Thursday, June 14, 2007

Farmers are dying in Gujarat too

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देश के सबसे प्रगतिशील राज्य में भी हालात वही है क्या अब भी आंख खुलेगी ? भास्कर गोस्वामी को ये रिपोर्ट भेजने के लिए शुक्रिया !
उत्कर्ष सिन्हा

Farmers are dying in Gujarat too

Published in The Frontline magazine

But Chief Minister Narendra Modi would have the world believe that they are driving around in Maruti cars.

" Gujarat 's farmers are not like those in other States. Our farmers drive Maruti cars," Chief Minister Narendra Modi declares in his speeches at public meetings. However, the widows of farmers have a different story to tell.

Prabhaben Pungalpara was at her sister's house when her husband Ramesh hanged himself. His relatives rushed him to a hospital in Rajkot but it was too late. Says Prabhaben, who is from Sarapdar village: "I have two daughters and a son. I sold off our two buffaloes after he [Ramesh] died. My son has gone to Surat to work in a diamond-polishing workshop. Ramesh's brothers take care of us," says Prabhaben.

The brothers own a 20-acre (2.5 acres is 1 hectare) farm in which Ramesh too had a share. "Our cotton and jeera crops failed for two years, so he was very tense," says his brother Amarsibhai. But the police report says he killed himself because of a family dispute. "The first information report [FIR] said that he died because his crop failed, but later the police changed the story," says Prabhaben. "They told me `you have such a big house, there must be some other reason for the suicide. If we provide compensation in one case, people will start killing themselves and their families will start claiming compensation' . The police just want to suppress the case."

"If the government can help widows in Maharashtra , why can't it help women in Gujarat ?" asks Prabhaben. Across Gujarat , farmers' suicides are either unreported or wrongly reported. Ironically, the people protesting against this are from the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), the farmers' wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

"The State is hiding the truth about the rising number of farmers' suicides," Praful Sanjelia, Gujarat president of the BKS said at a press conference recently. "While the government declared that there were 148 farmers' suicides last year, our estimate of the figure is around 300," he said and alleged that the police were concealing the suicides. "The police are not registering FIRs, so many cases go unreported. If they do file a case, they attribute the reasons for the suicide to social tension and domestic disputes. Actually, it is a farmer's financial crisis that could cause other problems such as fights in the family."

"There are several police reports that say the person was ill and by mistake swallowed pesticide instead of medicine. Those are the ridiculous things they do to disguise the actual number of farmers suicides," says Vinubhai Dudheet, a BKS leader in Amreli. "We are angry with the BJP government and have launched several campaigns against its policies. It has done nothing for farmers and now it wants to give away our land to industrialists for special economic zones."

But why is the BKS going against its own government? The BKS first rebelled against the Modi government when it doubled power tariffs. The BKS founder and Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) pracharak Laljibhai Patel, went on a hunger strike on the banks of the Sabarmati in Ahmedabad. Since then, the BKS has been at loggerheads with the Chief Minister.

"Most BKS activists used to benefit from being aligned with the ruling party. They had clout with the local administration and used to get contracts and so on. Now, it is not so easy. So they too have an axe to grind with Modi," said a local journalist.

The BKS cadre is from the core constituency of the Sangh Parivar, comprising traders and big landlords, whose business interests range from sand mining and stone crushing to hotels. But to gain local political support and clout they realise it is crucial to raise issues relating to farmers. That is why they are doing their best to bring farmers' concerns into focus and embarrass the government.

Whatever the political motives of the BKS, there is no doubt that small farmers in Gujarat are in distress. Besides the police, families too have not reported suicides of their loved ones. Many widows are scared of going to the police. "Though his suicide was reported in the newspaper, I didn't report it to the police. I didn't want to be harassed. They demand money and I didn't have any," said Vajuben Dhakhada, 30, from Vadli village whose husband Pahubhai, 35, died in July 2006. "In the past two years, our crops failed. We had a debt of Rs.50,000 and he kept worrying about looking after our three small children with no money and no crop." Now, Vajuben is dependent totally on her relatives. She is a darbar (Rajput) widow and is not allowed to leave the confines of her home, not even to fetch water from the well. Her children help her with the work outside their home.

