More than 75 per cent of all farm households in the six 'crisis districts' of the Vidharbha region are in distress. So concludes the most complete door-to-door survey ever conducted here by the Government of Maharashtra. Of the 17 lakh plus families covered, over a fourth - that is, more than two million people - were "under maximum distress." And more than three quarters of the rest were "under medium distress," says the survey. The major sources of such misery: debt and crop loss or crop failure (which often overlap). The pressure on farmers who cannot afford their daughters' marriages. And rising health costs.

The study, conducted on the instructions of Maharashtra Chief Secretary D. K. Shankaran, covered 8,351 villages. That is, every farm household in every single village in the districts of Amravati, Akola, Yavatmal, Washim, Buldhana, and Wardha. Close to 10,000 government staff and workers went to the field for this massive 15-day effort that ended in June. From District Collectors down to Talatis, gramsevaks, and teachers at the village level, all were involved.

The survey found that more than half the 17 lakh farm families faced major problems due to debt. An equal number sought help with farm inputs that are now more and more hard to afford. Well over three lakh families had daughters whose marriages they could not arrange due to the financial crisis they faced. One in every nine showed interest in the mass marriage scheme of the Government.

Nearly 70 per cent of the 17 lakh households are in "distress due to crop failure or crop losses." Tens of thousands of farmers faced "distress due to the problem of chronic diseases." That does not include those who face health problems other than chronic diseases. Only about a fifth of all households were found to be "without any distress." Perhaps the one positive aspect thrown up is that more than 40 per cent have sought help to move towards organic farming.

The six districts are the ones covered under the Prime Minister's 'relief package' announced soon after his visit to the region in June. All except Wardha fall into the Amravati Division. "Look at the data and you see the sheer scale of the problem," says one officer who worked with the survey. "You also see that the 'packages' thrown up so far are peanuts."

Embarrassing data

A single summary sheet of the survey's findings is up on the State Government's website. Some of the more detailed findings - not on the website - are with The Hindu. The data are an embarrassment to the State Government. Its leaders have claimed that factors other than debt and agrarian distress are behind the mounting farm suicides in the region. So much so that the State has been asking 'spiritual leaders' to set up shop in Vidharbha to 'counsel' the farmers. The Chief Minister was present at a meeting of one such group on Sunday. Some of these bodies have been actively raising funds. The stated aim, at least, is to help the distressed farmers. "But how this will help them is anyone's guess," says Kishore Tiwari of the Vidharbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS).

Posted on the same website, but not part of the survey, is the Government's own count of farm suicides. It admits to almost 2,400 of them in these six districts between 2001 and 2006. It also shows that this year has been by far the worst. By just November, the number had reached 1,215. For one thing, this is almost three times last year's official figure of 431. For another, it means that farm suicides in just the first ten months of this year were almost 25 times more than occurred in all of 2001. That year, the number was 49.

A thorough, documented analysis of this by senior officials - not on the website - plays down this number. It argues that half of these are "non-agrarian distress" deaths. Even so, the other 1,200 in itself makes a stunning figure. This is far higher than the numbers put up by either the media or by activists in the region. The State itself now reckons that in close to a thousand of these cases, debt was the major reason.

The website, too, says only about half the deaths are cases eligible for compensation. In short, the rest are not genuine cases of distress deaths. So the families Will get nothing. This section of the website exists because of a court order. So the numbers have to be posted and kept up to date. But they look awful. Hence the jugglery to make things seem better.

The Government's figure of farm suicides is not merely larger than farm activist counts. It is for a much smaller region. The VJAS says 1,100 farmers have taken their lives since June last year in Vidharbha's 11 districts. The State's number for that period crosses 1,500 for just the six crisis districts. So the official figure is even larger than it seems.

The official report is quite candid on one point. It says: "In spite of the PM's and CM's relief package implementation, the numbers of suicides in the six districts continue to be in the range of 100 per month." Still, the report finds a few things are better. It says the proportion of those killing themselves "due to the agrarian crisis is showing a declining trend."

There is more than one catch to that 'declining trend.' There have never been 100 suicides a month prior to August this year. And that figure has been crossed every month since. So how is this a decline? The answer lies in the number of cases rejected by government as not eligible for compensation. This 'rejection rate' has risen dramatically after the Prime Minister's visit. More and more deaths are excluded by the State as "non-genuine." That is, claims for compensation are denied on the ground that these were not due to agrarian distress. Where less than 40 per cent of cases were rejected as "not eligible" last year, this year it is over 60 per cent. That is, close to 750 suicides this year are seen as not genuine. Which obviously brings down the 'trend.'

"They end up with such huge numbers even after so many cases are rejected," says Mr. Tiwari. "And still their suicides figure is higher than our own. Think of what the real picture must be."