Volume 7, No. 7, August-September-October, 2006


PM’s Vidarbha ‘Package’ a Big Hoax


The Prime Minister’s visit to the cotton belt of Vidarbha in early July was a big hoax for the cotton growing farmers of the area. The so-called package had virtually nothing for the affected farmers and so it was quite natural the number of suicides have in fact gone up after his visit. Though crores were spent for this show-piece visit the outcome was nothing. For the meeting with a select 35 farmers at Waifad in Wardha district, a special helipad was built; massive security was put in place in every corner of the village and enroute, and he was accompanied with an entourage of officials and politicians.

Meanwhile suicide deaths continue at an even faster rate. Rural distress is increasing. While the PM’s ‘package’ will only be a boon to the big farmer, the seed company, the textile magnates, the banks and moneylenders.

The major amount of the ‘package’ of Rs.3,750 crores comprised Rs.2,177 crores for 82 major and 442 minor irrigation works. This was anyhow part of existing programmes and was nothing new. Anyhow, even if implemented, it would only irrigate a further 3% of the area where the irrigated land at present adds up to a mere 11%. But while supposedly giving this benefit the PM was totally silent on the Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority Act, 2005 which puts irrigation beyond the reach of all except corporate farmers. It compels farmers to use drip irrigation and could raise irrigation costs by thousands of rupees per acre. Those unable to pay the huge hikes in the offing could be fined of up to ten times the new charges. So what is the purpose of even this limited irrigation for the poor and middle peasants with such an Act in place?

Then, another part of the package is Rs.180 crores for "seed replacement". This is nothing but a gift to the multinational Monsanto whose Bt cotton seeds badly failed in Vidarbha.

All that the package really gives is a Rs.712 crore waiver on the interest on bank loans. But this too will go primarily to the rich farmers to whom the bulk of the institutional loans go to; the poor being primarily dependent on the moneylenders.

So, notwithstanding all the fanfare, in the PM’s package there was little for the poor farmer, but it was, in essence, yet another step to push commercialization of agriculture in the interests of the big TNCs and compradors. In addition Rs.50 lakhs has been given to each of the six collectors of the region for immediate relief. One knows how such funds are primarily diverted to the corrupt officials.

Not even a word was mentioned on raising the price of cotton which was drastically reduced by Rs.500 per quintal last year. Even when the price was Rs.2,200 per quintal farmers were in deep distress; yet the Maharashtra government further reduced the price to Rs1,700 per quintal last year. When prices of all commodities are going up this reduction has been the major cause in the increased spurt in suicides in the current year. Not only that, there was no word from the PM to reverse the decision that now allows big corporations to freely purchase the cotton. Prices will be steadily pushed down by the powerful cartels.

In addition there was no waiver on the actual bank loans (not to mention those of the moneylender), 80% of which are up to a mere Rs.25,000. If these small loans to banks were written off it would have cost a mere Rs.1,200 crores which is insignificant compared to the massive amounts written off to big business in the name of NPAs (non-performing assets), and the huge subsidies given to seed companies. While 60% of the land has switched to Bt cotton, the use of pesticides has not reduced, in fact there has been an increase. And with this years floods a large part of the high-priced seeds have been washed away adding to the farmer’s woes.

So, the farmers are pushed deeper into the clutches of the rapacious moneylenders. Sahibrao Adhao in his suicide note profiles the state of moneylending in this belt. He says, here there is no mortgage. You just give the moneylender a straight deed of sale for your land. In theory, he returns the land when you pay up. In truth, he holds on to it even after you have paid up. In fact, he demands more money. When he was alive he made a police complaint against the moneylender for cutting down the trees on his land. The police arrested him for trying to stop the moneylender from cutting trees on land grabbed from him.

Till now in the last one year about 1,000 farmers have committed suicide in the six districts of Vidarbha. The number of suicides since the PM left Vidarbha on July 1st is now (August 3rd) well past the 100 mark. Before his visit, 101 farmers took their lives in 49 days. The same number killed themselves in 33 days after the visit ended. That is, the rate of suicides rose from around two a day to over three each day. One in every eight hours!! This means that July 2006 saw an eight-fold increase compared to the same period last year. But, these are the understated official government figures; the actual deaths would be much higher.

In this season as pesticide spraying starts and they lie in the hands of the farmer and the debts continue to mount the number of suicides can only go up further. One must remember that the actual suicides are only the tip of the iceberg. Lakhs and lakhs would be in a similar situation but would struggle somehow to stay alive and not take the fatal step.

Meanwhile as we go to the press it is reported that even with the interest waiver the banks are not giving new loans as they are well aware that with the low price of cotton the farmers will not be able to repay the loan any way. The tragedy is that, except for a few journalists, the bulk of the media and intellectuals are silent on this horrifying tragedy unfolding in rural India. If in just one region there have been 1,000 suicides the figure in the whole country could well be imagined. The figure of the number of those killed in so-called Naxalite violence in the last one year is, according to official figures, about 500 in the last year — a small fraction of those who died by suicides. But the government and the media (also some intellectuals) make a hue and cry about it as those killed are often the pillars of the establishment or their henchmen (whether police, informers, lumpens, contractors, or village elite who have been ousted from their power base), while those who go for suicide are the helpless poverty stricken rural masses. A Salwa Judum ‘activist’ has been given a high-flying label by Mahendra Karma of being a tribal revolt (though actual a lumpen or an agent of the ousted village elder), while a Rahate in village Kavita of Amravati district, who committed suicide is a non-entity.

The cause of the suicides is basically hopelessness of the poverty stricken masses. They see no way out of their spiraling debt. They see no future for their children except to be born into debt and die in greater debt. It is this horrifying scenario that is pushing many a farmer to the brink. But if Naxalites were present they would immediately call for the abolishment of all the debt to both the banks and the moneylenders. They would build their armed forces to beat back the hoodlums of the banks/moneylenders who attempt to seize their property with the assistance of the police. There will be deaths in the process but the villagers will witness a new awakening of the possibility of a better future, if not for themselves, at least for their children. The deaths here will have a meaning, as it will give birth to a new hope, a new future. It would then be ridiculous to cry over the deaths of the rapacious moneylender or his ‘poor’ (lumpen) henchmen and police/SRP associates. Thousands of lives will be saved from suicides.

The birth pangs of any new society are indeed painful; and no amount of modern technology can do away with the pain. The Naxalites would put forward the following immediate demands: abolish all the debt of the poor and middle farmers, ban Bt cotton and kick Monsanto out of the country and punish their agents here; increase the subsidy to agriculture and raise the price of cotton to Rs.3,000 per quintal; reduce the prices of inputs; punish the moneylenders, corrupt traders, and their rapacious touts; reverse the decision to privatize sale of cotton; and compensate the small and middle farmers for the losses they have faced.

In the long term the Maoists would demand: thorough-going land reforms and the redistribution of land along the lines of "land to the tiller"; with only 11% of the land irrigated, undertake massive irrigation works (focusing primarily on small projects); undertake projects for re-forestation, water conservation and water harvesting; encourage organic farming suited to people’s needs and not that of the market; improve health care which has reached terrible proportions today; and organise people’s committees and the entire masses so that the people can run their own lives with a new confidence.

No doubt if the Maoists were to enter the region and organise the masses along these demands they would have to face the bullets of the state for which they would have to defend themselves with their own people’s army. But what is the alternative? Is there any ‘peaceful’ answer? Or should the mass suicides continue, no doubt ‘peacefully’?

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