By Shyam Pandharipande
Nagpur : More than 400 farmers have committed suicide in the Vidharbha region this year despite measures taken by the Maharashtra government to relieve farm distress, an activist group clamed Monday.
Though the Prime Minister's Office has praised Maharashtra for bringing down the rate of farmer suicides to "only 20" per month from 60 last year, a count kept by the Vidarbha Jan Adolan Samiti (VJAS) reveals 401 suicides since January this year – a rate of over 80 per month.
As many as 51 distressed farmers in the six cotton growing districts of western Vidarbha have ended their lives in the month of May alone, the group said, giving out names and details of 15 farmers who have taken their lives in the last six days.
Most of the suicides have occurred in the districts of Yavatmal, Buldana, Akola, Amravati, Washim and Wardha – covered by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Rs.37.50 billion ($925 million) relief package of July 2006.
The Maharashtra government says it has brought an additional one million farmers in the credit net after restructuring their exiting loans, doubled the amount of loan disbursement and covered an additional 34,000 hectares of land with irrigation.
But critics dismiss the claims, saying these measures only partly fulfill long-overdue rural intervention.
Kishore Tiwari of VJAS said cotton production in the region this year has plummeted to 1.34 million quintals from 3.10 million quintals in 2002-03 and that the selling price had dropped to Rs.1,890 ($46) from Rs.2,700 ($66) per quintal.
"Farmers had to spend Rs.5,600 ($138) per hectare last year on cottonseeds alone compared to Rs.1,100 ($27) that they had spent four years back; and they will end up paying much more in the coming season," Tiwari told IANS.
One immediate problem faced by Vidarbha farmers concerns a new variety of cottonseed, known as Bollguard II.
The earlier version of the BT cottonseed – marketed by the US multinational Monsanto and unsuitable for rain-fed farming by the government's own admission – inflicted such heavy losses on farmers that the government had to pay farmers compensation over two consecutive seasons, Tiwari said.
"The government is under tremendous pressure from the US seed giant [to promote Bollguard II], whose selling point this year is that the new variety is suited for dry-land farming," Tiwari added.
"And hoping against hope for a bumper yield without pesticide costs, the farmers are ready to wager another gamble."