Manmohan's Vidarbha Visit:

Farmers' Suicides Unabated

- Srilata Swaminathan

M anmohan's visit to Vidarbha was meant to create confidence that the UPA Government was indeed a ‘Caring' Government, whose heart bled for suicidal farmers. But the effect was considerably marred by the farmers' outcry that in Vidarbha, it is Congress MLA Dilip Sananda and his family who are the most ruthless moneylenders in the region!

Maneylenders in the debt-trap regions like Vidarbha are quite literally death-dealers. Behind Manmohan's mask of a ‘human face', Sananda is symptomatic of the powerful vested interests which ruling political forces have in debt - which leads them to prey on the despair of farmers.

Of course, that vested interest goes far deeper. The likes of Sananda are only the petty agents - the UPA Government itself is committed, not to stemming the flow of suicides, but to ensuring that agrarian policies are tailored to US diktats. So, it is hardly surprising that Manmohan's visit actually ended up intensifying the suicide spree. As I write (21 st July), the Indian Express reports three more suicides, bringing the total suicide toll in Vidarbha this year to over 1610 cases.

 All the suicides reported from Vidarbha area of Maharashtra are by small and marginal cotton farmers who are trapped, on one hand, between growing indebtedness to moneylenders and financial institutions from whom they have heavily borrowed for seed, fertiliser, pesticides and, often, irrigation facilities and, on the other hand, they are victims of the drastically falling prices of cotton which have ensured that they get a pittance for their crop. The crisis in Vidarbha is mostly among farmers who have sown Monsanto's genetically modified Bt. Cotton. The government and corporate world is keeping very quiet about this and is trying to play it down.

 Of the major cotton producing states, Gujarat, Andhra and Maharashtra account for over 65% of total production, with Maharashtra producing over one-third of the total output. It is also interesting to note that, of the total cotton produced in Maharashtra , 66% is in rain-fed areas and hence, by marginal, small and medium farmers who have little access to assured irrigation. Also, of the total of Rs.2800 crore spent on pesticides in India , more that half, Rs.1600 crore, is just for the cotton crop, of which a whopping Rs.1100 crore is just to fight the cotton bollworm. Interestingly, our indigenous varieties of cotton did not have this bollworm problem which was imported into India by the British colonisers in the 18 th century when they brought in American cotton varieties. Since then the bollworm has taken Indian nationality and is going from strength to strength. All the thousands of tonnes of pesticides used against it have only succeeded in making it tougher and more invincible!

Hence, the entry of Bt. cotton, a genetically engineered seed which guarantees that it has in-built capacities to resist the bollworm, thus reducing the use of pesticides and lowering production costs. Bt cotton which is owned, patented and distributed by the multi-national Monsanto also claims to give better output per acre. So far, none of these claims seem to be borne out, and while it does give more production per acre, its claim for reducing pesticides and production costs is spurious and so cancels out any benefit from greater productivity.  Along with Bt cotton, herbicides also have to be sprayed. Monsanto's claim that less irrigation and few sprayings of pesticides are needed on Bt is again false. Further, its claims that Bt. resists bollworms or stops the cotton bolls from prematurely dropping off are again high claims which don't bear any connection to reality. On top of all this, Bt is the most expensive cotton seed available in the market and is being aggressively marketed by Monsanto and local traders/suppliers/moneylenders. Monsanto has cleverly made its seed dependent on a particular herbicide for productivity and, of course, the herbicide is manufactured and sold by the same company! Now, one can understand to some extent in what vicious circle the poor farmers are caught up.

Why Manmohan's Package will not work

1. Waiving institutional interest on loans for marginal farmers is the main short-term ‘gift' to the farmers. Most of the institutional loans are cornered by the big farmers and the small and medium farmers are forced to go to moneylenders. In Vidarbha more than 92% of all loans are from the informal sector i.e.moneylenders. So, the waiving of interest is not going to help and suicides will continue. The small and medium farmers face all sorts of problems taking institutional loans as their land records are hardly ever in order; they are tenants or they have leased the land. The officials of the lending institutions are also hand-in-glove with the trader/moneylender and are either not available, or create all sorts of hurdles and red-tape so that small farmers are discouraged and forced to go to the sharks. None of these ground realities will change with the Package.

