"The problem with sermons is they don't feed the hungry and bail out the indebted," scoffs off Vishnu Kale, 30. "We've had enough of them. I wish the governments were not so insane." All that Vishnu wanted earlier this year was a loan of Rs.70,000, a minimum he needs to cultivate 15 acres of land. He got the loan, but only half his need. Like tens of thousands of other farmers did.

"What we got though - and are still getting - in abundance from the government is sermons on importance of life and living," he chuckles satirically. "And improving self-dignity and self-confidence." Lots of it in fact!

Akola's Kumbhari village, where Vishnu lives, saw the government officials turning up with 'Atmasamman Dindi' (self-dignity rally) in June-July. Indore's godman Bhaiyyuji Maharaj led the march ostensibly sponsored by the state.

"They told us be confident and don't think of suicide, turn to organic farming! They spoke to us about how to do farming. About de-addiction. They told us about various schemes meant for us. And then they showed us a clip of a sermon by the Maharaj that suicide is not the way out, all this in one hour," he says.

Psychiatrist Dr Sujay Patil warns about the cascading effect that suicides can have: "If a village sees a farmer ending himself in distress, it's more vulnerable. We call it a role modelling effect."

Series by Jaideep Hardikar

Vishnu's problems have multiplied since then. Floods wrecked the crop first. Now, Bt cotton is failing. "And I can't help but worry how do I repay my loans," he says, low in confidence.

In Chandur, some 20 kms from Kumbhari, Vinod Ramdas Mahalle is also discovering why his father committed suicide last year. "I used to fight with him after he sold three acres for my sister's marriage. He had also taken to drinking in the last six months before his death, but I now realise why! You can't run your family on a two-acre farm without any other work. He tried to manage his finances despite crisis, without letting us know his tensions." Ramdas had a loan of about a lakh rupees - enough for him to run into a state of utter hopelessness.

Vinod says no amount of counselling will bring back his father. And any number of rallies and marches won't rid him of his financial mess. "It's not that we are not trying. We are, but nothing's working for us."

'Atmasamman Dindi', aimed at lifting the sagging morale of farmers, traveled through over 200 villages of Vidarbha in June-July. But the only tangible thing to happen in the rally, as Zilla Parishad member from Kumbhari Chandrashekhar Pande remarks, was that the government babus visited the village.

Tehsildars, BDOs, Agriculture Officers, all of them came here to promote and propagate the special government packages for the farmers.

Farmers though did not show much interest in the programme because they believed it was superficial, feels Arvind Kadale, a social worker and counsellor in Akola, who took part in the rally.

"A mass wave of depression is sweeping the farmers in cotton region," warns Dr Sujay Patil, a well-known psychiatrist in Akola. "And it's linked to economic factors," he says. "Farmers' depression is an outcome of an agrarian crisis that is multi-factorial and deep-rooted."

The problem is gigantic. The results of a door-to-door study done by the 'Vasantrao Naik Shetkari Swawalamban Mission', a nodal agency to oversee implementation of the CM's and PM's special packages are there to see. Close to three-and-a-half lakh farm families are in 'acute distress' in six crisis-ridden districts of Vidarbha, about 12 lakh farmers are staring at crop loss this year, and nearly a lakh families are suffering from serious health problems but are unable to see a doctor - they are only a step away from suicide.

Patil warns about the cascading effect that suicides can have: "If a village sees a farmer ending himself in distress, it's more vulnerable. We call it a role modelling effect."

He is voluntarily counseling village community on their call in Akola district. It's been over a year that he is treating chronically depressed farmers free of cost at his hospital. Last year, he dispatched pamphlets as awareness campaign to all the village heads in the district. But as he puts it: "Counseling works to some extent, but doesn't root out the economic crisis."

Tackling morale, not the economics

Yet, there were tens of political rallies, which mostly did glib-talking. Shiv Sena MLC Diwakar Raote is leading one such currently. He calls it a 'Santvana Yatra' (rally to console farmers). It'll trudge some 600 km with the blessings of the Sena Supremo Bal Thackeray and visit some 200 households where suicides occurred.

And the list of official attempts to tackle the huge crisis appears more bizarre.

Last year, officials of the state government held bhajan-kirtan programmes in Yavatmal as part of the 'Atma Vishwas Jagruti Abhiyan' (a confidence building programme). The aim was to boost the sagging morale of a farming community wrecked by the continuing suicides. The same year, the government also invited Satpal Maharaj to hold such a programme. A year before last, Kharabe Maharaj had delivered sermons in scores of villages, apart from tens of local godmen.

It has now asked, as the chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh reveals, the Art of Living to hold counseling camps for farmers. They did two for the rural youths earlier this month.

