As the Telangana Chief Minister rolls out scheme after scheme for farmers, not much difference is being seen on the ground as farmers continue to take their own lives
He is hailed as Abhinava Bhagiratha, a modern day reference to a mythological king who brought the Ganga from the heavens to Earth. Telangana Chief Minister and leader of the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samiti, K Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR) is crowing over adding what his followers say is another feather to his already crowded turban.
Called the Investment Support Scheme (ISS), the government will, starting from the current Khariff season, provide Rs 8000 per acre (Rs 4000 for Khariff and Rs 4000 for Rabi) directly into the bank accounts of farmers. This is an input subsidy given by the state for the purchase of fertilizers, seeds and cost of agricultural operations to 71.75 lakh farmers holding 1.42 crore acres in the state.
The scheme will cost the government around Rs 11,500 crore. It is conceived as a support to farmers to withstand crop losses due to floods or drought, delay in crop insurance and to prevent the farmer from going to private moneylenders to borrow. “This will reduce the financial burden of the farmer for each crop and eliminate the borrowing from private money lenders in addition to crop loans,” announced KCR.
The amount would be credited directly into the bank account of the farmers, eliminating middlemen. The government also provides a guide to the farmers, called a Rythu Samnvaya Samithi, a coordination council of farmers, who advice them on the type of crop, size, marketing, storage and other practical realities. These Rythu councils are packed with TRS members. “There is nothing wrong in the composition of these councils with TRS members as the earlier Congress and TDP (Telugu Desam Party) governments had packed similar farmer organisations with their supporters,” said senior TRS leader and MP, K Keshav Rao.
But Farmers Continue To Commit Suicide
While all of this sounds benign and thoughtful, the reality is that the KCR government is worried. Far from reducing, farmer suicides have in fact increased in recent years in Telangana.
According to the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB), Telangana was the number two state in suicides by farmers for the third consecutive year in 2017. 632 farmers took their lives in 2014, 1358 in 2015 and 1990 in 2016.
In his September 2017 report to the Centre, Telangana Chief Secretary SP Singh had blamed farmer suicides on countrywide bankruptcy and indebtedness and added that in 2015, 160 farmers had committed suicides due to illness, 363 farmers due to crop failure and 79 big farmers had committed suicide in that year. Shocklingly, nearly 34 farmers had committed suicide in a single village in Gajwel, the home district of the Telangana Chief Minister KCR but the government remained silent.
A Telangana based NGO Rayathu Swarajya Vedika (RSV) tells a different story. They allege the real numbers are closer to 3026 farmer suicides since Telangana state came into being. According to the NGO, there were 792 suicides in 2014, 1147 in 2015, 784 suicides in 2016 and 294 suicides till June 2017.
The worst, they say, was the suicide of 22 cotton farmers of Bhadradri, Khammam and Kothagudem districts. “We were advised to choose chilli crop over cotton as cotton prices had crashed due to a glut in 2016. But this year there was a glut in chillies, resulting in farmers resorting to despair sales. Some chose to end their lives,” said G Madhu Reddy, an activist based in Kothagudem.
In 2012, the NCRB reported 13,754 farmer suicides in India. The highest number of farmer suicides was recorded in 2004 when 18,241 farmers committed suicide.
KCR blames past rulers of erstwhile united Andhra Pradesh for driving the farmers to desperation as farming in Telangana was linked not to water availability but to power, as irrigation is predominantly through agricultural pump sets. “For their own political survival, they did not build irrigation projects on Krishna and Godavari but instead postured benevolence in doling out free or subsidized power. If they had built irrigation projects in Telangana, the Telangana farmer would not have agitated and also not chosen suicide. Why would he, when his crops like sugarcane, chillies, tobacco, turmeric, and cotton would have always kept his head above debt?” asked K Kavitha, KCR’s daughter and Nizamabad MP.
Scheme After Scheme For Farmers, But In Vain
“Suicides have no link with our pro-farmers and agriculture initiatives. Not just small but also big farmers have been driven to suicides in Telangana. So that proves farmers suicides is not due to a single factor,” argued the Chief Minister as he announced his latest program.
Officials at the Chief Minister’s Office say that farmers suicides increased, in fact doubled after the erstwhile YS Rajashekhar Reddy-led Congress government’s free power sops and the UPA’s farm loan waivers to farmers. “Real beneficiaries failed to get the benefit of all these schemes. We are now ensuring that it is delivered at doorsteps of the farmers so we build their confidence levels to stay away from the noose or rat poison,” said Agriculture Minister Pocharam Srinivasul Reddy.
But scheme after scheme has been announced, to little effect on ground. Soon after taking oath as Chief Minister in 2014, KCR had announced the phased execution of farm loan waiver of Rs 17,000 crore, benefiting nearly 36 lakh farmers with loans not exceeding Rs 1 lakh to each family. The last phase of Rs 4000 crore was made in the 2017-18 budget and cleared in the last quarter of the financial year to the banks.
The second most popular farmer incentive was an enhancement of free farm power from 9 hours to 24×7 from January 2018 to facilitate farmers who are heavily dependent on tube wells for irrigating their lands. The 24×7 power supply to farms would require another Rs 617 crore, pushing up the annual costs for the state to Rs 5394 crore and total burden of free power is said to cross Rs 12,500 crore.
Although the ruling TRS boasts that they had pumped in over Rs 15-25,000 crores additionally since 2014 to the farming community in order to make it self-reliant, the situation has not changed much in the last three years.
Telangana Farmer Suicide Free By 2020: KCR
The irrigation thrust and the Kakatiya mission costs the Telangana government over Rs 2 lakh crore with an estimated outlay of Rs 45,000 crore per annum since 2016. This, says KCR, is a long term move to make Telangana ‘Suicide Free’. “The TRS’ votebank is in the villages and hence our focus on bringing water to fields is a priority,” said KCR.
The scheme is to revive around 45,000 irrigation tanks in the state to ensure water to every acre despite having no irrigation projects in the region. The scheme will focus on 97% of farmers who hold land of 1-10 acres of land.
“Handling of irrigation projects today stands as a monument for faulty and mindless planning,” said Kiran Kumar, a research scholar at the University of Hyderabad. “The suicides in Telangana particularly are due to the increasing cost of production like electricity bills, cost of fertilizers, seeds and cost of farm labour,” he added.
Another initiative to reduce the debt trap of farmers is to link MNREGA with agricultural labour in order to share the burden of farming operations of the marginal and poor farmers. Around 83% of the state’s farmers are either small or marginal and spend about Rs 3000-5000on farm labour during crop season. MNREGA linking is expected to bring down the cost of cultivation by about 40%. But that needs an amendment in Parliament and as many states are seeking it, the NDA has not taken a decision on it yet.
Meanwhile, experts are wary and bordering on sceptical of KCR’s latest scheme to try and put an end to farmer suicides. “One has to see how effectively the new initiative of the TRS government – the Investment Support Scheme – is implemented to see whether the era of farmer suicides can end in Telangana,” said Dr MS Rao, an agro-economist at Osmania University.