Distress Sale Ends in Distress Suicide
THE only living being in the universe that can kill itself is mankind. It is not the manifestation of the instinct but a conscious destruction of the self. What kind of consciousness operates here? Does it happen at a juncture when death becomes more alluring than life? The answer shall be an emphatic ‘no’. Self-killing occurs only when man finds no other solution to the problems that make the life woeful.
In Odisha, more and more farmers are now killing themselves. It has taken the form of an epidemic. Both the revenue minister and the agriculture minister of the state have admitted on the floor of the Assembly on December 2 that in the year 2015, so far 122 farmers have committed suicide but they refused to accept the truth that debt burden and the loss of crop due to drought are the causes of such suicides. The agriculture minister informed the House that in October and November, 74 farmers have committed suicide in the state’s 22 districts. Thus the question arises when 48 farmers committed suicide in a duration of nine months, how then suddenly 74 committed suicide in a period of just two months? Certainly there might be some special reasons that need investigation. Would the government headed by Naveen Patnaik undertake this responsibility?
If any sincere investigation is made, the truth shall emerge and that would be helpful to overcome the problem. The institutionalisation of distress sale of paddy, escalating debt burden and the loss of crop due to drought are the causes of such suicides. Here is a case study of the suicide of farmer in Icchhapur village of Gourpur Gram Panchayat in Korai Block of Jajpur district:
Sitaram Khandai (28), a bachelor, consumed poison on November 15. He was part of a joint family that comprised his mother, elder brother and the latter’s spouse and child. Elder brother Amaresh runs a small paan stall of his own and Sitaram was engaged in cultivation. The family possesses only two acres of land and Sitaram was sharecropping in another three acres. The family has a total debt of Rs 4.70 lakh. The break-up of the debt is Rs 90,000 from Primary Agricultural Cooperative Society; Rs 30,000 from Andhra Bank, Sathipur Branch; Rs 40,000 from Allahabad Bank, Jajpur Road Branch; Rs 20,000 (gold loan) from Bank of Karnataka (private bank); Rs 60,000 from SKS Microfinance and L&T Private finance; Rs 30,000 from Women Self Help Group; and Rs 2 lakh from different individuals.
Not just the family of Sitaram, every peasant family in Odisha is in debt trap now. When agriculture is not remunerative, the question arises how the peasant households would bear the burden of educational expenses of their children, how they would marry off their daughters, how they would meet the expenses of health care when somebody falls ill or customary expenses when somebody dies. They borrow with the expectation that they would pay back after a good harvest. The loss of crop due to calamity and denial of remunerative price only compounds the debt burden. That happened in case of Sitaram too. Seeing no prospect of making himself free from the debt trap and unable to face the lenders, he sought to escape from life by committing suicide.
The National Sample Survey report on Indebtedness points that the debt-to-assets ratio of farmers in Odisha is 3.75 per cent against the national average of 2.4 per cent. This ratio hovers in the range of below 1 per cent to 2 per cent for neighbouring states like Jharkhand, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal. Each indebted farmer household in Odisha has a debt averaging to whopping Rs 64,120 when their annual average income is estimated at Rs 59,712 only.
Another interesting fact revealed by the NSS is that the average amount of credit received by households per year under the Kisan Credit Card is only Rs 12,070 against Rs 56,000-92,000 in agriculturally advanced states like Gujarat and Haryana. This aspect reflects the lower capital expenditure in farming in Odisha and the consequent lower productivity here.
THE ROOT CAUSE
The distress sale of paddy is a chronic phenomenon in Odisha and that ruins every peasant family. If they sale to private traders they get only Rs 800-900 for a quintal of paddy. Even the minimum support price (MSP) institutionalises such distress sale. The Commission for Agriculture Costs and Prices (CACP) has estimated the 2014-15 operational cost of paddy production in Odisha at Rs 1,032.97 and the total cost at Rs 1,304.56 per quintal assuming a uniform yield rate of 32 quintals a hectare. But the data of the Agricultural Department of the Government of Odisha show that around 10 districts in the state have a yield below 20 quintals and another three between 20 to 25 quintals. It further reveals that in 2012-13, the average yield per hectare was 23.61 quintals and 18.21 quintals in 2013-14. In 2014-15, the yield further declined. It is a common knowledge that low productivity means higher cost of production.
