farm employment opportunities barely exist in the district. The present development response of the government and the NGO sector, therefore, is piecemeal and lacks vision.

A more proactive response is what is required for this drought-prone district, with the twin problems of poverty and drought treated both on a short-term and on a long-term basis. The lack of such a holistic approach, by a government which claims to have a Vision-2020 document as its blueprint for the future, has given rise to a feeling of frustration and anger among the people. Irate farmers have vented their anger at officials and, at the slightest provocation, have even turned violent.

The incident that took place in Tadimarri village recently, clearly illustrates the militancy building up among the farmers whose anger was further fuelled by discrimination in the payment of insurance claims for last year's kharif crop. Several hundred farmers first attacked and ransacked the Mandal Revenue Office and the Mandal Praja Parishad Office at Tadimarri village, about 30 km from Anantapur. They then went to the Gram Panchayat Office where boxes of pesticide were stored for free distribution and set them on fire. As the stocks blazed, Marineni Ramanna, a 55-year-old farmer, slipped and fell into the inferno. He succumbed to his burns two hours later at the government hospital.

The farmers were incensed about the fact that while some had been given upto 79 per cent of the compensation (Rs 10,000 per acre is the amount), others were given as little as 0.18 per cent. The amount varied from mandal to mandal; in fact, only 45 of the 63 mandals had been covered till then. Incidentally, environmentalists had warned against the spraying of pesticides at this stage, as the crop, which was spread over 19 lakh acres of the district, was beyond being salvaged.

The bud-necrosis disease, which normally affects around one to three per cent of the crop, this year affected 30 per cent. By the time it was discovered it was too late to do anything -- the thrips virus had become virulent. Scientists at ICRISAT and AP Agriculture University told the government that spraying the crop with pesticide would be useless as it was over 45 days old. Several voluntary organisations also faxed a letter to the chief minister from Anantapur, on September 17, suggesting that the distribution of pesticides be stopped. Apart from not being able to save the crop, the pesticide would only endanger the environment.

Representatives from the voluntary organisations met district collector Somesh Kumar who informed them that 1.5 lakh litres, as against six lakh litres, of monocrotophos had already been distributed. Finally, Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu himself conceded, in the Andhra Pradesh legislative assembly, that the spraying of pesticides would not control the bud-necrosis and that it could spread to the unaffected crops causing further damage. Naidu admitted that 2.4 lakh acres of crop were affected in the Anantapur district, with a few incidences of the disease reported from the districts of Kurnool and Chittoor.

This devastation has painfully brought to light the price the farmers had to pay when officials, who were supposed to be working alongside them in the fields, were busy in development activities as part of the Mahila Janmabhoomi programme conducted in the first week of August. Janmabhoomi is a community-development programme started three years ago by Naidu, in the state. The agriculture department has a sanctioned strength of 2,000 agriculture officers though only 1,300 posts have been filled. And nearly all the officers, during three critical weeks in the groundnut crop's cycle, were busy preparing, organising and reporting on the Mahila Janmabhoomi. Despite this being brought to the notice of the state cabinet, the minister made participation compulsory.

"Bud-necrosis has so far been a minor disease in the state. Even the agriculture scientists were quite unprepared for the scale of the attack," an agriculture official told Humanscape. Ironically, although individual farmers may have been wiped out financially, as far as the average yield is concerned it is expected to remain the same as that of last year. "This is because, this year, against the normal 1,000 kg per hectare, the expectations were that the farmers would get 2,500 kg. Even if the losses are taken into consideration, the farmers should still be getting the normal yield," the official claims. For the next year, the officials hope to encourage farmers to plant bajra and jowar along with the groundnut, as inter-crops, as they act as natural repellents of thrips.

Dr K Gopal Iyer of the department of sociology, Punjab University, Chandigarh, who was in Anantapur on October 4 and 5, at the instance of the central government, told Humanscape that he saw the cause of the suicides as deep-rooted frustration coupled with humiliation arising from ever-increasing debt in the rural areas. This has largely been the result of crop failure, a consumerist culture that has propelled farmers to switch to commercial crops, mainly groundnut, lack of non-farm employment opportunities and exploitation by money-lenders.

An excessive dependence on agriculture and lack of alternative employment for the rest of the year are also cited as major reasons for the farmer unrest and frustration. Rescheduling crop loans, at the time of crop failure, is of no help to either the farmer or the banker as it simply postpones the inevitable and increases the debt burden. Dr Iyer's advice was that farmers should think about alternative crops to replace the mono-crop groundnut, at least on a minimum area of 30 per cent. According to him, all these problems would persist unless irrigation potential in the Anantapur district was created.
(The Transforming Word)

Lionel Messias is a journalist based in Hyderabad.


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