Officials of the Maharashtra Government have been holding bhajan-kirtan programmes in Yavatmal. This as one part of their "atma vishwas jagruti abhiyan" campaign. That is, an awareness and confidence building programme in the district. The aim is to boost the morale of a farming community now rocked by large numbers of suicides. "There have been 13 such programmes," Sub-Divisional Officer Dilip Swami told us in Pusad.

"The region has a long tradition of spiritual movements linked to social reform," says a top official. "So in itself, this might even be a good thing. But the question is if government should organise such events. Whether its officers should preside over them. And if this makes sense when the State does nothing about those problems driving farmers to suicide. In such a situation, the SDO or Tehsildar singing on the stage may not be the best solution." There have been 307 farmers suicides in the Vidarbha region since June 2. Over 200 of these since November 1.

Overall, the awareness programme aims to make the farmers in this depressed region 'positive.' And to "educate them in due course on government schemes they can gain from." And if it seems whacky to many, its authors' motives are honourable. But the list of official attempts to come to grips with the huge crisis gets more bizarre.

Two officials of the Social Forestry Department, for instance, advised farmers to plant their crops and trees anew. Not on soil and climatic notions. But according to favourable zodiac signs. This provoked an enraged principal of an agriculture college to blast them in the press. This, M.M. Borkar told the daily Lokmat, "was an example of intellectual bankruptcy and an attempt to befool people."

Another official tack is simple falsification. As when the family of Hiraman Patil was denied compensation after his suicide in 2004. "He took his life because of tension over his debts," says his son Santosh in Virahat village of Akhola. "But they [the Government] argued that he did not die for this reason. They insisted he had killed himself because he was depressed over my mother's death."

There was a glitch in that argument. Hiraman's wife had died 15 years ago. That came out with an intervention in a PIL by Deshonnati Editor Prakash Pohare. An annoyed Bombay High Court slammed the Government. It ordered that Patil's family be paid Rs.1 lakh within two weeks from January 19. "I have received the first Rs.30,000," Santosh confirmed when we met him at his home.

Then came Home Minister R.R. Patil's crackdown on moneylenders. This focussed entirely on the small village lender. It ignored the new class of Sahucars — the input dealers. These dealers now use credit and input prices to exploit the farmer. Since the banks have shut out the farmer, the dealer has a free hand. He charges extra for his inputs. The farmer might pay Rs.125 for something that costs Rs.100. Further, the dealer tags on an interest rate of Rs.2 or Rs.3 per Rs.100 each month on the total cost. (He justifies this by saying he is giving the farmer three months time to pay the bills.) And often, he has first call on the farmer's harvest. Mostly at a very low price that hurts the latter.

Since big input dealers are well off persons rarely seen in the village, they dragged out and roughed up. The result was the complete loss of credit at the village level. Weddings and funerals were held up as no one would lend the small amounts these needed. It has also had the effect of making people lie about private debt. In suicide-hit households surveyed by The Hindu before Mr. Patil's crackdown, people spoke to us at length about their debt to moneylenders. After the crackdown, they've clammed up about private debt. Now many speak only of what they owe to the banks.

The Home Minister went further during a speech in Kolhapur in January. There he said that kisans in remote hamlets should have guns for self-defence. Since this was not Naxal terrain, he was talking about their protecting themselves against moneylenders. The Arms for Farms speech drew much fire. "If all is well on the law and order front," said Lokmat, "then why should farmers raise arms? And where will they get the money for the guns?" The paper went on to say that farmers were ending their lives due to huge debts. And because they were unable to meet the basic needs of their families.

Other critics were less polite. There were those who said the armed farmer could use his gun "to shoot both sarkar and sahucar." And those who asked: "Who do they think could afford the ammunition? They can't afford food."

There was also the Government's much touted 'relief package' of Rs.1,075 crore for those crushed by Vidarbha's ongoing agrarian crisis. The Government announced the fund in December. More than two months later, not a paisa of it has been disbursed. The problem is, as every analyst here is quick to point out, "there was never really any package." About Rs.700 crore of that 'package' is farmer money, anyway. ( The Hindu , Dec. 29, 2005.) The Cotton Federation normally deducts three per cent of the minimum support price (MSP) given to farmers for its 'capital formation fund.' Farmers will now get back that money. This will not help and will hamstring the Federation's ability to negotiate loans with banks. In any case, nothing has happened.

A more well meaning effort was the despatch in 2004 of teams to 'counsel' the distressed farmers. Not with bhajan-kirtans but with advice from psychologists, doctors and revenue officials. In one village, after a long discussion with such a team, a farmer asked them: "You've given us great advice on so many things. On combating stress, curbing our drinking and so on. And you've asked us so many probing questions, too. Now ask us one more. Ask us why farmers, who produce the nation's food, are themselves starving."