For heartless cynicism, the Government of Maharashtra is hard to beat. The agrarian crisis in Vidarbha has spun almost out of control. Appeals for swift measures by many have fallen on deaf ears. Calls for remedies by the National Commission on Farmers have been ignored. Farm suicides are on the rise. Sometimes there are two or three in a day. None of this was unforeseen. In fact, it was expected. (See "Vidarbha: Awaiting a deadly harvest.")
Many inquiries have been held. Some set up by a government that hopes at least one will yield a friendly finding. That has not happened. The latest such study by the Indira Gandhi Institute for Development Research further damages the Deshmukh outfit. So did one by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (done at the behest of the Bombay High Court) in March this year. Both point to big, policy-driven failures.
Vidarbha's mainly cotton farmers have been hit by rising input costs and the crash of output prices. They have also been ruined by the collapse of rural credit. The banks will simply not help them. So they turn to moneylenders. While 58 per cent of all farm households in the State are in debt, it's a lot worse in Vidarbha. Here, close to 90 per cent of short-term credit needs are met by private loan sharks. Meanwhile, farmers have also been crushed by fake seed dealers. Mindless de-regulation has crippled the sector.
The farm suicides are the tip of the huge crisis raging here, not its whole. They are, though, its most powerful symbol. The Maharashtra Government has given out three divergent figures on the deaths. It told the National Human Rights Commission that 140 farmers in the whole State had taken their lives. This was during 2001-04. These deaths, it said, were debt-driven. (Indian Express, July 7, 2005.) A little later, it shifted ground. In a note this year, it hiked the number to 524 for the same period. Yet, this October, it told the National Commission on Farmers (NCF) something startling. Well over 300 suicides had occurred in Yavatmal alone between 2001 and September this year. That is, in just one of Vidarbha's 11 districts.
The same data show that farm suicides in Yavatmal have doubled almost every year in that period. There's more. Just 11 of the 307 families who lost a loved one this way got any compensation at all. Since the day the NCF team arrived in Nagpur on October 18, there have been 60 more suicides in Vidarbha. As many as 32 of them in Yavatmal alone. A worried NCF made vital recommendations for relief. These have mostly been ignored by the State.
The crisis captures the decay of the political class in Vidarbha. No MP or MLA tried to even meet the NCF team led by Dr. M.S. Swaminathan. This, although the team had in tow the young Rana Patil, Maharashtra's Minister of State for Agriculture. It gets worse. The MLAs from the districts most affected are mainly from the Shiv Sena and the BJP. Why help your rivals?
Meanwhile, the advance bonus normally paid to cotton farmers has been scrapped. This amount of roughly Rs.500 used to be added on to the minimum support price for cotton declared by the Centre. The State admits it costs around Rs.2200 to produce a quintal of cotton. Yet the scrapping of the advance bonus means farmers will get Rs.1700 a quintal. A price last seen in 1994. The Maharashtra Cotton Federation is a mess. This year, the Federation had its first elections in living memory. That too, an indirect one. Since 1972, this body set up for kisans, has never had a ballot where farmers could vote directly. Those who grow cotton have little say in its running. And none at all in the shaping of larger policy.
Huge delays in paying farmers their dues (on the cotton it had procured) was just one failure. The Federation made things worse by paying them in instalments. Making their need for quick cash much sharper. It also increased their burden by cutting bank dues from their earnings. So more and more farmers turned away from the body towards moneylenders.
About the only action the Government has taken after the NCF's visit is a crackdown on moneylenders. Very good. But here's the problem. One, the new sahucars, the powerful input dealers, are barely touched. They are not seen in the village, anyway. The small-time village lender is. And he is taking the heat. Ending harassment is right and deserves support. But it comes at a time when the formal credit system has packed up. Thus the banks won't give the farmer money. And the little lender is afraid to. So even weddings and funerals are held up.
Meanwhile, the State Government has helped boost private traders. Those who exploit this mess to lift the farmer's produce at rock bottom prices. Their parallel markets can now function openly. Also, the State has never pushed the Centre to stop the dumping of highly subsidised cotton from the rich nations. Giant subsidies by the United States to its producers have killed the price of cotton. The duty on cotton imports is just 10 per cent. On sugar - affecting western Maharashtra - it is 60 per cent.
Meanwhile, few other governments have brought in so many anti-poor measures. The Prime Minister's distaste for the two-child norm means nothing to his party in Maharashtra. Here, the State passed an Act that will make irrigation water charges one and a half times costlier for those farmers having more than two children. It has already played havoc with the norm in the panchayats. This is punishing people for being poor. Poorer families tend to be larger than better off ones. That is an insurance against higher child mortality.
In barring them from contesting local body polls, the Government stifles their voices. Its new bright idea is to punish those who have no toilets in their homes. It has a Bill coming that would bar members of such households from fighting local body elections. A move that is anti-democracy in a profound sense. But that means little to a regime which delights in demolishing the homes of the poor. Meanwhile, Mr. Deshmukh's Ministers call for selling off the last green spaces in Mumbai to private, mostly corporate hands.
Vidarbha is a happy hunting ground for money-grubbers. Ministers, officials and film stars have done paid-for propaganda for Bt cotton. The hard sell has worked, too. Many small farmers for whom this risk will prove fatal have embraced it. One last desperate throw of the dice. Some film stars earned undisclosed lakhs for their skills. But it will be some time before these 'brand ambassadors' dare visit the region again.
The resources and energies of this State, in agriculture at least, flow mostly towards western Maharashtra. That province too, has its share of small farmers in distress. But the loot is conducted in their name. The super rich who rule the region have seldom lacked for credit. Or much else. The last year alone has seen thousands of crores of rupees going in credit and subsidies to cooperatives. Bodies that have ripped off massive sums from the provident funds of their members and employees. To sick sugar mills run by healthy barons who will never repay their loans. To units that owe hundreds of crores in power bills that they have no intention of paying. To rich horticulturists, some of whom are hobby farmers based in the city.
Contrast this with Vidarbha's farmers taking their lives for lack of a minor crop loan. Or with small farmers in western Maharashtra who find their funds siphoned off by the rich bosses of their cooperatives. Political heavies who will not be brought to book. The big new idea from the region? Wine to be freely sold in shops and stores. Never mind the public interest issues involved. This would boost an elite already locked into State largesse. It would do little for Vidarbha where a litre of milk sells for a lot less than a litre of bottled water. The just announced waiver of Rs.100 crore of interest on loans bypasses poor cotton farmers. It does, though, help rich horticulturists in irrigated Western Maharashtra.
One good development though, is that political protests have begun in the region. The sense of a great letdown by the Shetkari Sanghatana had kept people away from such action for years. This past week saw dharnas and sit-ins. And they've drawn not just farmers but playwrights and professors, teachers and journalists. And others as well. People moved by their conscience and the misery they are witness to. And with the knowledge that this is man-made. Vidarbha might yet see the power of moral reasoning beat back the mad rush for profits from human misery.