The contrast would have been amusing but for its being rooted in so great a tragedy. On August 15, the Prime Minister signals a crisis in farming from the ramparts of the Red Fort. He singles out the Vidarbha region in Maharashtra - quite unusual for an Independence Day speech. Manmohan Singh says that during his visit there "the plight of the farmers made a deep impact on me". And, he says, "I am aware of the acute distress of our farmers who bear the burden of heavy debt." This is the nation's Prime Minister, worrying about agriculture. Around the same time, the nation's Agriculture Minister, Sharad Pawar - Maharashtra's foremost political figure - appears on television to reassure the Indian public. Not about the state of farming in Vidarbha or elsewhere. But about the safety of the Indian cricket team in Sri Lanka.

Earlier, the Prime Minister was the first top leader from either the Central or the State government to visit affected farmers in Vidarbha. Neither the Chief Minister of the State nor the Union Agriculture Minister had been to any households to meet those affected. Dozens of committees and surveys had been to Vidarbha - and declared a crisis. These include teams from the National Commission on Farmers (NCF) and the Planning Commission. But it was only when the Prime Minister visited that top leaders went along to the village.

In Andhra Pradesh or Kerala, the visit of a Central team of any sort provokes ground-level response. Members of the Legislative Assembly, Members of Parliament, activists, all get into the act with their demands and protests. During Manmohan Singh's visit, not a single MLA or MP or Minister from Vidarbha region came forward to assert anything. Nor make any demand of their own Prime Minister. The quality of the region's (and Maharashtra's) political leadership was clear for all to see.

One of the more absurd items shoved into the Prime Minister's package was a 'gift' of 1,000 high-breed cows for each of the six troubled districts in Vidarbha. The Ministry now seems set to extend this to 31 'drought-hit' districts across the country. With 31,000 very expensive cows to be given away, the cash registers are ringing somewhere.

 •  Vidarbha agrarian crisis

Then came the floods. In Andhra Pradesh, the government went to work fairly soon. In Maharashtra, the government worried about Mumbai and how it came across on television. It was days before the rest of the State got a look in. The Chief Minister ventured out late, only to return from Aurangabad - citing bad weather. He was in danger of getting his feet wet.

This week, Maharashtra enters its most important festival, Ganesh utsav. Crores of rupees will be spent on the event in Mumbai, as during Gokulashtami. Only, on a larger scale. But in Vidarbha, where this is the central social event, there will be villages in darkness and silence. Some might have no Ganesh mandals at all, where they had several in past years. In Sanglud village, Akola, there were seven Ganesh mandals in 2004. None in 2005. The main organiser of the utsav there, a farmer, had taken his own life. The agrarian crisis has bankrupted whole communities. Nobody has the money. And even temple towns that are centres of Ganesh worship saw a fall in business last year. This year could be worse.

Meanwhile, the number of farm suicides in the region since June 2005 has crossed the 760 mark. Well over 150 of these have occurred between July 2 and August 21, says the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti. That is, in 51 days after the Prime Minister left Vidarbha. The same number of suicides prior to Manmohan Singh's visit took 70 days. Which means the rate at which the suicides are occurring has risen. From two a day in the pre-visit period to roughly one every eight hours now. And at his latest press meet in Nagpur, Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh said that he was baffled. Why did people insist on killing themselves? That too, when his government and the Centre had worked so hard to make their relief "packages" work? Neither the Central nor the State measures address a single major cause of the distress. Not cotton prices. No debt waiver or duties against dumping. Or anything else. But the state clings to its air of injured innocence.

Meanwhile, the Union Agriculture Ministry has just gladdened the heart of some cattle merchant. One of the more absurd items shoved into the Prime Minister's package was a 'gift' of 1,000 high-breed cows for each of the six troubled districts in Vidarbha. The Ministry now seems set to extend this to 31 'drought-hit' districts across the country. With 31,000 very expensive cows to be given away, the cash registers are ringing somewhere. It is, of course, insane to give a poor, struggling farmer a costly animal in a drought-hit region. Either he eats the cow or the cow eats his household out of existence. Where is the fodder? Where is the water or the other support systems? The cost of maintaining a top-breed milking cow could be well over Rs.60 a day. Which would well cripple the farmer. But crores of rupees will be made on this deal by the well-connected.