The CACP in its note admitted that the actual cost of production in Odisha in 2012-13 was 55 per cent higher than the MSP. Thus the Swaminathan Commission’s recommendation is implemented in a reverse form. The experts of Odisha University of Agriculture and Technology (OUAT) fix the cost of production at Rs 1,400 to Rs 1,800 per quintal. Under Swaminathan’s formula, the MSP should have been Rs 2,100 to Rs 2,700 per quintal whose average is Rs 2,400. Thus the MSP announced by successive central governments is less than the cost of production of paddy. Till recently a small amount of bonus was paid to peasants over and above this MSP. It was Rs 50 per quintal last year. But the Modi government has been kind enough to abandon it.
Now the question arises from where the farmers have borrowed. When the NSS report reveals that every farmer household has a debt averaging Rs 64,120 and the institutional credit has been only Rs 12,070, the source of average borrowing of Rs 52,050 per family certainly has been the money lenders, micro-finance institutions, village Self Help Groups, input and implement traders and paddy traders. In Odisha, above 70 per cent land is cultivated by sharecroppers who depend upon such informal source for credit. Rate of interest is very high under informal credit. It spans from 36 to 60 per cent per annum. Micro finance institutions are the new incarnations of Shylock. The CPI(M) delegation was reported by the bereaved members of Sitaram Khandai’s family that SKS Microfinance insisted on collecting the weekly instalment within less than a week’s period of his death.
The denial of remunerative price and loss of crop due to natural calamities has led to circumstances where the farmers of Odisha are in debt and distress. Who have opportunity to avail alternative livelihood leave agriculture? Still 70 per cent population depends upon agriculture. 72 per cent farmers are small and marginal farmers. Their number is 42.86 lakh. 70 per cent of land is cultivated by sharecroppers.
The drought of 2015 has come as the successor of cyclones Phailin and Hudhud of 2013 and 2014. The rainfall deficit in 2015 is calculated at 16.6 per cent. The state government so far has declared 215 blocks out of total 314 in the state as drought affected. Now the drought has affected 26 out of 30 districts. This calculation has been done on the basis of “eye estimation” as per NDRF/SDRF norms. This would be followed by assessment based in crop cutting. This is the time when the government and the administration seek to minimise the effect of the calamity in their bid to minimise the expenditure on account of compensation and relief. The central government is yet to declare Odisha’s drought as a big calamity. The compensation as per norms of NDRF/SDRF is scanty. The farmers of non-irrigated land are entitled to get only Rs 6,800 per hectare and irrigated land farmers shall get Rs 13.500 per hectare subject to a ceiling of two hectares per farmer.
While the state government has announced the conversion of short term loans to medium term loans, the Centre is yet to ask SBI and other nationalised banks to follow the same. Some steps are to be taken to rescue the farmers in distress from the compulsion of paying back the loans taken from informal agencies. This kind of steps the then LDF government took in Kerala in 2006 and could successfully check the farmer suicides.
It is worth mentioning that the Naveen Patnaik government in 2010 after the report of 50 cases of farmer suicide constituted a Farmers Commission to look into the causes and suggest remedy. According to the government’s own admission, Rs 35 lakh was spent on the commission. However, the report has been gathering dust for the past three years after its submission in 2012. In this year’s monsoon session of the Assembly, replying to a question in this regard, the government maintained the report of the commission is being studied by another committee.
The government should first accept the truth that farmers are committing suicide, and each bereaved family should be paid a compensation of Rs 10 lakh immediately. The compensation per hectare for non-irrigated and irrigated land should be enhanced to Rs 50,000 and Rs 62,500. The MSP for paddy should be enhanced to Rs 2,500 per quintal. It is only irrigation that can solve the problem of drought. The chief minister who also happens to be the minister for water resources answering a question in the Assembly has informed that in the Kharif season only 26 per cent of land was covered by irrigation facility. Steps should be taken to enhance the irrigation potential. The sharecroppers should be provided with institutional credit, subsidy in inputs and implements, access to procurement facility and benefits of compensation against the loss of crops due to drought. These steps only can check the epidemic of farmer suicide in Odisha.