In the same village (Vadli), Prassanben has a similar story to tell. Her husband Anakbhai Dhakada, 32, killed himself in April 2007. She is in purdah and cannot leave the house. Luckily, she lives in a joint family. Like Vajuben, she too did not want to have anything to do with the police.

When contacted by Frontline, Agriculture Minister Bhupendra Singh Chudasama said: "Not a single farmer in Gujarat has committed suicide." This contradicts his government's figure of 148 farmer suicides in 2006. "The reasons for those suicides are family problems, people have many marriages in their families... . It is not the government's responsibility, " he said.

Often, farmers who are heavily in debt worry about marriage expenses of their daughters. Agriculture is no longer profitable - the price at which they sell their produce is invariably far below the production cost. Hence, farmers' loans and interest burden increase every year, until finally debt consumes them.

In November 2006, the elders of the Kakane family - Vallabh, 80, his son Mansukh, 40, and their wives - drowned themselves in the sea near Somnath. Now their house in Pania Dev village is locked and abandoned. Mansukh's three sons went off to Surat in search of work. "This tragedy happened because they could not pay off their huge debt," said Nilesh, their nephew. "They borrowed Rs.1.5 lakh at an interest rate of 60 per cent to pay off their power bills. The moneylender demanded Rs.12 lakh, including interest. They offered him their land but he did not want it." They were under so much pressure that they couldn't even eat properly. They would sit in my parents' house and ask them what to do," says Nilesh. "Almost half the village is in the grip of moneylenders. They give a loan and then they claim everything."

The most industrialised state, `Vibrant Gujarat', seems more feudal than modern. "The moneylender inflicts terror in the village," says Nilesh. "They took away a Dalit's home after he borrowed Rs.5,000, but no one will dare speak out. They will even pretend that the suicides in my family never happened. The moneylenders are thugs and they have the police on their side." "Not a single small farmer is doing well, we are all starving," says Kanubhai Ganniya, a farmer with five acres of land in Malak Nes village. "Many people are leaving the village or getting into other businesses. The cost of inputs such as seeds and pesticides is rising every year. But the price of cotton has not increased as much." Farmers estimate that they spend between Rs.7,000 and 16,000 an acre, but get around Rs.13,000-16, 000 for the crop harvested on one acre.

Gujarat was considered the rare cotton-growing State that was immune to farmers' suicides. Now inflation and the unsustainable commercial mode of cultivation have affected them too. "Earlier, farmers only had to pay for seeds. Now, they pay for everything - tractor, power, water and labour. Farming has become more cost-intensive and less viable," says Sudarshan Iyengar, Vice-Chancellor, Gujarat Vidyapith.

Cotton yield in Gujarat is higher than that in other States, For instance, it is three three times more than that of Maharashtra , where the suicide rate is the highest. Also 44 per cent of cotton farms in Gujarat are irrigated, compared with 4 per cent in Maharashtra and 18 per cent in Andhra Pradesh, where too many cases of suicide have been reported. Irrigation improves yield and reduces risks.

Besides, as in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra , almost all cotton farmers use genetically modified Bt seeds, which is resistant to the bollworm, a common pest. However, many farmers use illegal homebred versions of Bt seeds, which are cheaper than the Monsanto-MAHYCO Bollgard brand.

But the costs of water, which farmers buy from borewell owners, and power have gone up. "A pair of jeans that weighs around 500 grams sells for Rs.1,500-1,700 in the designer stores, but we get only Rs.13 for 500 grams of cotton. Those who are processing get all the profit, not those who produce," said Vinubhai.

At Malak Nes village, a group of farmers eagerly showed this correspondent their slippers. They threw them on the floor and said, "Our slippers have gaping holes and are broken. Can you please send them to Narendra Modi? And ask him which farmer in Gujarat has a Maruti? We can't even afford a new pair of slippers."