When Boya Madhiletti approached the Andhra Pradesh Government's 'helpline', the bankrupt farmer never thought it would land him in hospital and even jail. Madhiletti, 29, went by the advice of well-meaning neighbours. "There is an official helpline for farmers in distress," they told him. "So even if you are deep in debt, do nothing rash. Contact the helpline and they will do something."

So he did. Mr. Madhiletti's brush with the helpline - which saw a revenue inspector harass him for a bribe - convinced him that suicide was the only way out. The indebted farmer tried killing himself right at the Collectorate in Mahbubnagar. He failed and wound up paying thousands of rupees in hospital costs. And the man who had gone to the helpline for aid, languished in jail on the charge of attempted suicide until his hard-up village took out a collection and raised bail for him.

The day he decided to kill himself, Mr. Madhiletti walked into the Red Cross Centre at Mahbubnagar town - to donate blood. "I thought if I am going to end my life, let someone benefit from it," he told us at his home in Rajouli village. "The Red Cross people said 'we can't give you money for your blood.' That made me angry since I had not asked for any. I told them I was not doing it for payment. So they took my offer." He shows us the certificate dated August 11, 2005, confirming his blood donation.

"All I wanted from the Government was help with a bank loan. My family has 12 acres, after all, and surely we should get a loan against that land? But we could not." He is the eldest son in a family of 12.

"I tried for months to meet the officials and tell them of my problems," says Mr. Madhiletti. Rising costs and crop failure in successive seasons had left him Rs.3 lakh in debt. This Mahbubnagar farmer grows sunflower, cotton, and maize. He also supplies seed to a private corporation. "The company gives us some advance money, towards input costs, through a middleman," says a neighbour. "Our risks are high, but the losses are never shared by the company or the middlemen." For Mr. Madhiletti, those losses just got too much. He had also spent close to Rs.3 lakh on two borewells and a pipeline.

Andhra farmer suicides
"I approached the Chief Minister with a petition," he says. "He said he was handing over my plea to the District Collector and I should follow up there. I did, but it seemed impossible to meet anybody." Meanwhile, his debts were mounting and so was pressure from the middlemen. At one point, he says, he even saw the Collector. But "he did not speak. And I had no chance to explain." Nor was accessing other officers any easier.

After some weeks of this, when he was really depressed, the helpline idea came up. That was set up in 2004 by the newly elected Congress Government. Andhra Pradesh had witnessed thousands of distress suicides by indebted farmers since 1998. The idea was to counsel, advise, and assist farmers, and to stop them from taking the extreme step.

"Finally I got through to the MRO [Mandal Revenue Office]," says Mr. Madhiletti. "I was told a Revenue Inspector would enquire into my case. What is there to enquire, I asked. I am just seeking a bank loan and you can see my documents of land ownership right here."

"Next, the revenue inspector called me and asked me for a bribe. He said: 'if you want a report in your favour without any fuss, pay me Rs.2,000.' As simple as that." Mr. Madhiletti did not pay the bribe. "While I was out of town for a day, the RI went ahead and made the visit."

"Firstly," says Mr. Madhiletti, "my family did not want that sort of public exposure of our troubles." More importantly, "that visit of the officer scared off all potential creditors. Those who might have loaned me something now would not." The bribe demand and all that followed it drove the farmer over the edge. "I tried meeting the Collector again, but failed. I also went to the Red Cross and gave blood."

Mr. Madhiletti returned to the Collectorate and waited hours but was still unable to meet anyone. That was when he consumed the pesticide he had bought the same day. After an attender at the office found him lying in agony, he was bundled into a car and rushed to the Nizam Institute of Medical Sciences (NIMS) in Hyderabad some 100 km away. All this was done in a matter of hours by officials who had had no time to meet him in months. "One officer went all the way to Hyderabad with him," says a neighbour.

"He spent nearly two weeks at NIMS," says his father Easwaranna. "The costs came to over Rs.10,000." Mr. Madhiletti came home on August 23. The distraught farmer had not yet recovered from his ordeal when the police showed up at his door and booked him for attempted suicide. "I spent one night at the station and was produced the next morning in court," he says. He then went to jail for about 15 days. He might have stayed in longer since he had no money for bail. "But we got together a collection and helped him out," say his neighbours.

So Mr. Madhiletti emerged from jail thanks to the few thousand rupees put up by his friends. He's been summoned to court twice since then. "But each time, the case was adjourned without a hearing. The last date was January 7 this year." He again failed to meet the Collector. But after news of the event spread, officials ensured he got a bank loan of Rs.20,000 at eight per cent interest.

The villagers, though, have drawn a bleak lesson from this saga of a little farmer and the mighty apparatus of state. "From their point of view," says a local journalist, "none of this would have happened if he had paid that bribe of Rs.2,000. He would have had no problem." But Mr. Madhiletti has little time for reflection. He has to fulfil his contract with an unsparing seed company.