A glut of chillis and a rash of suicides: Switching crops hasn't helped farmers of Telangana.

Is Telangana underplaying farmer suicides 77 died in one district in 3 months say activistsImage for representation: PTI
news Agriculture Thursday, June 22, 2017 - 14:21

Koram Nageshwarara Rao was a cotton farmer in Koyagudem village in Telangana's Kothagudem mandal. Despite inheriting four acres of land from his father, he could never avail a loan, despite numerous trips to the bank.

Desperate for money, he borrowed from a private lender at a higher interest rate. With his crop failing for the third continuous year, and his debts rising, Nageshwar killed himself on October 18, 2015.

His family insists that he would have been alive today, if the bank had given him a loan. 

The situation of Malothu Jawahar Lal, a tenant farmer from Upparigudem village nearby, is worse. 

Jawahar was a tenant farmer for 15 years and had taken land on rent, for Rs 10,000 an acre.

His crop failed for four continuous years, leaving him with a debt of Rs 4 lakh, following which he killed himself on March 18, 2016.  

Both the farmers have left large families behind, including children who may now have to stop pursuing their education due to financial difficulties. 

(Left: Nageshwara Rao, Right: Jawahar Lal)

The plight of these two families, who are yet to receive an ounce of compensation from the government, were highlighted during a recent ground visit by the Rythu Swarjya Vedika (RSV), an NGO working with farmers at the grassroot level.

Despite the state government claiming that it took steps to help farmers, many ryots in the two districts of Khammam, and Bhadradri Kothagudem, are faced with an agrarian crisis.

While the state claims that 12 farmers in Khammam and 10 farmers in Bhadradri Kothagudem have committed suicide in the last three months, activists tell a different tale.

"At least 77 farmers in the last three months in Kothagudem district alone. A similar number of suicides occurred in Khammam too. Most of the deaths we saw were cotton families," says Kondal Reddy from the RSV.

"Until now, tribal farmers usually relied on agriculture in small patches of land or on livestock, but this year, they also began taking land on lease. However, many were not able to get a loan, and with rising costs, they were forced into debt," he adds.

Switching to chilli

According to official data, farmers in Kothagudem district hold around 1,33, 078 hectares of land. out of which cotton was being grown in more than 50,000 hectares. 

This year, another trend that activists noticed, was that many farmers had dumped cotton, and switched to growing chilli.

In 2014, the cotton farmers had experienced a market crash, which led them to switch over to another crop. However, even that didn't turn out well for the farmers. 

In May this year, several dozen chilli farmers in Khammam city went on a rampage, and vandalised the Market Yard Office, before setting a large stock of the crop on fire.

The infuriated farmers broke chairs, tables, computers, windows, doors, and even ACs, to pieces. 

The problem was not scarcity, but abundance. Chilli output had risen by nearly 14% this year, but a lack of demand sent prices crashing.

The farmers had demanded a Minimum Support Price (MSP) of Rs 10,000 per quintal, but prices had dropped to Rs 3,000 per quintal, which angered them.

Tenant farmer woes

In 2015, data released by the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) stated that 1,358 farmers had committed suicide in Telangana that year. Of these, only 79 were 'Large Farmers and Cultivators’.

"Tenant farmers still have it the worst. They already have the burden of paying rent, and are also denied loans by banks, and end up borrowing from private money lenders who charge high rates of interest," Kondal says. 

"They don't get crop loans or insurance. Any reimbursement for crop damage is also diverted to the owner of the land. We estimate that 70% of the farmers who committed suicide, were tenant farmers," he adds.

If the crop fails or the market crashes, the farmer then goes into deep debt, and is unable to repay his loan.

There are estimated to be nearly 14 lakh tenant farmers out of the total 56 lakh cultivators in the state, and an act that was passed in the AP Assembly in 2011, assures them access to 0% interest crop loans from banks, crop insurance and several other agricultural subsidies. 

Despite this, most tenant farmers in the state are yet to receive their Loan Eligibility Cards (LEC).

Solution

In 2015, the Telangana government, which was plagued with farmer suicides, established a toll-free 24x7 suicide prevention cell, to help farmers in distress.

"The helplines worked properly only for one or two months, and then went defunct. That may have helped farmers to a certain extent. Additionally, while the Telangana government has issued to orders to waive loans, it often does not reach marginal farmers," Kondal says.

He also insists that the state should actively pursue the cases of tenant farmers, which will automatically result in a decline in farmer suicides.

"It's because they are facing a bigger crisis. Many farmers that we spoke to, said that their names were not included in the government list itself, for them to claim any form of compensation," Kondal says. 

"Besides that, the state should fix a reasonable MSP for chilli and cotton, if it is serious about tackling the issue," he adds. 

 

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