Chakali Sayamma's eyes brimmed with tears when she narrated how her son committed suicide in November 2005 in Peddapur village. "He was too young - only 37. I wish the god above had taken some of my ayush (life) and given it to my son," she said. Sayamma's son, Yadagiri, was not the only farmer who committed suicide that season. Besides Peddapur village in Atmakur block, villages in Sangem, Mahbubabad, Hanamkonda and other blocks have also witnessed many farmers' suicides in the Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh.
Goni Lalitha, wife of Raji Reddy of Pantulapalli village, recalls how depressed the latter was when the Bt Cotton crop they had sown in 2005 started to fail. "He went to the land one day and came back looking very depressed. We told him it was okay. We might still be able to survive. `He said, no, last year (2004) too we thought the same and took more loans for this season'. One day, we found him hanging from the ceiling. There is no hope in life anymore - not for me or my children." Raji Reddy was only 26.
When the Congress (I) government, under Y S Rajasekhar Reddy, came to power in 2004, one of its biggest election promises was resolving the agrarian crisis in the state. Earlier, while in opposition, Reddy had also approached the National Human Rights Commission to take some action against the increasing farmers' suicides in the state.
One of the first things the Reddy government did was to issue an order (GO 421) asking families of suicide victims to apply for compensation. All the families of farmers who had committed suicide between July 1, 1998 and June 1, 2004 would be given financial assistance of Rs 150,000 ($US=Rs 47). While Rs 100,000 would be deposited in a bank, Rs 50,000 would be used to repay the loans the farmers had incurred. The order also said that the victim's children would be admitted to the welfare schools and hostels; and the families would get both, a house and a pension.
Until March 10, 2005, 1,398 applications related to suicides were received by the government, but only 756 cases were identified as genuine. This was the fate of suicides committed before the Congress party came to power [called "pre-cases" by the revenue department]. It is interesting to note how the Congress party started rejecting the number of 'genuine' cases after it came to power.
In 2005 too, the spate of suicides continued. A record compiled by the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture from media reports shows that 1,777 cases of suicides were committed between May 15, 2004 and March 31, 2005. However, the government conceded that only 799 cases were genuine in the first year of their governance (between May 2004 and May 2005).
While the government claimed to have launched a helpline programme for farmers in all districts, today these helplines are nowhere to be seen. Teams headed by revenue officials are supposed to visit each suicide-affected family to ascertain the causes for the death and pay ex-gratia amount in 'genuine' cases. The teams appears to be under great pressure to discount each new suicide as a `non-genuine' case for a variety of reasons, the most obvious being that the present government cannot live with the burden of acknowledging the actual extent of suicides. Also, there are no clear funds earmarked to pay the ex-gratia support in case a suicide is found to be genuine.
The reasons for the suicides seem to be clear - faulty agricultural technologies coupled with lack of public support systems either as inputs into agricultural production (including credit and extension) or for outputs from production.
Well-known economist Jayati Ghosh-led Farmers' Welfare Commission, set up by the government in 2004, blamed the "neo-liberal economic experiments" taken up in AP as the main cause for increasing indebtedness. Failing public extension and credit machinery, and the crisis in irrigation management have further deepened the agrarian crisis. The Commission recommended that all cultivators should be brought under the ambit of institutional credit; policies should be shifted towards dryland agriculture; farmers should be protected from high volatility of output prices; and cheaper and more sustainable input usage has to be encouraged.
With liberalized trade, farmers are constantly being pushed to face competition from cheaper imports. While some of the cheap imports could be due to 'genuine comparative advantage', most of it is also because of subsidized agriculture or exports abroad.
While it is true that budgetary outlays for agricultural credit appear to have improved, the actual achievement in disbursement of credit has not improved. Rural branches of credit agencies are ridden with corruption.
Interactions with farmers reveal that new technologies are increasing the investment costs and, therefore, the credit needs of farmers. Transgenic seeds like Bt Cotton have been allowed to proliferate in large areas, even though the cost of cultivation was found to be higher with these seeds. New pesticides are flooding the market, with the cost of just 100 ml of such pesticides costing nearly Rs 1,000 in many cases.
Despite such high investment costs, net incomes have not increased, as several studies point out. There are only additional pests and diseases to be dealt with.
The earlier spate of suicides in AP (during 1988, and later during 1997) were also mainly due to faulty technologies. It seems that we have not learnt our lessons. Once again, another set of high-input technologies is being pushed at the farmers.
It is important that the government re-cast its agricultural production models completely to suit our socio-economic realities. This includes the need to look for and promote those technologies that will reduce the cost of cultivation drastically for the farmers.
Dependence of farmers on corporate sources for expensive seeds can easily be replaced by a systematic programme on improving the seed-saving/production systems. Investing on improving farmers' knowledge on pest and soil management can also lead to significant reductions in costs of inputs.
Similarly, farmers' fate cannot be left to the vicious and volatile nature of markets that are being influenced by subsidized agriculture elsewhere.