2. Another ‘gift' to the farmers is the decision to have a drive to give complete credit cover to all farmers. This is a pipe-dream for the above reasons. Also the nexus between traders/moneylenders with the state officials and mainstream political parties will insure that nothing changes. Every moneylender/trader has political patronage, is part of the main ruling parties, pays hefty donations and gets political protection (like the Sananda family) and is very much part of the ruling elite. The vested interests of this nexus will ensure that nothing radical is done to rock the boat. They charge extortionist rates of interest (anything from 50% to an incredible 300%) and are ruthless and unscrupulous in getting their money back. They have armies of goons and thugs who terrorise, beat, rape, torture and even murder their ‘clients'. All this quite apart from claiming the lands and jewellery of the debtor which are mortgaged to them. Even the debtors' family members are often turned into bonded labour in the house and fields of the moneylender. This is the pattern all over India especially in the more backward, adivasi regions. It is common practice for the private traders/ suppliers/moneylenders to make sure that the government co-ops etc are shut at sowing time, officials are away on ‘leave', official seed fails to show up till sowing is over etc. etc. It must be borne in mind that the moneylender is also the supplier of inputs and the procurement agent. Any farmer who borrows money from them has no choice but to sell his product to them.

All this is worsened by the fact that the government institutions that do the procurement pay the farmers in three to four instalments for their crop, sometimes it takes many months to get full payment whereas the moneylender/trader pays in one instalment. Secondly, the farmer has to pay the transport charges himself to take his crop to the official procurement centre, whereas the private trader comes and takes the crop from him, thus saving him transport costs.

3.          Long-term solutions like irrigation facilities, constructing dams and canals are also not going to be the answer. Ask the Punjab farmers who have it all and are still deeply in debt and committing suicide. Maharashtra has a particularly bad track record in irrigation, as the extremely powerful sugar lobby has ensured that over 80% of all irrigation in the state is restricted to the few sugar cane growing areas and the rest of Maharashtra has deliberately been denied water. Secondly, the sugarcane lobby is the most powerful political force in Maharashtra and controls the whole state. Every single Chief Minister is created by them. Our Union Minister for Agriculture Sharad Pawar, and the present CM are all leaders of this lobby and that is how they have come to power. Hence, they are part of the problem of suicides and can in no way be part of the solution!

4. As for farmer's diversifying into horticulture, other cash crops, animal husbandry etc., this just escaping the issue and the problems will trail them no matter what they take on because the whole agricultural policy is flawed, the paradigm of the green revolution can only lead to further suicides, further marginalisation of the poor farmers.

All signs point to the fact that there is something drastically wrong with the Green Revolution (GR) paradigm which our government is pushing through and which the Package is deliberately not addressing. GR is not a sustainable method of agriculture, but is highly polluting and puts too much strain on the land, water and other resources. It is highly water-depleting, when most parts of India are facing a severe water-crunch and ground water is drying up. It is geared towards just profit of the big companies that control agriculture like Monsanto, Syngenta, Dupont, Dow, Bayer, Basf etc. who are not interested in the welfare of our farmers, the state of our environment or anything else. Our government and its Package is serving these interests and not the interests of our farmers. So much for Manmohan's crocodile tears!

No matter what the cash crop is the same vicious circle of rising costs of production, with diminishing returns in harvests, pests becoming increasingly resistant to chemicals and hence more and more pollution as more and more poisons are used, is going to be a never-ending pattern.  What in fact the GR paradigm, whether GR I or GR II, guarantees, is the further marginalisation of the poor and small farmers and paving the way for the corporatisation of agriculture. The flawed policies of our government, vagaries of the international prices, subsidies that the US and EU are giving their farmers, dumping through lifting of Qualitative Restrictions and all the anti-farmer WTO measures are going to ensure just one thing - that more and more farmers will have no option but to commit suicide.