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Vidharbha, sometimes grim
March 13, 2006
Hotel Nilam (Family Restaurant) in Pandharkawda is the kind of place that sticks colourful plastic flowers on the tables, lurid waterfalls and sunsets on the wall. Also a poster of a boy-girl pair with, in large letters in one corner, an inexplicable 'OPY'.
February (till 24th): 45
Now to me, that looks like a generally upward trend. What's driving farmers to kill themselves?
In a word, debt. The small cotton farmers here don't have much of a cash flow, so they take relatively small loans -- Rs 50,000 is the largest amount we heard -- to buy seed, fertiliser and pesticide for their fields. These loans are from either banks or 'private', a catchall term to mean local moneylenders, or local eminences who have money, or even just credit from stores. They hope to repay these with the earnings from their cotton crops.
Only, their crops are poorer this year, at least in this area. This is bad news, of course. Though you'd expect it to be tempered, because a poor yield should drive prices correspondingly higher. Yet cotton prices are a good 25 per cent lower than last year. Why is that? We hear reasons ranging from a glut in production elsewhere in the country, to a 'carryover' from last year, to a flood of imports because of the low import duty on cotton.
Whatever it is, earnings are certainly lower, and what certainly does carry over is debt. Some farmers escape it by killing themselves, though that just means their families must take on the debt, now without the dead man to help. Others live, debt hanging over them year after year.
One strand in the complicated story of farmer suicides is Bt cotton, the genetically modified variety sold by Monsanto. These seeds are thrice as expensive as ordinary cotton. But some farmers shell out the extra money because they expect to spend next to nothing on 'aushad', or pesticides. Bt cotton, after all, is widely believed to be pest-resistant. Now it is resistant to bollworms, but it's not clear it is resistant to other pests. Yet whether because of Bt's advertising propaganda or otherwise, every farmer I spoke to nursed that belief about Bt.
But then someone shows me a copy of the instruction leaflet that comes with Bt seed packets. It carries these two warnings in Marathi:
Athavdhyatun donda sakali bollguard kapaasachya shetat vodalyaanchi
mojni kelyanantar phavarni karnyachya nirnay dhyava.
(Twice a week, after counting pests in the bollguard-planted field, you must spray).
Sarva jhaadavarchi milun jivanta vodalyaanchi ekun sankhya 20 kinva
20 pakshi jaasta bharli tare phavarnichi garje aahe ase samjha.
(If you find 20 or more than 20 live pests on your plants, then you need to spray).
Spray, meaning spray pesticides. But this is a seed that is supposedly resistant to these very pests! What was that about not spending on pesticides?
One more strand in the story can be found at the cotton market on the outskirts of Pandharkawda, where farmers big and small bring their cotton harvest. It's quite a sight: hundreds of cotton-laden bullock carts line the road, waiting for their turn to unload. I first went there one night, when the moonlit sight of these ghostly galleons of cotton is even more dramatic than in the day.
And get this: some farmers have waited over 8 days to have their cotton graded, weighed and unloaded at the nearby ginning factory. What does this mean? Typically, these carts are hired -- the farmers must pay daily rental. Each bullock cart carries a charge of Rs 100 per quintal of cotton loaded, plus Rs 50 rent per day. Fodder and food average another Rs 100 per day. Just so does each day spent waiting on that road cut into farmer earnings.
And when I stopped to meet these men, they had been through a particularly cruel spell of waiting. For two days in a row, the market had been closed for Mahashivratri. The third day, it remained closed because, they were told, "the labour did not come."
Three days' rental.