WAYANAD (Kerala): The rapid decline of the economy in this once rich cash-crop district reverberates across the spectrum. For the first time since perhaps the late 1950s, even Bishops of the church have joined people's protests. Some have flagged off marches taken out by the distressed farmers of Wayanad. "People cannot even ensure their basic existence," says Father Baby Elias of the Mar Basil Church in Cheeyambam. Fr. Elias, a Jacobite, is also with the Indian Farmers Movement. INFAM is a body that has strongly raised farmers' issues.

Media reports reckon that some 120 farmers have taken their own lives in Wayanad since January 9 this year. The Government admits to no more than 50 distress suicides in that time. On the surface, the figure of 120 may seem small beside, say, the suicides in Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh. That district saw an average of 600 each year during a five-year period. Yet, at one level, Wayanad's suicides are almost as intense. Anantapur has nearly 37 lakh people. Wayanad has some seven lakh. On that base, its 120 suicides add up to nearly the same as Anantapur's. (The data in both cases are flawed, but give us some sense of the trend.)

Farmers of Christian background might be more affected. Yet, the suicides of Wayanad have cut across faith and community. In the households we surveyed, those taking their lives included Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Adivasis and Dalits.

The numbers apart, the pain and intensity are real. A.C. Varkey, chairman of the Farmers Relief Forum is appalled by the trend. The FRF has launched some militant actions on farmers issues and plans more. "We educate people and ask them not to commit suicide," says an angry Varkey. "I say that if we must do that, let us do it en masse at the government headquarters. Make it an act of political struggle, not one of individual despair."

As in Anantapur, most see the suicides as just a symptom of a much wider crisis. One that has hit all sectors.

By March this year "every acre of land in the Mullankolly-Pulpally region carried a debt of Rs. 2 lakh to Rs. 3 lakh," says M. Prakash of the Brahmagiri Development Society. "The price crash had made repayment of loans impossible," he points out. "The five-fold drop in the price of pepper was a huge blow. Quick Wilt disease enhanced its impact." Growing debt, says Prakash, forced many to fell countless trees on their lands to sell the timber. In this ecologically fragile zone, "that only doubled the damage."

In the strongly Christian belt of Mullankolly-Pulpally that boasts over 35 churches, that chaos spills across the board. "We are very concerned," says a worried Bishop Geevarghese Mar Divannasios at the Catholic Bishop's House in Sultan Bathery. "The drought, the price crash, the disease, all have hurt people. As have changes in lifestyle. Of course we are anxious. Their suffering has to affect us."

It has. Church income has fallen sharply as the laity have gone into debt. But the larger reality is also more complex. While the church does reflect the pain of its farmer base, it is also, in some cases, a source of at least a few of the dues that worry them.

"Waive all church dues," is the first slogan of a group of the faithful seeking relief. Benny Kurumbalakatu, state president of the Kerala Catholic Almaya Federation is clear about this. "People gave generously to the church when they were doing well. The church must aid them when they are doing badly. When crisis hits their lives, religious authority must work to help them. That's regardless of the religion of those who are suffering."

"If church members fall behind in their dues, they suffer," says Benny. "Baptisms, weddings, funerals, all rituals are put on hold until the members pay their arrears. When couples are at the altar, the priest raises the issue of the dues. I was present at one such marriage. This is unconscionable and should not happen." The couple at that wedding were unable to produce their Rs.1,500 arrears and Benny put up the money for them.

Since the agrarian crisis hits everyone regardless of faith, his group asks for waivers that cover people of all religions. "For instance, children in church-run schools are of diverse faiths. If their parents are unable to pay the fees, they must get concessions regardless of their religion. These waivers should apply to all those of farming backgrounds."

Benny shot off a letter to his Bishop this August on this count. His group's other demands include: those from farm backgrounds must get free treatment at hospitals linked to churches; job reservation for children of such backgrounds - of all religions - in church-related institutions. And all church groups must coordinate their resources to give financial aid to those in distress.

There are churches of many hues and denominations in Wayanad. And some deny any pressure in recovery of dues from their members. "We do not have such a dues system. So there is no compulsion in our set-up," Fr. Jose Mundakal of the St. Mary's Church in Mullankolly clarifies.

Some others, however, do have such systems. And the pressure to change them is growing. "Yes, there is a tradition and norm that dues must be cleared," says Fr. A. K. Varghese of St. George's Orthodox Church. "You must know this is a discipline of the parishioners themselves, set in better times. Not a law from our side. Now no one can pay and we have relaxed these norms. For instance, two burials were sanctioned after 20 per cent of the dues were paid."

Some dues systems are graded on a class basis - or `A, B, C, D' based on the earnings of the members. The amount for each group could vary with the church. But such practices are under stress. In Fr. Baby Elias' church too, things are happening. "From last year, our general body meeting decided that the rule on delaying rituals for dues should not be enforced. Not in such a crisis."

"Our parishioners are good people," says Fr. Varghese. "But the times are such that all struggle to pay." This belt may have over 35 churches. And the devout may have one within a few minutes walk. But for too many right now, it's a case of so near to God, so far from Heaven. (Courtesy: The Hindu)