August 21, 2002


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The Rediff Special/ Giridhar Gopal

Devi, 13, of Bramhantukra village in Orissa's Bargarh district had earned Rs 200 working in the fields. She had planned to buy a dress. But her dreams were shattered when she heard that her father K Babu Rao had committed suicide.

Babu Rao, 45, did not own land. He grew his crops on about four acres of land belonging to another farmer. It was through this that he looked after his family, paid the landowner and saved for future crops, his brother K Vir Raju said.

Babu Rao was jubilant when he had a bumper crop this year, giving him 97 bags of paddy. But his happiness turned to despair when he failed to get a buyer for the paddy. The landowner and suppliers of the fertilizer and seeds were breathing down his neck, asking him for their dues.

Lack of resources meant he could not start cultivating the kharif crop, the season for which was already on, Vir Raju told rediff. Babu Rao met the district collector at Godbhaga who instructed the local Regulatory Marketing Committee to help Babu Rao sell his paddy.

The paddy remained unsold for three months. Finally, a rice mill owner bought the paddy on July 22 but insisted on paying Babu Rao later. A frustrated Babu Rao met the collector on July 26 to seek his intervention but found no one willing to hear him out. Angry and desperate, he consumed poison and committed suicide in front of the collector's office.

The administration, which does not accept that Babu Rao committed suicide, announced an ex gratia payment of Rs 20,000 to his family, which consists of his wife and two daughters. Thousands of outraged farmers kept Babu Rao's body at the local administrative headquarters at Godbhaga for several hours on July 27 in protest at the administration's indifference. The administration also collected payment for the paddy from the miller and deposited the same with Babu Rao's family.

Babu Rao's tragedy is only one such story in Orissa today.

Too little, too late

The recent burst of rain may have come just a bit too late for the state's distraught farmers. The downpour that began on August 9 across India revived hopes among millions of farmers that at least some crops may be salvaged, but it has had little impact in Orissa, one of India's most drought-prone states. "We have lost hope of reviving our kharif crops," admitted Orissa's Agriculture Secretary Alaka Panda.

One reason is that the late burst has not yet overcome the yawning deficit for June and July, which received only 25 per cent and 60 per cent respectively of normal rainfall this year."We last recorded the lowest rainfall -- 174 mm -- in July 1982. But this year, it was even worse at 140 mm. We have never witnessed such a deficit in the last 40 years. The rainfall across the state in August is still below the average," she said.

A combination of factors -- natural and man-made -- has turned Orissa into a state that reels under a drought virtually every year. Professor R M Mallik at the Nabakrushna Choudhury Institute of Developmental Studies believes the scanty rain may be caused by global warming.

More pertinent is the natural degradation over the years that have cost the state dear, making it infamous for deaths due to starvation and hunger.

Government statistics record that 52 per cent of the state's land face erosion due to deforestation while vast tracts of agricultural land has become fallow. "All this has led to starvation deaths," said Mallik, "Years of official neglect and mismanagement of natural resources have further contributed to this."

He pointed out that over the years, investment in irrigation in general and in groundwater replenishment in particular have been on the decline. The lack of major and medium irrigation worries the small land holding and marginal land holding farmers, who constitute 80 per cent of the farming population in Orissa, as against the national average of 72 per cent.

Again, while the rest of the country utilises 30 percent groundwater for irrigation, the figure is a mere eight per cent in Orissa.

Nature has not been kind to Orissa. The state has faced calamities in 90 of the last 100 years. These include floods in 49 years; droughts in 30 years, and cyclones in 11 years, including the devastating super cyclone that devastated the state in October 1999. Then there are the regular heat waves which claim scores of lives across the state.

Western Orissa is the worst affected area, having witnessed 20 droughts in 30 years. This year too, thousands of farmers failed to grow crops for the ongoing kharif season, thus facing another extremely bleak year.

While the scanty rain has dried the land for some and destroyed the seeds sowed in non-irrigated areas, for many more the problem stems from the fact that they were unable to sell their paddy or sold it at very low rates, and thus lack the resources to take up kharif farming.

The rice mill owners refute the farmers' claim of not paying for the paddy they purchased. "We pay them immediately and we are not buying it at throwaway prices," declared miller Santosh Agarwal, owner of a leading mill in western Orissa.

However, he admitted that the demand for paddy has declined due to surplus paddy production in the last rabi and kharif seasons across the country. Agarwal pointed out that the Food Corporation of India is the only buyer since it is not possible to sell rice in the open or local markets. "We pay the farmer in the presence of village representatives," he insisted.

The state administration echoes Agarwal's views, saying the supply of paddy is way above the demand. "We are providing rice to the poor people through various government programmes including food-for-work and through the public distribution scheme, which has contributed to the decline for the demand for rice," said Bargarh Subcollector N K Mund. He denied the allegation that paddy is being purchased at cheaper prices in his district.

Gourachandra Khamari of the Orissa Krushak Sangathan, a farmers association, claimed that even though the government had fixed the price of standard paddy at Rs 397.50 per bag, the millers were paying only Rs 250 to Rs 300 per bag, often two or three months after the purchase.

He said the millers turn the paddy into rice and sell to the Food Corporation of India. "When the FCI is paying the millers within a week, why can they not pay farmers?" he asked.

Khamari alleged that the mill owners "are making huge profit by deliberately selling paddy at low prices," adding, "The state government should have procured the paddy and stored it for future use."

The plight of Dhuba Bhoi, 60, of Bharatbahal village in Bolangir district, throws further light on the crisis. "Soon after each disaster, we hear on the radio that state and central governments have announced help for us. However, since my childhood I have never received any such help," he stated. His village has faced drought for decades.

"Long ago, when a drought hit our region, government officials came and promised me financial help to dig a well so that I could irrigate my cultivable land. They took my signature on a piece of paper. But I never got the money. I only came to know that the loan had been sanctioned after I received a letter from the bank asking me to pay them Rs 4,000. Later, the government waived all repayments by drought-hit farmers. That is how the officials swindled me out of my money," he said.

According to Sitikantha Patjoshi, editor of the weekly Gana Istahar, the tragedy is compounded by the state government's lack of concern at the farmers' plight. He recalled how in 1988, when farmer Rahas Behari Mohanty, committed suicide before the Sambalpur collector's office after failing to draw the district administration's attention to his plight, the then government immediately ordered an inquiry and suspended the district magistrate for dereliction of duty.

This time, lamented Patjoshi, Naveen Patnaik's Biju Janata Dal government is not bothered by the farmers' plight. Instead of trying to solve the crisis, the state administration is trying to establish that he was mentally unbalanced or drunk, even though preliminary tests at the hospital described Babu Rao's death as a case of poisoning.

Also see: The Orissa homepage

Design: Lynette Menezes. Photographs: Santanu Biswal and Sadhab Pradhan

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