"It's ridiculous," remarks Vijay Jawandhia, a farmers' leader in Wardha, "the government is diverting the attention of farmers from its failures. When you can't give them good prices, hold counselling sessions. It's a ploy to evade responsibilities. The government should address policy issues than singing bhajans to the farmers."

Adds Dr Vidyadhar Pande, a former Shetkari Sanghatna activist in Kumbhari: "Government's credibility is at its lowest today, and the godmen are its only medium to hook the farmers by cashing in on their spiritual and religious quotient." Suicides won't stop, he warns. "Give us good remunerative prices, a level-playing field to face imports and timely credit," he says.

Admits Sudhir Kumar Goyal, Divisional Commissioner, Amravati, "We are encouraging group activities and reaching out to the people through schemes and counseling programmes. This won't solve their problems, we know, but we hope this would at least taper off suicides."

"Chawdi discussions in the village are long over. If you make people sit together even once a week, it'll be useful," Goyal strongly believes.

Last year, while announcing its package, the state government directed the authorities to set up a 'helpline' for farmers at Amravati. That was done, but today the helpline itself needs help for resurrection. The idea was to keep open doors of counseling and government help for distress-ridden farmers. Also, agricultural counseling long collapsed. There's no way a farmer can get the technical know-how about the newer technologies and seeds that storm the markets every year.

Patil says social support systems in villages have folded and people's collective spiritual conscience has eroded. Many problems are interwoven into each other. So, to some extent, such programmes work, but a slew of other measures has also to go in tandem.

"The region has a long tradition of spiritual movements linked to social reform, like Gadge baba, Tukdoji Maharaj," reminds Madhu Jadhav, a veteran journalist in Akola. So while it might be good to hold such programmes, the question is should the government be organising such events when it does nothing about the problems driving farmers to suicide.

Meanwhile, even as the state government takes shelter with the godmen, the figure of farm suicides surges with every passing day.

There have been over 375 farmers' suicides in Vidarbha since the Prime Minister announced his package for the region, and over 950 since June 2005. August saw 111 suicides and September 125, which were record of sorts, according to the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS), a farmers' movement in Yavatmal.

The awareness programmes and spiritual counselling programmes aim to make farmers in this depression region 'positive' and aware of existing schemes they can benefit from. It's a different matter if those schemes actually get delivered.

New motivation programmes

The Art of Living instructor and in-charge of youth leadership training programme, Vijay Hake says, "Our aim was to motivate the youths and we've been able to do that." Close to 70 boys and girls took part in the 10-day camp at Salbuldi village. The participants say they are high in confidence after attending the camp and they learnt many a new useful thing.

Says Manoj Raut, a young farmer from Shirkhed in Amravati district: "We were taught about organic farming at the Art of Living camp and to plant trees in our farms according to the principle of Panchwati."

"We also learned sudarshan kriya, rainwater harvesting, and how to reduce our cultivation cost," says Sarang Jomade, 23, son of a marginal farmer from Hiwarkhed village.

Just a week ago, the Art of Living volunteers also held a basic camp for youths of Nimbi village, near Morshi. "That's helped change the youngsters," says former Sarpanch Sudhakar Akhare. "Next year, we'll move on to organic farming."

Among other things, Art of Living volunteers are propagating organic farming, de-addiction, meditation and village cleanliness.

"Many boys have reformed after that camp," claims Jyoti Kale, one of the young and enthusiastic village girls to coordinate the camp activities. About a hundred boys and girls participated in the programme and learn breathing techniques. "We have organised one more camp next month in the neighbouring tehsil."

But her father Bhagtwat Kale says: "Government should also do a lot more." He feels instead of packages, a one-time loan waiver and remunerative prices are important for the resurrection of rural Vidarbha'a economy.

Back in Akola, Dr Patil warns momentary counselling won't work in long term, if the economic factors aren't tackled. "Farmers are driven to suicide through a process of hopelessness, helplessness and worthlessness," he explains. "If we diagnose depression, we can stop a farmer from taking his own life, but suicidal tendencies don't die immediately despite counseling and medicines."

Twenty-nine-year-old Kisan Sukhdeo Mankar, a very emotional and naive-looking farmer of five acres, rarely smiles these days. Kisan, who wanted to become a teacher but could not continue his education after BSc first year, is a classic case of chronic depression - something that may drive him to suicide any moment. Resting on a bed in Dr Patil's hospital, with his tense-looking mother Narmada aside, Kisan is trying to re-discover a meaning for his life.

This is the fourth occasion that he has needed hospitalisation for in one year. Now, he says wryly: "It would be better if I remain in hospital all my life."

Socially withdrawn, Kisan epitomises the state of Vidarbha farmers - in chronic mental and economical depression. One thing though is certain: it is the latter that causes the former.