Mumbai: Maharashtra's Vidarbha region has seen 168 farmer suicides in the first three months of this 2013. Made up of 11 districts, Vidarbha is home to two-thirds of the state's mineral resources and three-quarters of its forest resources. But poverty and malnutrition and endemic.
"According to police reports, 168 farmer suicides have been registered till March 31 this year," said Kishor Tiwari, president of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, a farmer advoacy group. "This averages to 56 deaths a month, defining the many years of agrarian crisis of the region, not to mention the apathy of the administration," he added.
Tiwari said that while rising costs of cultivation and falling returns were the core reasons pushing farmers to suicide, there were other factors too. There is also an ecological crisis as farming practices have tended towards maximising output of a narrow range, leading to monoculture of crops.
"The deep economic crisis has reduced income of farmers, resulted in stagnant yield and increased cultivation cost. And reduced institutional credit adds to the misery," Tiwari said. "All policy support, be it from the government of from institutes, are skewed towards large farmers, large farms, few cash crops and high external input-based production systems," he said.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), one farmer kills himself every 37 minutes in India. About 14,000 farmers committed suicide in 2011 alone. A NCRB report stated that in the 17 years from 1995 to 2011, 270,940 farmers committed suicide in the country.
Of these, nearly 20 per cent were only from Maharashtra, where 53,818 suicides were reported. Political experts and agriculturists point out that the 11 districts of Vidarbha, though rich in minerals, coal, forests and mountains, continue to remain underdeveloped because of the dominance by political leadership from the other parts of the state, especially western Maharashtra.
According to another report by NCRB, in 2006, Maharashtra, with 4,453 farmer suicides, accounted for over a quarter of the all-India total farm suicides of 17,060. Yet another report from the Bureau said that while the number of farm suicides rose since 2001, the number of farmers has fallen, as thousands, in distress, turn their back to agriculture.
Till around 1970, Vidarbha farmers cultivated cotton using seeds from their own plants. With the start of hybrid seeds, the yields increased significantly but so did the need for costly fertiliser and insecticide. Agriculturists have also blamed the restrictions and royalties placed on Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) seeds by Monsanto for the spurt in suicides.
In 2002, genetically modified BT cotton seeds arrived. Like the hybrid variety, they are non-renewable terminator seeds, and must be re-purchased every year. Today they dominate the market. It has been pointed out by several agriculturists that these new methods caused farmers to suffer losses leading to debt, pushing them to suicide.
In August 2012, technical experts appointed by the Supreme Court recommended a 10-year moratorium on all field trials of GM food, as well as the termination of all current trials of transgenic crops.
"Also, the government has never kept their word on the minimum support price of cotton. Last year, cotton farmers had to take to the streets after Cotton Corp of India fixed the minimum support price for cotton at Rs.3,300, far below the market rate of Rs.4,800 per quintal," Tiwari said.
Farmers had then demanded that the the minimum support price of cotton be raised from Rs.3,300 to Rs.6,000 per quintal to cover increases in production costs.
"It is tragic to note that Maharashtra produces 70 percent of the country's cotton, but its cotton-producing regions are infamous for farmer suicide," Tiwari said.