On the eve of Good Friday, five more farmers committed suicide in Maharashtra's Vidarbha, taking the farmer suicides in this region, since June 2005, to 443. On December 10, 2005 the Maharashtra Chief Minister announced a special package for the `suicide-affected districts' of Vidarbha. At the same time, the State government declared void all loans given by unregistered private moneylenders. The consequence: The monthly average of suicides in the Vidarbha region jumped up to 52.
The Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS), a pro-UPA outfit, has called for the resignation of the Union Agriculture Minister, Mr Sharad Pawar. It is inexplicable why the VJAS exonerates the Chief Minister and his Deputy. It holds the Minister for Agriculture at the Centre responsible for the suicides on the ground that he denied farmers an equitable price for the cotton and promoted the Bt cottonseeds.
A charge-sheet that would hardly stand scrutiny. Nevertheless, the VJAS has raised a significant point. Every time there is a Railway accident killing 40-50 passengers, there is a demand for the resignation of the Railway Minister. Not even in the days of the British Rule were the farmers driven to desperation on this scale.
Even post-Independence the epidemic of suicides is unprecedented. It is quite reasonable to expect that Mr Sharad Pawar, who hails from Maharashtra, and remote-controls the government in Maharashtra, to take a cue from his leader, Ms Sonia Gandhi, and resign his agricultural portfolio.
The UPA Government has a soft corner for the co-operative sector. In the recent past it has made available thousands of crores of rupees to re-structure the sector that has proved to be inefficient and corrupt. Now, the government is trying another experiment with the ostensible purpose of improving the performance of the primary co-operative societies. Since credit stringency is said to be one of the reasons for the farmer suicides, the Government is experimenting with a scheme called `Village Banking'. The model has apparently been tried successfully in Kolhapur district of Maharashtra where some 43 Village Banks are supposed to be working.
The scheme permits the village primary societies to accept deposits to improve their liquidity, and give loans to farmers without waiting for sanction from higher levels. No one can complain about that. The fact remains that the people managing the village primary societies have poor credentials and record of integrity. It is more than likely that the money deposited will not be accounted for properly. The job of the secretary of the primary society will become a prized post and command a premium.
The Prime Minister has often proclaimed that the second green revolution would be a technological revolution. Recently, India entered into an agreement with the United States for promoting technological development of agriculture. The Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs) are supposed to be the major instruments of promoting science and technology in the agricultural sector. India has 578 rural districts and 529 of them have KVKs.
But, on the ground, most KVKs are in a deplorable state. The KVKs were allotted almost exclusively on the basis of the political pull the beneficiaries had. An inquiry into the allotment of the KVKs, would produce startling results.
As if all this were not enough, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) leader Ms Medha Patkar went on an indefinite hunger strike to oppose raising the height of the Narmada dam. She called off her fast after 21 days on the Supreme Court empowering the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, to resolve the dispute. The Court also warned that construction would be stopped if rehabilitation was inadequate. The facts about the rehabilitation are very clear. In the first round, a large number of displaced people accepted cash compensation and moved away to do farming elsewhere or get into other trade/business. Had this continued, by now all the displaced people would have been settled more or less satisfactorily. Then the NBA proposed that the displaced be given land equivalent to what they had lost. This was also done, and the affected person were also given cash assistance for bringing the land under cultivation, and for constructing houses. To the extent possible, those living in one village were settled together. These new villages were provided electricity, water supply, and school; indeed they become the objects of envy for farmers in villages not displaced.
Now, the dispute is not about settling those originally displaced but their third generation. Many of the younger generation are apparently not happy about getting agricultural land and are, in fact, demanding urban plots near Vadodara and Ahmedabad.
Meanwhile, as a result of the agitation by the Khedut Samaj in Gujarat, the waters of the Sardar Sarovar have been let out through the safety tunnel into the main canal making the once drought stricken areas of Saurashtra and Kutch lush and green.
Farmers, facing a variety of man-made problems, may now be up against nature too. For, global warming is expected to raise temperatures across the world by 3 per cent, causing large-scale drought and its consequences. Those responsible for this are the affluent countries and the rich urban sections in developing nations. The disastrous impact is to be borne by the rural and the poor people.
As the proverb goes, for the rural people, "It never rains, it pours." In the last monsoon, it did not rain in most parts. Now, it is pouring trouble.
(The author is Founder, Shetkari Sanghatana and Member of Rajya Sabha. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)