R. Madhavan Nair

Suicide is a recurring theme in election speeches in this agricultural region

Kozhikode

The Malabar squirrel is a treat for the eyes which is why a small group of visitors to a village bordering the forest in Wayanad watched wide-eyed as the animal sat gnawing at a wild fruit on a tree. The stillness of the afternoon was suddenly shattered by a thud as a stone crashed on a branch near the animal.

The Malabar squirrel, bigger and more colourful than the ordinary squirrel, fled from the tree and disappeared into the forest in a flash. So did a couple of monkeys from a nearby tree.

"These animals destroy our crops," said a farmer standing nearby.

But animals are not the main problem here. Farmers will tell you that it is bank managers and private moneylenders who are bleeding this region.

It was in 2001 when reports of suicides by farmers caught in a debt-trap began emanating from the green and serene environs of Wayanad. They haven't stopped since; only last week a 65-year-old farmer committed suicide in Payyamballi, North Wayanad.

The Government has been paying Rs. 50,000 to the family of each of the victims. According to T. Sasidharan, Additional District Magistrate, Wayanad, the compensation had been paid to 137 families, which reported suicides between 2000 and 2004.

204 claims received

The district administration received 204 claims for compensation from families of suicide-victims, of which 177 were found eligible by revenue officials. The rest were rejected since the suicides were not a result of inability to repay farm loans.

"Suicide" is a recurring theme in election speeches in the tribal-dominated and agricultural Wayanad district. The CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) has already made it a campaign theme in these parts. More is likely to be heard on the subject in the coming weeks as electioneering picks up momentum.

Financial abyss

The Wayanad women widowed by the suicides of their husbands have come together under the banner of "Vidhava Agathi Munnettam" (Widows and Destitutes Movement). Their husbands' deaths has not only plunged them into grief, but also a financial abyss, from which recovery is not easy.

Wayanad, which suffered a severe drought in 2001, has still not recovered from the crippling wounds inflicted by the dry weather on an economy already made fragile by the sharp drop in produce prices.

The Government announced a Wayanad initiative, a relief package, in the State Assembly but it has remained on paper. Maoist-linked groups have been prompting the farmers to refuse to repay loans. Two branches of rural banks sponsored by Canara Bank have come under attack by activists of organisations like "Porattam."

In the last Lok Sabha elections, A.C. Varkey, a leader of the Kerala Relief Forum, which takes up the cause of farmers in distress, won 35,000 votes, a clear signal of the considerable support he had been able to muster among the farmers.

Drop in prices

The root cause of the farmer distress is the sharp decline in the prices of agricultural commodities. LDF campaign managers blame globalisation and the Government's insensitivity to ensure remunerative prices for coffee, pepper and other crops. Small coffee growers (estimated at 60,000) are the worst hit by the low prices and a poor harvest this year, caused by rains that destroyed the coffee blossoms last year.

Wayanad has been traditionally pro-UDF. But the last elections to civic bodies resulted in a near sweep for LDF-DIC(K) alliance. K. Karunakaran's DIC(K) is now back as an ally of the UDF in the Assembly elections, so the picture has changed since then.

In the 2001 Assembly elections, the UDF won handily from all three Wayanad constituencies Kalpetta, Bathery and North Wayanad.

The farm crisis and suicides by farmers is set to play a big role when Wayanad goes to the polls on April 29.