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Farmers in Vidarbha region desperately need security cover
Suicides committed by farming community across India have been getting all around attention and the media has fairly succeeded in publishing various reports on this crucial issue regularly. The rates of suicides might have come down, but still the worrying factor is that in places like Vidarbha distressed farmers are still ending their lives regularly. An attempt has been made to understand the magnitude of this problem.

ONE THING that has emerged clearly is the choice of the product for farming by the farmers of Vidharbha is proving to be un-remunerative. The farmers in the region mainly cultivate cotton.

Unfortunately, the 2012 proved to be the worst year for cotton growers.  In the United States, production of cotton has almost doubled during the past year. One of the main bulk cotton importing countries like China has slowed on imports due to sluggish demand resulting from worldwide recession and therefore from law and demand viewpoint, there is more of supply and less of demand which is resulting in low realisation of prices for cotton growers.

CCI (Cotton Corporation of India) has been trying to help the farmers growing cotton in Vidarbha by purchasing their produce at a MSP (Market Support Price) of Rs.3900 per quintal. But activists feel this price is un-remunerative. MSP is arrived at by a combination of factors including law of demand and supply.

CCI has an upper limit to buy raw cotton beyond which they cannot purchase.  It seems their upper limit of 14% of the total crop reaching market yards has been sold at MSP.  It is feared that the markets may crash further, based on which, CCI has set up special MSP cell to monitor the market support operations in the country.

The role of the CCI will get more active once the price falls below the MSP level; currently there are 55 CCI centers in Maharashtra. Bt. Cotton was introduced in India and is cultivated in Vidarbha region also.  Bt. Cotton is a product invented by an MNC, Monsanto Corporation.  There are also reports, which say India-based cotton is growing fast compared to the BT cotton growth.

Farmers are being pushed to corner results from a combination of factors. Some of them are given below:

- Most of the farmers take loans from moneylenders for crop cultivation and if the realisation price is not up to their expectation, they face problems in repaying the debt to the moneylenders.

- Moneylenders, purely going by business economics, put extra pressure on those who owe money to them including farmers.  Even lending bank officials have a job to do and they also put pressure based on their job profile.

- Lack of support from cooperative banks especially in the face of inclement weather and market fluctuations.  In this case, cotton growing has proved to be a loss venture because there is not much demand whereas supply is huge.

- The State of Maharashtra has got less rainfall during previous year and farming people dependent on agriculture suffer the most due to lack of water or irrigation facilities. It is also a fact that India being an agrarian country with around 60-70 percent of its people directly or indirectly depending upon agriculture which is highly dependent on the timely arrival of monsoons.  Failure of monsoons leads to droughts directly impacting the farming community.

- Absence of alternative income opportunities

- Downturn in the urban economy forcing non-farmers into farming

- Absence of adequate social support infrastructure at the level of the village and districts

-  Ignorance of ancillary occupations for raising income

- Employment problems of the farmers' children

Based on the statistics, the population of Vidarbha is around 12 lakhs.  According to one source, figures of farmer suicides in Vidarbha go like this: 600 in 2007; 1065 in 2006; 572 in 2005; 620 in 2004; 170 in 2003 and 122 in 2002. During the last three years around 7,000 farmers have committed suicide.

The Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh visited Vidarbha sometime back and assured to allocate funds for the development of the region. Some reports suggest an amount of Rs.1 lakh ex gratia was given to each family who had lost a farmer due to suicide.

In spite of the Government having pumped in some money, the suicide epidemic has continued unabated through 2006-07 onwards.  The main reason being the money given has been spent and opportunities for getting more money through credit was dismal and moneylenders were charging high rates of interest - all this implying farmers to get into the vicious 'debt trap' angle once again. It is also a fact that the money earmarked for each family as ex gratia would not have reached the target families due to non compilation of accurate beneficiary statistics and other loopholes in the welfare system like lack of awareness about the existence of such a scheme.

