P. Sainath

There are several immediate steps both the Centre and the Maharashtra Government could take to ease the situation in Vidharbha. These would not solve the long-term crisis, but would surely slow down the farm suicides that continue to rise. There were almost 80 in May. And 540 since last June.

VIDHARBHA'S INFAMOUS `Register of Deaths' closed on May 31 at 540 farmers suicides. Only to allow for the opening of a new register for the fresh agricultural season starting June 1. The latest list already has a dozen entries in it. As the agrarian crisis deepens, there is a real fear that the new book will match the old.

The 540 suicides listed in the closed register occurred between June 2005 and this May. Of these, over four-fifths took place after November 1 last year. As many as 325 farmers have killed themselves since January. And May was terrible, with nearly 80 farmers taking their own lives during that month. Ten of them doing so on a single day. Some weeks, there have been suicides every eight hours.

The register is the painstaking effort of the Vidharbha Jan Andolan Samiti. It has forced the authorities to tighten up their own count. And has also inspired others, including newspapers, to keep their own lists to make sense of what is going on.

Why were the suicides worst this May? Because that's when highly indebted people found themselves unable to raise the credit to buy inputs on the eve of the new season. March, too, was bad, when many either failed to sell their cotton, or were forced to do so at distress rates. The steady rise in the numbers has been on since November, though. That's when it became clear that the `advance bonus' of Rs.500 a quintal cancelled by the Maharashtra Government would not be restored. The loss borne by farmers because of that alone could be over Rs.1,000 crore.

Meanwhile, the fields of Vidharbha have been prepared for cultivation. But there's no money for inputs. Despite much talk of greater credit, crop loans elude many farmers. Whatever the promises, the banks find ways of subverting them. And those at the top turn a blind eye to the process. The banks claim their effort was to cut out `defaulters.' But after seven desperate years, everyone here is a defaulter. The default amounts are mostly below Rs.25,000 (because bank credit was anyway less). But do what they will people cannot pay. Where's the money?

Bank pressures mean khande palat is spreading even amongst once better-off farmers. Take a farmer seeking a crop loan of Rs.65,000 for seven acres, who has a pending bank loan of Rs.50,000. He clears this by taking a private loan of Rs.50,000 for a single day. He gets the Rs.65,000, but has to pay the lender Rs.52,500. That is, interest of Rs.2,500 for a single day. Which means he is left with Rs.12,500 for seven acres. He also has new debt of Rs.65,000. This is khande palat (or switching the burden from one shoulder to another). You can find many such cases in every village.

So things are quite explosive at the start of the season. Yet, there are several steps the Government can take, if it wants to. Quick measures that would at least slow down the deaths. Allowing for more solid, medium, and long-term solutions to follow.

To start with, the State could restore the `advance bonus' of Rs.500 a quintal. On 210 lakh quintals (taking the previous year's output as the base), the cutting of the bonus implies a loss of Rs.1,050 crore to farmers every year. That's why the suicides shot up after its withdrawal.

Alongside this, the State could ensure rather than just speak of fresh crop loans for every farmer this new season. The kind of emergency Vidharbha is in, the loans should carry minimal interest. For non-irrigated farmers, they should be interest free (China, as Dr. M.S. Swaminathan has pointed out, has a zero per cent interest rate for farmers.) Without the crop loans, the Andolan Samiti's new register will outdo its predecessor.

The crop loans must be based on the new costs of production per acre and not on outdated prices. Getting this and the "defaulter" issue wrong will push many lakhs of people deeper into the grip of moneylenders.

It's heresy of course, in this era, to suggest writing off farmers' loans of up to Rs.25,000. (Most of these were smaller sums that have bloated with interest.) You could modulate the measure according to the acreage held by the farmer. And one can endlessly debate the wisdom of such a step. The truth though is simple. Whether you write them off or not, people cannot pay.

There's another vital zone where the State has no excuse. It must procure and provide cheap inputs to prevent fleecing of the farmer. Since they will be starting their season late, input costs will soon reach scarcity rates. The State must and can provide decent quality seed free. And some other inputs at nominal rates. In any case, it must monitor and regulate the costs of agricultural inputs. The prices extracted from farmers for these have been a quick route to debt. The input dealers are the new, powerful sahucars of the countryside.

Time does not favour the farmer. The State needs to press the entire agriculture and extension machinery into the process at once. And they have to work to a clear mandate. They must distribute free or very cheap inputs but not Bt seed, which would prove disastrous.

To propagate Bt in this unirrigated region, as this State has done, is to court chaos. Many farmers have gone broke putting borrowed money in Bt. Countless others even now take that risk in despair. In Maharashtra, Ministers and film stars promote Bt. There are MLAs, too, with close links to input dealers. This includes some opposition figures. This is a mess Maharashtra needs to get out of.

Incentives for food crops

It also makes sound sense to give incentives to those who grow food crops. Jowar once held 30 per cent of acreage in the region. Today, that's 5 per cent. This has not only meant loss of a vital food crop, but also a severe scarcity of fodder. An incentive of Rs.1,000 per acre for jowar cultivation would have many benefits. It would give poor farmers sustenance. It would revive a crucial crop of this region. And it would allow real space for animal husbandry with fodder making a comeback.

The State could also ask the Centre to impose a 60 per cent duty on cotton imports. (Equal to that on sugar, Maharashtra's other major crop.) This is needed as western subsidies on cotton have gone over the top. The United States last year gave its 20,000 growers a subsidy of $4 billion. The damage that has done to world cotton prices allows for extra cheap imports that crush cotton growers here.

There's a big need to strengthen the rural employment guarantee programme. There is a huge demand for it where people learn of it. Landless labourers, hit by the fall in farming, are in the worst of shape. You can also see landed farmers with six acres in the queues for work. So great is the pressure. Imagine the plight of the landless.

The Government should move fast to curb medical expenses and health debt. This is a rapidly growing component of family debt here. Lots of farmers have mortgaged acres of land to pay their costly private hospital bills. It would make a difference if the State were to set up more public medical centres and bring in more doctors for these. Also, private hospitals must be made to lower their charges.

Education is one of the badly hit sectors here. It is within the State's power to declare a fees waiver for the children of farm families unable to pay school fees and thus dropping out. Rural children should also not be required to pay for bus tickets when journeying to school.

At higher levels, many children who have got into professional institutions are now unable to now meet the costs. Their parents are bankrupt. Here too, the State could step in to help ease the burden.

Both Centre and State could get their act together and set up a Price Stabilisation Fund. And link the minimum support price to the wholesale price index. The National Commission for Farmers has already asked for this. Price volatility has been one of the things that has hit farmers hardest. Getting shock absorbers in place to ensure them a decent price would make things a lot better.

These measures do not add up to a solution to the agrarian crisis. That requires a far more radical approach. And needs us to junk present economic theology. However, many of these are short-term steps that can be taken at once. They would impact on several current aspects of the crisis. Failure to act now could add many hundreds of more entries to the new register of deaths.