Nagpur : Even as the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) pats the Maharashtra government for bringing down the rate of farmer suicides to "only 20" per month from 60 last year, the count kept by an activist group reveals a staggering 401 suicides in the first five months of this year.
As many as 51 distressed farmers in the six cotton growing districts of western Vidarbha have ended their lives in the month of May, claims a press release by the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS). It gives the names and details of 15 farmers who have committed suicide in the last six days.
The VJAS tally shows a whopping 70 suicides in January this year followed by 88, 97 and 95 in February, March and April. Most of these 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 activist group that has persistently highlighted farm distress in the region in the last two years, quotes figures from the government website to show that the 1,564 suicides since July 1, 2006 were more than those reported in the last decade.
Indeed, the government website, which has claimed substantial drop in suicides, does show more or less matching statistics, albeit with a rider that all suicides are not related to agrarian distress.
Refusing to grant a one-time loan waiver, a price of Rs.2,700 per quintal for cotton and restoration of advance bonus of Rs.500 on cotton purchase, the government has however claimed to have exceeded the interest waiver target. It says it has brought an additional one million farmers in the credit net after restructuring their exiting loans.
Consequently, it has claimed doubling of loan disbursement amount and coverage of an additional 34,000 hectares under irrigation with an expenditure of Rs.6.15 billion on 11 irrigation projects. Critics have ridiculed the claim saying it is only a part-fulfilment of a long overdue measure.
Highlighting the heightened distress levels, VJAS leader Kishore Tiwari pointed out that cotton production in the region this year had come down to 1.34 million quintals from 3.10 million quintals in 2002-03 and the selling price had dropped to Rs.1,890 from Rs.2,700.
"Farmers had to spend Rs.5,600 per hectare last year on cottonseeds alone compared to Rs.1,100 that they had spent four years back; and they will end up paying much more in the coming season," Tiwari told IANS. He pointed to the wholesale promotion of the costlier Bollguard II variety by the government.
The earlier version of the BT cottonseed (marketed by the US based company Monsanto), which, by the government's own belated admission, is not suitable for rain-fed farming, inflicted a heavy loss on the farmers and forced the government to pay compensation in two consecutive seasons, Tiwari said.
Why then is the government promoting the costlier Bollguard II and why are the farmers keen to buy it?
"The government is under tremendous pressure from the US seed giant, whose selling point this year is that the new variety is suited for dry-land farming," Tiwari explained. "And hoping against hope for a bumper yield sans pesticide costs, the farmers are ready to wager another gamble."
The farm leader wants the government to sincerely promote low-cost farming and bring in some kind of regulatory mechanism to ensure cultivation of a minimum proportion of food crops. "They should also promote soybean, which is a guaranteed, low-risk crop that requires little water."