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Bitter harvest drives grape farmers to suicide

January 16, 2008 03:19 IST

The well-laid road through Kadegaon taluka, a small administrative block, is bordered by sugarcane fields and grape orchards. But far more noticeable are large flex boards wishing Patangrao Kadam, the local MLA and minister for cooperation and rehabilitation, and his son Vishwadeep happy birthday.

Things are no different in neighbouring Tasgaon taluka, represented by Maharashtra  Deputy Chief Minister R R Patil. There are no birthday greetings for him or his family, but several for other local politicians.

This open display of sycophancy -- which also involved expenditure on lavish birthday bashes -- would not have been noteworthy had it not been for the fact that Kadegaon and Tasgaon have, respectively, seen five and four grape-growing farmers commit suicide over the past year.

Their deaths add to a deadly tally of 70-odd suicides by grape growers over the past two years -- a bizarre juxtaposition to the celebratory enthusiasm of the local politicians.

Grape or sugarcane growers in western Maharashtra were considered more fortunate than their cotton-growing cousins in Vidarbha, India's unofficially recognised high-suicide zone. That's because access to irrigation, institutional credit facilities and other infrastructure are better here owing to sustained initiatives by the local political leadership since independence.

But the suicides are an abrupt reminder of the vulnerabilities of those who depend on agriculture for a living. In this case, farmers who had borrowed to finance their grape crop -- the region grows table grapes rather than grapes for wine -- faced bankruptcy when unseasonal hailstorms and rains destroyed the crop.

Grape is a horticultural crop and, therefore, a capital-intensive business. While the going is good, farmers can afford pucca houses, cars and colour televisions. The problem is the absence of a fall-back.

Take the case of K P Mane, a marginal grower from Shivni village in Kadegaon taluka. A former soldier of the Maratha Light Infantry, he owed around Rs 2.5 lakh when he committed suicide by consuming pesticide on December 18.

Mane's son Sudhir, who is a first-year engineering student at a private engineering college in Mumbai, relates how his father had retired from the army in the mid-nineties and invested his money in a plot of less than an acre to create a grape orchard.

"We were a happy family but from 2002, things went from bad to worse," Sudhir Mane recalled.

Between 2002 and 2004 a severe drought forced the family to survive on a programme under the employment guarantee scheme.

"In those years, my father bought water from tankers to ensure that our orchard survived the drought so that we would be able to cultivate it in a good monsoon year," he said.

2005 was a good monsoon year and Mane borrowed Rs 1 lakh from the local cooperative bank to resume grape cultivation. But hailstorms and rain in 2006 destroyed the crop and the orchard.

With almost no income to repay the loan, Mane's debts mounted. "The bank's notice to attach all our movable and immovable property proved the last straw for my father," Sudhir Mane said.

The case of the other 70-odd farmers who committed suicide in the district is no different. The government, however, has chosen to accept only 27 of them as suicides resulting from farm-related issues and paid their families compensation of Rs 1 lakh each.

This year, the region has had a decent crop but this is unlikely to bring succour to indebted farmers since prices are expected to fall.

"Input costs on pesticide, fertiliser and farm wage labour have increased ten-fold over the past 15 years but the prices farmers get for their produce have either been static at Rs 12 a kg or increased marginally. This is one major reason behind the indebtedness," said Raghunath Patil, the state president of the farmers' organisation Shetkari Sanghatna.

Indeed, levels of indebtedness remain frighteningly high. The District Central Cooperative Bank has given loans totalling Rs 268 crore to nearly 35,000 grape growers in the area, according to its chairman Vilasrao Jagtap.

Nearly 23,000 of these borrowers are defaulters, cumulatively owing the bank around Rs 148 crore.

At the bottom of the problem is the high interest rate -- 12.5 per cent a year -- an ironic counterpoint to the soft rates that the central government mandates its own banks to lend to the agriculture sector. Aggressive recovery tactics have added to the farmers' hardships.

The grape-growers' plight, said Shetkari Sanghatna's Patil, is one extreme of the general suffering of farmers in the region that grows sugarcane and cotton.

"We have already launched an agitation against this wrongful recovery drive by the state government and banking machinery and it might just turn violent," he warned.

District Collector Rajendra Chavan admitted interest rates were too high and something needed to be done. The matter, he rued, was outside his jurisdiction.

True, the state government waived interest on crop loans taken during the drought year between 2002 and 2004, allowing farmers to pay the principal in equal instalments. But Chavan said this was not sufficient relief.

DCCB's recovery notices, he insisted, however, were not the cause of the suicides. Many farmers had borrowed from other cooperative banks, credit societies and private money-lenders whose rates are usurious by any standards and recovery operations famous for their harshness.

Meanwhile, neither MLA, Kadam and Patil, could be contacted for their views on the tragedies in the region that elects them, despite repeated attempts.

Rajaram Garud, the state Bharatiya Janata Party president who is trying to raise the ante on the issue, said they were behaving like "modern-day Neros".

Given the near-absence of government intervention, the situation is best summed up by Dattatray Mulik, a farmer who owns 2.5 acres of land with his brothers. The land is rain-fed and the family has stuck to food crops like jowar and tur lentil.

Said Mulik, who doubles as a taxi driver to supplement family income, "Nowadays I thank God that we were not tempted to grow cash crops like grape and sugarcane and stuck to traditional crops. Now we don't have to worry about repaying huge loans."

Makarand Gadgil in Tasgaon/Kadegaon, Sangli
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