It is a very typical idea, though, coming out of this State. In the 1980s, an experiment led by a foundation in Pune went further. It gave a thousand families in Kalahandi 'Jersey cows', ostensibly from Europe. The first lot sat down and died in the weather there. By the time the whole project was done, the local lead species of western Orissa had been rendered extinct. But lots of money had been made. Only, not by the local people. The project ended up making a milk-surplus district a milk-deficit one.

If some rich corporate group has bought thousands of drip kits on the cheap, then drip irrigation will be forced on people. (The State's water laws give the authorities that right.) Anything at all can happen in Maharashtra's agriculture. Quite a bit of the State's water-guzzling sugarcane is grown in regions declared as drought-hit. And there were years in the 1990s when the State's spending on 'drought relief' exceeded the combined profits of the top private companies in more than one sector.

Maharashtra's agrarian crisis is part of the same crisis unfolding in the rest of the country. It is not just about Vidarbha. People across the State have been hit by harmful national policies too. But in Maharashtra, there is a further twist. Here, robber baron politics exists on a scale many other States cannot dream of. Year after year, this rich State reports more malnutrition-linked deaths than most other parts of the country. Year after year, governments here are routinely pulled up by the High Court for their neglect of rising hunger deaths.

Whether the State and the Union Government write off the debts or not, most farmers cannot pay. Some day, some government will have to take this step.
Meanwhile, the suicides still swell in number. And more money is made out of the distress. Even the 'packages' are hijacked to do this. Also shoved into the Prime Minister's package - by a local hand - is Rs.180 crores for 'seed replacement'. No word about what is to be replaced and by whom. This is a bonanza for seed companies and input dealers. All of whom have anyway made a killing at the peasant's expense. The same funds could have been used better. Had the government given farmers an incentive of Rs.1,000 an acre (0.4 hectare) to grow jowar, that fast-dwindling food crop could have made a comeback. With the fodder from that, farmers would rear cattle again. But that is too sensible. It does not make money for the right people.

In Maharashtra, government and the Beautiful People joined hands to promote Bt cotton. This in unirrigated zones where it posed its most severe risks. Ministers, film stars, MLAs - the lot - all plugged for it. This season it is thought to have covered between 50 and 60 per cent of sown area. Fact: The rising sales of Bt cotton have seen no fall in pesticide sale or use. Some input dealers in Vidarbha say they have sold more than before. If there is any fall in pesticide use, it will be owing to excess rains, which have washed away the farmers' efforts.

Maharashtra represents crony capitalism at its worst. Two or three parasitical and incestuous lobbies can get anything they want done. Sugar barons, builders and developers. Rich industrialists with captive governments and corrupt officials in tow - all plug into each other at multiple levels. Many of Maharashtra's "cooperatives" are simply family-owned private property. Their 'members' are captives of the reigning dynasties. Cooperative bank after cooperative bank is looted by these families, with no retribution ever.

The same cabals control the cash cow of commercialised education. Their interest in the subsistence farmer, if any, is in how to make money by getting him off the land. Whole tracts of a district can be handed over to a private company for an SEZ with no visible benefit to the state. The displacement of labour is a desired consequence. Not an unplanned one.

The race to corporate farming is on in Maharashtra as in most of the country. But it has an edge to it here. The inequalities are so great, the process so vicious. There is anyway a huge gap between the state's western part and the rest of its regions. Western Maharashtra collars most of the State's resources and dominates its politics. Take out Mumbai and Pune, and Maharashtra is a Bimaru State.

The country's Agriculture Minister is from here and is a powerful man. He gets wonderful press. Yet, no Ministry at the Centre has performed worse than Agriculture in the two years of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

In the State, the Congress-NCP government is lucky. The Shiv Sena has split. The righteous Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has taken its worst beating on l'affaire Pramod Mahajan here. (Besides, countless other troubles have hobbled it, too.) A strong opposition would have given this government hell. That has not happened.

They are also lucky to be there at all. In 2004, the Sena-BJP sent in more MPs to the Lok Sabha than the Congress did. A rising BSP cut sharply into the Congress-Republican Party of India vote. But the 2005 Assembly elections saw Sonia Gandhi's extraordinary campaign pull back Dalit votes, contain the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and beat the BJP-Sena in Vidarbha. This could be one reason why most Congress MLAs in the region are so indolent. They did not have to earn their seats themselves. They bank on her to pull it off again.

The next round, though, might be another game. The NCP could pull the plug on the alliance in the Zilla Parishad elections which will come within months. The danger to the Congress now comes from its ally.

