Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Vidarbha Saga-The Death Recorder-Santosh Naitam

The Death Recorder

Purvai Dua and Nihar Gokhale

Last Updated on January 21,2011 at 1700 hrs

Santosh Naitam of the Vidarbha Janandolan Samiti is a one-of-a-kind record keeper of farmer suicides in Vidarbha, making a strong statement against the government’s debatable methods of collecting these numbers.

Santosh Naitan- The suicide record keeper. Photo: Purvai Dua

Pandharkawada (Yavatmal): World over, protests have taken shape in different modes -- be it posters, hunger strikes, or violence. But, how do you protest against government crime records? Meet Santosh Naitam, 35, the ‘record-keeper of suicides’ of Vidarbha, a region that has seen thousands of farmers committing suicide in the past decade due to acute agricultural distress. He maintains ledgers – in hard and soft copies – with an entry for each farmer suicide.

The notion/idea of maintaining such a record of ‘actual’ farmer suicides was conceptualised by Kishore Tiwari, head of Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJS), of which Naitan is the office secretary. Tiwari says boastfully, “This is the only record of its kind in the world, and Santosh the only such record-keeper.” The idea is to maintain alternative records that are independent of the official farmer suicide data, currently recorded by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). Officially, a suicide has to pass various conditions to be eligible to be classified as a ‘farmer suicide’. To many these conditions are narrow-minded, and hence they see the numbers given by police records -- NCRB’s only source of suicide data -- as debatable. Thus, VJS keeps record of farmer suicides on its own, free from government’s definitions, and by relying on local knowledge and information network. Santosh Naitan indeed has a big job on hand.

This pioneer effort was first taken up in January 1999 and since then this data has challenged the NCRB Data gathering system in the district. The motive behind maintaining this unusual death record was to keep the slack government on its toes especially on issues such as farmer suicides. Vidarbha has gathered national media limelight in the recent times not only for rampant farmer suicides but also for the discrepancies in recorded data.

The method of collecting information on suicides in the Vidarbha region is done through a network of credible sources which includes village heads, relatives, neighbours, and personal inspection. Whenever a suicide occurs, either relatives or friends of the victim are encouraged to inform the VJS office on its landline phone. Naitan, being the office secretary, is present to receive such calls. His cell number is also available. Naitan cross-checks any such information he receives with the Sarpanch of the village. If the village is close to his office, he pays a visit to confirm the facts.

The register that bears testimony to twelve deaths in the first six days of 2011. Photo: Purvai Dua

Currently only the most basic data is entered in the register. This includes name, age, date of death, village name, taluka, and district. According to Naitan, plans to expand the categories are afoot. He keeps a back-up of all the records in his office computer.

At a time when the national media is harping on the reduced rate of suicide in the region, Naitan’s register is a stark, real-time reminder of the suicides that still take place. In 2010, 973 deaths were recorded in the register while the first six days of 2011 witnessed 12 suicides. A suicide has to fulfil 72 conditions to be eligible as a farmer suicide. Only then do the state’s packages trickle down to the kin through a process that takes around six months. Out of the Rs 1 lakh compensation, Rs 70,000 is in form of fixed deposits. The rest is given as a cheque.

Like most farmers, even Naitan has a debt of Rs 70,000 on his name. Santosh Naitan belongs to the nearby Hiwara Barsa village. He completed his Senior Secondary education before joining Kishore Tiwari‘s organisation. Father to a one-year -old baby girl, Naitan owns a 7-acre farm that is attended to by hired labourers. Naitan grows Bt Cotton on his farm, which is ironical since Tiwari and VJS has been advocating against the Bt variety. Naitan also grows Sorghum.

The register Naitan maintains updates the suicides as and when they happen. Between the hard cover lies hundreds of hard renching stories of Vidharbha’s agrarian crisis.


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