January 18, 2015

Telangana State: Spurt in Farmer’s Suicides

A Prasad Rao

FARMER’S suicides in Telangana state (earlier part of unified Andhra Pradesh) have increased suddenly after its formation on June 2, 2014. It is not an exaggeration to say that not even a single day has passed without a report of farmers suicide(s) appearing in the daily newspapers. Reported suicides varied from one or two to a maximum of ten (on October 10, 22 and 24th and on November 29, 2014). According to these reports, 680 farmers have committed suicides between June 2 to the end of December 2014 compared to only 129 (in the larger unified state of Andhra Pradesh) during the same period a year ago. The state government, however, is admitting suicides of only 68 farmers during this period, which itself is also high. Seeing this news, the National Human Rights Commission has given a notice to the government suo moto stating that there is clear violation of human rights and sought its explanation as to what action has it taken on this matter. This raises a very basic question as to why there is such sudden spurt in farmers’ suicides in the state. Even a casual look at the pattern of suicides taking place in the state suggests that a maximum number of suicide committing farmers have been growing cotton crop followed by paddy under wells. How is it that their vulnerability to commit suicides has so suddenly increased in the new state? Is there such a sudden change in the farming situation in the new state that the vulnerability of farmers to commit suicides has increased to such an extent? What is the reality? The vulnerability of the farmers can be gauged by the condition of farm households just prior to the formation of the new state and after its formation. Unified Andhra Pradesh state had the dubious distinction of being in the forefront in implementing the so-called reform policies in the country. The cumulative adverse effects of these polices on the situation of farm households in the country are available from the latest 70th Round of National Sample Survey on Farm Household Situation report. The data for the survey has been collected between July 2012 and June 2013. SITUATION OF FARM HOUSEHOLDS: According to this survey, farm households of Telangana state are highly indebted to as much as 89.1 percent (second highest in the country, the first being that of AP at 92.9 percent) compared to the national average of 51.9 percent. The average debt per indebted household was Rs 1,14,313 in Telangana state compared to the national average of Rs 1,53,640; and Rs 1,86,596 in AP. Indebtedness at higher rate of interest (25-30 percent) was high in Telangana for 15 percent of the households and for 2.9 percent of households at more than 30 percent interest rate compared to the national average of 6.1 percent and 6.5 percent respectively. Indebtedness at 25-30 percent and more than 30 percent interest rates in AP was 5.2 and 7.5 percent respectively. All these data are clearly showing that the condition of farm households in Telangana was relatively bad even before the formation of the separate state. Then what is the immediate cause(s) for the spurt for the farmer’s suicides in Telangana? PRIVATE INDEBTEDNESS: THE MAIN CULPRIT: Farm households are forced to adopt “capitalist” mode of production, for which access to credit/ finance is unavoidable given the farmer’s condition indicated as above. Access to credit is very crucial. During 2014-15 kharif season, credit access to farm households took a hit due to the policies of the state government and the banking system (central government) put together in the Telangana state. The debt waiver scheme implemented by the state government covered only the institutional debts and does not cover the private non-institutional debts. Almost all the farmers committing suicides have heavy private debts, which they are unable to service ie, pay at least the accumulating annual interest and obtain fresh loan to purchase the needed inputs including seeds, fertilizers, tractor hiring charges etc for the next crop. These aggravated the distress of farm households. Those who could obtain credit to some extent sowed the crop(s). However, these (cotton – main rain-fed crop) also have failed due to failure of seasonal monsoon during 2014-15 kharif, especially during June, July and up to August 10. Even the debt waiver scheme announced by the central government in 2008, did not cover private debts of farmers. This scheme was formulated based on the study of expert group led by Radhakrishna appointed by the finance ministry, which has submitted its report in June 2007 itself. This group has suggested converting the private debts of farmers as institutional debts through consolidation and one time settlement (Recommendation 15) by banks by sanctioning long term loans. The expenditure on this count, according to this group, has to be borne both by the central and the concerned state governments, which the centre has ignored while formulating its debt waiver scheme. This group observed that unless this is done, it would be impossible for the farmers to come out of the debt trap and continue farming. The effected farmers are mostly small farmers cultivating less than five acres of land. The small farms are almost 90 percent among the operational farm holdings in at least four districts of Telangana state. After 1987, no relief was given to these farmers burdened with private debts. Thus, small farmers depending upon private loans and having heavy debts have been discriminated by the loan waiver schemes of both 2008 and 2014. It is mostly these farmers who now are committing suicide. Further, 70th Round of NSS data also show that 74.1 percent of farm households have MGNREGS job cards compared to 66.8 percent in AP and 44.4 percent at the national level. Thus, Telangana farm households are heavily dependent on the income from MGNREGS for their household maintenance. This got reduced during the kharif season of 2014-15. As a result, private borrowing to meet household expenditure also increased causing unbearable distress. With these kinds of policies and financial situation, Telangana farm households are now not seeing any hope for their survival. Under these circumstances, the head of the family, obviously, is the first to face unbearable stress compared to the other members in the family. Under these conditions, only those who get income support from other sources, however modest it might be, are able to survive. Those dependent exclusively on farming income are resorting to forced deaths. POWER SUPPLY CONSTRAINTS: ANOTHER CULPRIT Irrigated farming in Telangana is heavily dependent upon underground waters to as much as 83 percent, for which supply of power is a must. Power supply shortage has become much more severe and intense after the formation of the separate state, for whatever reasons that might be. This is not the case in the separated AP state. As a result, quality of power supplied to agriculture has further deteriorated. Service quality of power supplied, by way of access to linemen to repair any disruption in the supply system, has also deteriorated. Very often, farmers were replacing the burnt line-fuses themselves. This has also resulted in the death of several farmers through electrocution etc, which are also part of forced farmer’s deaths (akin to their suicides). The present adverse seasonal conditions are only acting as the last straw on the camel’s back. This is a wakeup call to everyone concerned to seriously think and act, lest things go beyond control. (Author is vice president of Telangana Rythu Sangham affiliated to AIKS)