The Congress could do many things. It could step back on its awful land policies. It could face up to the farm crisis. It could strengthen public health where that has collapsed, as in Vidarbha. But Maharashtra's top leaders are focussed on Mumbai, malls, real estate and money-making.

The country's Agriculture Minister is from here and is a powerful man. He gets wonderful press. Yet, no Ministry at the Centre has performed worse than Agriculture in the two years of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.
Yet, Maharashtra's crisis is not as bad as it seems. It is worse. This is also the State that has passed the most regressive water laws in the country. If the Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority Act is enforced, it will destroy what remains of small farms across the State. And we would be looking at civil unrest on a massive scale.This World Bank-designed Bill mandates high water charges that could run into several thousand rupees an acre. It orders that "water charges shall reflect the full recovery of the cost of the irrigation management, administration, operation and maintenance of water resource project."

Few farmers can afford the new charges in the offing. What happens to those who cannot pay? They could go to prison for up to six months. And face fines "ten times the annual water charges". This is surely a first of its kind. It is also the infamous law which punishes farmers who have more than two children. They must pay "one and a half times of the normal rates of water charges... "

Already, water is a huge problem in this State. At least 57 per cent of irrigation water is collared by 2 per cent of the farmers. Two per cent of rich sugar lobby farmers, that is. Their power is so great that even Chief Ministers trying to tinker with this equation could lose their jobs. Thus, the mighty State of Maharashtra wastes more water per acre on its sugarcane than the inefficient Uttar Pradesh.

Ending the agrarian crisis needs huge shifts in policy at the Centre, too. But with the same party in power in both Centre and State, there is quite a bit Maharashtra too can do. For one thing, the government could keep its election promises. It came to power pledging, for instance, a cotton price of Rs.2,700 a quintal. Instead it withdrew Rs.500 from the existing price of Rs.2,200 that farmers were getting. So the price fell to Rs.1,700 a quintal. The maximum numbers of farm suicides in the cotton zones of Vidarbha occurred after that. Sure, there were other vital causes, too. But the price collapse was and is central to the process. The restoration of the cotton price would go a distance in slowing down the suicides.

Maharashtra could also press for a Centre-State price stabilisation fund that guards the farmer against sharp fluctuations in price. From the NCF to a host of activists, experts and economists, this is one measure that has often been called for. The Maharashtra government has shown not a whit of interest in moving on it. The fund would make a very big difference.

India's farmers have been locked into the volatility of global prices with no shock absorber at all. Cotton prices have been amongst those most badly hit. United States and European Union subsidies to mainly corporate growers have smashed the price of cotton so badly in the past decade that last year it fell to almost a third of what it had been in 1994.

The State could, but did not till now, ask the Centre to impose duties on the import of cotton that would stop the dumping of that product in this country. It could also have sought the use of variable tariffs to ensure that the landed price of cotton did not destroy the domestic price. It did nothing.

Maharashtra zealously protects sugar - the turf of its richest barons. The duty on sugar import - 60 per cent - is six times that on cotton. But cotton is grown by poor farmers who do not figure in the vision of the State's elite. Indeed, their argument is that the road to Vidarbha's salvation lies in having more sugarcane and sugar mills and cooperatives there.

The State could take a leaf out of the Tamilnadu government's book. There, UPA partner Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam has written off close to Rs.7,000 crores of farmer debt. Neither Deshmukh nor Pawar has lent any support to this idea. And Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, who would be horrified by the 'fiscal imprudence' of such heresy anywhere else, has kept a prudent silence on the Tamilnadu waiver. For very prudent reasons. He needs to enter his home State.

Whether the State and the Union Government write off the debts or not, most farmers cannot pay. Farm households in debt across the country doubled in the last decade. As villagers in Vidarbha put it: "You can recover our bodies, not the money." The farmers need both a waiver and a new line of credit. True, this would lead to wails of outrage in the corporate owned press and television channels. (Who, however, are silent on the tens of thousands of crores written off for just a few hundred corrupt captains of industry.) But some day, some government will have to take this step.

The State could also work for providing interest-free crop loans for non-irrigated farmers - who get nothing at all. It could promote food crop. Especially jowar. It could also accept the call by many to make Vidarbha an organic farming zone. That would be a challenge and a good step forward. Will it do all or most of these things? It could. But it would not be the Maharashtra of our times.