Some people caring for the society have tried their best in highlighting this issue including some film personalities, documentary filmmakers, different NGOs and other activists. In 2009, the International Museum of Women included an examination of the impact of farmers' suicides on the lives of the farmers' wives and children in their exhibition, titled: Economica: Women and the Global Economy.

There are also reports that many widows were left with the burden of their husband's debts and were forced to work as indentured servants to repay the debt.

Besides cotton being the major crop, other crops like jowar (barley), soyabean and pulses are also cultivated by the Vidarbha farmers through dry farming methodology. Irrigated farming is insignificant and seen only in very few pockets where big rivers are flowing.  Additionally, Vidarbha region does not get enough rainfall going by past records.

Based on the above, suicide of a farmer could be viewed as a mental health problem and the chief factors that are responsible in general are: chronic indebtedness and inability to pay the principal amount along with interest accumulated over many years; wage/salary or earning potential decline leads to misunderstanding in the family set up leading to disputes, depression, alcoholism etc.; rising costs of agricultural inputs and falling prices of agriculture produce; a feeling of helplessness, worthlessness and hopelessness influenced by getting alienated from the society and finally weak mental strength.

If found feasible, after debates, the following could be tried out as part of the solution to the above issue:

Whatever may be the logic of business economics, one thing should be well understood - humanity should always take precedence, especially when the situation is so grave that people due to helplessness are taking out their own lives. In this case it is the farmers.  First and foremost, a dedicated task force should be set up for dealing with the Vidarbha farmers' issues and sorting out their problems once for all. The first task is to make an accurate list of all those people who feel they are indebted and cannot repay their debts.  This list assumes importance because these are the people who are extremely vulnerable to taking out their lives at the slightest unpleasant opportunity.

Once the list is compiled, the second task would be to assure these people that their debts would be waived in toto. The figure may not be big as such - recently, the government has gone in for Rs. 60000 crore waivers for the whole country. The logic for this waiver should be: if farmers are uneducated and lack proper economic farsightedness, are forced to cultivate a product which proves to be un-remunerative, then automatically the "debt waiver scheme" should be pressed into service.

Going by the past records of Vidarbha farmers, their main product - Cotton production should be equated with products like CNG (compress natural gas), diesel, and other products where subsidies are enjoyed by many in the system for a long time. Therefore, Government must enhance the Minimum Support Price to a respectable level which would not only cover the entire cost of cultivation but also give a good margin of profit for the cotton growers. Once the market for cotton improves in the national/ international level, then this MSP could be revised based on the logic of law of demand and supply. In other words, if demand is going to be more than the supply and if the prices pierce the MSP, then automatically, the growers stand to benefit.

Counselling agencies should come up in big numbers in such region who should be prepared to provide free food/snacks/breakfast to all those people affected by the crisis. This may prove to be a tall task as different agencies need to come together to make this successful and the biggest stumbling block would be lack of infrastructure facilities. However, this can be tried with the help of many Self help groups, NGOs, voluntary organisations, charitable trusts and so on.  This facility could be organised through public schools, hospitals and other public places.

Government must give priority to bring all the people into a data bank so that they can be paid monthly allowances through direct bank credit - the recently publicised scheme of the Government "your money into your hands" could be of big help to all these people. Banks need to open up their branches in Vidarbha rural places in big numbers purely on humanitarian grounds.  This will go only to those people who are not doing anything for the time being.  Once this class of people gets into cultivation or any other job, this benefit should stop only after ascertaining the fact that these people no longer need the benefit and can sustain on their own without hardship.

For compiling the list of people living in Vidarbha region, besides Government officials, numerous school children, social organisations, voluntary groups, charitable trusts and so on could chip in to make the task easier, simpler and faster. Because preparing an exact list of all the people who are into farming or otherwise in Vidarbha region is very vital.  In other words, Aadhar cards must be in place as soon as possible for these people which would form the basis for everything that needs to be done to help them come out from their precarious situation.

Any special scheme to help the families of Vidarbha region, which are into farming, designed after consulting experts, is more than welcome. The problem should be solved once for all.

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