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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'.

My driver Manish and I walk in one evening for dinner. "Pandharkawda dal fry, the best!" Manish had said, so that's what we plan to order. There's a family at one of the tables, but nobody else. The young waiter comes over and says, apologetically, that we can't sit here. He glances over at the family and offers this stage whisper: "Family Room!"

"But there's nobody else here!" I say. "Don't you want our business?"

"Yes, but not here."

"All right," I say, and point to Manish. "He's my brother, so we're family. Can we stay now?"

Manish butts in with the essence of it all. "Kya hain, uske liye aurat ki bahut zaroorat hain." ("We need women if we want to pose as a family.")

Waiter nods vigorously. "But don't worry," he says. "We're cleaning up the VIP room for you."

"But we're not VIPs!" I say. He ignores me and shepherds us out the door, into a large space with several tables and chairs. "Can we eat here?" I ask.

"But this is not the VIP room!" he says, distressed.

This is not going anywhere, so we just sit down. The dal fry is superb.

Pandharkawda is a little town near Yavatmal. It is, for want of a better way to phrase it, the heart of Vidarbha's farmer suicide belt. At the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti at one end of town, they've been keeping stats on suicides in the surrounding five or six districts since last June. Now there's plenty of disagreement about the reasons for these suicides, or even whether it is an unusual phenomenon at all. But consider these figures they gave me:

    June 2005: 16 suicides
    July: 11
    August: 18
    September: 26
    October: 20
    November: 52
    December: 72

    January 2006: 68
    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.

There's one more aspect to this. In the sun, the cotton dries and loses weight. Typically, by the time his number is called, a seller finds his load's weight has decreased by 3 per cent. A bullock cart carries 4-5 quintals. This year, cotton fetches something like Rs 1800 per quintal. Then you pay to wait.

But if getting acquainted with the situation of farmers is one thing, there is, as ever, another world out there. In Nagpur while I was wandering through Vidarbha, twenty-two flannelled men staged a Test match. Yuvraj Singh [Images], not one of them, was on my flight to Nagpur.

His elegant earphones don't deter several men from going up to him to say things like, "You did us proud in Pakistan, Yuvi! Keep it up!"

Yuvi nods politely.

Three rows behind, I read Shobhaa De in the Bombay Times on the message of the Jessica Lal [Images] verdict, about all these 'rogues': 'Sharma, Yadav and the rest (including cricketer Yuvraj Singh's father).'

Does that earphoned young man read these words too, and what does it do to him?


Blog: Death Ends Fun

Dilip D'Souza

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