Sunday, April 6, 2008

A Crop Called Suicide

One morning, less than two years ago, news spread in the Dudhana village in the Vidarbha region that another farmer had committed suicide. According to his wife's version, Kishan Bhima Atram finally succumbed to a morbid thought that he had been carrying for months. He carefully created a noose with a sari and hanged himself from the wooden beam of his hovel. But this tale, though familiar, had holes in it.

The 54-year-old Atram was not only a very frail man but also fully blind. According to the revenue records, he was not a farmer. He had few liabilities. He left behind an estranged second wife, Shindubai, who shared the hut but lived on the other side of a wall she had built. She was twenty years younger than him.

Nobody except Shindubai in Dudhana village actually believed that Atram could have killed himself. Yet, no one in the village objected when the police registered Atram's death as a suicide based on her statement. Villagers say, in private, that she killed Atram in the hope of getting Rs one lakh as relief from the Maharashtra government — the fixed compensation given to the families of debt ridden farmers who kill themselves. There is no evidence that substantiates the story that Shindubai was involved in her husband's death. She has since married and fled the village.

In Vidarbha's suicide belt there are many such stories. Villagers also say that not all suicides that have brought government's relief, are due to debt. There are many other reasons why a man would choose to go, they say.

"We are helpless," says Kailash Kanse, Yavatmal's Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP). He summons a clerk and asks him to bring a file of farmer suicides in the district. He reads the figures aloud. In 2005, 92 farmers committed suicide. In 2006, the figure jumped to 196. He couldn't supply the number for 2007, but sources peg it at over 200. The sharp increase in the number of suicides after 2005 gives a clue. During the December 2005 winter session of the state assembly in Nagpur, chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh had announced the Rs one lakh relief for the families of farmers who committed suicide due to severe debt. "The CM's motive was noble, but it seems to have backfired," says a senior IAS officer who in the past was involved in relief and rehabilitation schemes for farmers in Vidarbha. He did not want to be identified.

Villagers almost always know the real cause of a death in their neighbourhood. "But they don't protest because they think it is government money and that it is, after all, going to help a fellow villager," says Vinay Vairale, a documentary filmmaker who has researched the subject extensively in the Vidarbha region.

On January 2, 2006, 58-year-old Ramji Rathod of Irthal village in the Yavatmal district went to Bhadegaon, three kilometres away, to meet his relatives. While returning, he strayed from the paved road and took a short-cut through the jungles. He was later found dead in an abandoned well. The case was reported as suicide by his family. "Why would he choose to jump into a well which was three kilometers away from his house when he could have easily killed himself by swallowing pesticide," says a television journalist who covers the region.

Villagers in the same district say that a 39-year-old man had killed his 60-year-old father and passed off the murder as suicide. The reason is somewhat complex. The assailant's wife, with the complicity of her own husband, was having an affair with a villager, and the old man had one day caught the two in a compromising position. Before the old man could create trouble, his son killed him by first strangulating him and then shoving pesticide into his mouth. Next morning, he announced that his father had committed suicide. And even got relief, according to the villagers.

Twenty one-year-old Vineet Ram Shukla of Umar Sara, a hamlet on a hill near Yavatmal used to run a car rental business. A bank had financed it and the loan of Rs three lakh was in the name of Ram Pal, Shukla's father. On December 4, 2006, Shukla committed suicide. It was attributed to debts. He was very tense. "Our crop had failed and I was finding it difficult to pay the bank's installments," says his father Ram Pal on the phone. But a villager says that the boy was in love with a local girl, and parental objection was the reason he gulped the pesticide.

Most politicians, predictably, shy away from acknowledging this phenomenon, but some have dared to be fiercely frank. Gulabrao Gawande, Shiv Sena MLA from Akola, is one. "It's not always loans. And it's not always bank loans," says the strongly-built, bearded man eating a frugal lunch in his official residence in South Mumbai.

In a way, Gawande was partly responsible for the CM's Rs one lakh compensation to the families of debt victims. In December 2005, in the well of the assembly in Nagpur, Gawande tried to commit suicide or he pretended to do so. He doused himself with kerosene and was about to light a matchstick when other MLAs stopped him. The incident grabbed headlines globally, with even the BBC interviewing Gawande.

Politicians, evidently, love doling out highly publicised compensations. Acclaimed journalist P Sainath who has covered the farmer's suicide extensively was among those whom the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke to before he visited Vidarbha in 2006. The centre and the state together announced a package of Rs 165 crore to farmers for the purchase of cows. Sainath had suggested that more than cows, farmers needed facilities to store rainwater and grow jowar, a popular crop in Vidarbha.

"The agriculture ministry shot down the idea and insisted on giving the farmers cows. Now a number of farmers have sold those cows as they don't have money to buy fodder for them," says Sainath.

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