Millennium Post

Death and despair in Telangana

Wednesday, 2 July was the last day of Peraboyina Sampath’s life. On that day in the evening, he walked into his dusty field, gulped down some pesticide and waited for all his miseries to get over. The 32-year-old farmer worked in the near-barren farm at Seetharamapuram village under Parakala Mandal in Warangal district of the new state of Telangana. He was under a lot of pressure to pay back the debt of more than Rs 2 lakh he owed to banks and money lenders. He had told his wife he would kill himself if the crop failed again this time. Next day, his wife found his body.

Now she has to take care of their son and daughter, with no means of income. Her only hope is some ex-gratia relief from the state government. Months later, on 10 November, high-voltage drama erupted in the state assembly. The opposition was armed with accusations against the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS)-led government.

But 170 km away from the state capital Hyderabad, in a village panchayat of Cheriyal under Warangal district, Kanduri Illama could not stop her tears, watching on television the assembly discussion on farmer suicides. On 11 August, this year, her husband hanged himself to death near an open well in their farm. Narrating how her husband Mallaiah, 45, committed suicide, a wailing Illama said her world came crashing down that day, and she did not know how she would raise her three daughters. Mallaiah had grown cotton and maize on four acres, but half the land failed to yield anything. He had been borrowing money from local money lenders over the past few years. This year they all had great hopes of rains and a good harvest.

But all their hopes and efforts went in vain, Illama said. Their eldest daughter, Rajitha, was married early this year, but was sent back after her family could not meet the dowry demands. Bhavani, 18, is a college student, and the youngest daughter is in Class 9. Bhavani said two acres of the land belonged to her father as a joint property and it was not registered in his name. So he could not avail loan against it from a bank. He was forced to turn to small-time money lenders for help. His total debt was Rs 4 lakh, and interest on it was piling up. Now, Illama and her daughters are forced to do petty work in the neighbourhood to survive. Two of the daughters have to earn their daily bread instead of going to college or school.

The same story of a failed crop, huge debt, and suicide replicates itself across the state. In Angadipeta village of Chandur Mandal in Nalagonda district – 160 km from Illama’s village, threats from moneylenders pushed Maragoni Venkataiah, 45, to take his life by hanging himself from a tree on his farm. He left behind his wife, two teenage daughters and a son without any livelihood.  In Damara Cherla mandal, Malothu Ravi consumed pesticide when his wife was away to bring their two school-going sons home. Ravi had invested Rs 2.50 lakh but the crop failed.

On the same day, Vangari Anjaiah of Maripadi village in Gundala mandal was also found hanging from the ceiling at his home. In Chadari village of Raupet mandal, Rajaiah, a 42-year-old maize farmer, ended his life by consuming pesticide. B Narasimha Rao, joint director, agriculture, said the farmers of Rajupet and Alair mandals had taken up maize cultivation in about 2,000 hectares, but most of the crop had withered away due to scanty rainfall. Despite the recent rains, the district recorded 50 per cent deficient rainfall during the southwest monsoon, leaving farmers in the lurch.

The two most affected districts of Telangana – Warangal and Nalgonda – witnessed an alarmingly high number of suicides during this Kharif season. The primary reason for their plight is crop failure due to poor rains coupled with a nonexistent irrigation system and debt burden. Farmers take loans to meet healthcare, education and marriage expenses at high interest from private lenders, hoping to pay it all back after one bumper crop. But monsoon failures and the absence of any crop insurance scheme present suicide as the only exit route.

Another factor in this unfolding tragedy is the system of tenant farming, which is widespread in Telangana. Farmers typically own one or two acres of land, but take more land on rent from landlords. Krishnaiah, a tenant farmer in Karimnagar, had no agriculture land. He used to lease farmland in his native village. This time too he took four acres of land on lease but his crop failed because of inadequate power supply. In the process, he incurred debt to the tune of Rs 2.5 lakh. Unable to pay back after the crop failure, he consumed pesticide and committed suicide on 23 September.

 “A majority of the victims are tenant farmers who pay very high interest rates to lease land. They often pay up to Rs 10,000 per acre per season. When their crop fails, they are left in debt. Once private financiers begin to hound them, they take their own lives,” said RTI activist B Kondala Reddy, who is associated with Rythu Swarjya Vedika, and Caring Citizens Collective, an NGO. Agriculture department officials said that cotton and chilli farmers have been hit hard, because of unseasonal showers and lack of sufficient rainfall. They said the rainfall in Warangal was 31 per cent below normal this year. As a result, the groundwater levels in the district went down to 8.06 metres this September, compared to 5.07 metres last September.

The situation is the same in Adilabad with 29 per cent rainfall deficit and Nalgonda with 38 per cent. In Medak district, there was only 44 per cent rainfall, putting thousands of paddy, cotton and sugarcane farmers in distress. Officials said since agriculture in Telangana is predominantly dependent on bore-wells, depleted groundwater levels coupled with power cuts have hit farmers hard.

Death by numbers
While the government pegs the total number of farmer suicides at 79, grassroots organisation Rythu Swarajya Vedika and the opposition Congress”s farmer wing Kisan Congress put the figure at 350.
M Kodanda Reddy, chairman of Telangana Kisan Congress, called the government estimates “bogus”. Telangana Pradesh Congress Committee president Ponnala Lakshmaiah said, “Police records say 318 farmers committed suicide in Telangana in the past four months. On the day of Diwali alone, 14 farmers ended their lives but the chief minister is feigning ignorance.”

Agriculture minister P Srinivas Reddy blamed the previous Congress government for the plight of farmers. “The previous government did not create proper irrigation facilities nor has it bothered about the welfare of farmers. The farm loan waiver of the TRS government will aid the farmers immensely,” he said, when asked about the alleged suicides. P Srihari Rao, a social activist who has filed a public interest litigation in the Hyderabad high court seeking help for the distressed families of farmers, who have committed suicide, says, “The government should treat this as more than a national disaster. It should declare an agricultural emergency in Telangana. Unless public and private loans are waived and some confidence-building measures are taken, suicides will continue.”

Soon after assuming charge the TRS government under chief minister K Chandrasekhar Rao announced a scheme to waive crop loans and gold loans up to Rs 1 lakh for farmers. The government said waiving the loans of 3.9 million farmers would put a burden of  Rs 7,000 crore on the state coffers but it was ready to take it on, as it was an election promise. However, this applies only to bank loans, and brings no relief to the farmers facing heat from private money lenders. Also, farmers continue to suffer from power crisis, which needs to be resolved to let them breathe easy. Governance Now

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