Marathwada region has seen a rise in farmer suicides due to a combination of shrinking agricultural income and an inability to repay loans. Reported suicides in the eight districts comprising Marathwada jumped by 570 per cent between 2012 and 2015. In this probing multi-part series, Tushar Dhara takes a closer look at the never-ending crisis of Marathwada’s farmers.
Why debt-ridden farmers are deemed least creditworthy
In order to understand how credit functions in a rural area, Firstpost met executives of the Osmanabad Janta Cooperative Bank Ltd in Latur in the third week of March. Vaijanath Shinde is the vice-president of the bank. “Small farmers don’t have the capacity to repay,” Shinde was categorical, “We sometimes lend to farmers, but only small amounts of a lakh rupees or so.” The bank prefers lending to businessmen, traders, shopkeepers and agro-businesses, because these have the potential to stimulate economic activity, thus generating an income stream that can be used for debt-servicing. In other words, in a hierarchy of creditworthiness farmers are at the bottom, and businessmen are on top.
‘Toothless’ laws lead to water exploitation
Enacting a law is not sufficient. A law by itself states general principles. It is the rules, notifications, orders and circulars that provide the details for implementation, prescribe procedures, establish time frames, and guidelines for the empowerment and punishment of officials. In the absence of rules, a law for all practical purposes is an Act on paper, a toothless piece of legislation. The absence of the operative part of these laws is one of the key reasons that has contributed to the drought, Purandare said in an interview in Aurangabad. In fact, the legal architecture governing water and irrigation is a vast grey zone, enabling vested interests to exploit water indiscriminately.
Will outreach help reduce farmer suicides?
A pilot project in Osmanabad district seeks to train “barefoot psychiatrists” to provide palliative medical treatment to people who are psychologically distressed. The project, which is a collaboration between two local NGOs, is training people in basic mental health concepts. They will in turn fan out in the villages, meet families and assess their distress levels on a “depression scale” that stretches from mild to severe. If a person is on the lower end of the scale they can be provided counselling by the barefoot psychiatrists. If assessed as “severe”, they will be referred to the nearest professional psychiatrist. One of the NGOs, Society for Wellbeing Awareness and Rehabilitation (SWAR) has also started a helpline (1800 233 1434) for people who are depressed. In the last two and a half months, they have received 750 calls.
A surveyor of suicides tells the story behind the statistics and the lonely struggle of Indian farmers
Why are Marathwada’s farmers committing suicide? Is it crop failure, mounting debt or alcoholism? To find answers to these questions, Aurangabad-based organisation Swami Ramanand Tirth Sanshodhan Sansthan is doing a survey in Marathwada. The aim is to document the socio-economic reasons that compelled farmers to end their lives and bring out the truth behind the shocking statistics. The survey, which started in March, is being conducted by 30 surveyors in the eight districts of Marathwada. In the fourth week of March, Firstpost spent a day with farmer-activist Sudhakar Shinde, the lead surveyor in Latur. He will meet the families of every farmer in Latur district – 106 of them – who committed suicide in 2015.
Water scarcity has created a region where trust has eroded and left the social fabric frayed
This is the third successive year of drought in Marathwada. Water is limited and the laws of demand and supply have made it the most expensive resource. Surface water has all but disappeared as rivers, canals, ponds and nallas have dried up. Groundwater has been overexploited to the point that it doesn’t make any economic sense to dig borewells. Those with access to water are the lucky ones, while the rest are forced to buy water at inflated prices from the “water mafia”. Marathwada is one of the most water-deprived regions of Maharashtra. The ongoing drought has evoked comparisons with the great drought of 1972. It is leading to strife not only between regions within the state, but between towns and cities and even families living in villages. Discord around water is fraying the social fabric of the region and this has revived the demand for separate statehood for Marathwada and Vidarbha.