By Vikram Gopal
"My brother had sunk a total of three borewells. The two he sunk on the advice of a geologist failed, the one suggested by a local was successful," says KA Panchalingu, whose brother HL Shivalinge Gowda (35) is one of over 40 farmers in Mandya district to have committed suicide in the past two months. "In fact, the geologist suggested that my brother dig a borewell at the spot where there is already a well," Panchalingu added.
On the night of June 28 Shivalinge Gowda jumped into that same well and ended his life. "He had lost about Rs 3 lakh on the two unsuccessful borewells, and after he got a notice from the State Bank of India for non-repayment of loan he decided to end his life," Panchalingu said.
Shivalinge Gowda of Honnanayakanahalli is one of over 100 farmers who have committed suicide in the state, most of them sugarcane growers.
The failure of sugar mills to accept his sugarcane, which resulted in a significant loss, was assumed to have pushed him over the edge. But Panchalingu points out that his brother was shattered not only because of the sugarcane crisis, but also because of the simultaneous crash in raw silk prices in the beginning of May. Shivalinge Gowda was also a sericulturist.
Almost all the farmers who have taken the extreme step have been sugarcane farmers, lending credence to the assumption that the crisis is uniform across all the districts of the state. But in Mandya, Shivalinge Gowda's case has far more resonance than those of farmers who grew only sugarcane.
The overwhelming majority â€” 95 per cent according to the 2010-11 Agricultural Census data â€” of farmers in Mandya district are small and marginal farmers.
In terms of area under sugarcane cultivation, districts like Belagavi overshadow Mandya. According to the Department of Economics and Statistics, in 2013-14 (the latest year for which data is available), sugarcane was grown on 1,59,443 hectares (ha) in Belagavi, whereas the figure for Mandya was only 19,462 ha, of a total cultivable area of 2,48,825 ha.
However, that same year, the area under mulberry cultivation in Mandya was 14,862 ha. On average, Mandya district has the third highest area under mulberry cultivation in the state, and is also the highest producer of raw silk in the country.
While the crises of sugarcane and raw silk have been highlighted in the media, what has been missed is the intersection of the two.
Gavish (32) of Athaguru hobli not only practices sericulture, but also challenges assumptions of a static farm life. Now that raw silk price have crashed he has bought two cows. "Even there, the price of a litre of milk has reduced from Rs. 23 to Rs. 19 a litre. The same is the case with coconut as well, from Rs. 30 for one it has come down to Rs. 16," Gavish says.
The problem that Gavish is facing, is common with other farmers too. At a meeting of farmers' organisations in Mandya city on July 7, T. Yeshwantha, state committee member of the Karnataka Prantha Raitha Sangha, a kisan organisation affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said: "Most farmers who have committed suicide were growing multiple crops. The problem is that there seems to be no crop that will give them assured returns over a period of time," he said.
H. Ramegowda (68) who cultivates sugarcane, sweet potato and tomato on his land, and this to say: "The problem is when I started cultivating it (tomato) about a year ago, I used to get Rs. 40 for a kg, now it is down to Rs. 20."
Mulberry cultivation in the top three districts in Karnataka (Area in hectares)
Mariswamy (45) of Toresettyhalli village, who had just destroyed his sugarcane crop because there was no hope of getting any returns on it, said it was useless to petition the government for help to protect farmers. "When the price has crashed who do you go and ask for help? I have decided to start planting coconut trees, and I am going to try and get permission from the government to grow Red Sanders."
Ramegowda thinks farmers have been hit particularly hard this time because of the increased dependence on other crops. "Farmers here have been growing various other crops alongside sugarcane. Earlier, they used to depend more on sugarcane, but of late cultivation costs have increased so they had become more dependent on silk, because of assured returns, and also other crops."
Silk prices have been on a downward spiral since the union government announced a reduction in import duty on Chinese raw silk from 15 to 10 percent in the 2015-16 Budget.
However, Dharmendra (39), who cultivates sugarcane and mulberry on his four-acre land, said there have been periodic fluctuations in raw silk prices over the past 15 years. "As recently as 2011, there was a drop in raw silk prices."
He says on average, one acre of mulberry can sustain 200 silk worm eggs, and 100 eggs yield 80 kg of raw silk. "The cost of cultivation per acre is about Rs. 15,000, excluding the cost of our labour. If the price of raw silk is only Rs. 120 a kg, then it translates to just Rs. 9,600."
A Central Silk Board (CSB) official in Bengaluru concurred that the crash in raw silk price was temporary, and that â€śhistorically there is a fluctuation when import duty is reduced. However, the price recovers after some time because the total imports are small." CSB figures show imports have reduced from 6,808 tonnes in 2001-02 to 3,260 tonnes in 2013-14.
However, for small and marginal farmers like Shivalinge Gowda these fluctuations can prove fatal. "It is not just the crash in raw silk prices or the crisis in sugarcane cultivation. The prices of banana and coconut have also decreased sharply. These things have exacerbated an already existing crisis in agriculture," Yeshwantha said.
In May, an all-party team of senior politicians from Karnataka, and Chief Minister Siddaramaiah have made representations to Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and urged them to increase the import duty, but nothing has emerged yet except for assurances.
Indebtedness is not the problem
Ramegowda said indebtedness was not the problem, poor returns on investment were. "There is no way we can avoid taking loans," Ramegowda said. "How else do we raise the capital required for the initial investment like buying seeds, fertilizer and pesticide?"
"The more pressing concern for us is the choice of crop we grow," Mariswamy said. "What crop do we grow that would guarantee us returns for the next few years?"
â€śPersons from Bengaluruâ€ť
Uncertainty about a "bleak future" was how Hemanth Kumar (30), who owns two acres of land in Panakanahalli, described the situation. His cousin Mahesh (35) hanged himself from a tree near his two-acre plot on June 29.
"Mahesh had a bank loan of Rs. 60,000, and he had borrowed Rs. 4 lakh for the weddings of his two sisters. We found out after his death that he had signed an agreement to sell half-an-acre of land for Rs. 10,000 per gunta (a quarter acre). He had already sold one acre last year to some person from Bengaluru," Hemanth said. "That wasn't enough, though."
The sale of land to "persons from Bengaluru" was a recurrent theme among all the farmers interviewed. They said they were coming across more such instances as the crisis was deepening. While activists have been busy trying to mobilise farmers, others have questioned these efforts.
H.L. Satish, whom I met at the Maddur bus-stand, said these organisations were fooling farmers. "Farmers should sell their land and enjoy their life. That is more important. I sold my land and I am very happy now," he said. As a caveat he adds that "of course, it also depends on how farmers utilise that money."
"I want to enjoy modern facilities available in cities and towns. If you live in a village there is no electricity and improper access to water. I am wearing shoes worth Rs. 3,000, and I purchased these shoes in an air-conditioned shop, but the vegetables I used to grow were being sold on the footpath," Satish said.
A bitter Ramegowda says he is amazed at how a government can take decisions that impact so many farmers without so much as a consultation. "How can a government take such a decision (to reduce import duty of raw silk)? They should have at least held consultations with sericulturists. So much has happened, we are in such trouble, why can't the Prime Minister assure us that the government will stand by us, forget increasing prices. "