Men of letters , unmoved readers
Seeking authenticity for his letter to the Prime Minister and the President, Ramachandra Raut composed it with care on Rs.100 non-judicial stamp paper. Then he added a few more addressees, including his village sarpanch and the police, in the hope that it got home someplace. Then he killed himself. A mere digit in the nearly 250 farm suicides that hit Vidarbha in four months; but a villager desperate to be heard on the reasons for his action: “The two successive years of crop failure is the reason.” Yet, “bank employees came twice to my home to recover my loans”. (Despite a government order to go slow on recovery in a region hit by crisis, crop failure and more recently, drought).
Raut's suicide being the third in a month in Dhotragoan in Washim district, the village wants to see it spreads no further. “We try and meet every evening for an hour, all of us, anyone who will come,” says Nandkishore Shankar Raut from Dhotragaon. “The idea is to keep people's morale up.” So Dhotragaon counsels itself. Ramachandra Raut's letter was also an appeal not to be misunderstood. “Don't trouble anyone in my home,” it tells the police. “I am fully responsible for my action.” The stamp paper suicide note carries the seal of the deputy treasury officer of Mangrulpir tehsil dated March 29, and that of the stamp vendor who issued it to Raut on April 7. Raut filled it in and took his life the same day.
The family owes the banks Rs.1.5 lakh. His village pooled money to observe his 13th day ritual, sparing Raut's indebted family further expense.
Vidarbha's farm suicides have been unique in one respect. Some of those taking their lives have addressed suicide notes to the Prime Minister, the Chief Minister or the Finance Minister. In August 2006 Rameshwar Lonkar of Wardha complained, in his note, to Dr. Manmohan Singh, just a month after the Prime Minister went to his region. “After the Prime Minister's visit and reports of a fresh crop loan, I thought I could live again,” Lonkar wrote. But he found himself rebuffed at every stage while seeking that loan. Sahebrao Adhao's last testament in Amravati the same year painted a picture of usury, debt and land grab.
In November 2006, cotton grower Rameshwar Kuchankar addressed the then Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh in his note. He scribbled it down moments before taking his life in Yavatmal. “We are fed up with the delay in procurement and crashing prices ... Mr. Chief Minister, give us the price.” He also warned State Home Minister R.R. Patil that if the price did not improve at once, suicides would soar. They did.
“These notes are the last cry of despair of people trying to tell their government the reasons for agrarian distress,” says Kishor Tiwari. Mr. Tiwari heads the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, a body fighting for farmers' rights. “We set up expert committees to tell us why farmers commit suicide when they are themselves telling us the reasons with such clarity in their suicide notes.” The notes often speak of debt, soaring cultivation costs, high cost of living and volatile prices. Some of them trash regressive policies and a credit crunch that have destroyed thousands of farmers here in the past decade. Crop failure and drought coming atop these, ruin fragile lives.
Two years of crop failure in a single crop district can mean 34 months with no income. Vidarbha gained little from the 2008 Farm Loan Waiver which addressed only bank debt. The waiver excluded those farmers holding more than five acres, and made no distinction between dry and irrigated holdings. In Western Vidarbha, farmers take more loans from moneylenders than from banks. And, the average land holding is around seven acres in this mostly unirrigated region.
Of the five states that account for two-thirds of all of India's farm suicides, Maharashtra is by far the worst. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) the State logged 41,404 farm suicides between 1997 and 2008. That is, more than a fifth of the national total of nearly 200,000 in that same period. Of those 12 years, NCRB data show, the years 2006-08 have been the very worst. Within the State, Vidarbha has been the focal point of the tragedy.
Back to square one
However, the situation here seems like a throwback to that of 2005-06, before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit. Hit by a spate of suicides at the time, the State government spoke in many voices. In mid-2005, it gave out a figure of just 141 distress suicides across the whole State since 2001. Challenged in court, it revised this to 524. When the National Commission of Farmers team led by Dr. M.S. Swaminathan visited later the same year, it conceded there had been over 300 in the single district of Yavatmal. The final figure for the whole State that year, put out by the NCRB, was actually 3,926 suicides.
“For a while,” says Mr. Tiwari of the VJAS, “the State revealed real numbers on the website of the Vasantrao Naik Farmers' Self-Reliance Mission. That was because of Dr. Singh's visit and a lashing from the courts.” In fact, those figures were far higher than anything even the VJAS had recorded. This year, however, the website's columns for 2010 are so far blank. The Agriculture Ministry's reply to a question in the Rajya Sabha, based on State claims, says just 23 farm suicides occurred between January and April 8. This, even as other arms of government (and the Leader of the Opposition) put out figures ten times as high. The Vasantrao Naik Mission has itself given out signed data confirming there were 62 such deaths in January alone. (Though it has not put this up on its website.)
The numbers are routinely lowered by tagging hundreds of suicides as “non-genuine”. That is, “ineligible for compensation”. Aimed at curbing the amounts the State has to fork out to bereaved families, this move has caused much damage. “We are deluding ourselves,” says a senior official. “No wonder Ramachandra Raut felt the need to address his letter on stamp paper to the Prime Minister and President as well. He knew nothing would be taken seriously here in Maharashtra.”