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Price crash pushes areca farmers to the brink

Sathish G.T. and
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Pest menace and price crash

have led to suicide by farmers

Loss:Officials of the Horticulture Department say that of the 42,000 hectares of areca plantations in Chikmagalur, 26,000 hectares are affected by yellow leaf disease.— File photo
Loss:Officials of the Horticulture Department say that of the 42,000 hectares of areca plantations in Chikmagalur, 26,000 hectares are affected by yellow leaf disease.— File photo

Areca farmers in Malnad region were till recently categorised as affluent. However, a sharp decline in yield owing to pest menace and fungal infection, coupled with falling prices of areca, have wreaked havoc, pushing them into a debt trap. Farmers' suicides, once unheard of among areca growers, have become an undeniable reality in the last six to seven years.

According official records, between April 2010 and April 2011, 36 farmers in Chikmagalur district committed suicide. Of them 13 are areca growers. In Shimoga district, 40 farmers committed suicide between 2003-04 and 2010-11 due to financial crisis, most of them areca farmers.

A.N. Basavarajappa, a farmer from Arakere village of Bhadravathi taluk in Shimoga, who owned two acres areca and one acre of coconut plantation, committed suicide in April, 2009. A progressive farmer, he had borrowed Rs. 8.84 lakh from Pragati Grameen Bank and Rs. 80,200 from Malnad Areca Marketing Cooperative Society to set up an areca processing unit. However, “Kole Roga” (a fungal infection) brought down yield in his farm by nearly 40 per cent.

More recently, 11 months ago, S.A. Sundar (59), an areca farmer with three acres and 30 guntas of land in Jaipura in Koppa taluk in Chikmagalur, shot himself dead. There was a time when production in the plantation was 20 quintals a year, but the situation was bad after “Yellow Leaf Disease” (YLD) began to spread.

Last year, when Sundar ended his life, he had debt of Rs 1.5 lakh, including Rs 30,000 borrowed to pay interest from friends and relatives. He owed the Karimane Land Bank Rs. 85,000. According to his son, Chandrakanth, the total earnings from areca plantations last year was roughly Rs. 4,000. The total production was a shocking 20 kg. Traces of the disease YLD were first found 50 years ago at Meguru in Koppa taluk, but started spreading only 10 years ago. According to Sachin Meega, a social worker who filed a Public Interest Litigation in Karnataka High Court seeking relief for areca growers, suicides in the families of areca growers began to happen in the last six-seven years.

The death of Arun (41) of Marithotlu in Koppa taluk was among the first reported cases of areca farmers' suicides in October 2006. His brother, Anil, toldThe Hinduthat Mr. Arun had borrowed lakhs to cultivate 28 acres. “We used to get 80 quintals a year. In 2006, the yield was only 10 quintals,” he said.

According to the Horticulture Department, of 42,000 hectares of areca plantation in Chikmagalur, 26,000 hectares are affected by YLD. The disease first turns the leaves yellow and later kills the tree.

Mr. Meega said that a team was constituted by the Centre, headed by Gorak Singh, the then Horticulture Commissioner, Ministry of Agriculture, to study the plight of areca farmers. It submitted a report in December 2009 after visits to Shimoga and Chikmagalur and recommended loan waiver for areca growers with less than 4 hectares of land.

Farmers were hoping for a positive response, but none came. The banks issued notices to recover debts. Mr. Meega and others then moved the High Court. The High Court has now asked the petitioners to submit documents to prove that the farmers committed suicide because of loan borrowed from banks.

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